26 ASHRAE Jour nal ashr ae.

or g Sept ember 2005
By Henri C. Fennell and Jonathan Haehnel
About the Authors
Henri C. Fennell is president and Jonathan
Haehnel is general manager of Building Envelope
Solutions, Inc., in North Thetford, Vt.
Setting
Airtightness
Standards
A
minimum standard that sets the airtightness for building enve lopes
does not exist but is quite necessary. This article outlines the A A
need for setting this minimum standard and provides a summary
of the myriad of recommendations, standards, and state-of-the-art
projects. It presents an overview based on a compilation and exami-
nation of the results of studies, standards, codes, tested buildings,
and recommendations for whole-building airtightness in the United
States, Canada, and Western Europe as tested by building pres-
surization test methods.
1
The data was collected through a survey
conducted from mid-2003 through the beginning of 2004.
Why an Airtightness Standard?
A number of reasons exist for why air
leakage should be minimized in the design,
specification, and construction of a build-
ing. Good air barrier materials and systems
are necessary to reduce air leakage.
Following are some of the reasons
cited by industry members and organi-
zations that support the need for good
air barriers.
Code requirements. Most codes and
building standards have been created in
response to catastrophic events. Plumb-
ing codes, fire codes, and standards for
structural materials and designs devel-
oped after serious loss of life mandated
that these systems be regulated.
Many types of building failures are
related to air leakage. The recent increase
in health problems related to mold and
mildew and indoor air quality make this
the next most likely area for significant
code reform.
Indoor air quality. Recently, a major
increase in moisture-related building
failures has occurred where mold and
mildew growth resulting from building
© 2005, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, Inc. (www.ashrae.org). Reprinted by permission from
ASHRAE Journal, (Vol. 47, No. 9, September 2005). This article may not be copied nor distributed in either paper or digital form without
ASHRAE’s permission.
Sept ember 2005 ASHRAE Jour nal 27
materials with elevated moisture content levels for extended
periods of time have created significant concerns about indoor
air quality. Airborne vapor transport along leakage pathways
is a major source of moisture migration into and out of build-
ing envelope cavities. “In fact, envelope infiltration can lead
to indoor air quality problems as the outdoor air entry via this
mechanism is uncontrolled as to rate and distribution, unfiltered
and can contribute to moisture problems.”
2
Avoidance of building failures. Building scientists and others
involved in the remediation of building failures agree that many
are caused, at least in part, by air leakage. Ice dams on roofs with
vented attics or cathedral slopes, frozen pipes, and condensa-
tion with its subsequent moisture-related problems can occur in
structures that are adequately insulated but have poor air barriers
(at least in the areas of localized building failures).
Energy efficiency. Controlling air leakage is a major factor in
building envelope performance. If we assume all new buildings
have a reasonable level of insulation (we already have prescrip-
tive or performance-based standards for insulation R-values,
glazing products, etc.), airtightness is the remaining determinant
of whether a building envelope will be energy efficient or not.
“The United States Department of Energy (DOE) has concluded
that up to 40% of the energy consumed to heat or cool a building
is due to air leakage into and out of buildings.”
6
Also, a review by the North American Insulation Manu-
facturers Association (NAIMA) of seven research projects
conducted between 1990 and 1997 that tested the role of insu-
lation as an air barrier system indicates that “While insulation
plays a significant role in energy savings in a home, its role in
reducing air infiltration is negligible.”
3
The DOE’s Building
America’s performance criteria include a recommendation
that “Air leakage (determined by blower door depressuriza-
tion testing) should be less than 0.25 cfm/ft
2
(1.3 L/s per m
2
)
of building enclosure surface area at a 50 Pa (0.2 in. w.g.) air
pressure differential.”
4
Building air security. Internal and external air barrier
systems may be critical components in our defense against
biological terrorism.
