Sustainability is for the Rich

August 19th, 2020

Dear Readers,

Admittedly, this blog is for William and I’s own justification of our impending financial commitment in this home, as well as it is for all funders who look at us and say we are nuts. We are. And we hope that this breakdown of some essential building materials and their worth (financially and environmentally) will convince your financial institutions to join us in the insanity and fund our venture in sustainable living.

Trees, clean air, home security…sustainability, only for the rich.

The home or building you may or may not be currently sitting in as you read this blog, was hopefully built to, and still meets, ‘code.’ When an architect says ‘building to code,’ they are referring to the minimum required building standards set by the International Building Council (IBC). The intentions of codes are to create safety, health, and energy efficiency standards for homes and buildings. The IBC creates a variety of codes that cover all aspects of construction regarding commercial and residential buildings which can be adopted by local governments. For the purpose of this article, we will be talking about the IBC’s International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) which sets minimum R-values and other measures according to a home or building’s climate zone.

William and I don’t want to build our home to just meet code. We want to thoroughly exceed it. We want to build to Passive House (PHIUS) standards, meet air quality set by RESET, be net positive, and maybe even meet Living Building Challenge standards. We want this home to be bonkers efficient and holistically healthy~ for our family, our builders, and our environment. 

While we sit on our pedestal and ask for a bonkers amount of money for our bonkers efficient home, we might as well provide some sass. In a particularly snarky way to put it, ‘building to code’ is synonymous with ‘the quickest/cheapest way to build a home or building that is legally condoned.’ If it just meets code, then the home has the minimum amount of insulation required, the minimum R value for its windows…while minimum still makes code, it could always be better. And, in the US, not all states are meeting the same code. Maine, for example, still adheres to IECC from 2009. That’s eleven years ago. Pennsylvania adheres to IECC 2015, and Maryland follows IECC 2018. The more recent the code, the ‘tougher’ the standards. 

It must be mentioned that some local governments are setting their own building emission laws in addition to IECC. This has a great impact on the energy efficiency and quality of built homes and buildings. Local Law 97 set by New York City is one incredible example…the local law aims to reduce New York City’s overall carbon emissions by 80% by 2050…and buildings encompass about 70% of those total emissions.1 This heralds the requirement for indoor spaces over 25,000 sq/ft to be less leaky, have an increase in insulation, a lack of thermal bridging, and the installation of advanced ventilation systems. Passive building design is certainly professed to help achieve the ambitious reduction of building emissions! 

Despite honorable advancements, recent IECC still does not meet the standards set by the Passive House Institute of the United States (PHIUS) or the Passive House Institute (PHI). Nor does IECC encompass the holistic sustainable health of the home. Hence, why we want to build our home to PHIUS, and perhaps even to Living Building Challenge standards~ thereby exceeding code. This can lead to a healthier, more energy efficient, environmentally conscious, superior quality…and expensive…home. 

So, let’s do this.

There are many different elements that go into building a low carbon, small footprint, Passive House: insulation, air barriers, a quality ventilation system, strategically placed windows…all of which can be evaluated upon their ‘cradle to cradle’ effects on the inhabitants and overall environment. To keep things relatively simple in an already lengthy blog, we are solely going to compare a few window and insulation costs required to build a house in Pennsylvania (climate zone 5, A moist)2  to IECC 2015, to a few window and insulation costs of a home which hopefully will meet PHIUS standards. Do keep in mind that our home is not in the final stages of design, and we are intentionally overdoing it with (particularly…) the insulation at the moment. If our home looks like it will surpass PHIUS standards, and we could afford to cut down on the amount of insulation, then we certainly will.

What We Want…Versus….

Code Compliant Options We Found on a Hardware Store’s Online Site


The window manufacturer we are looking to work with produces European style, PHIUS certified windows with FSC certified wood. 

  • To give an idea of window price, a 4’ X 4’ tilt and turn, three pane R-8 window with FSC pine cladding costs ~ $1,120.51


The window required U-value by IECC 2015 is .32, which makes the minimum R-value 3.1 (R-value is the reciprocal of the U-value).

  • a 47.5” x 47.5” lift and slide dual pane window with a U-value of .29 (R=1/.29= R-3.45) costs ~ $227.10. While this window is not a tilt and turn, it does surpass the requirements by the IECC 2015 for climate zone five. Other tilt and turn windows we did find did not meet IECC 2015.3 


The solar tubes we are looking into are crystal glass domes made in Prague.The individual solar tube kits are not certified, but are recommended to be used in a Passive House if used in conjunction with an insulation break.

