The R-2000 insulation standard for home building was born in 1982, as a reaction to the oil crisis in the 1970s. It was state of the art then, but there's a new state of the art - innovative methods of construction that provide exceptional R values but don't have the drawbacks associated with the old standard.
Before R-2000, homes were leaky and most had no insulation in the exterior walls or attic. And until the oil crisis, energy costs were so low, no one cared if the oil or electricity bill was five bucks or 10.
When the oil crisis hit and heating costs went through the roof, everyone panicked and looked for ways to save money -- and tightening homes and adding insulation was it.
So a lot of government money was spent on making homes super-tight and hyper-insulated. I remember stories of test homes built so tight, the windows would break if someone slammed the front door. The windows were tiny, and you could literally suffocate in the houses if there was no heat exchanger.
They managed to prove that making a house tight and piling on the insulation made the house cheaper to heat, and the result was R-2000.
What they didn't realize then was that tight houses were also prone to rot. If homes don't let in some air, they also don't let moisture out, and that moisture gets inside the walls and eats away at the structure. Your nice, tight home becomes a cesspool of mould, mildew and rot.
Houses have to breathe. You've probably heard me say this hundreds of times: Human activity creates a tremendous amount of moisture. Showers, cooking, running the washer and dryer - they all pour moisture into the indoor atmosphere and create a bath of moist air for bacteria to feed on. R-2000 homes - because they rely on tightness to limit loss of heated air - are much more prone to rot and mildew with age than other kinds of houses.
Fans of the R-2000 standard will claim that it is "policed" so well - from the initial permit application through to installation - that there is no chance of rot or mould developing. Don't believe it. In reality, houses move over time, especially if they are made of wood. They change shape by settling. It's against the nature of a wood frame house to be super-tight. That's just the way it is. I don't know how you can guarantee an R-2000 house will have no mould problems. The workmanship of an R-2000 home might be better but that's no guarantee you won't have moisture problems. If you wrap a house that tight, you trap moisture. Period.
And R-2000 makes the cost of an efficient house much higher that it has to be, so a lot of builders don't like it. During the first 25 years of R-2000's use, fewer than 100,000 houses of the three million built were R-2000 rated.
New innovations provide much better insulation value, breathe better and are less expensive, but can't be given an R-2000 designation because they involve different building methods.
Straw bale, for instance, is a fantastic material to use. I was involved in a straw-bale build two years ago that has exceptional R value, with no moisture problems, but it does not follow the R-2000 prescription.
And I'm more excited about what is called insulated concrete form (ICF) construction than any other building method out there. These forms, made of foam insulation, are put in poured concrete walls, and stay in place as a permanent part of the wall. They provide excellent insulation and sound barriers, and they don't develop mould.
But, because of R-2000's high profile, other building standards don't get as much attention, and the public isn't aware of them. It's time to look beyond the R-2000 home and focus on the truly innovative, low-cost, high-quality house that can be built today that will breathe properly and last forever.
There are other programs - such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - that are equal to or better for energy efficiency than R-2000. They allow for more flexibility in building, and cover a broader range of concerns.
LEED rates a building not only on its energy efficiency, but also on how much renewable material is used in its construction, how the home's water supply is managed, whether the lumber being used is harvested correctly, and the waste from the construction is being disposed of properly. It gets you energy efficiency and delivers on a lot of other fronts as well.
And something that most homeowners don't know is that the Ontario Building Code, and codes in other jurisdictions, have been rewritten to include an objective-based standard to go along with the old, prescriptive-based code. A good contractor will be able to introduce you to opportunities for innovative building that go beyond the traditional methods on which R-2000 is based.
You have to do your homework and be careful. You should check with your building inspector to find out what they know about the building method or standard you are considering. Good builders are naturally cautious, and maybe even a little suspicious, when it comes to new ideas, and you should be too.
As with anything new and different, there are a lot of people out there touting garbage products, trying to take advantage of your enthusiasm for energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.