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Building Energy-Efficient Bridges in Pittsburgh

As one terribly clever energy professional pointed out – a city with 446 bridges couldn’t possibly be intimidated by hundreds of pages of building codes.

“Bridges to the Future” was the theme of the 2017 National Energy Code Conference, which took place July 18th – 20th in Pittsburgh, PA.  The third city to become part of the 2030 District, and commonly known as “The City of Bridges,” Pittsburgh proved a fitting venue in which to focus on the future of energy-efficiency through the impact of codes and initiatives across the U.S.

The conference kicked off with “Energy Codes Bootcamp,” a great session for professionals new to the industry. It covered code basics, compliance software training for REScheck and COMcheck, and a brief overview of what’s coming in the 2018 IECC and ASHRAE 90.1-2016. Overall there is a focus on improved efforts to understand the different performance paths, and proving performance measures for buildings.

Next on the agenda, “Tours of the Tower” at PNC Plaza, which was designed to exceed LEED Platinum certification, and is known as the “greenest office building in the world.” The Tower is truly the crown jewel in Pittsburgh’s green building community, and no one could be more appreciate of it than the group of energy professionals in attendance.

The final tour of the day showcased The Energy Innovation Center, a not-for-profit organization whose purpose includes community engagement, workforce education and training, and support for businesses in the clean energy market.

Educational Sessions 

“If you work in building codes, it is essential to consider the future”
– Ian Finlayson, Massachusetts Dept. of Energy Resources 

One of the best educational sessions of day two was presented by Ian Finlayson of the Massachusetts Dept. of Energy Resources, “Developing and Promoting a Stretch Energy Code.” Massachusetts has mandatory requirements to adopt the latest ASHRAE and IECC codes every 3 years. But rapid gains in energy-efficient building are also being achieved across the state through educating and encouraging stretch codes. The keys to success include seeking expert input, keeping the message simple, and tracking adoption across municipalities.

“It’s all about ROI – how you consume and how you build must align.”
– Timothy McDonald, Onion Flats, LLC

Timothy McDonald, President of Onion Flats, LLC, kicked off the final day with the impressive gains his development company is achieving in the affordable housing market in Pennsylvania. Building on that knowledge, he has focused extensive efforts on including passive house building standards in the point system used by state housing finance agencies in awarding contracts. Once again education is a key component, emphasizing the fact that net-zero and passive house standards can be met cost-effectively. He added competition to the strategy, as the motivation tool for getting more builders to utilize energy-efficient building standards.

Some of the unique features of his own multi-family developments include facades that communicate energy use of the building, and making inexpensive design strategies essential, not traditionally key considerations in affordable housing.



A final highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Jeffrey A. Johnson Award to the 2017 winner, Shaunna Mozingo, of Colorado Code Consulting. Jeffrey was remembered by his colleagues for his passionate work in energy-efficiency building. It was evident throughout the conference, and through the recognition of her colleagues, that Shaunna has embodied that same spirit throughout her career.

The conference was a great place to connect with a wide range of professionals focused on advancing the energy-efficiency initiatives at all levels – not just regulation. The architects, consultants, builders, manufacturers, and code officials in attendance all shared the same common goal: planning for the future by improving how we build today.

Considering attending an energy code conference in the future? Next up on the calendar is the 2017 International Code Council Conference, to be held September 10-13th in Columbus, OH. Take a look at the complete lineup of exhibitors and the education agenda here. Year-round, one of the best resources for both the residential and commercial building industries is the US Department of Energy website energy.gov. If you haven’t visited the site yet, take the time to look around – it has an absolute wealth of information for most any topic relating to energy-efficiency. 


Planning is Key to Net Zero Deep Energy Retrofit

You’d have to live under a rock (completely sustainable housing) if you didn’t realize that climate change, and rapidly increasing energy prices are a hot topic in today’s world. But why is the focus on the building industry?

Buildings consume nearly half of all the energy produced in the United States.

Globally, the percentages are even higher. Which explains why much of Europe is paving the way in both commercial and residential energy-efficient building.

It’s important to understand that energy-efficient building is about more than energy-efficient materials. A great deal of planning is needed to ensure the proper integration of materials and design, to achieve the best possible outcome.

