A New Guide to the “Sexy” Energy Solution

A few weeks ago, Alex Wilson asked me to write a foreword for his new book, which is simply titled Insulation: The GreenBuilding Guide.  Writing the short foreword was a harder task than I imagined. The stakes felt high, both because it’s such an important topic, and also because it would affect a good friend’s book. It paralyzed me for a bit before I finally got some words to stick. As it turned out, I haven’t done any other writing for the past few weeks because of an intense work schedule for our company these days. Therefore, I’m posting this little foreword to get something up here, but also because Alex’s book will be a must-read and I’ll be promoting it in every way I can.  Here’s a start.

We instinctively know that insulation is the obvious solution to a very common problem, but low energy costs have allowed us for too long to give it short shrift. We are certain to grab a good coat when we go outside on a cold day, yet most of the buildings we inhabit are themselves poorly dressed for the weather they inevitably encounter. Despite having readily available and effective insulation materials for over a century, we’ve failed to address the insufficient thermal coverings of our buildings, having opted instead to hook them up with all sorts of high-tech mechanical devices to manufacture artificially tempered living environments no matter the necessity. And no matter the energy costs.

Frank Lloyd Wright probably best summed up the oblivious rationale for under-utilizing insulation when he said that insulation might be worthwhile for roofs, “…whereas the insulation of the walls and the airspace within the walls become less and less important. With modern systems of air conditioning and heating, you can manage almost any condition.” Armed with that unfortunate logic, we spent decades equipping our buildings with the necessary equipment to “manage almost any condition” instead of pursuing better insulation. Wright’s opinion and the long-prevailing paradigm it represents is the major reason the energy consumption of buildings rises well above that of both the transportation and industry sectors as our nation’s number one fuel guzzling, polymorphous beast.

But the building construction piece of the energy sector pie has been decidedly sedentary, an unproductive sloth in comparison to its unending appetite for fuel. Unlike the transportation sector, which must both transport us and condition our indoor environment, buildings need only be designed and constructed to serve us while steadfastly stuck in one spot. They can simply sit there, securing their space on the earth, serving best by being stalwart immovable objects. They don’t take us places by land, sea or air; nor do they do any industrial tasks or produce things for our benefit. As such, buildings haven’t been designed to provide that sort of tangible return for the spent fuels. Instead, the largest proportion of that energy is delivered for the sole purpose of creating habitable (i.e. “comfortable”) environments.

Finding ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is a mighty problem; one that now pulls at us with ever increasing urgency. Some facets of that predicament appear to be overwhelmingly difficult to solve. Ocean freighters and airplanes burn fantastic quantities of fuel to perform their tasks, as do steel mills and chemical plants. It’s hard to imagine how these things ever lose their energy-hogging ways.

Buildings, on the other hand, are easy. Nearly half of their energy demands come from heating and cooling, and most of that usage could be cut dramatically–even eliminated–by making the building envelope tight and adding lots of insulation. So there IS some good news: our biggest energy consuming sector also has the lowest hanging fruit, and lots of it.

We can literally insulate our way to a much brighter energy future while insulating ourselves from the ever-higher cost of energy. Every highly insulated building is an energy miser forever. Every building weaned from fossil fuels is weaned forever. We can keep warm and cool without resorting to the energy-sucking equipment Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to rely on. The new paradigm shift recognizes that if we DON’T insulate sufficiently, we’ll probably be saddled with big, thirsty equipment running constantly at exorbitant financial and ecological cost.

This is one of those world-changing awakenings that doesn’t stem from any kind of brilliance, but instead comes from stupidity having a little less dominance. But it’s important change nevertheless, and it’s at least beginning to overwhelm the reign of ignorance. Builders, architects and homeowners across the country are proving that with enough insulation (including air-tightness) we can use smaller and simpler equipment and eschew fossil fuels entirely.

Insulation is, therefore, the obvious and simple answer to a big problem. Understanding insulation and using it effectively are key to achieving passive comfort and energy independence. There are no technological barriers to insulating our buildings more effectively and thereby lowering our national energy usage dramatically. You’d think that would be the end of it. We’d employ it, solve that problem, and move on to the next one. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, nor that simple.

