kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Category Archives: Exterior Design

WRB: Zip Sheathing (Air Sealing #6 )

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Zip: Air Sealing the Seams and Penetrations

( Note: This post will concentrate on the Zip sheathing itself, as it relates to seams and penetrations. I’ll address how I sealed around openings for windows and doors, along with our attic access hatch through the Intello on the ceiling in separate, future blog posts.)

We used Zip sheathing as our WRB (water-resistant barrier — or sometimes it’s referred to as a weather-resistant barrier) based largely on Hammer and Hand projects,

and seeing it used on various jobs featured in Fine Homebuilding Magazine.

As the 7/16″ Zip sheathing went up, I taped most of the seams with Pro Clima’s  3″ Tescon Vana tape (available at 475 HPBS), but also their Contega tape (6″ wide), which I used mainly for outside corners and larger seams in the Zip (mainly where the horizontal seam in the Zip transitioned from the exterior walls of 2×6 framing to the roof trusses — shown in a photo later in this post).

My wife and daughter also cut up the Tescon Vana tape into small pieces in order to cover all the nail and screw holes in the Zip sheathing.

beast and eduardo taping nail holes

The Beast and Eduardo team up to tape the nail and screw holes on the lower sections of Zip sheathing around the house.

The nail holes were initially sealed with HF Sealant, also available from 475 HPBS, thus giving them double coverage — this was discussed earlier, here:

Framing (Air Sealing #2)

north side house garage gap long view

Northeast corner of the house where it meets the garage.

Our decision to use the Zip sheathing was also discussed earlier, here:

Wall Assembly

And here’s a good video discussing the Zip sheathing and its benefits (and its place in the evolution of building science):

If I had it to do over, I think I might be tempted to use 1/2″ exterior grade plywood as my sheathing (there are any number of WRB options these days). This would be sealed on the exterior side with either a liquid membrane, like Prosoco’s Cat 5, or a peel-n-stick tape like Henry’s Blue Skinor even another 475 HPBS product Solitex Mento 1000.

The Zip sheathing works, and the exterior green skin held up nicely during construction, even as it sat exposed for nearly 10 months after we fired our GC’s and struggled to keep the project moving forward. Nevertheless, it is little more than glorified OSB, which comes with certain inherent weaknesses.

Matt Risinger does an excellent job of delineating the cost/benefits of using either OSB or CDX plywood as a sheathing material:

 

house-garage-gap-for-4%22-roxul

Garage (at left) house (at right) connection. Gap will eventually be filled with 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80.

 

garage-house-gap-2

Closer view of this same garage – house connection. Flashing will cover the bottom of the Zip and then carry over the top of the Roxul that covers the foundation.

 

north-side-seams-taped

View of the north side of the house as Tescon Vana tape air seals the nail holes and the seams in the Zip sheathing.

View of the West facade with Tescon Vana tape, along with the black Contega tape at larger seams (e.g., where the walls meet the roof trusses) and outside corners.

west side being taped

West facade as taping proceeds.

 

taping north side before mechanicals : windows

Northwest corner of the house, transitioning from the Tescon Vana to the black Contega tape at the corner.

 

finishing up seams on west facade

Finishing up some of the final seams in the Zip on the West facade.

Once the Zip was fully installed, it was readily apparent that some of the seams, especially near the base of the first floor where a horizontal seam ran around the entire structure, would need to be tightened up.

Here’s a view looking down on one of these areas where the Zip sheathing did not sit flat against the framing members:

down Zip - out of alignment before 1x4's

Horizontal seam in Zip sheathing refusing to lie flat against the 2×6 framing members.

Using a 1×4 in each stud bay, I was able to pull the seam in the Zip sheathing together. It wasn’t always perfect, but the difference was visibly significant and in most areas well worth the effort.

Placing a 1×4 into position over the seam in the Zip, I would drive a couple of screws towards the exterior.

1x4 in study bay before HF

1×4 used to pull an unruly seam in the Zip sheathing together.

 

screw thru zip for 1x4 in stud bay

Screw from the interior poking outside as it initially gets the 1×4 in place.

Once securely attached from the interior, I went outside and drove several screws into the Zip, both above and below the seam in the Zip, to pull the seam tight to the 1×4. At that point, I could go back inside and remove the two screws that were driven towards the exterior.

In addition to air sealing the exterior side of the Zip sheathing, I also invested some time in air sealing the interior side of the Zip as well. Below is a long view of several stud bays with 1×4’s installed, but before air sealing gaps around the 1×4’s and lower areas of the stud bays with HF Sealant.

stud bays w: 1x4's, before HF

Long view after applying the HF Sealant:

ceiling walls - HF Sealant

Close up of the interior side of the Zip sheathing meeting a 2×6 framing member in a stud bay after applying a thick bead of HF Sealant:

thick bead HF sealant in stud bay

Close up of lower area of a stud bay after air sealing with the HF Sealant (it transitions from a light to darker green as it dries):

stud bay w: 1x4 and HF sealant

1×4 installed and HF sealant applied to all gaps and screw/nail holes in the stud bay.

I held off on using the HF Sealant at the wall sill plate/subfloor connection until just prior to installing the Intello on the walls since this area constantly attracts dirt and debris.

Sealing on the interior side with HF Sealant, even between vertical framing members, means that even if there are any weaknesses in either the Zip sheathing or the Tescon Vana tape at these points, air won’t find an easy way in, since it will be blocked from the interior side as well (there won’t be a difference in air pressure to help the outdoor air make its way indoors).

This kind of redundancy in air sealing should give the house long-term protection against air leaks, thereby aiding the long-term durability of the structure, as well as making it a much more comfortable environment to live in.

interior walls sealed w: HF sealant

Using HF Sealant between vertical framing members.

I also spent some time on the roof trusses, sealing around nails, the top plates of the exterior walls, and the many Zip-framing member connections in what will eventually be the attic.

sitting on roof trusses sealing

Sealing around fasteners and framing in the attic with HF Sealant.