Energy-Efficient Building

Passive Design, and Net Zero Energy Building (NZEB) are the two primary concepts for energy-efficient building. Passive Design uses a combination of climate-based passive and active design strategies to minimize the usage of energy, materials, and water.

Passive homes focus on the absolute minimal amount of energy use possible to heat and cool the building.

In 2015, the Passive House Institute of the US released the only passive building standard based upon climate-specific comfort and performance. The goal was to find the right balance between the up-front investment in a passive build, and the long-term payback, to achieve the most comfortable and cost effective building possible. Learn more at phius.org.

The basic premise of a Net Zero Energy Building is that they generate as much energy as they consume.

Designed to minimize the amount of energy they need to operate, and with renewable energy systems that meet their energy needs. Solar, wind, and geothermal are examples of renewable energy systems.  Design considerations to achieve net zero energy include passive solar design, triple pane or triple glazed windows, and high performance building envelopes. The US Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home program has been working to promote Net Zero building since 2008. Learn more at energy.gov.

Both Passive Home and Net Zero Energy Home certifications are generally based on the HERS Home Energy Rating Score, and certified by third parties, such as the Living Building Challenge.  To learn more about the certification process, click here.

The Deep Energy Retrofit

Most of the discussion about passive or net zero design centers around new construction.  It just makes good sense to plan ahead for the future. However, considering that the majority of the building inventory in the US was built prior to 1990, there is even more opportunity for energy savings in renovating and retrofitting existing buildings.

As the experts at Green Building Advisor explain, the process usually begins with a home energy audit and building analysis. Energy usage reductions are achieved through a whole-building approach, including insulation, heating and cooling systems, lighting, appliances, and water usage. A typical simple energy retrofit focuses only on individual upgrades, like heating and cooling.

Deep Energy Retrofits are a whole-building approach to maximizing energy efficiency.

The key to success in a deep energy retrofit, is utilizing skilled building science professionals who have the experience planning the integration of these systems into existing structures. Look to organizations such as the Building Performance Institute to direct you to certified professionals in the industry. That’s how we found Bill McKnight, CEO, Energy Conservation Specialists.


WATCH:  Net Zero Deep Energy Retrofit with ECS and ThermalBuck  


With over 20 years in the field of deep energy retrofits, Bill has achieved both BPI Accreditation and Energy Star Certification, teaches building science at Ulster University in NY, and has been featured in Home Energy Magazine. To learn more about the historic renovation project we worked on with Energy Conservation Specialists, and see how ThermalBuck was used to create a thermally efficient building envelope, read the full installation story here.

The Poplar Network features a clear-cut piece by Rob Freeman that explains the difference between Passive and Net Zero. For a more detailed reference, an excellent resource is Net Zero Energy Buildings, by Steven Winters Associates, Inc., a respected authority on building science and efficiency. It was featured in 2016 in the The Whole Building Design Guide, a program of the National Institute of Building Sciences which focuses on the latest technology and “whole building” design techniques. Data was also sourced from architecture2030, whose mission is to address climate change problems with design solutions of the built environment.      

Continuous Insulation – Making the Right Choice

If you’ve made the decision to include continuous insulation on your building, it’s time to pat yourself on the back.

The International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) has required continuous insulation since 2012. When the building envelope is insulated on the outside, it not only improves the energy efficiency, it also helps to reduce the possibility of moisture damage through thermal bridging.

WATCH:  ThermalBuck installation using polyiso CI  

Which type of continuous insulation should you choose? Good question.

Each type of insulation has different thermal properties, costs, features, and installation requirements, so you really need to consider what matters most in your application.

ThermalBuck is compatible with all types of continuous insulation, and will simplify the installation process.  It solves many of the common challenges builders find when installing windows with continuous insulation, and make the installation more energy-efficient by insulating the rough opening – typically a source of energy-loss in the building envelope. 

Types of Continuous Insulation

There are three main types of continuous insulation: rigid foam, mineral wool, and cork. The most widely used is rigid foam, which is split into three main categories: EPS, XPS, and Polyiso.

Expanded Polystyrene (EPS):  R-4 per inch

EPS is the most commonly used rigid foam. While it has the lowest R-value, it’s also the least expensive around .31 cents per sq. ft., which makes it a favorite for code compliance within budget. EPS does absorb water, and has the lowest compressive strength of the rigid foams.