First, it’s not that easy because the general public still has little interest in insulation. It’s invisible and boring. Like reinforcement in concrete, it’s often seen as kind of a cost nuisance rather than something you’d want to consider improving. Similarly, “out of sight, out of mind,” aptly explains why people don’t give much consideration to insulation. Knowing too little about the subject, people are often proud to announce that their home meets code requirements, as if that was like acing a test, instead of what it is: the lowest possible passing grade. Where “minimum” sounds like “maximum,”  “better” sounds like overdoing it. So we’ve been stuck insulating most of our buildings at the C- level or less for a long time.

Knowing that, consumer awareness is critical to implementing the massive energy reductions we can achieve with our buildings. President Obama tried to encourage people to have a little more respect for insulation when he jovially declared that it is “sexy stuff,” and “I get really excited about it.” Of course, that was fodder for many days of derision by the critics and comedians. But it’s no joke. We have a ways to go before people will commonly trade their noticeable A+ features for hidden A+ insulation.

Second, it’s not that simple because insulation is a deceptively complicated subject. And that’s the reason for this book. As Alex Wilson points out, “No other building element offers such a diverse range of materials, and complexity of considerations–environmental, human health, performance, and building science.” There are myriad materials, old and new, promising to be the better way to insulate—even as newer “innovative” products are coming out all the time. Attempting to understand the benefits and potential in all these options can easily get confusing and overwhelming.

Like the canoe adventurer (and canoeing author) that he is, Alex is our perfect guide. He’s been exploring both the quiet and turbulent waters of this subject, and delivers here an accessible guidebook that clarifies the issues in his typical objective, authoritative way. With the information packed into this small volume and Alex’s reassuring guidance, we’ll all feel just a bit more comfortable as we continue to chart our own routes toward a steady current of true sustainability in building performance.

Look for Alex Wilson’s important new book from BuildingGreen soon.

4 thoughts on “A New Guide to the “Sexy” Energy Solution

  1. Hi Ted,

    Nicely written! I’m looking forward to the book.

    I agree that increasing insulation in our buildings is a huge step to saving resources and reducing the environmental impact of excessive burning of fossil fuels. But I think as an industry we need to emphasize that the solution is not only about increasing the amount of insulation in the building envelope.

    I am frequently confronted by clients that insist on R40 or better roofs and walls, but then they want to plaster their northern elevation with glass to capture the view, or they are looking for the cheapest installer for their highly insulated wall and roof systems. While the high r-value walls and roofs do have a significant impact on the performance of these buildings, I suggest their first dollars are better spent on energy efficient windows, better design, and a tighter envelope.

    I would suggest that the lowest hanging easily accessible “fruit” is air infiltration. No matter how well insulated your wall or roof, what good is it if the cold air is simply making an end run and infiltrating your envelope through poorly sealed walls, roofs, windows, doors and other penetrations. Until we get a house well sealed and partner it with an adquately designed energy recovery ventilations system I think money is wasted on additional insulation.

    As you say in your foreword “Understanding insulation and using it effectively are key to achieving passive comfort and energy independence.” Using it effectively means spending the time necessary to tighten up a home, to take advantage of site condtions, southerly exposure, overhangs and thermal mass and to make intelligent choices on heating and cooling equipment and capacities.

    The title of the book uses today’s sexy energy words “green” and “insulation” which will help sell the book, and that is good. I suspect Alex Wilson emphasizes the importance of insulating effectively, and as builders of energy efficient homes we need to emphasize that energy sexiness isn’t quantified by simply in inches. 36-24-36 is not the all encompassing measurement of sexiness any more than my 12 inches of blown cellulose is the ultimate measurement of energy efficiency.

  2. Tedd- Just wanted to let you know I miss reading your blog. I understand how little time you must have trying to sustain a thriving business in today’s difficult housing market.
    Although I don’t know squat about the details of home construction, I always enjoyed your values and thoughts. I look forward to a better 2012 and hope that you will find time to write again.
    Best wishes for a Merry Christmas.

  3. Hi Teed
    Very down to earth recommendations for insulation but not sexy al all
    This is serious business. Also at present we have to be carefull for all the materials we are using in the construction of a house since we should use materials that use as little energy as possible for their manufacture and lumber
    is one of the lowest, so now you have one more item you should not forget
    and again this is no sexy choice and better now than tomorrow we should seriously insist that a House made entirely of lumber is the first choice if you want to be green. Just as 25 years ago there was a big campiagn to stop using lumber and give preference to steel cement and plastics to protect our forests.
    We should start convincing the environemental guys who will be happy
    to help as they did for our competitors

    I hope we take advantage of lumber to save energy and give our competition
    the same bow as they gave us
    the same treatment

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