Thursday, June 5, 2014

PBH Weatherization Project

Back in 2010 I lead a project to work with Harvard students to weatherize the Philips Brooks House. It was a great project with over 50 students attending (including the woman who is now my wife, a post-doc at HSPH at the time) and lots of energy saved. The case study won AASHE's first Campus and Student Sustainability Award for “Best Campus Case Study”. Before the big day, I reached out to Jim Merchant of Pirates Lane ( who agreed to attend and prepare a video. While looking for something else today I ran across the video and was saddened to see that it had far fewer views than my last cat video (our cat Magilla Glub Glub has a Facebook page). Anyway, with that in mind, I'm sharing the case study and link to the video here. Special thanks to the Green Building Services team for all of their work before, during and after the event. Enjoy.

Case Study on AASHE site:

Video (about 10 minutes long):

Phillips Brooks House Student Weatherization Project


Harvard University


Nathan Gauthier, Assistant Director, Office for Sustainability, Harvard University

Project Overview

On May 2nd, more than 50 Harvard students took a break from studying for finals and picked up caulk guns to help improve the energy efficiency of the Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard. The project was a collaboration between the Office for Sustainability, the Phillips Brooks House Association, the student Environmental Action Committee, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program. Student labor was used to implement 23 weatherization projects in the building. The project is estimated to save more than 9 tons of CO2 equivalent and nearly $4,000 in utility costs annually.


The project was initiated when students from the Environmental Action Committee (EAC) approached the Office for Sustainability and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program asking if there was a way to involve students in a weatherization project similar to what is done by Cambridge Home Energy Efficiency Team ( The OFS team toured the building and identified nearly 40 practical energy conservation measures for the Phillips Brooks House, which is a 12,800 square foot, 100 year old, brick building. OFS then designed a program to work with students and issued a proposal to the FAS Office of Planning and Physical Resources to work with EAC students to plan and execute a student-lead weatherization event that would significantly improve the building's performance while engaging students in the process.

Project Goals

The primary goal of the project was to engage students and help them feel empowered to make a positive change on their campus. OFS and FAS wanted students to feel vested in the University's greenhouse gas reduction goal and to encourage them to do their part. The students wanted to have their contributions acknowledged and be exposed to the nuances of building operations and the details around how buildings operate and what opportunities exist to improve building performance. Additional goals included reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and operations costs of the Phillips Brooks House. An added benefit was receiving positive press highlighting student and administrative collaboration.

Project Implementation

Of the nearly 40 energy conservation measures identified for the building, more than 20 were selected on the basis that they could be safely and effectively implemented with student labor. The OFS and student planning team began weekly meetings to organize the project. OFS coordinated with Environmental Health and Safety on student safety issues, the Office of General Council on liability issues, Human Resources on labor relation issues and negotiating with the trade unions, and Facilities Maintenance Operations to identify technical resources that would be beneficial to project success. Cambridge HEET, a local non-profit that specializes in home weatherizations, was consulted to share lessons learned and to provide pre- and post-project blower door testing.

On the day of the event, participants were organized into 7 teams, each led by an OFS staff member and a student leader who had been trained on their tasks ahead of time. The 50 plus student volunteers were trained on safety protocols, tool use, and how to implement the ECMs and then supervised as they performed the work. Projects included caulking storm windows, installing low-flow plumbing fixtures, replacing lamps with compact fluorescents or low-mercury super T8 linear fluorescents, sealing a chimney, installing door sweeps and door jambs, insulating steam pipes, adding smart power strips on computers and timers on water coolers, installing educational signage, and many others. OFS staff was on hand to take photographs and a local videographer responded to a Craigslist ad asking for a volunteer to make a short film. Two full-time interns from Wentworth Institute of Technology worked with OFS throughout this project including helping lead weatherization groups on the day of the event.