Structured Insulated Panels (SIPS) and Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFS) are comprised of EPS. Insulfoam, a division of Carlisle Construction Materials, is largest manufacturer of block-molded expanded polystyrene (EPS) in North America.

It is important to note that EPS should be used over housewrap, and supported by OSB or plywood when used as sheathing.  


Extruded Polystyrene (XPS):  R-5 per inch

Many green builders discount XPS right off the bat, because it is the least environmentally friendly option. It contains the flame retardant HBCD, and its blowing agents have high global-warming potential.

However, with it’s higher R-value and moderate pricing at .47 cents per sq. ft. it is widely used. It’s stronger than EPS, and more water resistant, making it a preferred choice for under-slab and below grade applications.

XPS is available faced or unfaced, which affects the vapor permeability. Owens Corning Foamular “pink board” is some of the most widely recognized XPS on the market.


Polyisocyanurate (Polyiso or ISO):  R-6.5 per inch

Polyiso is the most expensive of the three types of rigid foam, as much as .70 cents per sq. ft. for a 1″ thick panel. However, the higher R-values often make the added expense worthwhile in the long run.  All polyiso is faced on both sides, most often with foil.

Polysio is considered the most-environmentally friendly of the three foams. It does absorb water, and generally cannot be used below grade. Johns Manville is a leading manufacturer of polyiso foams.  

One of the primary benefits of polyiso, is that it can often be used as a WRB behind your cladding. While it may cost more upfront than EPS or XPS, not installing a separate WRB component can save a considerable amount. It really depends on your climate, if this feature will be a long-term benefit, or present a building science challenge. 


Mineral Wool:  R-4 per inch

When you think mineral wool, you think of Roxul, easily the best known brand on the market. Mineral wool is also known as stone wool because it is made of basalt rock and steel slag, making it a favorite choice of green builders.  Easy to work with, fire-resistant, sound resistant, and water resistant. It’s the only insulation recognized by code as a firestop.

ComfortBoard is Roxul’s exterior insulation.  With an R-value of 4, it is lower than most rigid foams, however, there is no reduction in R-value over time, which will happen with foam insulation materials that rely on lower-conductivity blowing agents that slowly leak out or allow air to leak in.

Mineral wool is highly vapor-permeable and easy to install. Roxul is approximately .64 cents per board foot. 


Cork:  R-3.6 per inch

Thermacork, is the most widely recognized an all-natural rigid insulation material made from expanded cork. It offers excellent acoustic control, is highly durable, has high vapor permeability, and meets fire-safety requirements without flame retardants. It is labeled Red List Free for use in Living Building Challenge projects.

Cork is by far the greenest of the green in the insulation category, but it’s significantly higher cost and limited availability make it more of a niche product.

It’s important to take your specific climate into consideration when evaluating building materials.

EPS and XPS increase in R-value as the temperature drops.  A great thing if you’re in Wisconsin. However with Polyiso, the R-value actually decreases when the temperature drops. Not such a great thing when you’re in Wisconsin.

To choose the best continuous insulation for your project, analyze all of the variables: performance needs, climate, building codes, and budget.

No matter which continuous insulation you choose, proper installation is critical to achieving the desired performance.

Our energy-efficient homebuilders in Utah, Thomas & Melissa Griffiths, did extensive research on the features and benefits of the different types of exterior insulation, and decided on Atlas EnergyShield Polyiso for their dream home.

Thomas wanted the highest R-value his budget would permit, and appreciated the fact that he could use the continuous insulation as his WRB. To eliminate the thermal bridge around their Alpen 525 Series windows, they chose ThermalBuck. Take a look at their recent ThermalBuck installation below.

ThermalBuck simplifies the installation of windows with all types of continuous insulation, making a truly high-performance building envelope.  To see additional installation steps, strength and installation challenges, view the ThermalBuck Installation page.

For an in-depth conversation about rigid foam types, we recommend the experts at Green Building Advisor. For additional videos of polyiso installation, we recommend this one by Synergy Construction.  Of course we would recommend the use of ThermalBuck over the plywood bucks, to limit thermal bridging and improve the performance of the window installation.

