Intelligent design

High-performance remodeling often is associated with complex, expensive, technical work. James Lebair, GCP, UDCP, president, founder and owner of Oreland, Pa.-based JRL Design Inc., defines it in simpler terms. “It’s providing a suite of high-performance services that sustain and adapt to the whole-house approach to reducing energy,” he says. “That one line sums it up. We incorporate green and sustainable design and building science in all of our remodeling projects. Universal design is part of it as well; it goes hand-in-hand with high performance.”

Lebair recommends his clients hire a Building Performance Institute (BPI) specialist or Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) auditor to perform an initial energy audit on their home. From there, Lebair and his team evaluate the recommendations and adapt them to whatever space the client is looking to have remodeled.

In bathrooms, for example, Lebair typically takes the room down to its studs. “We’ll recommend any exterior walls be air sealed and insulated and recommend an Energy Star-rated bathroom exhaust fan with proper venting be installed,” he says. They also encourage the use of WaterSense-certified plumbing fixtures and address any heating issues with solutions such as electric floor heating, hydronic floor heating or hydronic towel warmers. “That’s a high-performance, energy-efficient way to heat a space rather than trying to address the whole system in the house, which could be more expensive.” Lebair adopts a similar approach in kitchen work.

In both cases, he ensures any penetrations between the floor and ceiling are sealed to prevent the chimney effect. “There are tremendous amounts of opportunities in the kitchen and bathroom to address high-performance needs,” he asserts. Home automation and control devices also can contribute to a home’s performance.

Lebair spent 23 years in the HVAC field before adopting a high-performance remodeling business approach. “It has really reenergized me as a remodeler and a contractor,” he says. “Combining the HVAC and remodeling fields are a perfect match for a high-performance remodeling company.” He also uses his own home as a test ground. “Anything I recommend, I use in my own house,” he says. “Personally and from a business standpoint, I’ve taken the whole high-performance process and run with it.”

JRL Design recently invested about $15,000 into infrared imaging cameras and indoor air quality testing equipment. “That gives us the ability to analyze insulating and air sealing needs,” Lebair explains. “Not only can we test for temperature and humidity, but we can test to see if there are any issues with formaldehyde or VOCs.”

Lebair says educating clients is key right now. “A lot of the time when I use the term ‘high-performance,’ clients are not familiar with it,” he says. “It requires me to explain how, through using high-performance remodeling techniques, I can improve their energy efficiency, savings, comfort, safety and indoor air quality. There is definitely an educational curve we need to work with. Once they see the importance, I’ve had tremendous success offering high-performance service packages, whether it’s just remodeling one room or analyzing their whole-house needs and making recommendations room to room.”

After conducting a whole-house analysis, Lebair puts together what he calls a road map. For one customer outside of Philadelphia, Lebair did drawings for a bathroom and kitchen; a proposal for two other bathrooms, insulation, air sealing, windows and door replacements; and priced it all. The customer also did an energy audit through a BPI specialist and has adopted a five-year program where he will address his remodeling needs, energy efficiency and IAQ. “He can now choose what’s most important and beneficial, know what the associated costs are and move forward,” Lebair says.

Several of Lebair’s clients have taken advantage of a Pennsylvania program called Keystone Home Energy Loan Program. Lebair says the program requires a contractor to become certified within their program. Then if a customer performs an energy audit, they have the opportunity to qualify for a fixed-rate $15,000 loan with three-, five- and 10-year terms. “It’s remarkable,” says Lebair. “It’s essentially free money. They can take most of that and put it directly toward prequalified energy improvement, such as air sealing, insulation, Energy Star appliances, heating, air conditioning and water heaters.”

Customers also can use a portion of the money for costs such as carpentry work that may be required to access an area that needs new insulation and air sealing. “One of the primary requirements is that you properly air seal, particularly in the attic area, to prevent the chimney effect throughout the house,” Lebair says. “With the savings you’ll gain, as well as the IAQ improvement and comfort, the money comes back to you tenfold.” QR

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