DOE Challenge Home Spotlight in Illinois—Q&A with Brandon Weiss
While attending the Solar Decathlon in southern California last month, we also had the pleasure of attending DOE’s Housing Innovation Awards ceremony. Impressed by the various builders committed to home performance, we thought we’d take some time to chat with a few of the recent winners of DOE’s Challenge Home projects.
The following is our conversation with Brandon Weiss of Weiss Building & Development, LLC. Weiss and his company won awards for two homes built in Illinois in two Challenge Home categories: Systems Builders and Custom Builders.
Q&A with Brandon Weiss
Home Energy: What are the main differences between the two Challenge Homes you built that won awards for both systems and custom homes?
Brandon Weiss: The home we won the system award for was also a certified Passive House. Passive solar design, super insulation, airtightness, balanced ventilation with energy recovery, and thermal bridge-free construction are the main attributes that lead to a home that uses 90% less energy to heat and cool and 80% less total energy. Building science also plays a major role in a certified Passive House, which is why these homes are built to last hundreds of years. This home was built from insulated concrete forms, and is heated and cooled with two ductless mini-splits.
The custom home was a National Association of Home Builders’ Green Building Program Emerald home. It was a stick-built framed home with 2 by 6 walls and 2 inches of continuous exterior insulation. It was also built on caissons due to poor soil conditions.
HE: What were the biggest obstacles you faced when building both homes?
BW: I'd say the biggest obstacle is the mass unavailability of high-quality materials. We use many more suppliers than your average contractor because we seek materials that meet so many different criteria in terms of performance (energy efficiency, health, and building science). We end up securing most of the materials ourselves in order to properly vet them.
HE: Were these homes the first of their kind in Illinois?
BW: They were the first two certified DOE Challenge Homes in Illinois. The systems built home was also the first certified Passive House in the Chicagoland area.
HE: Was this your first attempt at building a Challenge Home?
BW: Yes, however, we’ve made a commitment to the U.S. Department of Energy to build all of our homes to the DOE Challenge Home Standards going forward. We have six homes slated for completion in 2014.
HE: Are there occupants in either home now? If so, how are they performing?
BW: Both homes are occupied by a family of four. We are still compiling first year data, as neither has had occupancy for over a year. Both clients are ecstatic by the lack of utility bills, and are very pleased with how the homes are performing; they like the idea of paying for equity instead of watts.
HE: Were there any systems used in the building of these homes that could be applied to energy retrofits for existing homes?
BW: Both homes systems are easily adaptable in a retrofit scenario. In the case of a Passive House, paying a lot of attention to the envelope could allow one to simplify the HVAC system, which is usually the most difficult to route through a home.
HE: What is one piece of advice you'd give to other builders taking on similar projects?
BW: Upfront planning and paying attention to the construction details in your envelope is of the utmost importance. That is where the true quality of a home is and it’s what makes a home last the test of time.
HE: What is your favorite room in each Challenge Home and why?
BW: My favorite room in the Passive House is the upstairs den. There is the largest window in the house there—it’s the perfect place in the home to lounge and read a book.
My favorite place in the custom home (pictured to the right) is the staircase area. It’s a three-story staircase and it’s definitely a major architectural statement in the home. It connects everything very openly.
HE: What do you think is the most important thing builders need to focus on in the next 5 years for home performance to become more mainstream?
BW: We need to focus on the fact that third-party certification is the true measure of quality in a home. A home is a very complex product that must be properly tested and commissioned. Paying attention to the physics of how to design and build homes is critical in building homes that are highly durable and efficient.
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