Overcoming Barriers to SEE Building

Mar 15, 2017 4:02:11 PM By Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd
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By Thomas Peterson, Institute for Super Energy Efficient Building, Founder and President

The Institute for Super Energy Efficient Building

Thomas Peterson-Institute for Super Energy Efficient Buildings.jpgWhen I first became involved with energy efficient housing back in the 1970s I figured that such housing would quickly take off.  It didn’t. I was determined to find out why.

I later identified four challenges with super energy efficient (SEE) homes: 1) homebuilders and home buyers knew little about them, thus; 2) they didn’t know how to build and retrofit for SEE; 3) financing packages were non-existent for both new and retrofitted SEE projects and; 4) training for builders and constructors (designers, builders, remodelers) was unheard of, but much needed, given the myriad challenges represented, particularly with a SEE retrofit. Once I understood these barriers, I formed what became the Institute for Super Energy Efficient Building (ISEEB).

ISEEB trains builders and constructors to retrofit existing homes to the energy efficiency levels achieved in new construction. Today, it’s relatively easy to build new SEE homes and buildings with many different products and methods, including double-wall construction, ICFs, SIPs, etc. with varying costs. However, the retrofitting of existing housing is “the elephant in the room” that few seem willing to address, probably because it offers so many unique challenges. Ultimately, ISEEB relies on four distinct actions that collectively help address the major challenges to increasing the adoption of SEE building.

Show the Value

SEE is an investment with a predictable, above-market return that benefits the environment and the economy.  Builders and contractors can better sell SEE through proper messaging to consumers. Let me repeat that: A SEE home is an investment (versus an additional cost), with a predictable, above-market return (instead of savings).

I’m an advocate of HERS ratings for both new and retrofitted homes.  They’re a great tool to evaluate home performance, but the “miles-per-gallon” ranking doesn’t give consumers the information they really need to make the purchase decision. However, there is a way to really help with this. Hidden in a HERS analysis is the building envelope’s projected average annual energy use for heating and cooling.  This is valuable information that can be used to help better understanding the energy score and the actual dollar savings. This information can be compared against the additional costs for that level of performance.

Here’s a practical example.  A few years ago, I built two homes with HERS ratings of 50 (40 would be easy to achieve today).  Beneath the 50 rating was a projection that the homes would use 75 percent less energy for heating and cooling than the baseline home built to 2006 IECC insulation standards.  Depending on the price of propane (the required fuel in this situation), the base home’s required heating energy use of $3,000 was reduced to $750 - - the result being an annual average dollar savings of $2,250.  The homes cost about 10 percent more than a baseline home.  As the baseline home would have cost $200,000, the additional cost was $20,000.  The annual cost of financing that for 30 years @ 4.5% is $1,216.  Thus by spending an additional $20,000 for the “Super Energy Efficient” home, you have initial annual savings of $1,034 ($2,250 - $1,216 = $1,034).  As energy costs increase, so do savings.  Thus, a more valuable and more comfortable home with a lower cost of ownership.  With this analysis, the decision usually becomes a “No Brainer” for most.

Pay cash for the $20,000 difference and the ROI is a non-taxable 11.25% ($2,250 / $20,000), which beats most other investments today. .

Obviously different scenarios (fuel, cost of construction, HERS results, etc.) have varying results, but similar analyses can be done to aid in the consumer’s decision-making process.

Train Right

Training builders and constructors to do SEE building and retrofitting is a must.  This is one of the main problem areas of SEE adoption. Unless those actually doing the hands-on building or retrofitting work understand how SEE is achieved, the results will be subpar at best and may even produce a disaster.  Ineffective training has hampered the growth of SEE housing, as subpar performance and unfulfilled savings promises have resulted in bad press about the practice. The end result has been the stifling of rapid adoption of SEE buildings. 

This is at least partially due to the constructors not receiving adequate information from architects, engineers and energy efficiency pros, who often have little broad-based practical construction experience themselves.  I have yet to talk to an engineer that has not agreed with me that a blank look often appears on the constructor’s face when energy efficiency concepts are being explained - - with the end result often being that the work is poorly or inadequately done.

Clearly Set Expectations

Buildings must be addressed as a total entity, not piecemeal.  This begins with a basic understanding of building science.  The typical construction of most local buildings should be discussed to address what materials and methods are best. For retrofits, pre-construction auditing and modeling is then covered with explanations on achieving optimal retrofits from both a performance and cost standpoint.

ISEEB focuses on teaching quality construction practices and conducts post-retrofit audits to determine how well the retrofitting objectives were achieved.  Home performance modeling is conducted for two years for a building to be “certified” as meeting SEE standards.  All of these steps can be briefly covered in a weeklong class, but more practical training would be very beneficial.  Realizing this, ISEEB can provide ongoing training to the initially trained constructors for specific projects they want to undertake on an as needed basis.

Prove Performance

Homeowners are also educated through free seminars as to what they can expect from a SEE retrofit - - “at least” a 75 percent savings in heating and cooling costs.  Homeowners are often misinformed on the energy savings potential of particular products, versus the totality of what is achievable for energy efficient new builds and comprehensive retrofits.  

With adequately trained constructors, the intent is to be able to provide optimal SEE builds and retrofits at reasonable prices with energy dollar savings that at least cover any financing costs.

ISEEB also provides financing packages that facilitate the actual undertaking of SEE retrofits creating both jobs and much happier homeowners.

Mainstream Expansion

Producing SEE builds and retrofits projects that perform as promised is the best possible advertising for builders. Trained constructors who fully understand building science will also advocate for SEE, which should propel broader mainstream adoption.


Thomas Peterson  is Founder, President and CEO of the Institute for Super Energy Efficient Building, which trains home builders and the construction industry on how to build and retrofit for SEE buildings. 

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