Affordability & Deep Energy Upgrade/Passive House Retrofit in Berkeley, California.

We have a small 1940s single level house (1005sqf) in Berkeley, California that is in need of a deep energy upgrade. Our plans include making the envelope air-tight, increase insulation, make use of solar orientation by changing the interior layout and exterior glazing. The kitchen and bathroom also need to be upgraded, along with the electric wiring and plumbing. Yet, the foundation is good and so is the roof. We like the location, which allows us to walk everywhere and enjoy the mixed use neighborhood. The best part is our garden and open space that we love.

Now the question: How might we do this affordably? We have a limited budget and it is even made smaller due to the very high construction and remodeling cost in the Bay Area. We are ready to put in our own sweat labor but how do we find people who would like to work with us? Any other hints, tips, suggestions etc that would also be helpful to others in similar circumstances.

Many thanks,

Views: 3783

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Thank you Linda for your response; and your generosity in sharing your suggestion and hope. I appreciate it deeply! I love the idea of getting a group of interested homeowners and sharing the resources. I am just not sure how to get that started.

For some reason I could not access the two forms. I am going to try to access it through thousandhomechallenge.

Thanks again,


Hi Kaushal,

Thousand Home Challenge is a wonderful forum and the resource collection is insightful.  You may also want to check out the Passive House California meeting this Sunday at Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley.



Thanks Chie! We have this event in our calender.

The is a project in Larkspur CA that did an exterior retrofit. They air sealed the existing plywood siding, added continuous rigid rockwool insulation, furring strips (rain screen) and new siding. The roof was stripped, new osb for air sealing (over 2x6 T&G decking) and 6"? foam / metal roofing panels were installed. New triple pane windows were also installed. They achieved the 0.6 ACH50 airtightness, but the project would have needed slab insulation to meed the PHPP heating budget. This was about a $120k job (solar hot water & PV had to be removed & re-installed, and that may include some other non energy work), house was 3-bed 2-bath, 1 & 2 stories tall (hillside).

What may not have been clear about Alice's house is that the insulation over the stucco was just 3/4 of one long wall. One short wall was insulated over new sheathing (structural). The short wall had to be re-sided, but the long wall did not need new siding.

I've considered insulating over the stucco on my house. I would have a hard time justifying the added cost of stripping the stucco, maybe the redwood board sheathing, installing ply / osb, insulation, rainscreen & siding. I would loose some of the architectural detailing either way. I'm going to drill & fill the walls and install dense pack cellulose, and probably never more than that, but that get's me 75% there.

My house needed a new roof, it had 2 layers of tar & gravel dating back to 1923, and it leaked. When I re-roofed the house 1-1/2 years ago, I added 5" of polyiso foam (R-30, 2 layers of 2-1/2", used, from a commercial re-roof), used plywood, a waterproof membrane and excess asphalt shingles. I used recycled lumber to fix & extend my rafters, fix the sofit, and fascia, my gutters are mostly used from a re-roof job. I insulated the gable end wall with 3-1/2 foam in the walls & 1" continuous. I re-wired the attic while I had easy access, but I'm not totally happy with how I did it. I also had roughly R-30 insulation in my attic (although not complete). The foam was a significant added cost (even at aprox 1/3 less due to the used product).

There is a project in Kensington CA that is going to remove all the siding (wood & stucco), seismic bolting, insulate the cavities (mostly uninsulated), new plywood (shear wall), windows, cork continuous insulation, rainscreen & siding. New roof with rigid insulation (mostly uninsulated attic). It's a 1 to 2 story hillside home, budget around $100k.

There are many approaches, depending on you situation, budget, priorities.

Hi George,

Thanks for telling us about these three projects. Apart from your own, do you know if the owners poured their sweat equity into these projects to keep the costs down? What's the most expensive aspect of DERs/Passive house retrofits? What percentage of it is materials? And how much of it is labor? Do you think able, willing and eager to learn and research, persistent and hardworking owners can offset some of the labor costs?

Thanks again,


The owners (like Alice) have had varying degrees of involvement, mainly on the planning (research) side. I don't have any direct involvement or knowledge of local projects (that would be good examples) that were heavy sweat equity. Most of the sweat equity projects I'm aware of are done by people in the "profession", like myself, Nabih's house in Berkeley, or are owner / contractor / developer projects, some with varying results.

