Where do you fall in the "staged" versus "gotta be all at once" discussion?

In several industry conversations over the past few months, there’s been debate about whether we should take a “staged” retrofit approach. I've got my thoughts 

There is no doubt that an all-at-once approach allows the biggest results at a lower cost. It’s often most cost-effective to do several things at the same time, or in particular orders. Yes, reducing the load makes more sense before replacing the air-conditioner rather than after. And if we’re really thinking comprehensively, we get to “tunnel through the cost barrier” as Amory Lovins puts in, reducing the load enough to start dropping tonnage, eliminate sytems, and simplifying mechanical solutions, and avoiding some costs altogether. 

But in today’s world a couple steps at a time is the way most homeowners will tackle efficiency improvements in their homes. And at the end of the day, homeowners decide.

See more at: http://omstout.com/staged-retrofits-the-false-debate/

What do you think?

Tags: audits, home, performance, retrofits, sales, scope, staged, work

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It all comes down to money, does it not?

I would argue that ALL projects are "staged", unless it is a NetZero project. There will always be room for improvement. Let's look at projects as degrees of comprehensiveness.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 representing a little air sealing and weatherstripping and a 10 representing a very comprehensive job heading to Net Zero, I typically look for about a 4-7 in a project. Sometimes it ends up being a #3, and we are currently working on a #9 project. 

I have a very hard time justifying a project in the 1-3 range because there are usually non-energy saving measures that must be addressed as part of the project. When the budget is very limited, the thermal savings are very limited and the client does not see any notable result from the project. Non-energy saving measures include: controlling high moisture in basement; no ventilation, with visible consequences (eg.- peeling paint in bathroom), very poorly installed heating systems; structural issues (such as from improper "remuddling" or rot) and unsafe electricals.

My first job after getting BPI certified in 2006 was to do just air sealing/weatherstripping in an 1800s cape with additions and stone foundation. I sealed some huge holes in the main attic and foundation, weatherstripped (and insulated) the bulkhead door and spray foamed the rubble foundation under a small (but very cold) addition. The final blower door number was almost the same as the initial (and very high) number. The client did not perceive much improvement or any decrease in heating costs. What I did was not a waste and had to be done, but the client did not see much value to my work. I could not address their primary complaint of cold walls because the walls were drafty and dense-packing them was not in the budget.

Our first job using cellulose was another 1800s cape with stone foundation. No insulation in 3rd floor walk-up attic. Due to budget constraints, we did not address high moisture in the basement, which had not been a problem in the past, and did not insulate exterior walls (only 2 1/2" deep). [all of the windows had been replaced several years prior to our work] We did install a bath fan (2nd floor), but did not install a range hood fan. We fixed some basement windows and spray foamed the sills.We dense-packed the attic floor and bagged and blew the tops of the exterior walls to air seal them. A few years later I followed up and learned that they still had not been able to remodel their kitchen, and thus vent the range hood, but between moisture from the basement and moisture from cooking, they were seeing lots and lots of condensation. I have seen other contractors in that situation installing a dehumidifier as part of their work scope. 

We just completed a job where we recommended replacing the 20+ year old propane furnace and water heater. Both had standing pilots and both were not properly vented and both showed signs of backdrafting (although they passed the CAZ testing). The client agreed to have them replaced with sealed combustion units, but they would hire the contractor and we could test out later (we are still waiting). There is no ductwork to the 2nd floor, which uses electric baseboard heat, and the existing ductwork was very poorly balanced. The client opted to not run the ductwork to the second floor at this time. This meant that when we air sealed and improved the fiberglass in the kneewalls, that we could not top off with loose cellulose and we had to create access panels for future access for installing ductwork through the kneewalls from below. So because it was a staged project, we had to do extra work and we could not do as good a job as we could have. 