The project was on a very aggressive timeline because it needed to be implemented before students left for the summer. Students approached OFS and FAS in the last week of February, 2010. OFS Green Building Services walked the building on March 8 and issued a proposal complete with nearly 40 potential ECM opportunities on March 17th. The proposal assumed almost 200 hours of OFS staff time to complete the project with all of the recommended components. FAS approved the proposal the next day (3/18/10) and the OFS team began planning for the event. On March 23, OFS sent the student organizers a detailed description of the proposed process going forward and asked for contact information for student team leaders for the day of the event, as well as for their recommended date for the event and times for weekly team meetings. On March 26 the student organizers provided much of the information requested, though a date for the event wasn't finalized as we tried to coordinate availability of the building with OFS staff availability and student breaks. Student organizers and OFS began weekly breakfast meetings to go over project details, with FAS Office of Physical Planning and Cambridge HEET attending one meeting each to lend their assistance and get updates. By the first week of April, OFS staff and student leaders began visiting the building to put together detailed lists of materials needed to implement their projects and perform practice runs to ensure everybody knew how to perform the tasks for which they were responsible. On March 24th, OFS lead a larger group of students around the building to review all projects identified, including those identified but not being implemented as part of the student project such as demand control ventilation in the lounge area or variable frequency drives on the heating hot water loop. OFS had completed energy calculations for all projects and costed out the materials needed in order to share this information with the students and help them understand the utility cost and greenhouse gas reduction potential of each measure as well as their cost effectiveness. In the middle of April, May 2nd was selected as the day of the event. This was a Sunday during the reading period prior to exams. Invitations to attend were sent to the environmentally themed students groups on April 15th with an online sign up sheet using Google Docs. Materials were purchased during the last two weeks of April. The project took place on May 2, from 11:00 to 3:00, with OFS arriving at 9:00 to start setting up and staying to 4:00 to clean up. Coffee, juice and pastries were awaiting students at sign in and Veggie Planet rice dishes during the lunch break.


All funding was provided by the FAS Office of Planning and Physical Resources, paid out of their operating budget.

Annual savings are estimated at $3,750 in annual utility costs. We did not quantify the additional maintenance savings from re-lamping all 250 lamps in the building. None of our projects were expected to have an increased maintenance cost. We also did not try to quantify the improved productivity from staff being more comfortable or the benefits of educating students and how this might influence their behaviors going forward.

The total materials cost for the project was $3,300, of which $2,800 was billed to the FAS with the idea that remaining cost went towards tools that could be reused for future projects and would be paid for by OFS. This material value paid by FAS includes the cost of 7 new storm windows, which was not a project performed by the students but was critical to ensure the students caulking the storm window frames knew that their efforts were not in vain. This value also includes the $500 for lunch and $50 for breakfast. Most materials were purchased through Grainger, with additional materials purchased through Energy Federation Incorporated, Home Trends, Watertown Plumbing Supply, Home Depot, Staples, and Conservation Technology.

OFS staff put in 202 hours of time into the project, 192 of which were billed to FAS because of our not to exceed contract agreement. Facilities Maintenance Operations charged for 6 hours of work to have their plumber and pipe wrapper on-site on the day of the event.
Total project costs were $24,043, most of which was from labor.

Project Results

More than 50 students attended the May 2nd event, in addition to the more than a dozen student group leaders, OFS staff, and the Wentworth Interns. The initial, conservative estimates expected a reduction of 9 metric tons of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions and $3,750 in utility costs per year. While full verification of the energy reduction may take a year to assess, the building was given a pre- and post-project blower door test to quantify air leakage. The test showed nearly 1,800 fewer cubic feet of air coming into the building when under pressure after the project, which translates to nearly 180 square inches of gaps in the building envelope that were filled… truly excellent results. The bulk of the benefit will be in the winter, when the significant reduction in infiltration will result in steam savings. Everybody responding to the lessons learned survey indicated that they thought the project was very valuable to students and that they hope it is replicated again next year.

