Eichler Whole-House Insulation

For your roof, glass, and walls, the key to lasting satisfaction is to boost the R-value

insulationFor most of us, fall is the time we fire up the radiant heat for the first time in a long time, and begin the cycle of watching our precious heat, and the utility bills that follow, climb through the roof—and through the walls of glass, and the interior paneling—that separate us from the chill of the world outside.

Three and four decades ago, when life was simple and the phrase "energy conservation" was more an oxymoron than a exercise in moderation, regulating the temperature inside an Eichler home was a carefree routine. Select the comfort settings on the thermostat, and then relax and enjoy the perpetual glow from the radiant heat slab any time. When life got too toasty, one simply slid open the patio doors and let a cool breeze push away the excess heat.

The 1950s and '60s were periods when low-cost fuel stoked modern industrialization, and the appetites of American consumers swelled to new heights. Between 1952 and 1972, a span of years that bracketed the emergence of almost all of the Eichlers, total energy usage in the U.S. doubled, and electrical energy consumption even tripled.

"When the Eichlers were originally built, the energy requirements just didn't matter, because the homes were so affordable—10 to 20 thousand dollars," claims Ron Key, owner of Key Construction of Mountain View. "In addition, the fuel to heat the houses was so cheap, it was easy to just turn up the heat full blast. Energy efficiency obviously wasn't an issue back then."

By contemporary standards, in today's economy, the typical original Eichler home is a poor example of an energy-efficient dwelling, according to Key. "It's not so much by design that it's energy inefficient," he offered, "but by the construction techniques that were used." In particular, he cited the one-half-inch of fibrous-type insulation in the roof and the single-pane glass in the windows. In addition, he pointed out how Eichler opted for aesthetics instead of insulation value with the interior walls, choosing the one-eighth-inch Philippine mahogany paneling.

Most radiant heat experts, including Franz Rogmans of Franz Rogmans Hydronic Heating, recommend having the Eichler's radiant heat pump oiled each fall (unless it's water lubricated) and the system inspected every two years. Consider installing a programmable thermostat to gain better control of the heat (check first to see if your current thermostat is 24volt or 120volt). For the ultimate in improved radiant system performance, replace the original boiler with a new high-efficiency model (see the Fall 2001 article on heating costs). Read more about radiant maintenance.

Whenever you add insulation to your home, you are also adding "R value," which is the numerical measure of a material's ability to resist heat flow. For new construction, the minimum requirements are R-19 for roofs, R-13 for walls, and R-1.3 for glass. The original Eichlers typically were R-1 to 3 for roofing and walls and .85 for the single-pane glass. Comfort and energy savings, however, can be achieved without matching new construction figures.

Since heat rises and the roof is its first avenue of escape, most experts point to the roof as an insulation priority. When it's time for a re-roof, modern insulated roofs can make a world of difference. See "In Search of the Perfect Eichler Roof". "The thing that stops heat from being released into the atmosphere is a dead space," Key pointed out. "In the original Eichlers, there were no dead spaces between the roof or the glass and the atmosphere. The heat that heats your home transfers directly to the outdoors. Whereas in a wall, you at least have an air gap, an envelope there, even if you don't have much insulation. So, the most critical places to begin insulating are the roof and glass."

In addition to the roof, glass, and wall recommendations posed here, there are two other things to consider in the insulation mix. Carpeting may seem practical, but it actually works against radiant heat efficiency, insulating the home from a warm floor slab in winter. Consider a classic alternative such as cork flooring. Also, configuring your home's landscape with a row of two or more evergreen trees (ones that maintain their leaves) standing on the northwest side of your Eichler can serve as an effective windbreak, preventing cold drafts from lowering the temperature inside. Consider the Leyland cypress, strawberry, and the flowering gum as ideal wind-breaking trees for Northern California's climate.

"All these things play a role," said Key, "and the benefits are lower energy costs and a more enjoyable winter."