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Is Energy Efficiency More Important Than Indoor Air Quality?

Residential Architect Survey Hometrends Chart 5 2013652

I was searching the Interwebs for data on what percentage of buildings are designed by architects this week when I came across the Home Design Trends Survey from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). (If you can point me toward some good sources for my original question, please do.) The survey included several types of questions and charts, but the one that really caught my eye was (nominally) about the popularity of products. The chart below shows the results. (Click to see all the charts in larger sizes.)

At first I was excited to see energy efficiency right up there near the top, not far from the leader, low maintenance. (Yeah, I don’t know how they came to call either of those two items products either, so I guess we’ll just have to let that go.) But then I noticed something that seemed out of whack.

At the bottom of this chart was ‘improv. indoor air,’ which I took as improved indoor air quality. So 63% of the respondents want greater energy efficiency, but only 35% want improved indoor air quality? That means 28% of the people who responded positively to energy efficiency didn’t care at all about indoor air quality.

Even more interesting, 53% want synthetic materials. What does that even mean, exactly? Vinyl siding? Corian countertops? Spun bonded polyolefin? Polyisocyanurate sheathing?

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

For those of us who understand a little building science, the discrepancy between the popularity of energy efficiency and indoor air quality represents a communication problem. Efficiency gets all the good press, and indoor air quality usually gets mentioned in the context of things that have gone wrong: mold, carbon monoxide, VOCs…

It’s time for indoor air quality—and the broader field of which it’s a part, indoor environmental quality—to be recognized as being at least as important as energy efficiency. Especially in heating and cooling a building, the two go together.

When you air-seal a home, you need to make sure the combustion appliances won’t backdraft and put carbon monoxide into the indoor air. If the home gets airtight enough, you need to add mechanical ventilation. Using vapor barriers inappropriately can trap moisture and cause mold to grow.

Yeah, you can improve your energy efficiency without affecting indoor air quality by changing light bulbs or switching out an energy hog cable TV box with a better one or replacing an old fridge. But the biggest potential gains are in the building enclosure and heating and air conditioning systems.

When you go for energy efficiency, improving indoor air quality must be on your list.


Allison A. Bailes III, PhD is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the founder of Energy Vanguard in Decatur, Georgia. He has a doctorate in physics and writes the Energy Vanguard Blog. He also has a book on building science coming out in the summer of 2022. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


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This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. I don’t think the people who
    I don’t think the people who took the survey knew exactly what IAQ is. Replacing the $1 rock catcher with a $5 pleated filter could be considered an IAQ improvement. More than 35% of the filters being sold at the big box stores are pleated instead of rock catchers, telling me more people are concerned about IAQ than the survey suggests. I’m running 20x20x4 Merv 7 filters in my own home, and media filters are becoming more popular with new installs. 
    Mechanical ventilation numbers are REALLY low for our area, I’ve NEVER seen one installed in any house I’ve gone to !!

  2. Did you have an opportunity
    Did you have an opportunity to see the actual poll questions or anything about the methods used to collect the data? If the questions came across as “you can improve energy efficiency or you can improve IAQ but not both”, that might be part of the problem. How a poll is presented, and how the questions are phrased, have an important impact on the results.

  3. Years ago I sold water
    Years ago I sold water filters. I spoke with people who agreed that there were quality problems with our drinking water. Then they said, “Our water here is pretty good though.”  
    It’s the same with air. I say, “You’ve heard the EPA say that the indoor air is worse than the outdoor air, right?” They nod. “You know it’s our houses they’re talking about.” I add. They stare at me blankly. 
    The irony is that this is the case when we’re talking about their existing home. With our new (custom) home projects I find filtered ventilation (finally) an easy sell. 
    BTW – Lack of addressing water quality is the elephant in the room when it comes to green building/healthy building/building performance programs IMO. We recommend whole-house filtration (showering in tap water is worse than drinking it) and RO for drinking water for all of our projects.

  4. I agree with Lee – very
    I agree with Lee – very difficult to get an overall understanding of the report using the chart alone. 
    Also, math aside, how do you make the leap to, “… didn’t care at all about indoor air quality.” That’s a bit of a stretch. 
    Overall, great article. Thank you.