This had less to do with air sealing and more to do with preventing any potential water intrusion since this area is technically above our ceiling air barrier (the Intello), which is detailed here:

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

 

 

 

Inventory of Penetrations through the Zip Air Barrier

I made a mock wall assembly before construction began, which I discussed here:

Wall Assembly

This proved helpful when explaining to the various subs how to help me protect the air barrier — especially when it came time to drill holes through the Zip sheathing. Of particular importance was making holes closer to the center of a stud bay, as opposed to hugging a corner or side of one of the 2×6 framing members. A hole cut too close to a stud or a roof truss is much harder to properly air seal.

bad-good-mock-wall-assembly-for-penetrations

Interior side of our mock wall assembly, showing how all penetrations through the Zip should be in the middle of our framing members. Our original plumber was the only trade that managed to screw this up (it’s no coincidence that he was also the only sub that we had to fire).

In effect, any time a sub had to make a penetration through the air barrier we discussed the details, and once the cut was made I immediately air sealed the penetration both on the exterior and interior side.

By sealing each hole in the Zip on both sides, again I hope it ensures the long-term durability of the overall structure. The main argument for this strategy assumes the exterior side of the sheathing will face more extreme temperatures, and fluctuations in humidity, and presumably even wind-drive rain if/when it gets past the siding and 4″ of Roxul insulation, putting it at greater risk of failure (especially in the long term). By taking the time to air seal the interior side, it just gives the overall air barrier, and therefore the structure, a better chance at avoiding air and water intrusion (that’s the goal anyway).

For air sealing I used a mix of tapes, HF sealant (later even some Prosoco products), EPDM Roflex gaskets, and duct seal.

The penetrations for electric service were my first go at using the Roflex gaskets.

John & Donny installing meter

John and Danny, from Chicago Electric, installing the electric meter.

The smaller diameter Roflex gasket comes with its own Tescon Vana tape, which makes installation straightforward.

close up meter thru Zip w: TVana gaskets

Electric meter with Tescon Vana – Roflex gaskets installed.

 

meter - hole, t. vana prior to appl.

Exterior view of electric Meter air sealed with gaskets and Tescon Vana tape:

electric meter close up gasket : t. vana

Once sealed on the exterior side, I went inside to seal the penetrations for a second time.

meter to panel - interior

Air sealing the electric meter on the interior side.

It was a big moment when the electric panel went in.

main panel in - progress

The house is ready for power.

The installation of our solar panels required air sealing two penetrations — one through the Intello on the ceiling on the inside of the structure, along with one exterior penetration through the Zip:

 

Details regarding the installation of our Solar array can be found here:

Solar on the Roof

corrected solar on:off

Solar disconnect (on/off) with its Tescon Vana gasket.

We also had two frost-free hose bibs, or sill cocks installed, which also required gaskets on the exterior and interior sides of the Zip sheathing.

hosebib w: gasket

Frost free hose bib with gasket.

One of the big advantages a Roflex gasket has over using a sealant like the green HF Sealant, or Prosoco’s Joint and Seam, is the pipe can be moved in and out even after air sealing, which is especially helpful for installing siding later.

We left the sill cocks loose (unconnected inside the house), allowing the siding guys to adjust in and out for a more precise fit of the charred cedar siding.

Below is an example of what conduit through the Zip sheathing looks like before it gets a gasket and tape:

exterior light conduit before gasket

Penetration for conduit before gasket.

And here’s the conduit after the gasket and tape.

gasket for exterior light

Conduit after gasket.

Note the extended length of the conduit, anticipating our 4″ of Roxul covering the Zip, 2-layers of furring strips (vertical then horizontal — for vertically oriented siding), and the eventual charred cedar siding.

The photo below shows the penetrations, along with multiple lines of conduit, for our eventual ductless mini-split Mitsubishi heat pump system. The empty hole will be our disconnect for the heat pump. I’ll go into the details of our ductless mini-split system in a future post.

conduit for heat pumps

Penetrations for our Mitsubishi heat pump system.

Same series of conduit pipes after gaskets and being connected to the compressor outside:

heat pump electric w: t. vana before disconnect

In addition to the conduit for electrical hook-up, the Mitsubishi heat pump system required a separate penetration for running the refrigerant lines to the compressor.

hole in Zip for heat pump pvc

Hole cut for the heat pump refrigerant lines.

After discussing it with Mike from Compass Heating and Air, who did our ductless mini-split installation, we decided to use a 4″ section of PVC plumbing pipe as our “conduit” for running the refrigerant lines from the interior of the structure to the outside.

heat pump - pvc pipe in hole for lines

4″ PVC plumbing pipe for the refrigerant lines.

After the PVC was passed through the hole in the Zip, we added a 2×4 underneath it to give it some added stability, along with the usual gasket and tape for air sealing around the PVC pipe.

heat pump - int side - pvc, gasket, 2x4

Before applying Tescon Vana around the Roflex gasket.

Once the refrigerant lines were passed through the PVC pipe, it was clear that some additional air sealing was required.

gaps around pvc lines before duct seal

PVC pipe with refrigerant lines installed.

I filled the gaps around the refrigerant lines from the interior and exterior sides with duct seal. Before stuffing in the duct seal at either side of the PVC pipe, I added bits of Roxul Comfortboard 80 into the pipe to try and give added R-value to the interior of the PVC pipe (hoping to prevent any possible condensation from forming inside the pipe).

duct seal label

A real life saver when it comes to air sealing. Readily available at big box stores, or online at Amazon.

Duct seal proved especially helpful at air sealing multiple weak points in the structure —areas that would’ve been difficult or impossible to air seal with just tape, gaskets, or sealants.

heat pump pvc w: duct seal close up interior

Using duct seal to block off air from the interior side.

 

heat pump pvc w: gasket before t. vana close up

Another view of the PVC pipe with duct seal.

 

heat pump refrigerant lines - int. leaving basement

The refrigerant lines transitioning from the basement ceiling to the PVC pipe before leaving the structure.

Once the interior was taken care of, I was able to address the exterior side of the PVC pipe:

heat pump lines before tape after duct seal

Exterior view of the PVC pipe with heat pump refrigerant lines exiting the structure, being air sealed with a Roflex gasket and duct seal inside the pipe.

Again, note that the PVC pipe is extended out in preparation for the layers of exterior insulation, furring strips, and siding.

heat pump lines leaving house - sealed

Same area after completing the air sealing with Tescon Vana tape.

And here’s a view of the same area after the siding was installed (I’ll go into the many details regarding the installation of the exterior insulation, furring strips, and siding in a later post).

Heat pump lines w: duct seal and siding

Air sealing for the refrigerant lines complete after the siding is installed.

Additional areas where the duct seal proved to be invaluable:

close up exterior outlet box w: duct seal

Exterior electrical boxes for lights and outlets.

