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Q&A with High Performance Architect Steve Baczek

7 Min Read April 25, 2018

Q: Thanks for talking with us, Steve. To start, can you tell us a bit about your building history?

A: I’ve been an architect for over 22 years, focusing on wholesome, appropriate and responsible residential design. I’ve designed or participated in over 600 projects, created 54 LEED certified homes, 25 Passive and Net Zero Homes, and did the first Certified Passive House Retrofit in the country a number of years ago. My goal is always to work closely with the client to knit their vision with their budget, and the home’s performance level, which usually exceeds their initial expectations.

Q: You mentioned Passive Houses. Can you explain what it means to meet Passive House certification?

A: Passive Houses are held to a rigorous and stringent measure of ultra-low energy efficiency. They only use about 10 percent of the energy of a typical residential home of comparable size. Because these homes use elements of enhanced insulation packages including exterior continuous insulation, very energy-efficient windows, heat recovery / ventilation and an airtight building envelope, they provide unparalleled levels of comfort, energy efficiency and durability. Many clients are concerned about indoor air quality and its impact on personal health. The Passive House practices I’ve mentioned lead to significant improvements in indoor air quality when compared to conventional construction.

Q: There are many different labels for energy efficient homes today. How do you define a high-performance home?

A: Whether it’s code-built, Energy Star, deep energy, Tier 3 (a utility program in the northeast), LEED Platinum or Passive House, there are many standards and labels for a high-performance home. But to me, those labels are just an added bonus and marketing plea. To me, the real measure of a high-performance build is always asking and scrutinizing over, “What’s next?” and making strategic building decisions. Instead of working to meet a list of criteria to meet a label, I’m constantly making choices in every aspect of the build that lead to the home’s highest levels of durability, comfort, and energy efficiency, and of course corralling those concepts within the defined budget.

Q: When it comes to designing an energy-efficient home, there are numerous methods. How do you approach the process?

A: It’s a conscious, continuous effort throughout the build with the homeowner always in mind. Instead of trying to solve for energy-efficiency, I solve for comfort, durability and health. By creating a home that elevates these three concepts, you should reduce the energy loss by default. Building with high quality materials, your home will last longer, which not only reduces the need to rebuild in the near future, but also lowers the level of maintenance required for the home. Properly managing moisture and air flow, you’ll keep the home durable and healthy. My mantra is “if you build with comfort, durability and health in mind, energy efficiency comes along for the ride.”

On numerous occasions I have tested full scale houses for airtightness and water management. The tests have always proven very favorable when [ZIP System sheathing and tape] is installed properly.

Q: When designing a home built for comfort, durability and health, is there any particular aspect you focus on, such as insulation or windows?

A: That’s a common mistake to target any one aspect of performance. There are four main components of high-performance homes: windows and doors, mechanicals, insulation, and airtightness. I take each of these and assume they are weighted equally, at 25 percent. When you’re solving for energy efficiency, you need to keep your efforts continuous and proportional. I wouldn’t put all my focus on energy efficient windows, because then the other components would be deficient. However, you should address the four barriers for water, air, vapor and thermal in that order. If I don’t solve for water first, the building will rot away. One of my favorite lines is, “if it doesn’t last, it doesn’t matter”. For that reason, durability must not just weigh in on all performance decisions but be a top consideration.

Q: You mentioned earlier that process is important in building a high-performance home. What role do materials play?

A: Materials are a critical part of a high-performance build. When you’re trying to achieve maximum comfort, durability and health, it’s absolutely critical that you use well-engineered, proven products that perform as expected when installed properly. Some of the time, these come with a higher initial cost, but the quality of life homeowners will experience — not to mention the energy savings they’ll realize — make it a great value. I explain to my clients that many of the decisions they make and perceive as costs, are really investments favoring lower maintenance, and longer lasting durability. Having the discussion about “value” is a very important one with the client given their home is probably the largest investment they will make in their lives.

Q: You were one of the earlier adopters of ZIP System sheathing and tape products. Can you share insight on why you use this type of integrated sheathing for enclosures?

A: I like materials that perform the way I expect them to. As for ZIP System® sheathing and the associated taped joints, I was very skeptical at first. So skeptical, I still have a couple pieces of ZIP System sheathing taped together and laying on my wood pile -having just completed the ninth winter at full exposure. The tape joint is as good as the day installed. Also, on numerous occasions I have tested full scale houses for airtightness and water management. The tests have always proven very favorable when the system is installed properly. Lastly, because of certification purposes, many of my designs are third party tested, and the results are usually extremely favorable.

Q: The building industry has undergone many changes in the past few decades. What are some current challenges in building?

A: The changes can be summed up in two words: expectation and education. Customers today have very high expectations when it comes to the quality of their home, including how efficient it is. They do not accept failure very well. That means builders need to be educated. “Old school” building doesn’t really exist anymore; codes are complicated and building science is driving trends and more recently the code itself. By staying up-to-date on the latest science and incorporating the best building practices, architects and builders can create efficient, high-performance homes that will exceed client expectations, and last a very long time.

Q: Many builders feel hesitant about building energy efficient houses. What advice do you have for them?

A: There are two things I would tell them. First, instead of looking at the criteria for a certain energy efficiency measure, start by addressing proper water management and air leakage. By solving problems of comfort, durability and health, you’ll naturally achieve energy efficiency. Second, you can do many small things that add up to overall energy efficiency. There’s lots of low-hanging fruit. Begin with that, and as you climb up the tree, you’ll see more opportunities. They may cost more or require more time, so it’s important to understand the curve of opportunity. The reality is, we are NEVER going back to the way we used to build, innovation is here to stay, and is only going to press forward and continue to raise the bar. It’s time to board the train, or take the chance of being left behind at the station.

Q: Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

A: One of my builder friends coined the phrase, “Work slower to be faster.” As you start to build high-performance homes, make sure your crew and all of your subs understand how to properly use the products you’ve specified, and be sure to allow yourself quality checkpoints along the way. Take the time to understand why and how a process works, and make an effort to communicate and coordinate with everyone involved. That’s imperative to success. It should be a team effort out there. Everyone wants to be successful at what they do – as a team we can help ensure that. Individuality is not a model for success. There’s a lot of great people doing great things, be passionate about what you do, and become one of those people – but most importantly, enjoy the ride.