I have lots more stories to argue for more comprehensive projects. In addition, if we encourage projects in the #1-3 range, is the average energy savings going to provide much of an impact on global warming? I don't think so. Smaller stages are OK if the stages are unlikely to cause other problems and the client can see a notable difference in comfort and/or fuel bills. In my opinion, educating the public is very important. When I quit smoking 22 years ago, it was a huge emotional investment for me. The government campaign to educate the public about the dangers of smoking took a long time to get me to act, and it was the birth of my first child and Nicorette that was my impetus. Now I think about how healthy I have become since then, and not only the money I saved by not buying tobacco, but the money I saved by not burning my clothes with dropped ashes, with not missing work because of sickness and with not being productive when I step outside for a smoke. I think back to how many times I "quit". The first few times I lasted a couple of days, but did not see any results except for more anxiety. When I was able to go for more than a week, i started to see some results. When I finally quit for good, I saw bigger and better results as time went on. Look how long it has taken to get down to 15% of the population still smoking. It is going to be a long road for energy efficiency as well. The bigger the steps each time, the quicker we will bring the earth back away from the effects of global warming, and the quicker we will improve our economy with fewer dollars going to Big Oil.

And that's the way I see it.

It all comes down to pain.  What problems do they want to solve, and how much are they willing or able to spend?  Have you done a good job helping them understand their problems and helped them arrive at a comfortable budget for addressing those problems?  If so, you have a place to design to.  

If they don't give you enough to take a serious whack, they have high likelihood of the dreaded "no noticeable result".  On the other side you reach the point where more money doesn't equal incrementally more results.  There does seem to be a sweet spot for each situation where incremental investment nets geometric results, and hopefully you can take people to that general location.  

Nate Adams has a nice explanation of this place on his brochure: 


Comprehensive Home Performance means systems design thinking.  Solutions design is NOT prescriptive, and rarely single measure.  BPI gets this, but I think they've done a poor job conveying it to all participants.  Seems many state programs don't seem to get it...

While I see nothing wrong in staged retrofits themselves (assuming they do no harm), I'm increasingly hesitant to call anything less than comprehensive, thoughtful, design-based solutions "home performance". The true danger is in homeowners confusing the two and perceiving home performance as some gimmick on par with "natural cures" and other nonsense when it ultimately falls short of addressing their pain.

Griffin, thank you. You said that in way fewer words than I have. There are 2 paths, and we need to be sure consumers don't think true home performance is insulation or HVAC contracting. I've tried the uglier path, and I have the emotional scars to prove it, just read my blog. 

Griffin, I'm with you 100% on "thoughtful, design-based solutions" 100%. I'd offer a friendly amendment incorporating both "do no harm" and "based on sound science".

I'm curious how you define "comprehensive", and where you draw the line between that and "not comprehensive". Is the comprehensiveness in the consideration or in the contracted and installed measures?

Your suggestion of incorporating sound science in the definition is well-taken and spot on, Mike. Building on what someone above me said (sorry, on mobile), I would add that a successful staged retrofit should address certain acute pains (e.g., it's winter and the old furnace died) without closing the door on future remedies (e.g., blowing insulation into an attic without addressing egregious bypasses) or masquerading as a panacea. This are the traps I fear many earnest HVAC contractors currently dabbling in home performance risk falling into.

As to where to draw the line, I suppose it's often easier to qualify what is not comprehensive than what is. Unsatisfying an answer as it is, I tend to fall back on the old "I'll know it when I see it". After all, it's less-than-comprehensive measures that make up the vast majority of what we encounter in the real world. That said, though, I've always felt that one of the hallmarks of "true" home performance is a high measure of deliberateness and focused intent. Perhaps that tilts the definition of comprehensiveness in favor of consideration versus measure implementation, although I have little doubt two identical projects--one using the component approach and the other the comprehensive/system approach, yet given the same budget--would have manifestly different results.

I'm enjoying this and other insights from your blog, by the way; it's a wealth of highly relevant and credible information in an industry that sorely needs it. Thanks for opening up this discussion!

Jeez, Griffin, really well said again.

I've just headed down the comprehensive path in the last 6 months or so, and I try to keep Einstein's words in mind that if he had an hour to save the world he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes on the solution.

I used to be guilty of immediately prescribing aspirin when a client told me they had a headache, rather than asking questions to figure out maybe they needed to drink water or that they had a migraine. If we don't dig and spend time understanding the problem, our solutions will suck, just like always prescribing aspirin.

Unfortunately, I just don't know that we can do that in one call, it takes 2-3 to get that much out of people. But then we really serve them rather than throwing a bottle of aspirin their way. 

