Comfort: Undervalued, Misunderstood, Undersold

What part of the word "comfort" doesn't the home performance industry understand? Most of it, says Tony Woods of ZERODRAFT.

January 03, 2009
January/February 2009
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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I’ve been using the word “comfort” in my building envelope business for nearly 20 years, knowing comfort has a vital role to play in improving energy efficiency for my customers. It can also contribute to the current demand for more sustainable building.

Energy efficiency means different things to different people. To those of us in the high-performance contracting industry, it is a service to sell. To the government, it is vital for national security and independence. For the average occupant or property manager, it is a way to save money. But too often, the one thing energy efficiency doesn’t mean is comfort. Yet the two are inseparable. And because awareness of the importance of energy-efficient homes and buildings seems to be at an all-time high, it’s an ideal time to talk about the importance of comfort to promoting better homes and buildings.

Thanks to the energy crunch of the 1970s, people often equate energy efficiency with discomfort or compromise. Some might remember President Carter asking the nation to save energy—wearing a thick wool sweater while he did so. Not many people are willing to live in a freezing cold home in the winter (or a smokin’ hot house in the summer) just for the sake of the country’s oil independence.

For the last 20 years, my efforts, as a building envelope professional, to connect energy efficiency with comfort have been met with blank stares. Building managers and homeowners don’t see the connection. Building and construction professionals at high-performance building conferences think focusing on comfort sounds idealistic or out of touch. But if we want energy efficiency to succeed in the mainstream marketplace, it is time to reevaluate its relationship with comfort.

In the early 1990s a group of government, utility, and industry professionals, including myself, hashed out what we felt was the best, most comprehensive definition of structural energy efficiency: “An energy-efficient building is one that is healthy, safe, durable, and comfortable with the lowest operating cost achievable without adversely affecting the above four parameters.”

Comfort is an equal partner to the other four components of this definition. Take, for example, a drafty building. It is uncomfortable and it is inefficient. Correct the problems with the building envelope, and you not only make it more efficient, you make it more comfortable for the occupants as well. Who benefits? Everyone. The occupants are more comfortable and more likely to remain tenants. The property manager saves money and maintenance fees. The contractor has sold a successful and valuable service. And the national energy account is credited with a few more barrels-of-oil equivalent that did not have to be imported.

At our company, Canam Building Envelope Specialists, we see the wide-ranging benefits of building envelope retrofit in the field all the time. A particularly poignant example was a retrofit project we were involved in several years ago in Toronto, Canada. A fire had ripped through a high-rise apartment building, causing several deaths from smoke inhalation and drawing attention to some of the deficiencies that had developed in the building over its 30-year history.
A postfire inspection revealed extreme stack effect, which was causing rampant comfort problems for residents, particularly those in the lower units. We advised air sealing the building to seal the building envelope and recompartmentalize the internal zones of the building.

We isolated and compartmentalized mechanical rooms by weatherstripping doors, fire stopping appropriate penetrations through rated walls, and reducing the size of cable holes in the elevator shafts and door controller cable penetrations, as well as busbar and other electrical penetrations through the floor of the elevator rooms.

At the bottom of the building, we effectively sealed the many penetrations found in the underground parking areas. Doors were weatherstripped, and a large number of unsealed cable conduit duct and pipe penetrations and gaps between the block infill and the slabs were sealed. Vertical shafts, where doors with 2-inch gaps underneath were prevalent, were weatherstripped. This decoupled the floors from one another and reduced air movement.

At the same time, we had to avoid creating a negative pressure at the top of the building and over-pressurization of common areas by the HVAC system, so the people on the upper floors could still open their doors.

Other areas sealed included fire cabinets, garbage disposal rooms, electrical rooms, and other service shafts.  We used the highest-quality durable weatherstripping, together with appropriate one- and two-component polyurethane foam and fire-stopping sealants, throughout the project.

Our building envelope retrofit, combined with a major HVAC upgrade, resulted in significant satisfaction. Residents reported feeling much more comfortable in their units; the building was much safer—smoke can spread far less easily in a building that has proper internal compartmentalization;—and the property manager reported saving much more than the expected $200,000 in the first year alone.

Putting Comfort First

Focusing on comfort as the major motivation for providing high-performance building services, and using energy efficiency as the justification, has several key benefits:  

  • It combats the customer’s reluctance to invest in energy-efficient retrofit upgrades. Selling comfort is a far more effective strategy than selling long-term returns on investments (ROI).   
  • It accommodates the customer’s desire to make his or her home like a “nest.” Comfort, not lower energy bills, creates this nestlike environment.
  • It brings the customer peace of mind. We define an energy-efficient home as one that is safe, durable, comfortable, and healthy. A responsible owner whose home is all of those things has peace of mind that ROI or lower energy bills can never bring.

Focusing on comfort can deliver benefits to all stakeholders in the high- performance construction sector. But what does comfort mean? And how can it be used to build business? Let’s take a look.

What Is Comfort?

The most widely accepted industry definition of comfort—which in this context means thermal comfort—comes from ASHRAE. ASHRAE defines thermal comfort as  “that condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment.” That makes sense, because ASHRAE’s mandate is to provide standards for the construction, renovation, and improvement of the nation’s thermal environments. The four main environmental factors that ASHRAE uses to determine thermal comfort are the ambient temperature of the air, the average temperature of objects surrounding the body (that is, clothing), relative humidity (RH), and air movement.

Table 1 lists the conditions that ASHRAE defines as ideal for indoor thermal comfort.

While ASHRAE’s definition of thermal comfort helps us to develop a baseline for measuring it, that definition tells only part of the story. The Canadian Oxford Paperback Dictionary defines comfort as “a state of physical well-being; being comfortable,” or “things that make life easy or pleasant,” or “a cause of satisfaction.” This is a little closer to our point.

