When It Comes to Air Barrier Testing, Be Proactive
Utilizing expert resources to help navigate building performance testing for air infiltration
There is no doubt that building performance testing can be confusing, even for construction experts. But, as with any seemingly daunting task, ignoring it won’t solve anything—in fact, putting off this important step in the building process will only create more headaches down the road. As an energy performance assessment company, we at GS Services see the challenge contractors, architects and designers face in understanding, assessing and meeting energy flow standards in new construction and renovations.
The most important concept here is thinking about what the collective “we” are going to do as a community to fulfill our obligations toward global stewardship (which is where the “GS” in our company name comes from). While building and codes may be local, our actions and their ramifications stretch globally. By global stewardship, I’m talking about our God-given responsibility to utilize our resources wisely. How do we conscientiously utilize our resources, eliminate waste and focus on efficiencies—all the while working within the maze of stringent building codes and regulations?
Managing Air Flow From the Start
Assessing and managing energy flow from the earliest stages in building construction is a key piece of that puzzle, since correcting course after the fact is costly and time-consuming. As a resource for contractors and owners, we try to help designers and builders understand, right from the start, how energy moves throughout the building. While we work with five energy flows within a building—air, heat, light, sound and water—I’m going to focus on air infiltration here.
Over the past couple of decades, air infiltration testing has become common among single-family buildings, although it still is in its infancy for larger commercial buildings. Here in the city of Fort Collins and in Northern Colorado, which is where we do most of our work, testing is now required for both residential and commercial construction.
Testing and Inspections
The testing basically includes defining the air barrier by component, paying attention to the transitions, and measuring the whole building for leakage. There is an ASTM protocol that we use, ASTM E779, which is written in the code. Although there is no national standard that requires testing, some areas having jurisdiction, such as Fort Collins, are requiring every new building be tested.
There have been some programs, such as LEED, ENERGY STAR and ASHRAE, that have been looking at the air infiltration impact on commercial buildings, and how to test for that. That said, the testing of commercial buildings for air infiltration has been evolving with more codified regulations, and with more jurisdictions starting to pick it up, such as Seattle and Denver. So, our company will do a design review, and pull out areas of interests and have that discussion. We’ll do site inspections to verify that the air barrier is properly sealed, and then we actually do the tests. Depending on the results, we’ll move into diagnostics to try and figure out where the building is leaking and how to seal the building so that it will pass inspection.
Working Together as an Educated Industry
A common problem we see is that many architects don’t really understand the air barrier to draw it in right from the design phase. In fact, most of the trades don’t really understand how what they do necessarily affects that test. And so, if the jurisdictions start requiring that testing be done, what we have is a situation where the buildings aren’t designed to pass. Think of it this way. The contractors don’t really understand what it takes to pass and all of a sudden we throw a requirement at them. So, the process of doing inspections is really what it takes to minimize the impact. That’s where a company like GS Services comes in. If, early on, the architects team up with a tester or somebody who knows how the test is done and what they’re looking for, we can help with the design process, thereby eliminating those areas that are potential problems. The contractor, too, should hire expert firms to do their inspections during the building process so that at the end, when they do the test, there are no surprises.
All this comes down to educating the construction industry. We’re hoping that we can get the word out to ensure everyone is on the same page. We’re not a silo. We don’t stand alone as a measurement verification or testing agency—we want, and need, everyone in the entire construction process to work together toward the ultimate goal of being good stewards of our world.