Conduit for the water meter in the basement (only the interior is shown below, but the conduit was air sealed with duct seal on the exterior end as well):

And here’s the same conduit for the water meter as it leaves the house on the first floor:

conduit for water meter sealed w: tape:gasket

Conduit for the water meter, air sealed on both sides of the Zip with the Roflex/Tescon Vana gasket.

I also had to address the disconnect boxes for our solar array and our heat pump. For instance, here’s our solar disconnect box when it’s open:

solar disconnect before removing

And here it is after removing the pull out switch, revealing an air leak:

solar disconnect before duct seal

Close up of the conduit:

close up solar disconnect before duct seal

An even closer look:

close up penetration in solar box before duct seal

And here it is after being air sealed with the duct seal:

close up solar box after duct seal

I did the same air sealing for the Mitsubishi heat pump disconnect box:

heat pump box before removing

Close up of the conduit sealed with the duct seal:

close up penetration in heat pump box w: duct seal

During my initial blower door test (more on that later), some air movement around the main panel in the basement was detected, so when the electrician came back we added duct seal to the main pipe entering the house (it had already been sealed from the exterior side with duct seal):

main panel - interior - duct seal

Close up view of the main panel from the interior where lines first enter the structure.

Besides the penetrations in the Zip sheathing, there were other penetrations through the Intello (our air barrier on the ceiling) that had to be addressed as well. These areas were air sealed with the same set of products as the Zip.

For example, in addition to the conduit for solar through the Intello, we also had to air seal conduit for electric service to the attic (for a light and switch in the attic), in addition to the the penetrations for radon and plumbing waste vents, some of which are shown below:

plumbing vent thru Intello gasket:t. vana

Plumbing waste vent going into the attic.

Another view of this vent pipe after air sealing, this time from below:

sealed plumbing vent from below

Here is one of the vents that our first, incompetent plumber installed too close to one of the 2×6’s used to establish our service core.

plumbing vent installed too close to 2x6

Installed this close to framing makes air sealing the vent needlessly complicated and frustrating.

Here’s the same area after applying the Tescon Vana tape:

plumbing vent too close to 2x6 sealed w: tape

Below is another vent pipe incorrectly installed too close to a 2×6. This one was even more challenging to air seal properly. After the gasket and Tescon Vana, I added the green HF sealant as insurance against air leaks, both for now and in the future.

vent too close w: sealant too

We also had to air seal the penetrations for our Zehnder Comfo-Air 350 ERV ventilation unit. I’ll go into the details of the actual installation later, but here are some photos of the penetrations through the Zip sheathing and how we addressed making them air tight.

ext - comfo pipe going thru zip into basement

First section of Comfo pipe going through the Zip sheathing.

 

Zehnder tube exiting w: gasket

The gray Zehnder Comfo pipe (for supply air stream) exiting the structure with a Roflex gasket.

 

Zehnder pipe sealed w: gasket and tape

Closer view of the Comfo pipe air sealed with a gasket and Tescon Vana tape.

 

close up Zehnder Comfo Pipe w: gasket and t. vana

An even closer view of this same area where pipe meets gasket and tape.

We followed the same process — Roflex gasket, Tescon Vana tape — for the exterior side of the Zehnder Comfo pipe.

ext Zehnder gasket : t. vana

Zehnder Comfo pipe installed, air sealed, and ready for commissioning.

And here’s a picture of both supply and exhaust pipes for the Zehnder.

Zehnder exhaust and supply pipes ext fully sealed

Supply pipe in the background, exhaust in the foreground. The garbage bags keep out weather and animals until after the siding is up and the final covers can be installed.

During my initial blower door test some air movement around the sump pit was detected.

sump pit air sealed

Sump pit lid sealed with duct seal, Roflex gasket with Tescon Vana, and the seam between the pit and lid sealed with Prosoco Air Dam.

The sump pump discharge pipe also needed to be air sealed on both sides of the Zip.

sump discharge pipe w: gasket and joint and seam

Sump discharge pipe sealed first with Prosoco Joint and Seam, then a Roflex gasket, before applying Tescon Vana tape around the gasket.

Some air movement around the ejector pit was also detected, so I used duct seal to try and block it.

ejector pit air sealed with duct seal

Ejector pit air sealed with duct seal.

For low voltage — in our case, a cable TV/Internet connection — we found a utility box at Lowe’s (also available at Home Depot and Amazon), and combined it with conduit to transition from the exterior to the interior. The diameter of the conduit is large enough to allow wires for other utilities/services to pass through as well, if necessary, in the future.

cable box

Cable box installed after the siding went up.

An engineer from Comcast-Xfinity visited the site back in the summer, and he gave me the go-ahead for using this box/conduit set-up.

close up exterior of closed cable box

Closer view of the cable box.

 

cable box ext without cover

The cable wire exiting the house through the conduit, which is air sealed with duct seal.

 

cable wire int. basement

Cable wire on the interior of the house exiting through the Roxul insulation and Zip sheathing via the conduit and then air sealed from the interior with duct seal.

Even the wire for the doorbell was sealed with a gasket and tape.

doorbell gasket and tape

When the weather warmed up I was able to experiment with the Prosoco R-Guard series of products (note the 3/4″ plywood door buck treated with Joint and Seam and Fast Flash). I’ll go into that more when I discuss prepping for the windows and doors later.

 

close up of doorbell gasket

A closer view of the doorbell gasket.

Air sealing the penetrations was challenging at times, but also a lot of fun — always keeping in mind the goal of meeting the Passive House standard of 0.6 ACH for our blower door test.

Convinced of the connection between air tightness and the durability of a structure — not to mention the impact air tightness has on heating and cooling loads (i.e., monthly utility bills) —I wanted to see just how air tight I could get the house.

Hopefully this inventory of penetrations will prove helpful to someone in the planning stages of their own “air tight” build. It always helps to be able to see how other people do things — in particular, the strategies they employ and the specific products they use. Seeing these real world examples of air sealing around the many penetrations in a structure will hopefully give others the confidence to come up with their own plan of attack for building an air tight structure.

Solar on the Roof

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After deciding to pursue a combination of Passive House and The Pretty Good House concepts, which entail careful planning and attention to air sealing, along with a significant amount of insulation, we knew we could have a shot at Net Zero, or Zero Net Energy (ZNE) — meaning we could potentially produce as much energy as we use by utilizing solar panels on the roof.

