Five years ago, I moved back to the US after spending eleven years in Europe as a craftsman.  My plan in moving back was to build my own house and to do it using energy saving measures, and I started studying about ecological design and sustainable practices.  Then I realized that the most sustainable practice is to fix up an existing home.  Now I’m a BPI certified energy auditor, and I help others fix up homes to use less energy.  The nice thing is that it isn’t hard to make a big difference.

Recently, I’ve started looking at how what I do for people here in America is done in Europe, and it has been very enlightening.  I knew that houses in America are built entirely different from how they are built in Europe, so I figured that the way we test houses for efficiency must be different.  What I discovered was that not only do we use a different ruler (CFM as opposed to liters per second) but the standards are vastly different.

Here we (try to) convert our blower door numbers from CFM50 to CFMn in order to say how many ACHn a building has.  In Europe, they don’t worry about ACHn, but only consider ACH50.  We think that a house that has 0.35 ACHn (roughly 7 ACH50) is in very good shape.  In Europe, the Passivhaus standard is 0.6 ACH50

This might help explain why the average American uses twice as much energy as the average Western European (even though the standard of living is higher for the average Western European).  Personal habits are certainly a factor, but the buildings we live in also play a huge role.  Here we build houses that will last as long as our mortgages, knowing that our grandchildren will more than likely be living in a different state.  In Europe they build houses that last for centuries, knowing that they will likely be passed on from generation to generation.  European houses built hundreds of years ago are still better than houses we build today.  Why are we so far behind?  Because we have been spoiled with cheap energy.

I pay six cents per kWh for electricity in KY, but it costs more than three times that in Western Europe.  That means that the same money spent on energy efficiency takes more than three times as long for me to get back in savings.  The cost of energy will certainly increase at a faster rate here than it will in Europe, and we will pay for our care free attitude toward efficiency sooner or later.  It is time for us to take our heads out of our asses, stop using stud walls, and recognize that our fundamentals of home building are grossly insufficient.

There, I said it.  Comments?

 

Tags: Blower, Door, EU, US

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I do not intend this to sound cynical, but replacing the fundamental method of studwall/platform construction for standard home construction in America is like saying we should tow the Rock of Gibraltar with a canoe. It simply will not happen. The method is too heavily embedded in our society across many industries-from Southern Pine Tree farms to the pneumatic tool industry, or windows & doors manufacturers, or plumbing & electrical supply to trade schools and countless architects, builders and carpenters.

A more reasonable approach is to make consumers aware of the benefit of specifying higher quality products and installation techniques that are readily available. For example, comparing the added cost of using dense pack or foam  instead of using f/g batt. Also making sure air sealing is done during construction. There may be ways to get improved benefits without going through the HERS/RESNET certification process. (I am no expert, but am told that it is a bureaucratic mine field for new home certification-which equals greater expense and builder aggravation).

But, I'm curious. What method do they use in Europe?    

I think you are probably right.  The industry is just too embedded.  In Europe they tend to do a lot of (real) masonry buildings without wall cavities.  Insulation is added either on the inside or the outside.  Ducts are seldom used.  Wiring is all done with braided wires, not cables, that run through conduit cemented into the walls.  Plaster is used instead of drywall.  There are craftsmen who take low processed local materials such as block, lime, sand, and rough sawn lumber, instead of assemblers who use highly processed materials like the ones you describe.  Walls are usually about a foot thick.  That means that even in hot climates, air conditioning isn't as necessary, as long as it cools down at night and you can open things up.  When they do have AC, it is usually a mini-split unit.  Heating is done with combi gas DHW/boilers which is distributed through radiators or radiant floor heat.  We're just starting to catch on to these units here, but we're so tied to our ducts that there are few cases that most people don't want to consider them.  They have a lot more multifamily homes, which saves quite a bit on construction and operational costs.  They also use twice the voltage, which has a much lower loss, and requires a lot smaller wire.  It's just entirely different all around.  I have several friends who are architects there, and they find it very amusing how we build our houses.  We do do it a lot more cheaply.  That seems to be the key.  But if you can build one house for twice as much money but that lasts five times as long, the true cost is much lower than building five houses for half the money.  It's hard to convince people to think that far in the future, though.

I'll bite "There may be ways to get improved benefits without going through the HERS/RESNET certification process. (I am no expert, but am told that it is a bureaucratic mine field for new home certification-which equals greater expense and builder aggravation)."

HERS/RESNET isn't that hard but you only get a rating not a certification - are you thinking of ENERGY STAR or other programs that require that rating & other items, well that can get a lot more difficult & time consuming

I know a bunch of builders are jumping of the ES bandwagon & looking at just getting a rating and advertising the energy modeling numbers from that.