People have been seeking comfortable living conditions and a state of well-being since the dawn of civilization. In fact, the pursuit of comfort has led some to theorize that thermal comfort has shaped the spread of human habitation through history. As we learned to manipulate our environment and make it more comfortable, we moved to places that were previously considered uninhabitable.  

As we created our modern habitats, we sought things that make life easy or pleasant by adding windows, doors, thermostats, lights, and appliances. Coincidentally, these are all items that are commonly and easily targeted for energy efficiency retrofits.

Finally, energy efficiency upgrades can be satisfying for your client. But that must be explained in the right way—using comfort as the basis for the investment. Here are some of the questions you might ask your clients:

“Are you concerned about the environmental impact of energy use?”  If so, they may find comfort in knowing they have reduced their environmental footprint. “Would you like to see your energy bills lower?” Often, this is the primary justification for making the investment, so it is a good place to start. “What about indoor air quality and home safety?”  High-performance retrofits can make the home safer and improve IAQ, creating peace of mind and comfort for the client.

How Does Comfort Equal Reduced Energy Use?

In work and at home, comfort has a significant impact on both productivity and quality of life. According to the National Research Council of Canada, “Poor air quality and thermal conditions can lead to employee dissatisfaction and discomfort, a reduction in work performance, and a greater incidence of absenteeism. Poor conditions can also affect occupants’ health, creating physical symptoms such as headaches; nose, throat, eye, and skin irritation; nausea, and drowsiness.”

So what does this have to do with energy bills?

We come back to the building envelope. The condition of the envelope has a direct effect both on the comfort of the occupants and on the amount of energy used. If the envelope is operating optimally, the specifications for HVAC equipment can be lower capacity, which in turn reduces capital cost. And lower capacity means lower demand, which means less energy consumed.

If the envelope is operating below optimum—for example, air is infiltrating and exfiltrating in an uncontrolled manner, due to stack effect, wind pressure, or an insufficiently controlled mechanical system—the HVAC system simply cannot function optimally. It will run too often, wasting energy to maintain comfortable temperatures. The ventilation must also work overtime to deal with more outside air, and possibly more moisture, than it is specified for. The results? Higher energy bills and dissatisfied (uncomfortable) occupants.

Correct uncontrolled air infiltration and exfiltration, and both problems are solved.

There are many other ways an improved building envelope can help save owners and occupants money as well. Air escaping through gaps, cracks, and holes at the top of the building can lead to mold or efflorescence, both of which are expensive to repair and dangerous to occupants. Not only does mold pose an obvious health hazard, but efflorescence can cause masonry to crumble and fall off the building, possibly landing on people below.  Gaps, cracks, and holes can also allow smoke to spread more quickly in a fire, especially in high-rise buildings, causing more extensive smoke damage and a higher possibility of fatalities. Finally, gaps, cracks, and holes can provide a pathway for rats, mice, and other pests to enter the building, posing a health hazard and requiring expensive and inconvenient extermination.

What Does This Mean for Your Business?

People want comfort—both the state of mind, and the measurable thermal kind. It’s as simple as that. So why don’t you sell it?

High-performance, energy-efficient building services should be sold using a holistic approach, including health, safety, durability, and occupant comfort. Simply selling “saving money” is not the best approach.  The return on investment for home retrofits is often long-term (see “The Smart Sell,” HE Jan/Feb ’08, p.32)—unlikely to blow your client’s mind with huge savings.

Remember that office productivity is inextricably linked to occupant comfort. That is a selling point when your client is a business rather than a homeowner. Comfort pays off: the happier and more comfortable people are in their office environment, the more work will get done. This is a benefit for everyone—productivity is a huge concern across all industries, and it has a direct impact on economic performance.  

In the home, people’s concerns about comfort are often linked to concerns about other things. Concerns about high utility bills, poor temperature control, humidity, static, and IAQ, are all common homeowner concerns linked to comfort. All of these concerns can be addressed with energy-efficient  retrofits. Focusing on comfort first, and financial or energy savings second, is a strategy that will result not only in more sales but also in happier clients. All that means higher profits for you. And happy clients tend to refer business to their peers.     

What Does It Mean in the Big Picture?

Successfully selling energy efficiency retrofits using a holistic approach is good for everyone. Homeowners, condominium owners, and apartment dwellers will be more comfortable (broad meaning) in their homes, enjoy peace of mind, and know that their energy bills are what they should be.

Building owners and property managers will be comfortable in the knowledge that their buildings are running at peak efficiency, with no waste. This is especially important in regions where the utility companies use smart metering systems.  An energy-efficient building will use less energy at peak periods, which are premium priced under these systems.

Finally, all levels of government benefit from reduced energy use in their constituencies. Not only does energy-efficient building reduce the strain on the energy grids, but the positive impact on the environment, and the reduced dependency on foreign fossil fuels, reflect well on the states and cities that promote its use.

Selling more energy-efficient homes and buildings is a win-win-win situation. But to truly make it happen, we as an industry must keep comfort in the headlines. Not incentives. Not high-tech products. Not saving money. These things are tools and justifications, not the real reasons. The mainstream will not adopt energy efficiency until we use the right reasons to sell it. And comfort is a very valuable reason.

Are you sitting comfortably?  
Tony Woods is president of Canam Building Envelope Specialists, Incorporated, of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, a company with a 25-year history of solving building envelope problems. During his career he has served as president of the Ontario Building Envelope Council and has sat on 11 standards committees dealing with airtightness testing, ventilation, and the manufacture and installation of insulation materials.

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