Here at Energy Smart, we really like a challenge. A deep-energy retrofit on a Habitat for Humanity project? Aiming for the toughest leakage target in the world (Passive House)? Now we’re talking.

This is the first in a series of articles about this project. This article is about the principles we work from and the importance of setting priorities and budgets.

This Habitat affiliate, Habitat of Portage County, does about 50/50 new builds/rehabs. This is a rehab project.

A quick word on Habitat for Humanity, because I found out I had misconceptions. Their motto is "simple, decent, affordable housing." These houses are not free to the people that buy them. There is a focus on minimizing operation costs so utility costs don’t break budgets. Some material is donated and some labor is volunteer. The clients are expected to contribute in Habitat’s sweat equity program, which could include working on the house, volunteering at a ReStore, or the like. This, combined with simple designs, can lead to homes with very affordable mortgages. Often total housing costs are less than the rent the clients are paying now, even including utilities, taxes, and insurance. I’ve always loved the idea of Habitat, and I’m tickled to be working on a project! Thanks to project manager Scott Craven and Executive Director Rachel Kerns for pulling me in.

Principles of Home Performance

In solving many issues in a home - such as comfort, mold, rot, pests, icicles, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), and so forth - my basic priorities are almost always the same:

  1. Reduce air leakage
  2. Reduce air leakage
  3. Reduce air leakage
  4. Insulate appropriately
  5. Install well-designed and -executed HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning)

Yes, air leakage is that important. If you have a leaky boat, it’s tough to get it to go fast, handle well, or get good fuel economy. There is always a bunch of water in it making things hard. The same goes for houses. When they’re tight, they have good control over heat, air, and moisture flows into and out of the house. As with a boat with no leaks, you can make it go fast (set any temperature you like), handle well (have very good IAQ), and get good fuel economy. Air leakage is at the root of a shocking number of problems.

Once air leakage and insulation are taken care of, giving us good control over air, heat, and moisture flowing in and out of the house, now we have to control air, heat, and moisture movement inside the house.

That’s where HVAC comes in. A well-designed and -installed HVAC system has these attributes:

  • Is correctly sized - not too big
  • Provides good filtration for air quality
  • Keeps moisture levels low 24/7/365 with dehumidification
  • Brings fresh air in from outside in a clean and controlled manner
  • Matches output to what’s needed. A little heat on cool days, a lot of heat on cold ones and vice versa.

If you do air-sealing, insulation, and HVAC right, you end up with a house with really good balance, kind of like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

You Can’t Always Get What You Waaaaannnnt

Depending on budget, we can’t always achieve all of these simultaneously, but we try. Speaking of budgets, we ask clients to give us two things early on in every project:

  • Prioritized list of problems to solve and
  • A budget to work with.

A huge part of what we do involves planning. Clients often tell me "it will cost what it costs." Not true. If you want to remodel a kitchen, you can do it for $10,000 or you can do it for $60,000. The paths are very different. I doubt the $10,000 kitchen will have granite countertops or custom cabinets or a Viking cooktop. It probably uses different contractors, too. That’s OK; it’s what that client can afford. Once priorities are set, the budget largely determines the path. We may or may not solve all priorities within a budget.

Our projects work the same way. We have a lot of tricks up our sleeves, and a budget helps us hone in on one or two paths. I need direction, and so do clients. A budget is required to set that direction. Thankfully Habitat is used to working with budgets.

If a client is willing to DIY (as with Habitat), lots of possibilities open up because in many methods, the material costs aren’t that high, it’s the labor that gets expensive. In the case of Habitat, they get some free or discounted materials from manufacturers, and they have a lot of volunteer labor.

OK, let’s talk about the priorities and budget for this project.

The Four Priorities

  • The clients - Provide a comfortable, healthy home that’s inexpensive to operate for the clients, a single mom and her 17-year-old son.
  • Bleeding edge - Push the boundaries for retrofits on airtightness and HVAC design. Remove the gas meter and go all electric (saving $300/year in meter fees).
  • PR - Hopefully, use the story of the project to attract more funding for more projects.
  • Leadership - Perhaps influence how Habitat views home performance and efficiency nationally.


This project breaks a bunch of my normal rules. First, normally the options are DIY with one or two homeowners or working with contractors. Here are a few of the twists:

  • Habitat gets 48 sheets of 2” foam board for each project. It’s almost enough to cover the whole house.
  • A free electric box and breakers.
  • We have free siding to work with.
  • Discounted windows.
  • Materials can be acquired from the Habitat ReStore, which gets used and excess building materials.
  • Cree provides four LED recessed light retrofit kits and eight LED bulbs.
  • Lots of volunteer labor.

The second major twist is that the budget is particularly fluid. There is a cap for all items, but if we can secure free or discounted materials, we can continue to scoot the budget around. Some plumbing budget can move to HVAC. Insulation can move to electrical. While Scott and I discussed initial budgets, we may be able to do upgrades within the same budget as we secure discounts or free materials, or open up more projects for volunteer labor. Or the money can be put toward the next project. The fluidity adds a fascinating challenge. I look forward to looking for donations!

The Energy Audit and Inspection

This is where an energy audit comes in. What does the house look like? What is easily possible? What is hard? What do we have to fix? Those are some of the questions the audit on this house answered.

Tune In Next Time

So what did we find? In the next article, I’ll discuss what we found looking the house over. Then I’ll dig into the planning process, during which we made the initial decisions on which path we would actually take. (The fluidity will keep things interesting, I’m hoping to get a few upgrades for little to no additional cost.) And that will have us up to date, because I’m writing this practically in real time!

Thanks to Habitat of Portage’s Scott Craven, construction manager, and Rachel Kerns, executive director, for the challenge and for being willing to move to the bleeding edge of home performance. And thanks to the Journal of Light Construction for agreeing to pick up this series.

Suggested Reading

"Little Old House with Amazing Comfort" - This is an article on one of our all-electric projects (in Cleveland). This circa-1900 home was thoroughly insulated and air-sealed, then a heat pump was installed for heating. The Habitat project will follow a different path but also will go all electric.

"Why Gas Water Heaters Stink" - The title caused a bit of a stir, the article shows why I don’t like combustion appliances (anything that burns a fuel) inside homes. It makes the counter-intuitive case for electric water heaters.

This article originally appeared on the author's Energy Smart Blog.