“In recent years many individuals and organizations have
advocated the use of several ventilation-based strategies to
protect building occupants from accidental and intentional
releases of airborne chemical, biological and radiological
(CBR) agents. For example, the protection offered by
outdoor air filtration and air cleaning in combination with
building pressurization has been highlighted. However,
many of these recommendations have not considered the
key role played by envelope airtightness in determining
the effectiveness of these strategies.”
5
Once you have good air barrier materials and systems, you
need to provide good design and installation practices to ensure
these materials will perform well once they are installed. Without
minimum performance standards, exists no incentive for the de-
signers or installers of building envelopes to provide air barrier
systems or perform work above the level of current practices.
Following are some of the reasons that reducing air leakage
in our buildings is important and why this will require us to set
a minimum airtightness standard.
Improved criteria for optimizing the design. Setting a limit
for air leakage will allow the engineer to optimize the design of
the heating and cooling system to provide only enough energy or
dehumidification to make up for a known quantity of uncontrolled
air leakage. Although it may require a cultural change among
design engineers, the need for costly built-in safety factors in the
mechanical system design could be reduced significantly. This is
because the designer would have reliable predictions of the level
of losses through the building envelope. This is important because
it is the largest upfront savings that can be realized from setting an
upper limit on uncontrolled air leakage that can offset the initial
costs of air barrier systems and quality installations.
Better construction practices. Standards provide a level
playing field for builders in competitive bid situations.
• Air leakage standards are a useful tool for increasing
designer and builder awareness of the causes of many
building failures and in promoting training necessary to
provide better air barrier installations.
• Without a whole-building, airtightness standard, air barrier
performance is likely to vary significantly with no one clearly
responsible for problems caused by air leakage.
• An air barrier performance standard provides the basis
for requiring an air barrier system durability guarantee
from the installer and for determining if the air barrier
material or system has failed before the warrantee period
has expired.
Customer satisfaction.
• The owner has a right to expect a reasonable level of
building performance, especially if the owner wants a
high-performance building.
• A specified, maximum air leakage threshold and test pro-
tocol provides a method for evaluating the performance
and durability of the products and assemblies used, the
completeness of the design details, and the quality of the
builder’s installation. Failure to meet a compliance standard
28 ASHRAE Jour nal ashr ae. or g Sept ember 2005
for the airtightness of a building indicates that the client
will have at least localized problems.
Whole-Building Airtightness
To provide specifiers with an overview of the history of the
airtightness of buildings, a survey of documented studies that ex-
amined the airtightness of buildings constructed during the last 60
years. The results of this research are summarized in Table 1.
The averages of the current code and industry recommendations
were then researched and are summarized in Table 2. Whole-
building performance cannot approach the airtightness of any air
barrier material because the building envelope includes mechanical
system components, such as windows, doors, and skylights, none
of which are as airtight as air barrier components themselves.
Many of the major organizations that set standards and testing
methods for the construction industry, including ASHRAE, The
Air Barrier Association of America (ABAA), The Canadian C-
2000 Program, and all of the building codes that were surveyed,
had requirements for air sealing, but had not set standards or made
recommendations as to how well the air sealing should perform.
Other organizations had guidelines, recommendations, or
in-house standards for evaluating the performance of whole
buildings. Groups and organizations such as ENERGY STAR,
Conservation Services Group, The Canadian C-2000 and R-
2000 Programs, Energy Rated Homes of Vermont, and Building
America use blower door test results for rating or as compliance
criteria or for their programs. These were included in the data
used to develop the “current standards” average listed in Table
2. Recommendations made by the American Society for Testing
and Materials (ASTM) air leakage test method, manufacturers
of test equipment, and United Kingdom Building Regulations
and Building Services Research and Information Association
(BSRIA) standards also were included.
The state-of-the-art buildings data came from a list of recent
high-performance buildings that were reported by specifiers or
building science industry members, as well as industry respon-
dents who had numbers for both normal building standards and
high-performance building standards.
