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Ask the Architect

We were only working on the family room


Q. While we were stripping the sheetrock and insulation from our family room, a building inspector showed up and stopped us, saying we needed a permit before we could continue. So we applied for a permit, and were told we needed plans and an energy certificate. It’s gotten very complicated, because we’re being told that there’s more to it than just getting plans and a certificate (whatever that means). It seems that we need special insulation, so we can’t just put in the fiberglass (pink stuff); we need foam in the walls. Can you explain why this is and why this got so complicated? We just wanted fresh-looking walls after taking down our paneling. Can I substitute insulation to avoid using spray foam?

A. Someone was grilling me with a ton of questions, and even asked me the name of the youngest member of the family from “The Sound of Music,” but I knew it was a Trapp. And so it is with your construction. Depending on where you live, some municipalities are very strict about what seems like the simplest of things. A few blocks away, in another village, you could do this fix-up without any issues.

The state code basically says you’re required to comply with the latest codes in areas where new work, specifically an addition, is being done, but the interpretation of what amount of work — even cosmetic, like your case — is up to the officials in your village. Because existing buildings, and areas adjacent to the new construction, are exempted under Section 501 of the New York version of the latest International Energy Conservation Code, I suspect that either the officials have misinterpreted the code or you have a family room that was structurally altered or built without a permit to begin with. If the room was never actually on record with a permit and final certificate, then you have to comply with latest energy codes as of the day your permit will be issued.

As for the insulation factor, the municipalities that see your project as a cosmetic change generally have allowed the insulation going back to be the greatest resistance value you can achieve, mainly because while the wall cavities between the wall studs are open, you may as well do the best you can to save energy. It makes sense to save energy, right? For example, if the only insulation was the old reflective gypsum board, foam core board or r-11 paper or foil-faced insulation, then you could achieve up to r-15 in the cavity and be compliant without having to use more expensive foam.

I highly recommend the foam insulation anyway. You get one chance at insulating, and insulation is the cheapest material in your building, with the highest return on investment. Since it continues saving energy every second, for the rest of the life of the building, it actually pays for itself, over and over, every day. I think even Gretl Von Trapp knew that. Good luck!

© 2018 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to yourhousedr@aol.com, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.