Retrofitting Insulation:

 The Great Dilemma


The buildings that need it the most, can least afford it. 


Add On Super Insulation
First there was the Larsen Truss, now comes the Larsen Panel.
I Super Insulated the attic, now onto the walls (someday).
This is economic for me as it's all DIY.  Otherwise, you'd need to be replacing your siding already, and add this onto the project to give it a sub 10 year payback.
It's a Larsen Panel in as much as it's been stripped down structurally to a bare minimum.  The buildings structural integrity still rests with it's standard 2 x 4 frame construction.

Retrofitting Insualtion - A Problematic Solution

All green building and sustainable architecture must provide realistic pay back times, optimum life cycle costs, or maximum return on investment, the new catch phrase in the business.  Even the best intentioned air sealing, retrofitting insulation, deep energy retrofit, super insulation, frost proof shallow foundation, window replacement, attic insulation won't be done, if it takes over 10 years to pay back.  

Enlightenment has taken hold. New code buildings can be expected to use half to a quarter the energy they did just 20 years ago.  Conservation is key to this reduction.  The industry and government have finally absorbed the fact that increasing insulation during construction is done at very minimal costs.  Our new buidling stock is no longer an issue. 

Old buildings though (Old for saving energy is built before 1980 Click Here for house age by state ) are a tough nut to crack though.  Retrofitting insulation and extremely "cheap" (in all ways) windows have proven to have effective paybacks.  As most savings are acheived through first efforts, energy use is drastically reduced.  Yet given the endlessly spiraling energy costs over the decades, minimal insulation is not a long term solution.  Retrofitting insulation for todays energy costs will not be acceptable tomorrow.  Also, adding more retrofit insulation to your project will not cost much more, yet to come back and add more in the future, will cost far far more, making retrofitting insulation in the future uneconomical.  

With half our building stock thus limited in reductions, the burden will fall on new construction to make up the difference.

To acheive a 50% reduction in building energy use, new buildings would need to use no more than 15% - 20% of a 1980 reference building after allowing for the inevitably large number of bulidings that will never be retrofitted with insulation,

While ground source heat pumps, solar hot water, solar photovoltaics, even micro hydro and micro wind, co-gen, even bio mass burners can all make a building net zero, or at least well within the 15% we need to acheive, it is at huge cost, limiting the ability of our society to respond to it's building needs.

Which is not to say there are no methodolgies or materials that can acheive super insulation level conservation savings at affordable costs.  What it says is we are going to need to seriously look outside the box, and our comfort level to do so.  Moving all insulation outside the exterior siding and not "wasting" it on limiting and less effective techniques.   Admitting in a post industrial age 100% employment is not only unacheivable, but undesirable, and utilizing unemployed to augment insulation retrofits, if only clearing the work areas, attics, brush around buildings, for the professional crews (and no I dont' mean work houses, we can provide recompense through something as simple and inexpensive as letting participants into gov't negotiated health care plans - after all - if they don't have a plan, they simply go on to Federally funded state health care, which has been proven to ALWAYS be more expensive than Federal Gov't negotiated health plans.  As I said, outside the box thinking is the answer.

Reality Check - New Math dosen't mean Good Math: 

If saving energy is such a no brainer, why don’t big building owners do it? 


It's not only the slum lord, sweat shop, eco-disaster level greed.

It's also run of the mill shave a corner here and there to get a new car, big vacation level greed.

  1. First New Math Lesson:  My competition all cut costs to the bone and rent / sell at rock bottom prices.  If I don't, I can't sell, I have to drop prices, I don't make as much, I might even loose money.
  2. Second New Math Lesson:  I can't build better, educate buyers and charge a premium price for a premium product.  Statistics prove 50% of Americans have suffered from 20 years of wage stagnation, and that's taken a huge bite from not just what they can pay, but what people who cater to that group (restarants, resorts, car dealers, maids, everyone) can afford to pay.
  3. Third New Math Lesson:  Back in the early days of energy conservation life cycle costing was the be all and end all to prove to building owners that they’d be better off “investing” in conservation.  It was a fatally flawed concept.  It assumed building owners thought long term, as long as their buildings might last.  Instead, ANY expense was measured against   the immediate growth of their investment portfolios.  No political agenda, it’s just the truth.  Still is. 
  4. Fourth New Math Lesson:  The new buzz word in energy finance is “return on investment”, to prove to owners investing in their own buildings is just like investing in hedge funds.  Hedge funds return high double digit returns YEARLY.  This is what big building owners, developers and buildings use a benchmark return.  You might prove a 10% return on investment and wonder why the owner balks.  It’s because a hedge fund, stealing him blind, still returns 25% a year and every million he can ram into that investment account will give him back $250,000 a year, to ram back into the account, to make more, and more, and more. 