Comparing Whole-Building Airtightness Standards
Comparing airtightness standards used by all of these or-
ganizations turned out to be problematic. As evidenced by
the number of units of measure listed in the sidebar “Units
of Measure,” clearly no consensus exists of what units to use
among these industry members. These units of measure are not
always easy to relate to each other when the building configura-
tion is unknown and the method of testing is not uniform from
country to country. For this reason, many of the averages in
the data presented in the tables are expressed in ranges rather
than as one value.
As a result of these comparison and translation problems, a
goal that has resulted from this study is to encourage the build-
Units that do not account for the relationship between the
surface area and volume of the building:
• Air changes per hour at 50 Pa (ACH50);
• Air changes per hour at natural pressures (ACH Natural
= ~ ACH50/20);
• Air leakage rate in cfm at 50 Pa (CFM50);
• Natural air leakage rate in cfm (CFM Natural);
and
• Effective leakage area (ELA)—Lawrence Berkley
Laboratories Model (LBNL);
• Equivalent Leakage Area (EqLA)—National Research
Council (NRC) of Canada Model.
Units independent of the relationship between the surface
area and the volume of the building:
• Air leakage rate/unit area of exterior shell at 75 Pa (L/sm
2
at 75 Pa or LSM75 or CFM75/ft
2
or m
3
/h m
2
at 75 Pa).
• Air leakage rate/unit area of exterior shell at 50 Pa
(CFM50/ft
2
).
• ELA (4 Pa) or EqLA (10 Pa)/unit area of exterior shell
also referred to as the equivalent leakage ratio (ELR).
May be at 10 Pa (based on NRC model) or 4 Pa (based
on LBNL model).
Units of Measure
Typical Residential (Averages)
Zilin, Katz, Biggs et al,
1986
7
1994
8
1987
9
U.S.
ACH 50 5.5 4.0 to 8.0*
CFM50/ft
2
0.31 to 0.61* 0.44
Canada
ACH 50 4.4
Canada Canada
CFM50/ft
2
0.24 to 0.49*
Sweden
ACH 50 3.7
CFM50/ft
2
0.21 to 0.41*
England
ACH 50 13.9
CFM50/ft
2
0.77 to 1.54*
Typical Commercial (Averages)
Proskiw and
Phillips, 2001
10
U.S.
ACH 50 4.9 to 7.5*
(Commercial)
CFM50/ft
2
0.93*
Canada
ACH 50 1.1 to 1.6*
Canada Canada
(Commercial)
CFM50/ft
2
0.20*
Sweden
ACH 50 1.1 to 1.8*
(Industrial)
CFM50/ft
2
0.22*
England
ACH 50 6.0 to 9.1*
(Offices)
CFM50/ft
2
1.14*
* Values were mathematically derived if the information was not originally reported
in this unit. Derivations that required a building size to complete the calculation
(ACH50 to CFM50) were based on model buildings that represent the extremes in
volume-to-surface-area ratios and are reported as a range of values.
(Source: Standards were provided by organizations and individuals active in the
industry. SOTA buildings values were collected by, and on file with, Building En-
velope Solutions, Inc.)
Table 1: Historical residential and commercial airtightness data for
buildings built with normal construction practices.
Sept ember 2005 ASHRAE Jour nal 29
ing community to reach a consensus on a single, industry-wide
unit of measure for reporting and specifying whole-building
airtightness. A unit of measure that considers the air leakage
per unit of surface area would be universally applicable to all
buildings without complicated translations requiring detailed
knowledge of each building. It is our recommendation that
CFM50/ft
2
be considered for a universal unit of measure for
the industry. Including only the above-grade surfaces for all
calculations also would standardize the airtightness values.
How does a specifier or owner know what standard is
reasonable for a given building? A number of considerations
go into selecting the compliance standard for any building. For
example, it may be more difficult to achieve an ideal air barrier in
renovation projects due to access and payback considerations.
Swimming pools have much more difficult moisture condi-
tions where airtightness should reach state-of-the-art levels
to avoid physical damage and air quality problems, even in a
building that may be planned for a relatively short life cycle.