Many "professionals" are note capable of delivering the level of design & construction to get it right. It's often a fight, because they think they know it all, and don't want to do anything differently.

Homeowners may be at a "disadvantage" of lack of skill (or experience), but may be more open to being taught the correct way. It's just getting them to the right info.............

The most difficult thing; biting off more than you can chew, removing & replacing everything, taking on too big a project, work you don't have the skill for, can't afford, over investing in the neighborhood, etc. I've seen professionals make the mistake many times.

Costs vary, but on average labor is more than materials, but some expensive technologies materials are more than labor. Foam insulation is expensive, as can be windows. For some project the non-energy work will cost more (kitchens, baths, finishes, structural, etc.).

Very well said George. What level a homeowner is capable of is always an unknown. And there are many excellent contractors that do great work but want nothing to do with performance and will fight you on every step, it is exhausting.

Kaushal, I have been doing contracting for a while and have had many homeowners that want to "help". There are varying degrees of success. Some get it and are helpful in moving the project along. Others are a hindrance and cause time, money and frustration as you have to fix what they did incorrectly.

A jobsite is a stacking order where one person has to know the routine to move the job along. This needs to be fluid and have the ability to change as sometimes parts or personnel are not where you want them. Your onsite supervisor or General Contractor will know when to push and when to back off during the process. Performing tasks out of order correctly cost time. Do a task incorrectly cost time as it now has to be fixed. All of us that have been there will tell the one thing we can foresee is that we cannot foresee everything.

The willing homeowner can either be beneficial or they need to be moved out of the process for safety and job speed. If you cannot perform the work in a professional manner do not be upset if you are asked to stop.

When our kids are young and they want to wash the car with us or bake a cake and we let them. The job takes longer and we fix their mistakes. It is part of the teaching process. A jobsite has no time to teach either you get it or you don't.

I have had customers with no construction experience that were great. I had others that claimed they knew what they were doing that I instructed to stop.

What you are doing now by beginning to understand the process is great. As George points out earlier plan,plan,plan,plan. Avoiding mistakes by having a good plan is the best way to save money. Take your time to decide what it is you want to do. Find out how much it will cost and as the project moves along expect a surprise that will cost money. Good contractors demand good money and at the end of the day will save you money by performing professional results solving problems as they come up and finishing in a timely fashion. 

Good luck and keep us posted on your project.

Apology, this is rather much restating my earlier replies but is my reaction to the projects listed after that, since I'm looking for a cheap home to remodel to live in, most of the projects quoted are almost more expensive than the homes I'm able to afford!! ... and, having been a production carpenter to be a better designer my ideas are much less expensive and to me more practical in the actual results.

A main issue is that if you don't collect heat or cold you have to make it, that's where a lot daily energy money goes and where demand for energy created, it's a basis for passive solar. If this isn't done the sealing and insulation of certified methods make sense but to me don't if you do collect.

From having helped design and build early passive solar in the 80's my hindsight is that with almost any home the best, least expensive place to collect for an existing building is the roof system on a daily basis because that is rather simple. If you've ever been in an attic when the sun's out it heats up, at night it cools down, so, the problem is gathering either and storing it for the daily cycle.

If you create a channel for the air to heat or cool just under the roof sheathing and ducting that to use it solves the problem, using insulation board can create the channel and the insulation separates the airflow and this also reduces heat load to the rest of the attic and that to the rooms below.

This needs a blower in the system to run when temperatures are what you want to store to do that as fast as possible, the conditions may last only a couple of hours per day. To keep the attic cooler in hot climates you'd want to do the whole roof this way. Living in Phoenix the attic was 160F and the AC & swamp cooler were up there ... $350/month to keep the rooms at 80F, a rental so I couldn't do a thing about it.

So with rather inexpensive changes to the attic and some ducting you can use the roof to move air to below the floor/s where to store it I'll use water in pipes hung between joists and the air seal from using insulation board below the joists, screwed up. Doing this creates tons of water thermal-mass to store the energy, literally, and can be used for heat or cold, with the extra weight you may want to add a girder or two if the joist runs are pretty long.