  • One solar tube is $561.25 a kit and one dual-pane insulation break is $220.50 a unit. Total: $781.75
  • The dual-pane insulation break has an R-value of 9.5


Solar tube R-values are not provided in IECC 2015. Because solar tube R-values are not included in code, I have noticed that not many solar tube manufacturers bother mentioning the R-value of their solar tubes. So, the basic price difference between a solar tube for a passive house and a solar tube not intended on being placed in a passive house, is the additional insulation which costs $220.50 a unit. Otherwise, just spend the $561.25 for solely the solar tube kit with a currently unknown R or U value. 


We are looking to work with a European manufacturer specializing in Passive House (PHI) certified skylights. Or, as they like to call them, “roof windows!” 

  • A unit 22” x 39” in size costs $1,572 and has an R-value of 9.8.


The skylight required U-value by IECC 2015 is .55, or, a 1.8 R-value.4 

  • A skylight passing code at R-2.38, 21” x 38” costs $663.41


We would like to use wood fiber insulation for our walls, floor, and roof due to…

  1. …its carbon sequestration abilities (wood fiber is made from sawmill wood scraps, which continue to hold onto all of the carbon the tree sucked in during its lifetime)…
  2. …its vapor permeability (allows the wall to dry)…
  3. … its friendliness to human health (it is a natural product and you do not need to wear gloves when handling it). 

As of now we are looking at a German based manufacturer for our wood fiber insulation. However, there is a manufacturer building a facility in Maine…if it is complete by the time we build, then that would be the preferable, local, and lower ‘embodied carbon’ option! 

All of our insulation, since we are using a ‘mass wall’ structure (CLT), will be continuous. This is for our wall, roof, and floor. Think of making a house out of lego bricks, and then putting multiple layers of fuzzy gauze overtop to keep it warm. 

Walls– a singular board of the wood fiber insulation we intend to use for the walls is 8” (thick) x 42.5” (long) x 23” (wide) and has an R-value of 29.1. Each board of this specific type of insulation costs $70. We want two layers of continuous wood fiber insulation for a total R-value of [about] 60, costing $140

Floor-the same type of board of wood fiber insulation we intend to use in our walls, we also intend to use in our floor (each board having an R-value of 29.1). We also intend to use two layers for an R-value of  [about] 60, costing $140

Roof– For the roof, we want to use three layers of insulation. Two layers would be one kind of wood fiber insulation with an R-value of 23.3 per 6.25” (thick) x 42.5” (long) x 23” (wide) board. Each R-23.3 board costs $50. The third layer will be composed of 3” (thick) x 42.5” (long) x 30.75” (wide) panels with an R-10.6 each. Each R-10.6 board costs about $50. That is a total of $150 for our varying wood fiber boards of insulation, giving our roof an R-value of  57.2.


We chose to compare the cost of wood fiber insulation to the cost of rigid foam board insulation. Wood fiber insulation is arguably more environmentally friendly~ being made of scrap wood and all…However, rigid foam board insulation could still get the job done in aiding to provide Passive House certifiable, continuously insulated walls, roofs, and floors.

Important side note: the wood fiber insulation we are currently considering comes standard in approximately 4′ x 2′ boards, which is one quarter the size of the more common 4′ x 8′ size we have here in the US. So not only are the Gutex boards more expensive because they are thicker and a more sustainable material, but we will also need approximately four times as much of it to cover the same surface area than a standard rigid foam board will.

Walls– ‘Mass Walls’ under the IECC 2015 are required to have an R-13 when the insulation is solely on the exterior of the mass wall. For us, our mass wall would be our CLT, and our two layers of insulation would go on the exterior. One board of 2” (thick) x 4’ (wide) x 8’ (long) R-10 rigid foam insulation costs $34.94, and another layer of 1” (thick) x 4’ (wide) x 8’ (long) R-5 rigid foam board insulation costs $19.55. Total cost for these two boards is $54.49 yielding a total R-value of 15, slightly better than code.

Floor– an R-30 for a residential building’s floor is required by IECC 2015. Using three boards of 2” x 4’ x 8’ R-10 Rigid foam insulation costing $34.94 a board would yield an R-30 for the floor. The total cost for three boards would be $104.82.