Art and artifact storage and display facilities require controlled
environments that require tighter building envelopes to avoid
moisture problems. The following is a list of factors architects
and engineers should consider as important design considerations
when setting airtightness standard for their projects.
• The minimum standard required to meet any local building
codes that contain airtightness standards.
• The owner’s requirement for a certain level of building
performance.
• The current and state-of-the-art building performance
levels reported in this study are all achievable. The level
specified must be achievable (not too tight) in a cost-effec-
tive manner, but the allowed leakage must not be so high
(leaky) as to invite building envelope-related problems.
• The severity of the building environment in a given climate.
• The owner’s ability to tolerate a building failure.
• The payback for the specific building materials or systems
required to achieve a specified level of performance over the
life cycle of the building. (The difference in energy use can be
calculated based on the reduction in uncontrolled air change
rate. The reduced load will translate into reduced HVAC
system size and fuel use. This value can be offset against air
barrier system costs to determine the payback period for the
improvement in the airtightness of the building envelope).
• Factor in savings or other benefits from various incentive
programs available for high-performance buildings (Leader-
ship in Energy and Environmental Design
®
[LEED] from the
U.S. Green Building Council, Energy Crafted Homes, etc.).
• The configuration of the building. It is probable that build-
ing designs with a smaller number of transitions (wall-to-
roof, corners, wall-to-foundation, overhangs, etc.) result
in buildings that are easier to make tight. Very large, low
buildings typically have flat membrane-covered roofs that
are easier to make airtight compared to shingle or standing-
seam sloped roofs usually found on smaller structures.
The ranges identified in this study for normal and state-of-
the-art building performance provide a starting point to guide
architects in setting standards for specific buildings. Selecting
The airtightness of a building envelope is a representation
of how leaky (the quantity of air leakage) a building is rela-
tive to its size.
Air leakage is defined as the unintended flow of air into
and out of a building due to pressure differences across the
building envelope caused by stack effect, wind, and internal
mechanical system pressures. This is unintended air move-
ment through the building envelope construction rather
than through ventilation systems. This is a totally separate
issue from providing fresh air for building occupants.
An air barrier is the building envelope component that
resists air leakage or, “the intrusion and diffusion of air
due to air, wind, stack, and vapor pressure into and out of
buildings.”
6
The rate of air leakage through a building envelope is the
volume of the air that passes through the building envelope
in a unit of time. This flow rate or volume of airflow for
a given period of time is used to represent the building’s
airtightness.
High-performance buildings are buildings that use significant-
ly less energy and/or resources to construct and operate.
An airtightness standard is an upper limit for the allowed
rate of unintended airflow or leakage through the building
envelope measured at a fixed, uniform pressure. The de-
signer typically establishes this maximum flow rate in the
project specifications.
Terms
Current Standards, State of the Art Buildings (SOTA),
And Air Barrier (AB) Material Standards—
Residential (Averages)
Current SOTA AB Material
Standards Buildings Standards
ACH 50 4.4 1.0 N/A
CFM50/ft
2
0.25 to 0.06 to 0.0022
0.49* 0.11*
Current Standards, State of the Art Buildings (SOTA),
And Air Barrier (AB) Material Standards—
Commercial (Averages)
Current SOTA AB Material
Standards Buildings Standards
ACH 50 1.4 to 2.1* 0.77 N/A
CFM50/ft
2
0.26 0.15 0.022
* Values were mathematically derived if the information was not originally reported in
this unit. Derivations that required a building size in order to complete the calculation
(ACH50 to CFM50) were based on model buildings that represent the extremes in
volume-to-surface-area ratios and are reported as a range of values.
(Source: Standards were provided by organizations and individuals active in the
industry. SOTA buildings values were collected by, and on file with, Building Enve-
lope Solutions, Inc.)
Table 2: Current residential and commercial airtightness data for
buildings built with normal construction practices.