To find an installer in our area, we utilized the website Energy Sage. In addition to useful articles and information about solar, they also work with installers who can provide consumers with competitive bids. It didn’t happen overnight, but in about a week or two, we ended up with 3-4 bids before deciding to go with Rethink Electric in Geneva, Illinois.

laying out the solar panels pre-install

The guys from Rethink staging the panels on the garage roof.

 

 

The System

Based on the suggestions from Energy Sage and Rethink, we ended up going with the following system:

  • 2.915 kW DC System
  • 4,059 kWh of system production
  • 11 Canadian Solar panels
  • 265W Module Enphase M250 (Microinverter)
  • Also includes web-based monitoring of the system’s production

In theory, this system could produce more energy than we use (it’s just my wife, my daughter, and myself who will be living in the house), particularly if we stick to all LED lighting, use Energy Star rated appliances, the heat pump water heater works as advertised, and we’re careful about avoiding using electricity when it’s unnecessary (e.g. turning off lights after leaving a room, or trying to address phantom loads).

Anthony putting self-adhering gasket over solar conduit penetration

Anthony, from Rethink, air sealing the penetration through the Intello, our ceiling air barrier,  with a Tescon Vana – Roflex gasket before sending his 3/4″ conduit into the attic.

Based on other projects I’ve read about, even homes initially built to the ZNE standard sometimes fail, in terms of overall performance, based on actual occupant behavior, so only time will really tell what impact our solar array will have on our utility bills. It looks like worst case scenario would be needing to add 4-6 more panels to get to ZNE or even carbon positive.

conduit for solar in the attic before gasket

Anthony’s conduit entering the attic, sealed with a gasket from below.

Installation by Rethink went really well, and they were happy to work with me on properly air sealing the conduit that runs from the basement at the main panel before going up into the attic, where it eventually terminates on the roof when connected to the panels.

conduit for solar in the attic after gasket

3/4″ conduit sealed for a second time on the attic side of the Intello.

 

solar mounting system being installed

The guys setting up the racking system for the panels.

 

close up solar base

Close up of the base that’s holding the solar panels.

 

Rethink guys on the roof

Anthony, Dan, and Cherif completing the install on the roof of the house.

 

close up of solar panels being installed

The low profile racking system has a very sleek look.

Marking another big leap in the progress of the build:

solar panels on roof

The view of our 11 solar panels from our neighbor’s driveway.

 

solar panels installed on the roof.jpg

Another view of the solar panels installed on the roof.

It was only after the installation that I realized what’s wrong with the following picture:

solar on:off against Zip sheathing #2

My screw up.

I was so worried about getting the air sealing details right on the interior, from the main floor to the attic, I completely forgot to let Anthony know about extending out his disconnect box 6″ to what will be our finished surface (once two layers of Roxul and two layers of 1×4 furring strips, along with cedar siding are installed). The day after they installed, I came walking around the corner of the house, saw this, and literally slapped my forehead (while spitting out a few choice expletives), as I realized my screw up.

Thankfully, Anthony was able to come back out and make the necessary adjustment:

corrected solar on:off

 

 

The Cost

Here’s the cost breakdown on our system (if trends continue, a similar system should be less expensive in the future):

$12,519.50  Initial Investment
$(-3,755.85)  Federal Tax Credit (ITC) 30%
$8,763.65  Net Cost of First Year
$(-3,816.00)  Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SREC’s)
$4,947.65  Net Cost After All Incentives

It will be interesting to follow the performance of the solar panels over the course of a calendar year or two, just to find out exactly how well they perform. I’ll come back here and post monthly utility statements, noting output of the panels and our use, to give people a better sense of actual performance — hopefully this will help others in the planning stages of their own project to decide if solar (and how much of it) is right for them.

Roof Details (Air Sealing #3)

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Top of Wall and Roof Connection

Once the wall assembly details were figured out, and our ceiling set-up detailed, the transition between the two became the next challenge. In other words, how to carry the air barrier over the top of our exterior walls.

I found this helpful article by Chris Corson from The Journal of Light Construction:

An Affordable-Passive-House  (pdf)

Using a waterproof peel-and-stick membrane to wrap over the top of the wall (going from exterior sheathing — in our case 7/16″ Zip sheathing — to interior side of the top plates) seemed like the easiest way to maintain a continuous air barrier at the wall-to-roof junction. The membrane would also have a nice air sealing gasket effect after the trusses were set in place.

I also found this excellent Hammer and Hand video on YouTube (one of their many helpful videos):

Wall-to-Roof Air Barrier

Also, by being able to carry the Zip sheathing up above the top plate of the wall, hugging the bottom of the trusses, meant our 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 over the Zip sheathing would rise above the top of our walls, so that thermally we would be protected going from the exterior walls to the attic, which will be filled with 24″ of blown-in cellulose — making our thermal envelope continuous for the whole house: under the basement slab – exterior of foundation – exterior walls – attic (except for one small gap at the footing-slab-foundation wall connection, which I talk about in a separate post: Foundation Details).

A high R-value wall meets up with a high R-value attic, with no thermal bridging, making our thermal layers continuous. When this is combined with an equally air-tight structure, conditioned air cannot easily escape — resulting in a significantly lower energy demand for heating and cooling (and therefore lower utility bills), and added comfort for the occupants.

Here’s a nice diagram from Fine Homebuilding magazine showing a similar set-up:

021221072-2_med.jpg

Diagram from Fine Homebuilding magazine.

I tried using rolls of conventional peel-and-stick window flashing membrane, purchased from Home Depot and Mendards, but they performed poorly, even in unseasonably warm temperatures for February in Chicago.

I then switched to Grace Ice and Water Shield, normally used as a roofing underlayment along the first 3-6′ of roof edge.

grace-ice-water-shield

Purchased this box at Home Depot.

Since it came on a long roll about 4′ wide, my wife and I cut it down to a series of strips that could more easily be applied to the wall-top plate connection.

While the sun was out, the Grace membrane worked fairly well, especially when pressure was applied with a J-Roller.

grace-vycor-in-the-sun-ii

Grace Ice and Water Shield applied to the top of our wall — covering the Zip sheathing/top plate connection.

Unfortunately, the sun and warmer temperatures didn’t stick around long enough for me to finish.

sealing top of wall w: Grace Vycor in sun

Using a J-Roller to get the Grace Ice and Water Shield to stick better.

