Choosing Insulation for Carbon Value – Why More is Not Always Better Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog post, we highlighted two of the most commonly used insulations in the U.S.– XPS board and closed-cell polyurethane spray foam – and noted that they are produced with blowing agents (HFC-based) that are putting more carbon into the air during construction than they save during building operation for many decades. We left you with a question: if we don’t use these insulations, how can we make up for the loss of the helpful qualities that has made us dependent on them?

Insulation Alternatives

One part of the answer comes from the development of new materials. In Europe over the last decade, Honeywell developed a new blowing agent, a hydro-fluoro olefin (HFO), which claims a global warming potential (GWP) of less than one, which is less than that of carbon dioxide.  First in Europe, and now in the U.S., manufacturers such as Demilec and Carlisle are coming to market with a closed-cell polyurethane spray foam that uses this blowing agent instead of the HFCs that carry a GWP of well over 1,000. These spray foams have a slightly better R-value  than their high-carbon predecessors, and otherwise have the same qualities that make them useful in multiple contexts – air/vapor barrier capability, conformance to irregularities and penetrations, etc.  However, they also have many of the same downsides – high flammability, potential (and not completely understood) off-gassing post-application, and the basic fact that they are petroleum products.

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Call to Action: Voting Open Until December 6th on the Changes Proposed to the 2021 IECC

ICYMI: The code change proposals for the 2021 IECC are open for voting by Governmental Member Voting Representatives (GMVR) from Monday, November 18th through Friday, December 6th, and your vote is instrumental in making buildings consume less energy! [Need a quick refresher on the code process? Check out our blog post here!]

Does your vote even matter?

Overall, there are not actually that many voters on a given proposal. In the energy proposals, last cycle, it ranged from about 200-400 voters per proposal, even though there were a total of 1,247 voters on the Group B codes, which includes the IECC.

IECC voting numbers

So a small handful of voters can entirely shape the future of the energy codes that dictate how energy efficient our buildings will be! If history repeats itself, while some online voters tend to align with the Committee, many online voters align their votes with those cast by their fellow ICC voters at the Public Comment Hearings. This happened 81% of the time in 2016. Unlike 2016, in this cycle all the electronic votes cast during the Public Comment Hearings will be rolled into the online vote tally (although those voters can still change their vote).

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The Making of the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)

When I first started working at Steven Winter Associates, I didn’t know that one day I’d find myself involved in the development of codes and standards that impact how our buildings get built. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, but I have learned a few things the hard way and thought they’d be worth sharing if you might be new to it.

So, here’s my very high-level summary of the code development process with respect to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), aka the “model” energy code. If you are looking for more detail, the ICC webpage has plenty of resources and a more detailed infographic than the one we’re showing and discussing here.

IECC Code Development Process Chart

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Whole Building Blower Door Testing – Big Buildings Passing the Test

The residential energy efficiency industry has been using blower door testing since the mid 1980’s to measure the air tightness of homes. Since then, we’ve evolved from testing single family homes, to testing entire apartment buildings. The Passive House standard requires whole-building testing, as will many local energy codes, along with assembly testing. While the concept of – taking a powerful fan, temporarily mounting it into the door frame of a building, and either pulling air out (depressurize) or pushing air into it (pressurize) – is the same for buildings both large and small, the execution is quite different for the latter.

Commonly called a whole-building blower door test, we use multiple blower doors to create a pressure difference on the exterior surfaces of the entire building. The amount of air moving through the fans is recorded in cubic feet per minute (CFM) along with the pressure difference from inside to out in pascals. Since the amount of air moving through the fans is equal to the amount of air moving through the gaps, cracks, and holes of the building’s enclosure, it is used to determine the buildings air tightness. Taking additional measurements at various pressure differences increases the measurement accuracy and is required in standards that govern infiltration testing. Larger buildings usually test at a higher-pressure difference and express the leakage rate as cubic feet per minute at 75 pascals or CFM75.

Image of SWA staff setting up blower door test

SWA staff at a project site setting up a blower door test

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Choosing Insulation for Carbon Value – Why More is Not Always Better Part 1

SWA’s Enclosure Group is acutely aware that insulation is the most important single material choice to maximize the enclosure’s thermal resistance over its operational life. Many of us in the building industry believe that, combined with a good continuous air seal, the highest insulation value makes the greenest enclosure, helping to reduce a structure’s carbon footprint and combat climate change. It may come as a surprise, then, that some of the most commonly used insulation materials are so carbon-heavy to manufacture and/or install, that for many decades they wipe away the carbon-energy savings they are supposed to provide.  The following is a detailed discussion of how and why this is, and what the industry is doing to change the equation.

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon

The built environment looms large in the climate picture, because almost 40% of the total carbon put into the planet’s atmosphere each year is attributed to buildings. Over the past 30 years of green building, we have overwhelmingly focused on operational carbon – the carbon that buildings emit as they are being used. Only recently have we begun to focus on embodied carbon – the carbon that goes into constructing buildings, which is typically far greater than the energy saved in the first decades of operation. Changes in energy codes are aimed at operational carbon, and even those organizations and standards that have been at the forefront of promoting sustainable building [LEED, PH] have not been quantifying or limiting embodied carbon, although they bring attention to it.

The Time Value of Carbon

Assuming that a building stands for many decades, or even centuries, its operational carbon will eclipse its embodied carbon over its lifetime, and therefore when the building’s carbon Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is calculated, operational carbon savings will be more important than embodied carbon saved/spent in the long run. Why does embodied carbon deserve equal weight with operational carbon? Because of the total global carbon emissions from buildings, 28% is pegged to embodied carbon. That’s already a large percentage, but when you consider the near term, the first 30 years of a building’s life, the percentage jumps to about 50%. In effect, every new building is in carbon debt upon completion due to the huge amount of carbon emitted  in order to construct it., And in order for the climate to benefit from the energy savings provided by a well-insulated and sealed enclosure and a high efficiency energy system, the building needs to last and be used for a very long time. The problem is that we may not have 30 years, let alone 60, to pay off that carbon debt.

In the first 30 years of a building’s operational life, 50% of its total carbon emissions are still due to embodied carbon (Source: Architecture 2030)

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