Greenbuilder Q&A: Most homebuilders still lagging in building science

Greenbuilder Q&A: Most homebuilders still lagging in building science

Passive House on Martha's Vinyard. Photo courtesy of Steve Baczek.

Designing a high performance home is as much a work of art as it is a science. Of course homeowners want a beautiful home that deliver the "Wow!" factor, like granite countertops, hardwood floors, and impressive details. But behind the walls and in the mechanical room — if there is one — building science takes over.

Architect Steven Baczek has built a practice based on 25 years of experience in building science. This includes work with Building Science Corporation, publishing work, as well as numerous projects.

Steve Baczek

Baczek brings a focus on a thoughtfully designed, well-built home that delivers comfort, durability, and oh, by the way, lower energy costs.

Baczek says his intent isn’t on a “green” or “sustainable” structure, but rather on proving good, sound design. His commitment: Equating aesthetics and durability with performance.

Baczek focuses primarily on residential projects, including more than half a dozen certified Passive Houses, and the first certified one in Rhode Island, as well as near-Passive House homes for clients that don't value the certification.

Baczek, who is based in Reading, Mass., recently spoke to about the growing acceptance of building science in the residential construction community and the impact such knowledge can make on the performance of any home.

PGH: How has your architectural practice evolved over the years?

SB:I've been in business on my own for 10 years, and now people are starting to search me out, they want a Passive House or a zero energy house or a deep energy retrofit or whatever.

I get a lot of calls from not so much your mainstream homeowner that has $400 a foot that wants some spectacular house on the Cape. Other companies can take care of those.

I get the ones where the builder calls me and says, I know of this existing house that I don't want to take the windows out of or disturb any of the interior trim but I want to make it zero energy. And we end up hanging a wooden curtain wall off the outside, and filling it with spray foam and do a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, a lot of people come to me for that kind of stuff.

They know I'm the guy that can figure out this kind of thing, or they'll at least be willing to look at it and search for the solution, and has the tools to go down that road.

As far as high performance homes, selling low energy is a tough business. I don't really sell energy.

PGH: When it comes to building science, are the principles essentially the same for both residential and commercial building?

SB: Yes. At one of my talks at a conference, one of the things the sponsor was talking about was how can we bring in commercial to building science. I said, “When it rains, do you think Mother Nature discriminates between a house, a hospital and a library?”

No. Building science principles are building science principles. If it's good to have a rainscreen on a house, then it's good to have a rainscreen on a hospital, a highrise or a library.

Mother Nature doesn't discriminate. Air tightness is good. It doesn't matter what kind of building it is. If I pay to convert energy and I dump it inside a container, I want to contain it as long as possible. That's the bottom line. It's that simple.

Coastal Spaces by Reading Architects & Building Designers Steven Baczek Architect


PGH: What do you think of the idea that all houses should be Passive Houses?

SB:There are a lot people who want comfort, durability, health and energy efficiency but don't necessarily want a plaque on the wall. I can get them to 75 or 80 percent of Passive House for little to no extra dollars. A full Passive House doesn't have to cost all that much more, either.

We did the first Passive House in Rhode Island for about $1.88 a square foot. We were able to deliver that house at market terms, the builder made money, and that one did receive passive House certification.

As far as the residential industry, one of the greatest things about Passive House was that it struck up conversation. I liken Passive House to when I walk in to a gym. I need to get in a little better shape, and they throw me a workout and nutrition regimen that makes me a bodybuilder. I don't need that. I just need to get in a little better shape. I don't need to be competition-ready for Mr. Olympia.

The same with our houses. What Passive House did, it shows you how to become that bodybuilder. But you know what? All along the way, you can stop and just be better than you were. The same with exercise. You can do a little better, you can workout more. You might never be ready for competition, but you'll be far better off than you were.

PGH: What's your approach to building a high performance home?

SB: When we build something we should be able to get 90 percent of the materials from the lumberyard. We don't have to use exotic stuff.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel, we just need to pay attention to what we're doing. My argument is, when I do a Passive House or low energy house, I'm building a good house by good building science principles that is going to be highly durable, healthy and comfortable.

There are a few Passive House die hards out there, but they're few and far between. I work with a lot of Middle America people that want a good house and they're willing to pay another 20 percent for the house, but they want to know that it's good.

I'm finishing up a house for two school teachers, it's double wall, the house just tested at .74 ACH/50 blower door test, which doesn't meet traditional Passive House but it would meet the new Passive House metric. It doesn't meet the .6 [ACH/50 requirement of PassiveHaus], but the leakage per square foot of surface area it would make it, because this house is a long rectangular house with a lot of surface area.

But these are two people that came to me, they said, we don't want the plaque on the wall, we don't care about paying for all of that, we inherited family property, and we want to put a house on in that hopefully our kids will want to grow up there and live there and pass it on to them and it will become a family heirloom.

We want things like comfort, durability, health, those things and energy efficiency. There are a lot of people like that, they don't necessarily want a plaque on the wall, but maybe 75 or 80 percent there, and I can get them there for little to no dollars.


PGH: What do you say when a builder, could be commercial or residential, says a high-performance project is going to be too costly? Are they just not keeping up with the times?

SB: I don't think they're keeping up with the times. When you're looking at costs of what you're building vs. performance, there a couple things there.

One, you could certainly put more money into it and make it a better project, which would hopefully yield better performance. I would say, let's go from the footing to the roof and scrutinize every decision. Let's go through that exercise and ask ourselves, why are we putting it in, what's the benefit and how much does that piece cost?

If I take that project and put it up as a giant abacus and look at it on the wall, maybe I take the windows and knock off those a little further to the right. There's a direct relationship between that and my mechanical systems. So the mechanical systems can go off to the left.

How about air tightness? Air tightness is pennies on the dollar when you're in construction. And take that all the way to the right. Concentrate on getting thermal bridging out of the building and making things air tight. That has a direct relationship to a whole bunch of things.

It has a direct relationship to the mechanical systems, the health and the comfort of the space. So I do that.

If I take a couple of those things to the right, I could take some of that money I save and pay for better stuff, without changing the square-foot cost or the overall price of the project.

PGH: Are we at a point now in the green building industry where there are so many definitive studies that show there should be no other way to build than building with an eye on sustainability and efficiency?

SB: I don't think we're there yet. I think we're getting close. If you pull all the building permits across the country for new construction, I would venture to guess that 50 percent of them barely make Energy Star certification.

The message isn't out there. The message is not that you should build a green home, and it's only going to cost 10 or 20 percent more. The message is to everybody in the building industry – that they should tell homeowners – “These are the questions you should be asking, these are your concerns, this is what's important.”

It's not that we don't have the answers. We're still not asking the right questions.

Read more about green home building.

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, Consultants, Cost of Ownership, Energy Star, Going Green, Home Design & Plans, Passive House, Sustainability Trends & Statistics

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