  5. Allison: 

    I am an Architect, so I will try to help a little with your question. 
    As to what percentage of buildings are designed by Architects, pretty much all of them on the commercial side – by law. There are some exceptions and variations by local permitting authorities – including areas that have no permitting authorities – but pretty much all of the commercial construction has an Architect involved. That may be why you are not finding statistics on that question. 
    Residential construction is just the opposite. Architects are rarely involved with houses until they get big enough & custom enough that the Owner is willing & able to pay an Architect to get what they want – which is not a plan from a plan book with some minor modifications. Architects generally like to do houses & consider them an “existential” project type, but the vast majority of them being built do not have an Architect involved. 
    So AIA has stats on what clients in the residential sector care about b/c that is a sector of work for Architects & we need to know what the client cares about. 
    AIA is the best source that I know of for statistics / info on Architects.

  6. Bob: True.
    Bob: True. I also think people don’t have any idea how bad the air in their homes might be.  
    Lee: Unfortunately, no, I couldn’t find any details about the actual survey questions or who they surveyed. You’re right that those details can have a big impact, but I think the discrepancy may be real anyway. Energy efficiency seems to get a lot more coverage than IAQ. 
    Skye D.: Good points. I haven’t looked at it in a while, but does WaterSense look at water quality at all? 
    Peter: Yes, it probably is a stretch, and I’ll look at how I might revise it. What I meant was that those 28% didn’t check the IAQ box on the survey. 

  7. Gary N.:
    Gary N.: Thanks for the info. Do you know anything about the details of this survey I pulled the graph from? It’s called the Home Design Trends Survey, but I can’t find the actual questions anywhere on the AIA website. 

  8. Flaws mentioned
    Flaws mentioned notwithstanding, I think a root cause of the apparent disparity is that while people most certainly DO receive periodic energy bills, they do NOT receive periodic “IAQ” bills. 
    Folks, to a varying degree, “get” the relationship between home energy efficiency and utility costs. 
    If homoaners periodically got a statement in the mail along the lines of “your IAQ was really bad all last month, you owe $298 within 20 days”, they might take more active interest in IAQ.

  9. Curt K.:
    Curt K.: Good one. Yeah, I think that would get their attention. 
    Skye D.: Thanks. That’s what I thought. 

  10. ALLISON: Sorry, but I don’t
    ALLISON: Sorry, but I don’t know how to help you on finding the questions. I would try to find the person responsible & see if I could make contact by phone or email. AIA is not that big. You should be able to call them. I hope that they would be helpful, but don’t really know how they will react.

  11. Allison – looks like a report
    Allison – looks like a report from architects on what their clients wanted from them, not necessarily what the customer needed nor if there was a problem to remedy. That is where home performance analysis comes in; the customer doesn’t know what they don’t know (let alone how big the issue may be).

  12. After playing with AirAdvice
    After playing with AirAdvice for a while I decided to simply ALWAYS recommend mechanical ventilation. (Unless you measure – continuously measure – how do you know if there is an issue or not? Sorry, you don’t!) 
    I think people who base recommendations on proxies or esoteric averages, never checking results to projections, are charlatans pretending to be experts. I don’t assume my drives land in the hole, and I want to see if they at least land on the green.  
    In my experience Leakage was no proxy for air quality. I have AirAdvice indicating terrible IAQ for some leaky houses, and some surprisingly good IAQ for tight houses.  
    Possibly more importantly, by always recommending it prompts IAQ discussion, which is the entry point to education. Also, when you bring things to people attention it is often like planting a seed. If it germinates, great! If not, well at least you can say you planted it.  
    And yes that’s a CYA should it be found years later that IAQ may have been the cause of some health problem.

  13. I enjoyed reading this and
    I enjoyed reading this and have a different perspective that validates the graph to some point. I recently crowd funded a device that can be marketed either as an energy efficiency or air quality device. As the funding went on I carefully modified my marketing message between the 2 and watched how it affected backers and views of the campaign. In the end, I completely eliminated the improvement in air quality message as it did not resonate with the audience that viewed the campaign. 
    So the graph makes sense as homes are designed toward what customers want and as Curt above mentioned, customers want what they understand. 

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