Gord Cooke, Partner at Construction Instruction, Professional Engineer.

It is finally a great time to be a builder or building products dealer. After seven years of recession and contraction, the market is poking its head out from under the economic bomb shelter. Builders are hiring, buyers are buying, and manufacturers are ramping up production again. But a funny thing happened on the way to recovery: while the industry was hunkered down, energy codes got a lot more difficult to meet.

In general, the code gets more aggressive each time it is updated (every three years). Until 2006, however, energy codes improved only gradually. Since 2006, energy code requirements have increased at a steeper rate. The 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) improved approximately 15% over the 2006 baseline, and the 2012 IECC represents a 30% jump over the 2006 baseline. The IECC's goal is an energy-neutral construction industry by 2030, and the 2015 code, which is being written right now, takes another step in that direction.

This is not a bad thing as long as builders are on a path of continual improvement. But because of the hunkering-down and market contraction, many are not.

Building codes are voluntary, but inevitable 
The most recent version of the code (2012) is not required; states and local jurisdictions can adopt whichever version they want to. As of November 2014, 12 states have adopted a code that is equivalent to or better than the 2012 IECC. A handful of local jurisdictions, such as Denver, California and Washington state, have adopted even more aggressive codes than the 2012 edition.

The 2012 code is the first to require air tightness testing of both the overall enclosure of a house (called blower door testing) and duct leakage testing. The 2015 code, while more aggressive, is also easier to meet because it has both a prescriptive path ("Do it this way") and a performance path ("Do it however you want to, but pass an energy modeling test").

The energy code has gotten more aggressive because 70% of the carbon footprint of a house over a 50-year period is associated with its energy use. This should give dealers and their builders an important clue as to how to help builders improve energy efficiency, and meet (or beat) the code.

Tight houses need great water management and good indoor air quality details
Water is the primary destroying force of buildings and building materials. Water is a critical condition for mold, decay and fungi growth. Wet wood also attracts termites and carpenter ants. If a house is expected to last at least 100 years, builders need to turn a critical eye to exterior water management details. This is even more important as builders adopt more energy efficient building practices. Adding more insulation to walls, attics and foundations reduces the flow of heat through the enclosure and that heat flow was an important drying mechanism for less-tight houses.

Dealers can help their builders refocus on the path that water will follow during a storm; will the details hidden behind the brick, stone, stucco or siding stand up to windblown rain over the next 50 years?

Begin by giving builders access to the comprehensive weather barrier systems—not just bits and pieces, but focusing on (and offering) a complete system of water management.

Another important element of high-performance building is to ensure the healthiest possible indoor air for the people who live there. Ventilation plays a big part, but the simplest thing that can be done (and a really easy way for you to help your customers) is to eliminate the source of potential contaminants in the first place.

Help customers by stocking the right products
High performance construction boils down to a few things: great insulation details, great air sealing details, and great water management details.

You can help builders by making sure that you provide the full range of energy efficiency products that manufactures offer. For example, offering insulated sheathing at a full range of available thicknesses, high-density batts or blow-in insulation as well as the most efficient windows and doors your suppliers offer. Less obvious but very cost effective examples would be raised-heel trusses, insulated rim boards and insulated window headers.

On the air-sealing and water management side, make sure you carry air barrier tapes, expanding foam and the guns that go with them: professional-grade foam canisters and reusable guns, professional sealants that are compatible with house wraps and window and door flashing kits. Speaking of windows and doors, these represent the biggest holes in houses, so you can help your customers tremendously by providing flexible flashings, tapes, backer rod, and sealants — together in a package — that will work together to deliver air— and water—tight openings every time.

After you help them get the big stuff right, focus on indoor air quality: offer products with low VOC (volatile organic compounds), and low off-gassing potential — and make available the manufacturers' printed documentation. High off-gassing products often carry the highest health risk to the people who install them. (Point this out to customers during the discussion.) If you want to go one step further, offer products that are independently certified (with a label) for low off-gassing potential.

While it may not be possible to stock all variations of everything needed, you can go a long way in the service arena by offering reasonable delivery times while avoiding custom order premiums. A good place to start is to offer ENERGY STAR labeled windows, doors, insulation products and sealants.

Go above and beyond with printed extras and professional help
To pass the new energy codes, builders will need to pass various tests and inspections, and it is not like the old days. There are checklists available from sources such as the EPA ENERGY STAR for New Homes, Indoor Air Plus, and LEED for Homes that include verification of critical items. Your customers might not be aiming for LEED, but the checklist will help them beat the code . 

Second, a pre-drywall verification may be required in some places. But even if not required, it is easier to get the insulation and air barrier details right before they are covered with drywall. In the same way that critical weather barrier details become hidden behind siding, poorly installed insulation will be hidden and compromise energy performance and comfort year after year.

There is a whole new group of industry professionals called Energy Raters. They are licensed by a group called RESNET (Residential Energy Services Network) and these trained contractors help builders with energy modeling, site inspections, and tests of critical tricky spots, like draft proofing around bathtubs, fireplaces and stairways. These raters also use an insulation grading system which helps builders visually determine the quality of an insulation job — no sense paying top dollar and not getting high quality.

These Energy Raters are important influencers on many of the product decisions your customers make. It is worth including these professionals on your mailing lists and including them in promotional days and training events. 

By carrying the right mix of products, making others available quickly and having information at the ready, you can help your customers along on a path of continual improvement that will up their game for the next building boom.

Checklists

Thermal Bypass Checklist

Thermal Bypass Checklist Guide

Indoor Air Package Checklist

Indoor Air Package Guide

LEED for Homes Checklist

Home Innovation Labs Green Building Guidelines Checklists