What is your process? How do you fit into the HP puzzle? I used to be an insulation contractor, I'm now a consultant putting plans together (with an integral audit) and then helping them get implemented correctly.

Thanks for the kind words, Nate. I've been browsing your site and I have to say I really appreciate your approach to conveying what home performance is (and isn't). Not to mention you manage to present it attractively. I feel that too often you get one or the other -- technical gurus who can't sell, or slick marketing with no substance. 

I'm going to have to borrow that Einstein quote, too.

Human nature is to seek convenient solutions based on what we know. I know I've been guilty of that before and still am from time to time.  Home performance often seems to me as much about unlearning old habits as it is learning new skills. You're absolutely right about the need to dig in and spend time understanding the problem. If we do what we've always done, we'll get what we've always got.

Sounds like you've found an excellent niche for your experience. I've been involved in HP from just about every angle apart from independently contracting - low-income weatherization, small nonprofit, a major contractor, and now a utility program. Couldn't ask for more fulfilling problems to solve, that's for sure.

Yes, at the end of the day the the homeowners decide and it's the mindset of the homeowner that drives the decision. 

As a homeowner I've made 2 different decisions (staged and comprehensive) during the same time period for 2 different properties.  On the comprehensive side my husband and I were looking to fulfill a vision/dream of having an ultra energy efficient house.  So we took a 90-year-old bungalow with good bones and kept the foundation, framing, floors, and the roof.  Everything else showed signs of deferred maintenance and was ripe for a gut remodel.  We went with the passive house approach and our contractor managed to hit 0.59 ACH on the final blower door test.  Pretty darn impressive for a retrofit and we were jazzed about it.  Our home in Santa Cruz, CA is technically heated by gas as a backup to solar thermal.  For the last few months our gas usage (Dec, Jan, and Feb) ranged 9~12 therms per month, which is about 80% lower than similar homes in the neighborhood.

At the same time (while the bungalow was designed and constructed) we made small improvements to the condo we were living in for the past 10+ years.  We've already replaced the single pane windows with double pane windows a while ago so we decided to replace the water heater with a slightly more efficient one as we prepared the condo for rental.  Sure, with the condo we were limited with what we could do, but we just couldn't get ourselves to replace the gas wall furnace with a mini split.  So we simply had the gas wall furnace cleaned and the flaky thermostat replaced.

It's the same homeowner who believes in energy efficiency making 2 different decisions.  Curious, isn't?

Chie, that is interesting. The fact that you went so far with your residence vs. a rental is a wonderful example of incentive.

On a rental property where you don't pay the utilities, you have very little incentive to make large EE improvements. If you bumped the rent and included utilities, you would then have incentive to fix the place, and from the experience of Dave Robinson and Larry Weingarten, you would get better tenants who have already been through the cheap rent, high utilities mill. 

Do you think that jives? I've seen the phenomenon before, but not with anyone who went Passive House. Also, out of curiosity, why did you choose to upgrade the windows rather than the furnace? (That's an open and honest question, BTW.) Thanks for responding!

Nate, the windows were replaced in the condo about 10 years ago while we were living there.  About that time my husband got motivated to change the windows because his brother noticed improvement in his house after replacing the windows.  The motivation was half energy efficiency and half sound attenuation.  

The wall furnace exploration came about around 4 years ago because we've experienced a thermostat problem where the furnace wasn't turning on all.  We've considered replacing it and had some energy efficiency folks come over to give us a quote for a mini split.  In the end we decided not to go with the mini split because we figured out that the wall furnace on the first floor also warmed the bedrooms on the 2nd floor through conduction via the flue so it was heating the space effectively.  Also, switching the fuel source from gas (wall furnace) to electric (heat pump mini split) didn't seem to have a favorable reduction in source energy.  We didn't do any calculations to verify the gut check.  

As for charging higher rent and including utilities in the rent as a way to incentivize EE on rental property, well, it feels lukewarm to me.  Why?  It cuts off the feedback cycle to the occupants on their behavior.  Not receiving energy bill could cause occupants to have lots of plug loads that are left on all the time.  When we lived in the condo we had low energy usage.  You can read about it here:  http://midorihaus.blogspot.com/2013/08/energy-usage-first-8-months....

By the way, I do enjoy listening to Larry Weingarten's weekly radio program. :-)


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