 

grace-vycor-in-the-sun

This Simpsons sky didn’t last long. In a matter of hours it was back to rainy, gray, and cold — typical Chicago winter weather for February.

When the weather went gray and cold again, we started to use a heat gun to warm up the Grace membrane, which had turned stiff and nearly useless in the cold.

wagner-heat-gun

Wagner heat gun for warming up the Grace membrane.

After wasting a lot of time and effort trying to pre-heat the Grace membrane before installing it, I finally relented and switched to the much more expensive (but also much more effective) Extoseal Encors tape from Pro Clima. Where the Grace membrane lost virtually all of its stickiness, the Extoseal Encors stuck easily and consistently, with the J-Roller just helping it to lay flatter and more securely.

extoseal-encors-as-gasket

Pro Clima’s Extoseal Encors available from 475 HPBS.

It was a case of trying to be penny wise but ending up pound foolish. Looking back, I would gladly pay an extra $300 in materials to have those hours of frustration back (including the time it took to run to the store and buy the heat gun, which turned out to be ineffective anyway).

installing Extoseal Encors on top of wall cloudy

Finishing up the top of the wall.

After finishing sealing the Zip sheathing-top plate connection on all the outside perimeter walls over the weekend, it was time for the trusses to be installed.

 

 

Trusses

first-truss-swinging-into-place

First truss swinging into place.

Zach let me stand by the front door rough opening and give the crane operator hand signals. It was a fun way to watch the roof take shape.

trusses-going-in-from-inside

Sammy, Zach, and Billy (out of view to the right), landing and setting the trusses.

Once the trusses neared the front door, Zach could signal the crane operator himself, so I was able to get some shots from just outside the construction fence.

 

starting-garage-trusses

Sammy, Zach, and Billy landing trusses on the garage.

 

long-view-of-crane-and-house-east-side

Setting the trusses on the garage — the basic profile of the house comes to life.

Once the trusses were on, and the guys had a chance to install the final top row of Zip sheathing (up to the bottom of the trusses on the exterior side of the wall), I could move inside to seal all the connections from the interior.

 

 

Top of Wall (Interior)

Because of the cold, the Grace membrane was beginning to lift at the edges in certain spots, so just to make sure it had a nice long-term seal, I went around the perimeter of the house and used a layer of Tescon Vana (3″ wide) tape to seal the edge of the Grace membrane.

sealed top plate from interior

Trusses sitting on Grace and Extoseal Encors (other sections of top plate), with the final row of Zip sheathing sealed to the trusses with HF Sealant.

The picture below shows all the connections involved: top of Zip sheathing meeting the roof trusses and the top plate of the outside wall:

sealed top of wall from inside

HF Sealant helps to air seal the Zip-truss and Zip-Grace/Extoseal Encors connections.

 

view of top row of Zip sheathing 1

Looking up at the top row of Zip sheathing attached to the outside edge of the raised heel trusses.

 

 

 

Shingles

We had to wait for shingles for quite some time. First we had to fire our GC’s, and then I had to find a roofer and a plumber (to make penetrations through the roof before the shingles went on). But before the plumber could even start, I had to get the Intello installed on the ceiling. And even before that, I had to figure out the insulation baffles, which I’ll talk about in a separate post.

It took awhile to find a roofer since they would have to make three separate trips for a relatively small job. The first trip was just to set down the Grace Ice and Water Shield at the edges of the roof, along with a synthetic roof underlayment (the consensus was that typical roofing felt wouldn’t hold up to long term exposure). As it turned out, it took weeks before the plumbers made their penetrations through the roof sheathing (literally the day the roofers showed up — a long, horrible story in and of itself that I’ll save for later).

synthetic underlayment at roof peak

Synthetic underlayment covering the ridge line until the shingles and a ridge vent can be installed.

The second trip out was to install the shingles on the roof of the house, while the third trip to install shingles on the garage roof could only happen after the Roxul on the exterior of our Zip sheathing was installed (in order to make a proper sealed connection between the wall of the house and the garage roof).

There weren’t many roofers willing to work with our unique Passive House sequencing, but Peterson Roofing was kind enough to take it on.

Grace ice and water shield rolling up after wind

Grace Ice and Water Shield rolling up on itself after the wind got ahold of it.

Unfortunately, the day after the guys installed the Grace membrane and the synthetic underlayment, we had a cold, blustery day. Once the wind grabbed the Grace membrane, the membrane rolled up on itself, turning it into a real mess.

Because of our recent past bad experiences with general contractors, I just assumed I was on my own, so I spent a couple of hours putting down new layers of the Grace membrane. When Peterson roofing found out, they were shocked I did it myself, and assured me I could’ve called them and they would’ve come back out. We were so used to people not following through, that low expectations meant it didn’t even occur to me to call them.

We initially were going to use Certainteed’s Landmark TL shingle, which mimics a cedar shake shingle profile, but Armando from Midwest Roofing Supply in Schaumburg, Illinois was kind enough to take the time to walk me through the options available, and explained that because our roofline isn’t steep, only the neighbors from their second story windows would get to appreciate the effect. He recommended we save some money, while not giving up on quality or durability, and go with the Landmark Pro product.

shingles being installed w: vents

Shingles going down on the roof of the house.

The shingles went on quickly since we have a relatively small and simple roof. In addition to the aesthetic leap the shingles made on the appearance of the structure, it also meant I didn’t have to go around cleaning up the subfloor every time it rained.

Although the synthetic underlayment worked pretty well at keeping the rain out, if there was significant wind combined with rain, the water easily found its way under the underlayment where it could then drip and fall on the subflooring below — pretty depressing showing up to the job site after a hard rain knowing I was going to spend the first hour just cleaning up and looking for leaks.

roofers shingling south side

Seeing this felt like a tremendous amount of progress was being made. It also meant an end to our roof leaks on the interior.

 

shingle installation progressing

Shingles going on quickly.

After they cut the opening for the ridge vent, but before it was installed, I managed to get this shot from inside:

attic just before ridge vent installed

Attic as cathedral.

 

 

Stone Basement Window Wells

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The Design Goal

We always wanted a basement for our new house. The idea of building a new house on slab without one was foreign to us. Both my wife and I grew up in homes that had very active basement areas, with fond family and friend-related memories.

For both of us, basements were places to go for various games (board games, ping pong, pool, etc.), watching TV with family, a place for bulky exercise equipment, or just respite from hot summer sun.

