Alex Cheimets and Cynthia Page live in a duplex that used to consume about 1,400 gallons of heating oil a year. But now their building is one of the most energy-efficient in its Arlington, Mass., neighborhood, thanks to a pilot project that retrofitted the structure with almost $100,000 worth of insulation and other products to increase energy efficiency and lower utility costs.

The so-called Massachusetts Super Insulation Project seeks to determine the benefits and cost-effectiveness of retrofitting old energy-wasting houses with insulation upgrades in key areas. Though the cost for the upgrades in the home were substantial, some of the techniques used—among them proper air-sealing and adequate moisture barriers—are easily applied to new construction at a relatively low cost.

Massachusetts officials are keenly interested in the results of the project, because it dovetails nicely with the state's efforts to become more energy-efficient. "Our governor, the state House and Senate, and the executive branch are aware that the nation's energy strategy is not acceptable, and a big part of it is the existing housing stock," says Philip Giudice, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DER).

"Nationally, buildings account for 40 percent of all energy consumption, and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions," says Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles, who chairs Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's Zero Net Energy Buildings Task Force. "This superinsulation project in Arlington promises to be a model for the type of innovation in the building industry that the Patrick Administration hopes will soon be widespread across Massachusetts."

The public/private effort includes the DER, the local NSTAR electricity and gas utility, and a number of building product sponsors.

While green building continues its growth in the new-construction market, America's existing housing stock remains a problem, as millions of old structures waste large amounts of energy through leaky windows, inefficient heating and cooling units, and poorly insulated walls. The 3,200-square-foot Cheimets/Page building—divided into one condo for Cheimets and his family and one for Page—was one such structure.

At one point when home heating oil in the Massachusetts area hit $4.69 per gallon, Cheimets says the homeowners were paying a combined total of almost $6,500 annually for heating and hot water. "We needed to replace our siding and our roof soon anyway," Cheimets says. "As a duplex we could simply do the minimum or we could invest now to save later. Superinsulation was the better financial investment."

The parties in the pilot project wanted to demonstrate that it's possible to retrofit an existing building to the highest standards of energy performance to help reduce costs. In addition to reducing energy use by 65 percent to 70 percent, the group wanted to explore superinsulation as part of an overall program of energy efficiency and carbon reduction; develop cost-effective retrofit recommendations that can be followed by homeowners during major renovations; develop experience and collect performance results for existing structures; and develop criteria for future state programs supporting residential superinsulation projects.

But before the work commenced, the project team consulted with Somerville, Mass.-based Building Science Corp., which performed energy parametric simulations, analysis, and economic payback comparisons of various energy retrofit options.

The extensive retrofit focused on tightening the building envelope, which included new doors and the replacement of the single-pane windows. The team installed double-pane Pella fiberglass windows with low-E glazing, Tyvek stucco wrap, two layers of 2-inch Dow close-cell foam board, furring strips, and NuCedar cellular PVC siding. They ripped off the old roof and installed two layers of 3-inch foam board on the roof deck, followed by plywood sheathing and light-colored asphalt shingles. Icynene open-cell foam was sprayed in the attic roof and in the basement rim joists and ceiling, and a heat-recovery ventilator and on-demand water heater were added.

Cheimets says the upgrades have made a big difference in the comfort level of the units and in the performance of the building. "I felt the difference immediately," he says. "There are fewer drafts and no cold spots; that's all gone away and we have seen about a 60 percent reduction in energy use."

As part of the pilot project, DER and NSTAR have installed sensors to monitor real-time oil usage, as well as temperature and humidity levels inside and outside the house. "We were using about nine gallons a day before, but now we're using three on average," Cheimets explains.

The reduction in the building's energy use has come at a steep price tag. In all, the work cost a little more than $90,000. Replacing the roof was first estimated to cost $10,000 but increased by $9,000 with superinsulation. Replacing the siding was estimated to cost $30,000 and increased by $41,000 with superinsulation and reflashed windows. An additional $6,000 went toward putting expanding foam in the basement ceiling and $4,000 went toward two heat-recovery ventilators. "If you look at the additional cost of superinsulating, compared with just doing the required work in 'standard' fashion, doing this work is an additional cost of $50,000, or $25,000 per family," program documents say.

While the costs are high, Cheimets says they should be considered in the context of retrofitting an 80-year-old house that had 50 windows and bad insulation to start with. Implementing such technologies in new-construction projects would be cheaper. "If you're building a new house, you would be taking certain things into consideration like facing the roof south, using fewer windows, and decreasing the amount of angles in the roof," he says.

Residential architect John Dennis Murphey, AIA, agrees that using some of these strategies would absolutely be cheaper. "That's what we're doing now on one house," the principal of Chevy Chase, Md.-based Meditch Murphey Architects says. Plus there are ways to save money.

Murphey, for example, has eliminated the conventional sheathing from his houses altogether. Instead, he uses 2x6 studs, spray foam insulation, and metal bracing to make the studs rigid. "The studs are energy highway," he says. He then wraps his houses in 1.5-inch-thick foam boards, which create a thermal break.

Builders and consumers might balk at the added costs, but they should look at it another way, says Murphey. "Energy prices have come down, but who knows where the price of oil will go?" he continues. "My bet is that they will go up. I'll take that bet every time."

The members of the Super Insulation Project would probably agree. It is estimated that the annual savings to the homeowners will be $2,350 to $4,000 per year. "At the current heating oil cost of approximately $2.35 per gallon, it's a 20-year payback," program documents say. "But a few short weeks ago the price was closer to $4 per gallon, and the price of oil is likely to rise again in the coming years, dramatically shortening the payback period."