HOPE:  Not ALL Laws Are Bad: 

Laws:  Energy codes requireing base insulation levels nearly half that of a super insulated building just for starters.  Think of it less as burdensome laws, and more as "leveling" the playing field.  Now, you don't need to fear your peers in development under cutting you because you think beyond the end of the year.   .  Human nature is not altruistic, humans are individually inherently greedy.  Don’t feel bad, it is just how we are.  Luckily, we have brains, we can communicate, we live in groups, collectively, and…. collectively, we want what is best for all.

Incentives:   Utility and tax laws creating surcharges to fund Retrofitting insulation - either out right or with low interest loans.  Admitedly, this is the minimum insulation that will bite our energy conservation goals in the future, but, at least it save our poorest from having to boost energy co's 10 - 20 billion in profit every quater even more.

Russell Higgins RA AIA Architect Green Building Design

Photo Blog: 

SuperInsulation Work Underway: 

Rube Goldbergs' s exisiting attic SuperInsulation / Deep Energy Retrofit.

  • Phase 1:  Two layers 2 inch foam 2 feet wide as walkway to work from, allow inspection and work without crushing insulation in years to come.  Cover with old celotex to keep insulation unharmed.
  • Phase 2:  Layer of Tyvek, accept no substitute, really, is it worth the risk?  Over the entire attic floor, over the 12 inches of existing insulation.  This will stop air movement up from below, via wind pressure and stack effect, the main mover of moisture.  Moisture should not condense on it (as a cold condensing surface), since 22 inches of insulation will be installed over it, keeping it on the 'warm side'.
  • Phase 3:  Retro - fitting the air / vapor barrier:  RAM batt insulation, rated for vapor barrier (it's a theory), between all rafters, at eaves, over exterior wall.  Yes, this will block air flow up from the eaves, such is life.  It's this or what?  Recall, I'm tapped out, can't hire someone to blow in insulation or rip everything out, apply spray poly U over top of ceiling.  Now take sheet of 1 inch foam, cut to size between roof rafters, spray foam around edges, and RAM down ontop of that matted batt insulation, push up against nails to lock in place (leave air gap between panel and roof sheathing.   Not done, now, foam up fold of Tyvek, lay against foam sheeting, RAMish batt insulation under to hold against bottom of foam.   Ta Da, air vapor barrier sealed from ext. wall to ext wall.
  • Phase 4:  Two layers 11 inch R22 batt insulation, unfaced, and rated for vapor barrier (as I said, it's a theory).  Lay seams off center.  Yeah, there might be some compacting, but I prefer two layers with off center joints to retard air flow.
  • Phase 5:  Loose laid plastic tarp to protect insulation from odd leak.
  • Phase 6:  Decon. mold then use fan fold foundation foam over bottom of rafters, foil side up, to retard summer heat, protect from nails, channel heat up to peak for venting, keep roof cooler in winter, cutting back melting snow and ice damming.
  • Phase 7:  Install new end gable vents as high up as possible.



Edit below:
If you are going to be ripping off the inside or outside of your building, slather on insulation, and put up whole new inside or outside wall surfaces.   If this is an exciting idea, just check to see if you are getting even a 20 yr payback, as you  might not be so excited when done, you see your energy bills, and relize it's going to take 20, or more yearrs.


Insulating for Your Old House


Deep Energy Retrofit

Foam Insulatio
Super Insulation
Nothing is that easy.

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For a ton of information on wrapping your building in foam.
Insulation - 
How Much Is Enough
Quick answers to your insulation questions

What is Superinsulation? 


Depends.  Some say it's attic insulation over R60, wall insulation over R40 (About double code in NYS).  Others say it's a building using around 3 BTU per SF per DD in supplemental heating.
When will super insulation work?
  New construction - All - Typically super insulation adds a bit more than 10% to new building costs.
  Existing construction - Up to a 10 yr payback or when the emotional benefit of related work makes it "worth it".

Experiences w/

Old House Rehab


It is saving me the $40,000 or so it would cost to underpin the house, install a foundation and insulate it.  Nor would this have addressed the rim joist, a major source of heat loss.


For those concerned with vermin and bugs, termites, etc. in the skirt.  I've had one element in 3 yrs, in a vermin and bug heavy area, with only a few spiders taking up residence.  I suspect in addtion to being pretty well sealed, it's dry and foodless.


We have noticed that we no longer have ants invading the kitchen every spring, and flies infesting the area outside the kitchen in the summer.  There might even be fewer mice.


In addition, the boxout is a great ledge for planters at a real easy height to maintain, with the plants and flowers visible from inside.


I'm going to try some parsely and carrots that we can't grow in the garden, the moles keep eating them.


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