Technology is a Bullet Train, Home Building a Bicycle

Building science is the game-changer for home building evolution.

If technology is a bullet train, home building is a bicycle. Technological changes occur at a dizzying pace, but the main design of the bicycle – like that of a home, has changed very little in centuries. However, while home design principles haven’t changed much, architects and builders have more knowledge than ever before of building science and how it can improve building durability and performance.

Charles-Hendricks-1-380x380Architect Charles Hendricks of Virginia-based Gaines Group Architects talks with Insulation Institute about how increasing knowledge of building science has been a game-changer for the industry and how he sees home building evolving.

No More Niche Market

Hendricks recalls when “green” construction was a niche market about 20 years ago. “Then energy-efficiency, durability and indoor environmental quality became the home building mantra as the movement grew up,” Hendricks said. But that didn’t happen overnight.

“It wasn’t until 2003 that we designed our first ‘certified’ home, an Energy Star project,” Hendricks added. “Information on how to construct better buildings was becoming more available and prevalent each month, and as time went by, several green rating systems brought change to a slow-moving industry.”

Hendricks was on the committee that adapted the EarthCraft (now Viridiant) green building standard for Virginia and Gaines Group Architects designed one of the first EarthCraft certified homes outside of Georgia. “It became the first residential statewide green rating system to be adopted in Virginia, though we were still learning and building technology was still catching up to the new demands,” he noted. “Since those early certified projects, you can now find information on building science in your specific climate in industry publications, websites, and even on television shows. Information has become far more available to builders that are willing to change the way they have always built to meet client demand for higher performing homes.”

Building Science: The Path to High Performance

Hendricks says he hasn’t had a client in years that did not make energy efficiency a high priority and builders are responding to that demand. He thinks builders interested in transitioning from code built to higher performance homes shouldn’t focus on any specific rating system, but on building science – particularly building durability.

“The biggest challenge the industry faces is durability. This usually comes in the form of keeping water out of our walls.” But, how does that apply to energy usage?

“Most builders know how to keep bulk water out of their thermal envelope, but not all of them understand vapor management,” Hendricks said. “Air infiltration brings moisture and moisture destroys a well-built home as fast as anything else.”

Once a builder starts to focus on air tight construction, a lot of other building science topics need to be addressed. “This is the path to high-performance home building,” Hendricks says.  “You don’t need expensive solutions to make a home energy efficient, you just need to know how to put the pieces together to stop air leakage, and then install the appropriate mechanical system to keep the most complicated machine you’ll ever own running smoothly.”

Hendricks believes ratings systems like LEED and Viridiant are good places to find strategies to implement for energy efficient home building. “The certification that each of these carries gives potential clients something other than the builders’ word to verify the performance of their home. However, the building science strategies the builder uses are the most important factors to deliver a high-performance home.”

Finding Balance Within the Budget

As Hendricks works with builders to design and construct energy efficient homes, one of the top concerns for the builder and customer is costs. “We have always stood by the idea that if it is too expensive, it is not sustainable and we look for balance in our design approach between energy efficient and budget-friendly,” he said. “Understanding building science and knowing where to install insulation, for instance, to maximize performance and reduce HVAC loads is one way to balance costs. Insulation costs a lot less than another ton of HVAC.”

Close collaboration with the builder allows the design firm to hit the budget target by the end of the design with an approach that ultimately delivers an energy efficient, durable, and healthy home within a reasonable timeframe so that builders can maximize profits while keeping client costs low.

Over the course of Hendricks’ professional career, which began when he started working at Gaines Group Architects as an intern in 1999, he’s designed many homes and said asking him which his favorite is like asking which of his kids is his favorite. Here’s just one example of a high-performance cottage in Harrisonburg that he’s particularly proud of though.

The Next Iteration of Home Building

Hendricks believes the next iteration of home building will be centered around home energy production. “I think battery technology will come online soon and that it will be affordable and reliable – changing the way we look at energy use in our homes. This, along with client knowledge (or in many cases lack of accurate knowledge), will continue to shape our industry and place more demands on builders to meet higher and higher standards in home performance solutions. Also, HVAC systems continue to develop more sophisticated solutions from variable refrigerant flow systems to traditional heat pumps to geothermal technology,” he noted.

“Variable speed units are changing how systems are designed and ‘right-sizing’ systems saves the client money while delivering higher performance at lower costs.” An increasing focus on indoor air quality and healthy homes will also shape consumer demand. “There’s a delicate dance to building a house that is air tight, energy efficient, and healthy and builders must be ready to address that challenge.”

Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd is the Director of Communications for North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA).

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