If you then do the exterior wall upgrade by adding 1-1/2" of board under the siding with furring which turns the existing wall mass into interior thermal-mass, regardless of it's R-value in batt insulation the thermal system is now in place to collect, store and retain heat or cold for all major living spaces. My guesstimate from doing thermal modeling is that it triples the R-value, the board adding a seal if calked. Of course the 1-1/2" can be more thickness.

For the walls from thermal modeling using hemp-mortar is more efficient! It seems that's by adding even more thermal-mass in an insulative material, temperatures change even less than with the board for the same 1-1/2" thickness, that wasn't intuitive, the hemp-mortar can be blown on with gunite equipment or hand layups not sure on total cost vs board.

The cost of this is less than $10k per 1000sf plus wages with a small crew, 2 journeymen and an apprentice.

Since I really don't care about all the tests and certifications as they all seem very expensive this to me seems a much cheaper way to get the same results by collecting thermal energy as a key issue.

Adding hemp-mortar on top of a stucco exterior, not removing it to save that expense, is a thermally valid way to improve thermal resistance and intentionally turning the existing stucco into thermal-mass as with the interior wall as well as deal with condensation since the hemp-mortar allows moisture transport and doesn't allow fungal growth due to the lime.

I'll be building a small cabin on a remote location with no power this summer so will have metrics on performance from data loggers from that.

Thanks Tom for your postings. I find your novel ideas on thermal heat storage intriguing. I would love to follow your small cabin project. Good luck with that!

I'll post plans when they get finalized then results after it's built Kaushal. Since it's a hangout with 180-degree windows on a mountain ridge at 2,200ft near the Olympic Mts. in Washington, it'll be a good test.

Hello Kaushal,

With regareds to George Nesbitt's comments on my house (he is an EXCELLENT resource, BTW!), yes, the western wall was only "doubled" up to the chimney, and a window next to the chimney that sits on the corner of the house, about eight feet of space total.  The remaining 34' linear feet was resided along the west wall.  The South wall had to be completely rebuilt due to our prevailing southwesterly winds, and the driven rain that had penetrated the original wall and windows. But, the newly-build south wall has the interior 4" wall cavitiy insulated with Roxul (thanks to George, who tipped me off about that wonderful material), and then two layers of vapor barrier, 4" of rigid foam with radiant barrier, and then drainage plane and new stucco.


The eastern wall, because of the set backs, we weren't able to do this treatment. (This is what I was going to talk to you about in email)  So, we had to do an interior treatment.  After doing draft sealing and dense-packed blown in insulation, we sealed the holes, and then put another layer of drywall on the interior.  Windows were also replaced.  The result is a nearly-soundproof space (our neighbor on that side is a flute teacher, so we know it's soundproof.)  Thermal imaging shows a huge improvement using this technique, and we also reduced our ACH considerably. If you can't afford the entire outside wall build-out, start with the interior insulation and new layer of drywall over the existing plaster & lath.  I used 1/4", and was able to preserve the look of my existing window trim (before we replaced all of the windows on that side.)


The other trick we did was to replace our formerly fixed horizontal windows with nearly idential-looking casement windows. This allows us to open them for air flow (very much appreciated in a tight house) without sacrificing security, since they are high up on the wall. We also added a transom casement window over the French doors off from the breakfast nook on the south side, to bring more light deeper into the house, and allow fresh air without sacrificing security.  All the new windows have window screens, which helps to filter out insects and some debris.


Our north wall (living room) has been improved with dense-packed cellulose insulation, draft sealing, and a radiant barrier interior paint, which is working well.  When we advance to the final stage of the remodel, the windows in this wall will be removed, along with the front porch, and we wil actually jack the whole house up and add a second living space (ADA accessible) underneath.  Some of the front porch space will become stairs, and some will become an expanded living room area.  Zoning requires that we will have to put additional parking on site, so there will be a 2-car garage underneath the kitchen area, which is the only place we can fit it.  That will allow me to tear down the very old garage in the back yard, and open it up for more gardening and enjoyment.


Hope this helps,

Thanks for your reply Alice! I am curious how Berkeley views DERs/Passive house retrofit projects? In what ways can we make the permitting process as smooth as possible? We like to do everything properly and openly. However, I am not sure how the city will react to projects of this sort? Is it possible to make contact with a home inspector that would probably be in charge of our house? And discuss our plans with her/him prior to construction?