And to improve the basement’s “livability”, we wanted it to have a 9′ ceiling height (we felt it made a big difference in our last house over a 7′ or 8′ ceiling), and large windows facing south.

We also thought that window wells that were more open and expansive could help draw in the sun, hopefully making the space feel less like a dungeon and more like normal living space (the window wells should have an additional side benefit, but I’ll explain that later).

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

In researching the Versa Lok product , I came across a series of interesting videos by Dirt Monkey on YouTube about retaining walls:

We like the long-term structural stability of the Versa Lok product, and it helps us achieve the Urban-Rustic look we’re going for.

We received several estimates, but decided to go with Poul’s Landscaping & Nursery since they had previous experience building these stone basement window wells. We paid a slight premium to do so, but part of that premium reflected their recommendation to use a concrete footing that would be tied into the foundation with rebar. Without it, they had seen too much movement on previous projects, creating future headaches and costly repairs.

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well

Candido and Felipe begin excavating the hole for the first window well.

 

carving outline of window well

They carve an outline for the dimensions of the window well.

 

shaping the hole for the window well

Felipe and Candido continue to dig out and shape the hole.

 

holed carved and shaped - ready for stone

Hole prepped for footings.

 

Candido putting down crushed stone for footing

Candido spreads out the crushed stone before setting up the form for the concrete footing.

 

Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing

Candido and Felipe set up the form for the concrete footing — got lucky with the timing of this shot — note the flying hammer and speed square.

 

prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar

Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.

 

close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings

Close up of the rebar going into the 5″ of Roxul and the foundation.

After the guys set the rebar in the foundation through the Roxul, I stuffed the holes as much as possible with pulled apart Roxul Comfortboard 80 before they did their pour for the footings.

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw

View through basement window buck before they started building up the first window well.

 

first blocks for first row

First row being set on the footing.

For color, we wanted a basic concrete gray, which we thought would complement our overall Urban-Rustic design look, in particular the eventual charred cedar siding.

Since firing our builder (there were two of them) in February, the job site has been quiet as I work alone, but then all of a sudden…

ComEd shows up with a new pole for our electric service, just as pallets of Versa Lok retaining wall block are delivered to site. The job site went from relative silence to hyperactivity — stressful, but also extremely exciting to see after such an extended delay.

Candido leveling 1st row on footing

Candido leveling the first row.

 

Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well

Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.

The first wall begins to rise:

 

washed gravel to backfill around window wells

Piles of washed gravel for back fill behind the walls of the window wells.

 

wdw well tools of the trade from above

Tools of the trade.

 

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill

Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.

 

Candido applying adhesive to block

Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.

 

Felipe and Candido double checking their work

Felipe and Candido double checking their work.

 

geotextile fabric

Geotextile fabric being installed for soil stabilization, and to improve the overall integrity of the wall.

 

Felipe prepping for capstones

Felipe covering up the fabric in preparation for the last couple of rows of block.

 

close up of capstones

Close up of capstones on the pallet from above.

 

capstones going on

Capstones being installed on the first wall.

capstones complete #2

First window well complete before backfill.

 

Spring sun peeking into basement window

Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.

 

basement window letting in light

Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.

 

Candido building up the 2nd wdw well

Candido building up the second wall.

 

finished window well (west)

Completed second window well.

Views of first completed window well from inside the house:

On the next to last day, Felipe and Candido could’ve rushed to finish, but instead they came back for a few hours the following day to complete their work while also doing a really nice job of cleaning up — which we noticed and really appreciated. They even took the time to put back scrap plywood sheets that ran from the driveway to the front step so I didn’t have to.

Felipe has been working for Poul’s for 40 years (the company has been around for 50 years). Putting that into some kind of perspective, that means Felipe’s been doing this kind of work since the Jimmy Carter administration — that’s astounding.

Candido and Felipe make a great team: they seemed to really enjoy working together, they’re both diligent and conscientious, and it was fun to watch them do their thing — a mixture of back-breaking labor and skill.

Candido and Felipe finishing up

Candido and Felipe — thank you for doing such a nice job!

Oiling Charred Cedar Siding

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Shou-Sugi-Ban with Tung Oil

The oil I see used most often on charred wood is Penefin, which is available in many of the big box stores. Another one I’ve used in the past is Sikkens. Cabot is yet another brand I’ve used (mostly for decks).

Any semi-transparent wood stain should work. If you go with a brushed char finish, you may want to experiment with color options to see what kind of effect it may have on the final finish (the semi-transparent stains typically come in a range of subtle color choices).

In our case, we decided to use Tung Oil mixed with Citrus Solvent (available from: realmilkpaint.com). Having used it previously on arts-and-crafts projects with good results, and because it’s considered No VOC, we felt it was a good choice (although not the cheapest option). We’ll also be using the same combination of products for our hardwood flooring.

tung-oil-citrus-solvent

Tung Oil & Citrus Solvent. We use a 1:1, or 50%-50% mix that combines the two products together.

We used a 1:1 mixture of Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent (they even sell it this way, pre-mixed, if you don’t want to deal with combining individual batches together). The Citrus Solvent acts like a traditional paint thinner (without the VOC’s or strong chemical smell), diluting the Tung Oil so it can more easily soak into the wood (it also smells great since it’s made from orange peels). The Citrus Solvent is also used for cleaning up tools, equipment, and any spills of the tung oil (also works great as a general purpose degreaser — especially above and around a stovetop).

USE CAUTION! — Although natural and safe, the Citrus Solvent can irritate bare skin. I always use either Latex or Nitrile gloves (readily available at any hardware store).

If you try using the Tung Oil alone, the difference in performance is obvious (the oil will mostly just sit on the surface, with little of it soaking in — a frustrating waste of time and money).

I decided to use a trough for dipping each board based on a project I saw online:

SONY DSC

Spartan & Hannah’s Home: zeroandbeyond.com

Their house and blog caught my attention early on, when we were just beginning to think about building new. Their project, along with several others, really got me excited about the possibility of building “green”.

Here’s a couple more:

Four Thick Walls (blog)

GO Logic (Red House project, featured in the video below)

Spartan and Hannah’s home (zeroandbeyond.com) is an excellent example of the Pretty Good House concept, and it’s definitely worth checking out, especially under the heading of Presentations: How to Build an Affordable Net Zero / Super Energy-efficient Home (pdf).