While written in 2010, this piece from Green Building advisor about Using Rigid Foam as a WRB, still has merit.  Updated in January of 2016, ICC document AC71 Foam Plastic Sheathing Panels Used as Weather-resistive Barriers establishes guidelines for evaluation of foam plastic sheathing panels used as water-resistive barriers in combustible construction. See your rigid foam manufacturer specifications for more information.  

Building Codes – Get Into the Zone

Building codes provide the minimum requirements for what all builders have to do (in order to follow the law, that is) when constructing and maintaining buildings.The variances between building codes in different states or even different regions within states has everything to do with one main consideration – the climate.

Climate has a significant impact on building codes, energy codes in particular.

What makes perfect sense for good moisture management in one climate varies wildly from that of another region.  It can even be quite different within one state. California is the most varied state – Marine, Hot-Dry, Mixed-Dry, and Cold. Builders really have to understand the particular climate they’re working with in order to follow good building science principles.

ICC Climate Zone Map

Surprisingly, prior to 2004 there was no universal climate zone map for the U.S. for use with building codes. At that time, ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) used 38 different climate groupings, while the IECC used 33 different zones based on county boundaries. That’s a lot of climate chaos.

Recognizing the need for an easier way to define climate, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (in conjunction with Building America) prepared a simplified map, and the 2004 IECC Supplement was the first model energy code to adopt this new climate zone map (map from ICC shown above).

Temperature & Humidity

Temperature and humidity are the two primary factors that influence the 8 climate zones in the U.S. Each of the eight zones are further divided into five climate “categories”:

  • 8  Subarctic  (Alaska only)
  • 7  Very Cold
  • 6  Cold
  • 5  Cold
  • 4  Mixed Humid or Mixed Dry
  • 3  Hot-Humid or Hot-Dry (some Marine)
  • 2  Hot-Humid or Marine
  • 1  Hot-Humid

If you’re a true building science guru, you’ll want to better understand something called “degree days”, or accumulated temperature calculations. The Energy Vanguard Blog has an excellent piece by building science expert Allison Bailes III, that dives deeper into temperature and moisture divisions.

Climate-Based Resources for Builders 

Considering that several states are in multiple climate zones, the DOE Building Best Practices Series issued the “Guide to Determining Climate Regions by County”, a helpful resource for builders listing every county within that state, and which climate category to follow in each county.

There are multiple climate-based Best Practices guides available for builders through the DOE Building America Program, which focus on real-world case studies that demonstrate solutions to improve whole-house energy performance for new and existing homes in the five major climate regions.

For a direct link to these climate-based case guides for all climates, visit energy.gov.  

The DOE Building TechDOE Building America logonologies Program works to improve the energy efficiency of buildings in the U.S. through educating builders on better building practices, and technological advancements in materials and techniques. Energy-Star and Zero-Energy Ready are just a a few of their recognizable efforts in place and on track to meet significant goals by 2020.  


Code is Not a Four-Letter Word…

One thing you realize pretty quickly while researching building codes, is that there is a lot more information out there, than there is time to read it.

ICC – International Code Council

The starting point for all building code information is the ICC, International Code Council, whose mission is: to provide the highest quality codes, standards, products and services for all concerned with the safety and performance of the built environment. 

The ICC develops the most comprehensive guide to building safety and fire codes used across the U.S. Each individual state operates uniquely in their legislative process to adopt codes, and code adoption isn’t necessarily statewide. Local governments can make their own decisions, and states can pick and choose what sections they want to adopt, change, or remove completely. Wondering how it works in your state?  Start with this code adoption process by state link.

International Code Adoption by State

The next logical step is to find out which codes they adopted through their process. Start with the  International Codes-Adoption by State chart (updated May 2016), which lists each of the states and U.S. territories, and which codes they have adopted. Energy code, residential code, mechanical code – you name it. If it’s related to building, it’s regulated, and it’s on this list.

Once you know which version of the code the state has accepted, the nitty-gritty research begins. Detailed publications for each state are available for purchase through the ICC. They also have a great feature called “toolkits“, which offers federal, state, and local overviews. A link called “Who to Call?” lists each state’s Chapters, Board Liaisons, and Government Relations Representative.

Which Codes Matter?

Of course the short answer is – all of them.  But it really depends on what answers you’re looking for. Read more