Thomas - I don't see stud walls being an issue as I have worked on plenty of older houses that have been around for a century plus - I think the main issue is how they are building them today & them maintaining them 

Sorry-yes I was thinking Energy Star.

 

Oh, yes, there are plenty of older houses that are made of two by fours (real ones, often oak) that are older than a hundred years.  No arguments there. But what does that have to do with the houses being built of toothpicks (soft dimensional lumber) and chips of wood that are glued and pressed together (OSB) and their ability to withstand the test of time?

I will freely admit that todays wood does suck compared to years past but if built properly & kept dry these structures can also last, be energy efficient,etc... You have to build with the material you are using in mind.  

As an FYI - "often oak" actually depends on your region & what was available - I don't think I have seen one yet that used oak

I got a quick question for you as you seem to know a lot about Europe - do they have a diffrent U &/or R value system over there. Something popped up in a diffrent group about it & while I see some sites showing that they use a diffrent U Value... well one must be careful of what they do find on the internet

They use U-Value and I believe it is the same as ours.

Thanks Thomas. A view from down under. Australia is in the process of moving fairly quickly from US style low electricity prices closer to Western European levels. Up to 21 cents plus per kWh - roughly $Australian is one for one with the $US at the moment. Average home uses 7000kWh a year and average bill will top $2000 a year in next 2-3 years because a lot more price rises in the pipeline, mainly driven by network infrastructure upgrades plus a carbon price coming in July 1, 2012. People who find themselves owning and living in oversized 'McMansions' with poor (i.e. energy inefficient) design and construction and air-conditioning are looking at $1000 a quarter plus bills. Ouch. Bad building and bad choices also impose a cost on the public purse through expensive peak load - it's estimated the installation of a $1500 air-conditioner can create $7000 in network costs that end up being spread across everyone's bills. Policy makers are trying a range of measures including sustainable building standards for energy, water etc (a good example is called BASIX) plus public education and retro-fit incentives. Where I've been focusing with colleagues is giving people real-time access to their energy data so they can both change behaviour and identify problem appliances and infrastructure. A quarterly bill from your energy retailer just doesn't cut it!  

Murray, I agree with you: more feedback is the best way to change behaviors.  But the actual buildings can make as much if not more difference than the behaviors of the inhabitants.  What is the dominant building material down under?

Thanks,

Thom

Thom, like so many things in sustainability area, it's all about the AND rather than the EITHER/OR. For energy, you need to get the building, the appliances and the behaviour right to get the best results on a 'total cost of ownership' basis i.e. say over the 50-year life of a building. Australia is a real mixed bag of building materials. A lot of brick, a lot of timber, block construction with rendering, a lot of clay tiles for roofing, increasing use of corrugated steel sheets for roofing and some cladding, a lot of aluminium window and door frames, mainly timber frames for housing construction but steel framing becoming more common. Some relevant sites re government requirements are BASIX in NSW - https://www.basix.nsw.gov.au & 5 STAR in Victoria http://www.sustainability.vic.gov.au/www/html/2035-5-star-homes.asp, and NABERS http://www.nabers.com.au

Cheers

Murray

So you use a European style of construction.   Here in the US we use a highly processed materials that are transported long  distances and which low skilled workers  can assemble.   We seldom see timber construction. All  individual pieces are very lightweight.   Exterior wall assemblies are only 6 in. (15cm) thick.   The main structural member for sheer strength as well as the sub floor consists of panels of reconstituted wood fibers.   The industry is all about low cost.

I pay six cents per kWh for electricity in KY, but it costs more than three times that in Western Europe.  That means that the same money spent on energy efficiency takes more than three times as long for me to get back in savings.  The cost of energy will certainly increase at a faster rate here than it will in Europe, and we will pay for our care free attitude toward efficiency sooner or later.  It is time for us to take our heads out of our asses, stop using stud walls, and recognize that our fundamentals of home building are grossly insufficient.

Let's make this simple.  In Europe you offer services that ultimately boil down to "you give me three dollars and I'll give you back four".  Those same services here that conversation is "you give me three dollars and I'll give you back one".  

Removing subsidies, adding incremental price floors, and generally bringing certainty to energy cost would definitely motivate people to become efficient.  But nobody except a few "crazies" like me want to see higher energy prices.  Most scream bloody murder.  You want to be in my camp?  It's lonely.  

Are you hoping for higher energy prices?  If you aren't, keep trying to sell one dollar for three.  Economic's is not magic - it's numbers.  Or you could do what these state programs are doing - promise savings that nobody measures and there is no accountability for.  Just don't be surprised when you are treated like a used car or window salesman - "I've heard these promises before". 

Measure before and measure after shouldn't just be for blower doors.  Measure the energy and match it to the promised savings so we can actually understand if and what we can deliver.  

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