Forum Discussions


Started by Allison A. Bailes III in General Forum. Last reply by Mandy Leazenby 17 hours ago. 10 Replies

Blower door test for small apartment building

Started by Jerry Needham in General Forum. Last reply by John White on Friday. 9 Replies

Radiant Barrier Southeast

Started by Gary Wright in Best Practices. Last reply by yassin chahdi on Thursday. 6 Replies

Latest Activity

Profile IconPamela Denlinger, Vincent Amoroso, Adrienne Hill Buka and 1 more joined Home Energy Pros Forum
7 hours ago
Brett Little posted an event

The Economics of Zero Energy Homes: Single Family Insights - Free CE Webinar at Webinar Online

October 24, 2018 from 12pm to 1:15pm
Zero-energy (ZE) and zero-energy ready (ZER) homes currently comprise less than 2% of single family…See More
11 hours ago
Mandy Leazenby replied to Allison A. Bailes III's discussion ENERGY STAR Version 3
"I've only ever worked on Energy Star with Habitat for Humanity.  But we have very few…"
17 hours ago
Brett Little posted a discussion

How to become a Certified GreenHome Professional - Free Webinar!

The Certified GreenHome Professional (CGHP) training is a way to learn about the basics of…See More
Corbett Lunsford's video was featured

Testing Air Quality with Your Nose: Control Your HOMEChem

Charlie Weschler sits down with Grace and Corbett and gives fascinating examples of the complexity of indoor air chemistry. He is an air quality legend, a professor on three continents, and a super nice guy.
Profile Iconwallace van, Tony kroos and Sunmar Construction, Inc joined Home Energy Pros Forum
John White replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"Well, I think it completely depends on the purpose and requirement of the test. Testing one unit in…"
John Nicholas replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"I can use my Duct Blaster on any house that I expect to be less than 1300 CFM through the…"
Sean Lintow Sr replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"FYI, he is in Illinois where code is 5 (well up until March as noted when it drops to 4)  Heh…"
John Nicholas replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"Here are two pictures of the duct blaster fan as a blower door.  1 in a door and 1 in a…"
John Nicholas replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"What standard are you testing to? Energy Star requires 5 ACH @ 50.   Code is 3.0 etc…"
John Nicholas replied to Jerry Needham's discussion Blower door test for small apartment building
"What standard are you testing to? Energy Star requires 5 ACH @ 50.   Code is 3.0 etc…"
Franco Oyuela replied to Allison A. Bailes III's discussion ENERGY STAR Version 3
"The ENERGY STARnew homes program has been around since the mid-1990s and is currently undergoing…"
Blake Reid commented on Blake Reid's blog post Managing Mold & Humidity (in Hawaii)
"Thank you very much! They're actually the same, though - the one with the dehu cover photo has…"
John Proctor commented on Blake Reid's blog post Managing Mold & Humidity (in Hawaii)
"Nice post -- much better than the one that only showed the dehumidifier."
Brett Little updated an event

Full Circle Urban Forestry: Introducing Urban Wood Opportunities - Free CE Webinar at Webinar Online

December 5, 2018 from 12pm to 1:15pm
Many common urban tree removal practices in the United States view felled urban trees as costly…See More
Brett Little replied to Brett Little's discussion Virtual CEU Tour of the Pembroke Passive Solar Zero Energy Ready Home
"You know utilities are pretty complex, especially in IL, however it looks like just about 6.8 cents…"
yassin chahdi replied to Gary Wright's discussion Radiant Barrier Southeast
"It’s hard to choose on of these as most of the time the reviews and buying guides found on…"
Bruce Fillmore replied to Mark Furst's discussion Bath fan weirdness
"In my opinion venting into any soffit is a bad idea, it usually requires a sharp bend to get into…"
Tray Biasiolli replied to Mark Furst's discussion Bath fan weirdness
"I'd agree with Sean - we get wind effects regularly when measuring ventilation fan intake at…"


  • Add Photos
  • View All

© 2018   Created by Home Performance Coalition (HPC)   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service