Roof– IECC 2015 code requires the roof to have an R-value of 49. This R-value minimum is specifically for ceilings with indoor insulation. The 2015 residential IECC does not include specifications for exterior insulation on mass roofing~ which ours will be. We intend for our roof to be solid panels of CLT, upon which the wood fiber insulation will cover. In order to meet IECC, five 2” x 4’ x 8’ R-10 rigid foam boards of insulation costing $34.94 each are needed. The total cost would be $174.70 for five foam boards.

Fighting climate change is a group project. Homeowners, architects, engineers, financial lenders, insurance agencies, non-profits, health advocates…it takes everyone to bring about a healthier environment. Just as it is the homeowner’s responsibility to seek out a home with low embodied and operational carbon,5 it is the financial institution’s responsibility to support environmentally conscious endeavors. Am I saying that as a financial institution, if you are reading this, you should fund us? Ha, Yes. Am I also admitting a perceived sad reality that true sustainability can only be achieved by those who can afford it? Heck yes. 

William and I are fortunate to even have the opportunity to dream about such a sustainable home. We have an education which has instilled a sense of critical thought and confident vocalization of our opinions, we have the resources to look up environmentally conscious materials and methods, and, most importantly, we have a supportive network that cheers us on in these endeavors. We may not have the physical funds to make our dream happen now, but we do have the financial security, familial love, and hope to dream for such a home in the future.

For individuals and families who find themselves entangled in an entrenching snare of socio-economic constraints…who face regular eviction and homelessness…who are stuck renting ‘living’ spaces that greatly fail code because that is all they can afford6…who feel on the outskirts of society and disconnected and disgusted and disinvested in the failing communities they are a part of…’sustainability’ does not include them. It is a high strung word for the elite. ‘Sustainability’ is a hope for those who have steady incomes, a dependable roof over their head, and a future they feel worth investing in.

That, being said, please do recall some of the costs mentioned for the home William and I want to build. They are rather titanic. And we are privileged. While sustainability is a group project, there are members of our society who we need to help instill a hope in the now, before they can ever have hope in a future. 

With one last “hurrah!” for Passive House: We believe that home security, inhabitants’ overall mental and physical health, and a resulting community (and environmental) embetterment, can be achieved through well ventilated, energy efficient, holistically sustainable, structurally sound, affordable, homes that exceed code. The ‘affordable’ is just the part we as a building community have yet to finesse.

We sincerely thank you for reading. Do take care!


Shelby Aldrich

1Urban Green Council. “NYC Building Emissions Law Summary Local Law 97,” Feb. 2020. Accessed on 7 July 2020. 

2. International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2015. “Energy Conservation Code 2015 of Pennsylvania- Chapter 3 [RE] General Requirements- Section R301 Climate Zones,” UpCodes. Accessed 8 July, 2020.  

3. A 29.75” x 59.75” tilt and turn dual pane window with a u value of .42 (R=1/.42 = R 2.4) costs ~ $296.98.This window does not even meet the required R-value by the IECC for our climate, zone 5.

4. International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 2015. “Energy Conservation Code 2015 of Pennsylvania- Chapter 4 Residential Energy Efficiency- Table R402.1.2 Insulation and Fenestration Criteria,” UpCodes. Accessed 8 July, 2020.  

5. Embodied Carbon: the CO2 emitted during the extraction, transportation, and manipulation/usage of materials in a home or building. Operational Carbon: the CO2 emitted during the home or building’s usage.

6.  Desmond, Matthew. Evicted, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, 2016. Pages 1-3. Side note: This book is an incredible, and heart wrenching, window into poverty and homelessness. I will be writing more about it later. I strongly, strongly, recommend to read it for yourself!


  1. 2x to 3x the cost but then what are the advantages also what is the life time but
    then what if your kid hits it with a hard ball and it smashes…or will it smash?

    • Hey Granann! The biggest advantage to all of these items that Shelby mentions in her blog is simply the insulative properties. The windows, the skylights, the solar tubes, and the excessive amount of insulation will hopefully get us to meet the rigorous Passive House standards, which would reduce heating and cooling costs up to 90% from a code building! The wood fiber insulation in particular also has many more benefits described above. The lifespan of all of these elements vary, but are built to very high standards. That’s surely one thing we’re curious about and look forward to using them and finding out!


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© 2020 Sustaining Tree

© 2020 Sustaining Tree