A lot of great information to get you thinking about exactly what it is you may want to build, and how to financially pull it off. They also have a lot of thoughtful and inventive design elements (love their granite floor built with cut waste from various countertop jobs — a very creative idea with a unique look).

Anyway, back to the trough: It’s much faster than trying to use a brush or roller, and it guarantees full coverage (many thanks to Spartan & Hannah for posting this simple, but time saving idea).

Below is my version of the same thing:

trough-long-view-from-side-up-drive

Made from scraps with 1×12 pine for the sides, and then 3/4″ plywood on the bottom. There are also 2×4’s underneath for structural stability. It’s about 1′ longer than our longest board, making it easy to get boards in and out (roughly 17′).

 

trough-long-view

Inside the trough, and to the right, I used cut ends of 2×4’s to create a ledge to rest the piece of cedar on while wiping it down with a squeegee. On each end of the trough I added a 2×4 to make it easier to lift and move around.

 

trough-looking-in-and-down-w-tung-oil

Once built, I went back and caulked all the seams, and any deeply set screws. We fill the trough with 6-8 gallons of the Tung Oil & Citrus Solvent mixture. It lasts quite awhile (and it’s fun to soak the boards).

Once in the trough, we would let each board sit for about 30 seconds in the Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent bath, before pulling it up and resting it on the 2×4 ledge. Seated on its perch, the board would get wiped down initially with just a squeegee.

board-in-the-trough

Soaking for 30 seconds.

 

sitting-on-the-edge-for-squeegee

Resting on the 2×4 ledge for wiping down the rough side.

 

squeegee-back-side

Board flipped, resting on the ledge, wiping down the smooth side.

 

on-the-ledge-ready-for-drying-rack

Board wiped on both sides, now ready for the drying rack.

At this point, we would walk it over to the drying rack.

drying-rack-wide-view

 

drying-rack-end-of

Picked up these inexpensive sawhorses at Home Depot. The 2×6 is screwed to the horse from below. We used 6″ screws to make our rows.

Once on the rack, we would use a brush to apply an additional coat of Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent, but only to the rough side, since it will be exposed directly to the elements.

close-up-drying-rack-w-screws-brushed

A board on the drying rack, just after being brushed with the Tung Oil. Spacing out the 6″ screws gives enough room for 10 boards.

After about 20 minutes on the drying rack, we would wipe down both sides of each board (the most laborious part of the job). Usually by the time you’ve placed the tenth board and brushed it, the first board is ready to be wiped down. We found that dust free cotton rags are the best option for this.

Typically, there’s not much oil left on the surface, as most of it has soaked in. The wiping just removes any excess that could cause an unwanted film to form on the surface of the wood (not attractive).

oiled-board-mostly-dry-ready-for-wipe-down

Board ready to be wiped down after resting for at least 20 minutes on the drying rack — most of the oil has visibly soaked in.

The only real down side to the wiping (apart from the time, energy, and the cost of the rags) is that it makes the boards more uniform in appearance — in other words, some of the texture in the gator look is lost due to the wiping. Nevertheless, this comes with an added benefit, namely, removing any char that might otherwise flake off in the first couple of rainstorms.

When the boards are finished and completely dry, the finish looks very durable (and sleek).

oiled-charred-boards-on-the-stack-to-dry

Oiled boards.

 

oiled-stack-begun

Oiled boards being stacked for drying.

Depending on temperature and humidity, it takes roughly a week for the boards to be dry to the touch.

monkeys-helping

My helpers. This is the fun part: applying Tung Oil to new boards — the change in appearance is immediate and dramatic.

 

natual-cedar-oiled

Oiled  “natural” cedar, waiting to be wiped down.

 

natural-and-charred-together

Natural oiled cedar next to charred cedar. We’re going to keep some boards natural as an accent.

It’s the wiping down of each board that requires some real elbow grease – no surprise my daughter disappeared at that point in the process (can’t blame her, it’s tedious work).

As long as you have at least two people working together — pulling boards, dipping, transferring to the drying rack, and then wiping down — the process isn’t too bad. Going solo would get old very quickly. It’s even better if you have a couple of people just setting up the drying rack and wiping down while a third person pulls boards and dips.

There’s no question the process takes time and effort, but the results are unique and, we think, very beautiful.

bee-on-charred-cedar

The last bees of the season keep showing up as we oil the boards. They can’t resist the citrus solvent. It’s always sad to see them go at this time of the year.

Cedar Siding Delivered…

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… LET’S BURN IT!!!

charred-cedar-burn-and-natural

Charring a 1×6 piece of cedar. This will likely end up as either a window or door surround.

For our siding, we’re using an old Japanese technique for preserving wood called Shou-Sugi-Ban (aka: charred cedar — although any number of species of wood could work).

You can check out a series of helpful DIY videos here: Starting Over…

There’s some flexibility in exactly how it’s done, and there are various looks that can be achieved. We’re going for mostly a “gator” finish, meaning the cedar will have an alligator skin-like appearance. This is considered a heavy burn.

An alternative way of doing it would be to “gator” it first with fire, then scrape the excess char off, leaving behind a smoother, lighter, but still charred and protected finish (see video below).

Video of Brushed Charred Cedar: Dry vs. Wet Brush

Here are a few pictures that highlight the difference:

charred cedar samples on driveway

2 boards on the left: gator finish / 3 boards on the right: brushed finish.

Once the charred wood has been oiled (whether it’s with a gator finish or a brushed finish), it will look something like this:

charred-board-gator-to-brushed

Scrap board showing gator and brushed finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-gator-finish

Close up of gator finish after oiling.

 

charred-w-brushed-finish

Close up of brushed finish after oiling (cloudy day). In sunlight, the red tones of the cedar become more pronounced.

There are companies in the US that are exploring the limits of what can be done with shou-sugi-ban, including the use of various species of wood, a range of options in the level of char, and potential areas for its installation:

Delta Millworks (Texas)

reSAWN TIMBER co. (Pennsylvania)

charred-cedar-small-pile

The beginnings of our stack, using 1×2’s to give the wood support and plenty of space for air circulation (this becomes more important after we apply the oil finish).

Either way, the char doesn’t go very deep into the wood, and it doesn’t have to in order to be effective — either for looks or durability.

For instance, once the wood has been charred, it will be fire resistant. The charred surface actually protects the wood from further burning. I had to see this to believe it, but if you char a piece and then hold the torch in one spot it really does resist burning (you can eventually reduce the wood to ash, but it takes a surprisingly long time).