Lessons Learned

After the project, a lessons learned survey was sent out to all of the OFS staff and student organizers. 73% of the respondents felt the project was good (4 / 5) and the remaining 27% felt it was excellent (5/5). All respondents indicated that it was a good project that they would like to see repeated.
There were multiple suggestions about broadening the outreach to include faculty and staff, as there were none at the event. The project would have also benefited from having the date confirmed earlier so the outreach could have been done over a longer period of time. Even with very little notice, more than 50 students attended on a Sunday when studying for finals, which seems to indicate there is a lot of interest in this type of event.

Additional time all around would have made the project go more smoothly and would have also likely reduced the cost to FAS as we had to invest significant and possibly redundant resources in order to get everything done on time. While we were able to successfully execute all 23 projects, we had multiple people working on the same or similar tasks for different projects when some of this could have been streamlined if time allowed.

There were a few minor issues during the event with ECMs that didn't go exactly as expected (pipe insulation not quite fitting, dual flush handles not working with all of the toilets, etc.). If we repeat this project, we'll make sure the dry runs in the weeks leading up to the project are more in-depth and can actually confirm the feasibility and the correct parts for all projects. We'll also make sure to order the parts further in advance. One of the packs of lamps we ordered for the chandeliers didn't have the fixture adapter and we didn't have the extra lamps on hand we were expecting.

Another lesson learned was about the door weather seals and students using the drills. It was hard to drill through the steel kick plate without using the more aggressive drill bits, but it was also really hard for students to stop the drill at the right depth. In the future, we'd like some sort of depth guide on the drill to reduce this over-drilling.

Because the blower door test was a bit of an after-thought, we couldn't get Cambridge HEET out on the day of our event. While they were able to come beforehand and afterwards, in the future we would like students to be able to see the actual test and witness the improvements.

The film that was made for us by Pirates Lane Video turned out really nicely and putting an ad on Craigslist for a volunteer videographer worked well. We had more than a dozen people volunteer their services. In the future, we'd like to have an OFS staff walk around with the videographer to make sure he's able to film all of the projects. We would have also liked filming of the predatory planning meetings if possible.

We created educational signage and a poster summarizing all of the projects for the students. These sorts of occupant engagement efforts partnered very well with the more typical energy conservation measures and helped make for a more complete event.

We were able to get reusable cups and glasses from Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services and used all compostable plates and silverware (with composting bins that the OFS staff took home afterwards and brought back to work on Monday). All of the dishes from Veggie Planet for lunch were vegetarian. A number of students commented on appreciating that we made sure to use sustainable dining practices and this is of course something we'd like to do again in the future. A number of people also mentioned that it might be easier to eat pizza instead of rice dishes while outside working.

There were also comments about the project being more for awareness than energy savings, and it may have been nice to have contractors there actually implementing some of the more significant energy saving opportunities at the same time. We identified another 15 to 20 projects that had good payback and would save significant energy, but would require a professional contractor to implement. It might be worth combining the installation wtih the student work in the future. It is also worth noting that the vast majority of the project costs came from planning the weatherization event and not from the actual materials. Using student labor to thoroughly weatherize a building in this manner does not seem to be the most cost effective way to get the job done assuming you have to pay for the staff time needed for planning. The benefits, of course, go well beyond the immediate energy savings from the ECM projects.

There were a few ECMs that really only allowed a couple of people to work on them at a time. In order to engage more students, we would have needed more team leaders and possibly more tools (such as drills). This was only true for a couple of projects like the plumbing projects or door sweeps, but something to keep in mind. Trying to keep 50 or more students engaged simultaneously requires a lot of advanced planning and a lot of knowledgeable leaders.

A critical lesson to share is that early coordination with all stakeholders is critical and that doing so allowed the project to happen without any last minute concerns or hang ups. It requires motivated student leaders, knowledgeable sustainability staff, and facilities leader willing to invest in this kind of project (thank you Jay Phillips). If coordinated with all parties early, potential obstacles can be identified and solutions suggested.

Everybody involved felt this project was a success and that future projects would be even better. It is difficult to succinctly share all of the lessons learned, but the OFS team is very optimistic that if we were able to do a similar event in the future they'll be even more successful than the first.

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