30 ASHRAE Jour nal Sept ember 2005
the tightest end of the range, or a number
at or near the state of the art for similar
buildings, would be appropriate for setting
high but achievable standards for high-
performance buildings and for difficult
environments such as swimming pools.
Eventually, a dew-point calculation for
the local climate and planned indoor tem-
perature and humidity levels can be used
to determine how likely air leakage will
create a moisture problem. Normal uses
in cold and moderate climates without air
conditioning could target the low end of
the range. Projects with air conditioning
could include an analysis of the vapor
drive in both directions and most likely
should be nearer to the top of the range.
Conclusion
Clearly, it is necessary to improve the
airtightness of our buildings to reduce the
frequency of callbacks, building failures,
and lawsuits. Giving more emphasis to air
barrier system design and including air
leakage standards in our project specifica-
tions are the most effective and probably
the fastest ways to address this need.
Air barrier specification language is
well developed at many architectural firms
and is readily available from ABAA and
other trade sources, air barrier materials
and systems are well proven, and trade
organizations and manufacturers’ training
programs are available to provide certifica-
tion for installers of these systems.
What remains is to compel the builders
to implement the design intent. It is hoped
that this research provides a starting point
for designers and specifiers to use in
selecting adequate but attainable perfor-
mance standards for their projects.
The industry can support designers by
adding minimum air barrier standards to
all building codes, otherwise these systems
are usually “value-engineered” out because
they are not required. Good air barriers add
to the cost of buildings. However, they also
reduce operating costs, fossil-fuel emis-
sions, and building failures.
Minimum standards in the building
codes would provide a benchmark for
designers to protect their clients and them-
selves against building envelope problems.
In addition, the industry should agree on
one unit of measure and test method that
will break the “engineer speak” barrier
that all but building scientists now face.
If everyone were using the same techni-
cal terminology that was consistent for all
building configurations, an understanding
of what airtightness standards were appro-
priate for a given building type or desired
level of performance would come more
quickly. Designers would then be able to
specify an air barrier system and set an air
leakage standard that:
• Is achievable;
• Is adequate for the use of the
building;
• Will reduce the frequency and
magnitude of building envelope
failures;
• Includes air-barrier-related guaran-
tees;
• Includes quality assurance and com-
pliance testing; and
• Will result in a payback over a rea-
sonable portion of the life cycle of
the building.
References
1. ASTM E799-99, Standard Test Method for
Determining Air Leakage Rate by Fan Pressur-
ization; CGSB 149.10, Standard for Determining
the Airtightness of Building Envelopes.
2. Persily, A. 2004. “Q&A on building secu-
rity.” ASHRAE Journal 46(9):20 – 23.
3. NAIMA. 2004. “The Facts About Insula-
tion and Air Infiltration.” www.naima.org/pages/
resources/library/html/BI480.HTML.
4. Building America: U.S. Department of En-
ergy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable
Energy/Building Science Corporation.
5. Persily, A. 2004. “Building ventilation
and pressurization as a security tool.” ASHRAE
Journal 46(9):18 – 26.
6. Air Barrier Association of America. “About
Air Barriers.” www.airbarrier.org/aboutair
barriers.htm.
7. Zilin, R. 1986. “Blower door fundamen-
tals.” Solar Age Magazine January.
8. Katz, A. 1997. “What’s being built out there?
Performance tests on 100 new homes.” Home
Energy Magazine Online September/October.
http://hem.dis.anl.gov/eehem/97/970913.html.
9. Biggs, K.L., Bennie, I.D. and Michell, D.
1987. “Air Infiltration Rates of Some Australian
Houses.” Australian Institutional Buildings
2:49 – 61.
10. Proskiw, P., Bert, G. 2001. “Air Leakage
Characteristics, Test Methods and Specifica-
tions for Large Buildings.” Prepared for Canada
Mortgage and Housing Corporation. www.
cmhc-schl.gc.ca/publications/en/rh-pr/tech/01-
123-e.htm.
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