Are You Comfortable and Healthy? Or Are You Just WELL?

In my ongoing attempt to tie building science to a healthier life for building occupants, imagine my joy when I signed up for a brief introduction to the new WELL Building Standard. Finally! I thought, a new sustainable building standard that is going to tie energy efficiency to being healthier.

I sat through the casual presentation where the two presenters talked about worthy and lofty goals of making office buildings a place where the good mental and physical health of the professionals is a priority. I was introduced to terms like “reverberation time” (a “metric which describes the length of time taken for a sound to decay by 60 dB from its original level”); and “circadian rhythms” (“physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in an organism's environment.”) 

The presentation was very high-level and just went over the broad category goals (found here). It didn’t go into the nuts and bolts of the standard which follows a points program for those of us in optional building certifications are used to where a design team picks categories for points that lead to varying levels of awards - bronze, silver, gold – in certifications.

There is a “comfort” category so I waited patiently for the Q&A to ask what types of building efficiencies the standard covered. Would it be adopting a mandatory efficiency rating – like an ENERGY STAR certification? Or go even further and push Passive House design concepts?

 

Imagine my surprise when the answer was “none of the above.” Exactly no thermal properties are mandated into the construction of the building outside of MEP. It is intended that another certification like LEED be added to the design scope which will cover the efficiency of the building. WELL addresses items like low-glare lighting and noise control instead.

But who really wants to pursue TWO voluntary building certifications? It’s hard enough getting the design team to produce the paperwork on one - especially when it comes to the yawn-inducing minutia of things like building cavity insulation grading and construction durability checklists. Who wants to pursue those things when you can be choosing color design and indoor water features?

Among building science professionals, it is well (no pun intended) known that a tight, insulated, correctly conditioned and ventilated building envelope results in healthier occupants. The field is rife with anecdotes about mold-inducing wall construction on one hand; and the positive impact on asthma patients by correct duct sealing on the other.

But there are no huge sources of information and data collecting yet on these impacts. In September of last year, the Green and Healthy Home Initiative issued a report on the positive impact home weatherization projects had on occupant health, but its proof is mostly anecdotal and the report lacks hard data to link causality.

I would maintain that a “comfort” category for an optional sustainable building certification called “WELL” should be addressing thermal well-being in the most basic way which is making sure the building is constructed to be durable and comfortable. Until the thought-leaders in the broad construction industry recognize this fact, energy efficiency will continue to be pushed to the side lines in favor of glare control and wall acoustics.

The Problem with Code: Induced Condensation and Mold

It’s no secret among the building science community, but everyone should know.

Prior to the 2012 International Residential Code, International Building Code, and the International Energy Conservation Code, there was condensation during cool months on the inner face of OSB sheathing nailed to lumber framing to form the structural wall.

This happens because that surface is cooler than the air inside the structure.  Google dew point calculator and have some fun seeing how that works.

Accumulated dirt on fiberglass batts due to air leakage through the wall assembly.

Accumulated dirt on fiberglass batts due to air leakage through the wall assembly.

However, there was no air barrier requirement, so, in most cases, the wetting that occurred was dried out by significant air movement through the wall assembly.

 

 

CONTROLLING MOISTURE FLOW:
ACTION AT THE SURFACES

Above and above right, illustration of condensation in wall detail.

 
Left and above, illustration of condensation in wall detail.

Left and above, illustration of condensation in wall detail.

The 2012 codes changed all that by requiring thicker batt insulation (thus making the OSB colder) and air barriers (that restrict drying) for energy efficiency.  (In 2005, the federal government issued a report indicating that in a middle-latitude city like St. Louis, an air barrier would save 40% on natural gas and 25% on electricity.  “Investigation of the Impact of Commercial Building Envelope Airtightness on HVAC Energy Use,” National Institute of Standards & Technology.)

In an article for Walls & Ceilings, CertainTeed’s Luca Hamilton explained that “once these walls get wet, they are staying wet.” 

Black mold growth in the wall assembly.

Black mold growth in the wall assembly.

Another example of a leaky wall assembly - dirt accumuaton around an outlet.

Another example of a leaky wall assembly - dirt accumuaton around an outlet.

Here is an article from the OSB industry on the subject of external insulation: “Wood Structural Panel & Foam Insulation Systems.”  https://www.apawood.org/Data/Sites/1/documents/technicalresearch/wood-structural-panel-and-foam-insulation-systems.pdf

Here is one from the foam insulation industry: “Assessment of Water Vapor Control Methods for Modern Insulated Light-Frame Wall Assemblies.” www.appliedbuildingtech.com/rr/1410-03 

 

Paul Grahovac, LEED AP

Air Barrier Association of America, National Concrete Masonry Association’s Air Barrier Task Force, ASTM Committee on Performance of Buildings, RCI Industry Advisory Council, and Building Enclosure Integration Committee of the Building Enclosure Technology and Environmental Council (BETEC) of the National Institute of Building Sciences.

Rubber, meet road.

Rubber, meet road.

One architect's experience building with the Build SMART system
For readers that have been in energy efficient construction for a while now, you will probably relate to Tim McDonald's experience. When he got his Passive House certification in 2008, the process was, "from scratch in all ways." In our recent interview, Tim had this to say about some of his early work on energy efficient buildings. "I had to think through the most effective way to design the thermal envelope, the air barrier and the weather resistant barriers. I had to figure out the details of how a window joined with the wall so that it not only shed water but maintained the air tightness of the thermal envelope."

Prescription for Passive

Prescription for Passive

Multi-family building demonstrates a simple and easy recipe to achieve Passive House levels of energy efficiency.

You're probably not going to believe this story. But it's true. All of what follows is true.

It admittedly may sound like a stretch that building a multi-family structure to Passive House standards can be done not only at market rate (or better) compared to conventional construction, but also with a method that saves time and money, and is simple to implement.

But living proof of that model exists in a 52,781-square-foot, 49-unit structure called Whitehall in Spring City, Pa., that's effectively debunking many commonly held notions about building green, or building to Passive House standards of extreme energy efficiency.

Returning the service

Returning the service

Multi-family passive house structure in Pennsylvania to give veterans the homes they deserve.
 

Forty-nine apartment units in a three-story building called Whitehall in Spring City, Pa., will soon provide U.S. war veterans with housing that’s safe, comfortable and affordable.

The complex, about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia, will also meet one of the world’s most exacting energy performance standards, called Passive House, which will result in extremely low energy bills for the occupants when it opens in March 2017.