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ASHRAE: An Enabler in the Residential Sector
Copyright (C) 2014, Robert Bean, R.E.T., P.L.(Eng.) and content providers, All world rights reserved.

ASHRAEs’ role in the residential sector could further enable initiatives taken by other residential stake holder groups in improving the quality of residential HVAC designs, installations and inspections.

(Note: The opinions below are held by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASHRAE.  Only the president of ASHRAE may speak on behalf of ASHRAE.)

Background: founded in 1894, ASHRAE is a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment. The Society with its 53,000 members focus on building systems, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, refrigeration and sustainability within the industry.  Its mission is to advance the arts and sciences of heating, ventilating, air conditioning and refrigerating to serve humanity and promote a sustainable world.

Introduction (adapted):
In September 2013, ASHRAE past President William P. Bahnfleth created the Residential Construction Ad Hoc Committee to investigate the role that ASHRAE has played, could play, and should play with respect to the residential HVAC and construction market.  

The committee found that ASHRAE has extensive and perhaps unmatched technical abilities in the residential area, but it is far from the dominant player in the sector. ASHRAE involvement requires not only focusing the efforts of its own volunteers but collaborating with existing stakeholders. The ad hoc determined that ASHRAE can take a larger leadership role in the residential sector, a role that both benefits the sector and enhances ASHRAE’s mission. Details can be found in the body of the report.

Can ASHRAE become the great enabler?

How the society might empower other residential stake holders and their initiatives has yet to be fleshed out in detail but within its core values, "ASHRAE seeks and embraces collaborative efforts with organizations, agencies, and individuals sharing our commitment to sustainable built environments." In support of this value, “ASHRAE is committed to the highest ethical standards. We work transparently, observing essential requirements for due process and peer reviews to assure our members and stakeholders that we do the right things the right way.” I'll go out on a limb here and say few would disagree, peer reviews and ethical standards are not found throughout the world of housing in the same density found within the engineering and other professional communities.

Certainly at the core of engineering professionalism held by ASHRAE members is the risk of losing one’s ability to practice if found guilty of unprofessionalism by one’s peers. Triggering a practice review is typically an avenue not afforded consumers in resolving conflict within the residential sector. However with this level of societal expectation comes universal support of mandatory competencies within the academics and practice of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) which stands at the core of engineering and construction. Though the residential sector has representation within the foregoing scope it historically is populated with members with a focus on the manufacturing and assembly of building materials regulated by minimum requirements of building codes. As such the residential market has by necessity a trade based focus on the “how” whereas ASHRAE historically has had a very strong science based focus on the “why”.

Regrettably the “how” has been established by society (read Governments) as the lowest allowable grade before an inspector is obligated to declare failure in a product and/or system.  Obviously the focus on “why” drives a different level of understanding and within this dialogue, the establishment of ASHRAE Standards based on, “…education, technical information and all other activities and products (reflecting) the best practices that lead our industry.”  Best practice defined by Standards and Guidelines are not universally a prerequisite in building codes nor is it mandatory to expect its appearance during the design, installation and inspections of indoor climate systems in homes. Given the contrasting tension between the two spectrums one could choose to see only the difficulties in a relationship involving ASHRAE core values operating in a minimum based system or one could see how this could be used to further enable initiatives by collaborating organizations driven to bring awareness and changes to the residential sector.

What does this mean for consumers?

As ASHRAE figures out a path forward in engaging the residential sector, discerning educated consumers must play an active role prior to engaging in final contract negotiations with housing service providers (architects, builders, suppliers, trades etc.) by opening up early design stage dialogue around ASHRAE residential Standards related to thermal comfort (Standard 55), indoor air quality (Standard 62.2) and energy efficiency (Standard 90.2) and their interactions (Guideline 10). The implication here is there is no current broad sweeping enforcement of all four docuements since they (unless enforced by the authority having jurisdiction) exceed the minimum requirements of most residential codes. Translation: consumers who don’t want their homes constructed to minimum requirements must engage a higher level of professionalism for design counselling and project services, i.e. with those operating under the umbrella of “why” and in this authors opinion, independently of those operating under the umbrella of “how”.  Why? Because the majority of those responsible for residential construction practices are not familiar with nor are they required to know why they should apply, measure and commission systems to meet ASHRAE residential Standards.

Without a doubt consumers must be cautioned here since engaging in these discussion will bring resistance by some providers who will state (for example) that their homes are comfortable by the nature of their respective program yet the majority of program providers cannot describe (for example) the prerequisites for thermal comfort nor the means of measuring it as defined by (for example) ASHRAE Standard 55.

Would working with ASHRAE Standards mean higher cost to consumers?

Only in comparison to minimum requirements will homes built using ASHRAE Standards using ASHRAE professionals translate to marginally higher costs. The operative phrase of importance is, “in comparison to minimum requirements” since thermal comfort, ventilation and energy efficiency Standards require a stricter adhesion to scientific principles in support of health, comfort and sustainability. This is another way of stating that if building codes enforced the Standards costs would be associated with better residential construction practices. Alternatively it can be restated that consumers who are not willing to be active participants will have someone else define for them the quality of the indoor environment and the quantity of energy used and this will be done by the builder, trades and suppliers so as to be competitive in field defined by the lowest of bench marks.

Last thoughts…

Just because someone can design, install and commission an MRI machine doesn't make them a doctor. Likewise just because someone can design, install and commission an HVAC system does not make them an indoor climate consultant. Having ASHRAE and its members actively participate in the housing industry by working with ASHRAE residential Standards based on the "why" can only help those consumers actively seeking to obtain higher quality residential designs, installations and inspections of indoor climate systems. There can be no doubt, the operative word is "actively" since at the moment ASHRAE can’t help those who play a passive role simply because the status quo process of building homes to a minimum requirement is embedded too deep within the housing culture. Know that shifting a culture of Code based buildings to adopt all residential ASHRAE Standards will not come easily if at all, but consumers ought to know there is at least options available and options in the form of consumer dollars can have a way of shifting attitudes.

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Related reading:
Built to code: What does it mean for consumer thermal comfort?
Do I need an engineer? A Guide to HVAC/Indoor Climate Design Service Providers
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Where will your indoor climate system score?
HVAC does not equal IEQ
How to "ball park" your budget for indoor climate control.
Indoor environments: Self assessment
The Total Comfort System - The "Un-minimum" System
Thermal Comfort: A 40 grit perspective for consumers
Thermal Comfort: A Condition of Mind

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