The charred wood will also be unappetizing to insects or rodents, and once covered in its attractive black armor, the surface can face decades of sun and rain (80-100 years is the usual claim for its longevity) with little or no maintenance, apart from an occasional fresh coat of oil (every 15 years or so?).

Our wall assembly will utilize a fairly substantial rain screen, meaning there will be significant air movement behind the siding, so one could argue it should be unnecessary to char the back of each piece, but we’ve chosen to do so for the added peace of mind (and not a really significant amount of additional time — and the charring is fun to do anyway).

For cut ends and mitered joints, we will use tung oil to help seal these areas (similar to painted wood siding that gets a swipe of oil based primer in these same spots just before installation).

charred-cedar-small-pile-low-angle

Most of the siding will be 1×6 tongue and groove. The remaining 1x material will be for areas of trim.

Once charred, the wood can immediately be installed, or, as we’ve chosen to do, you can oil it first. After experimenting a little back in 2015, applying an oil finish seems to bind the char to the wood better than leaving it just “as is” (regardless if the level of char is light or heavy).

Also, if you don’t oil, then the surface remains like a charcoal briquet, so any time it’s touched some of the char will rub off — just imagine the reaction of friends or family the first time someone leans against the siding, or if you have kids running around and they touch the char. It could be a real mess.

In addition, if you choose not to oil, then every time the charred wood is cut during installation black dust will go flying (whoever does the installation will not be pleased when their hands, bodies, and lungs are covered in a layer of fine soot — picture a 19th century Welsh coal miner).

So for durability, looks, and ease of installation, we’ve decided to take the extra step of oiling each piece as well (more about this process later).

…Our stack of completed boards grows…

charred-cedar-texture-long-view-of-pile

The stack as the sun begins to set.

 

charred-cedar-close-up-gator-2

An alligator (or just ‘gator’) finish with the knots still showing through.

 

charred-cedar-close-up-%22gator%22

The charred wood, depending on the angle and level of light, can take on silvery tones (although, in our experience, this mostly goes away once the wood has been oiled — producing a uniformly black appearance).

 

charred-cedar-close-up-lighter-version

A board with a lighter char.

There is a range in the level of char we want to achieve. While most boards will have the gator finish, much lighter boards (a few even lighter than the one pictured above) will be part of the mix as well. We think this will make for a more interesting overall look, but it also takes the pressure off, slightly, if you have more than one person doing the charring (each person will have a slightly different definition of ‘gator’).

We’re also curious to see how the lighter boards will age with time: Will the lighter undertones of raw cedar turn gray and blend nicely with the char? Or will the natural color, peeking through the black surface, stick around longer than we think?

As far as the tools involved, the following have worked for us:

inferno-torch-full-shot

Found the Inferno torch on Amazon.com and at our local Home Depot.

 

inferno-close-up

So far, it’s been a real workhorse.

 

inferno-w-various-tank-sizes

The inferno will work with almost any size tank.

 

100-tank-from-tebons-gas

100 lb. tank from Tebon’s Gas Service in Niles, Illinois.

We were planning to use the typical 40 pound propane tank that’s used for grilling. Fortunately, my wife was smart enough to look around online for us, and she found these 100 lb. tanks instead.

These 100 lb. tanks have worked out great — no trips to a big box store for refills on the smaller tanks. And by buying the gas in bulk, they’ve also saved us some money as well.

100-tank-w-condensation-full-shot

You can follow the level of the tank by looking for condensation. The only down side to these larger tanks is once they hit this level, about 1/4 full, pressure drops significantly, so it takes twice as long to burn a board.

Here are some of the key connections involved:

hose-to-tank-connection

 

hose-to-hose-connection

10′ hose combined with 25′ extension hose.

 

hose-to-torch-connection-1

The long silver component is the throttle for the boost function.

The Inferno comes with a 10′ hose, which works okay, but we bought a 25′ extension hose on Amazon that definitely makes life easier by allowing you to get further away from the tank for a wider range of motion.

sealant-for-hose-connections

If you decide to use an extension hose, you’ll need this sealant to make proper, sealed connections. If you’re lucky, someone in tool repair at your local hardware store will do this for you.

In terms of safety, in addition to a pair of sunglasses or construction safety glasses, proper hearing protection is a must. If you’re doing just one or two boards, the noise level of the torch isn’t a big deal. However, if you plan to do dozens of boards at one time, we would definitely recommend some kind of hearing protection. The torch is undeniably loud (we’re lucky we have patient, forgiving neighbors).

Welding gloves have also been a real help. On windy days, the boards tend to stay lit longer, but it’s easy to just pat or rub out the small areas of flame with the welding gloves. And they’re a must for moving the boards around right after charring.

welding-gloves

We found these in our local Home Depot tool department.

We also keep a couple of 5 gallon buckets around, only partially filled, so it would be easy to toss it at someone who’s just burst into flames (let’s hope this never happens).

In addition, we have a 6′ step ladder set up as a station to hold the torch when not in use, and it’s a convenient spot to drape a garden hose with a nice spray nozzle, so it’s in easy reach if something should go wrong. We also occasionally spray down the concrete, hoping this discourages any stray embers from landing and then floating away to ignite something in the surrounding area.

To be honest, the only time I got myself in trouble was when the 100 lb. tank was 1/4 full and the pressure had dropped. Normally, we barely have gas running through the hose and coming out of the torch because the boost switch on the torch is so effective. Because of the pressure drop, I turned up more gas, hoping it would counteract the loss of pressure, but instead I just managed to catch my jeans on fire at the knee (momentarily, thanks to a handy 5 gallon bucket of water). I was extremely lucky, and lesson definitely learned.

Right as the sun is going down is the most exciting time to burn — the flame becomes vivid, and it’s really fun to watch as it dances across the surface of the board.

torch-evening-flame

 

charring-1x8-cedar-2

That left hole in the knee is the one that I managed to catch on fire — notice I’m keeping a safe distance from the flame.

 

lions-head-in-flames

Playing with fire: Do you see the lion’s head?

 

head-of-a-cardinal

Head of a cardinal?

Videos demonstrating the charring:

Video 1: Charring 1x Material

Video 2: Charring

The 1x material, whether 1×6 or 1×8, takes longer to burn since we found it impossible to get the face and the edge all in one pass. You can definitely pick up more of a rhythm with the 1×6 T&G boards. And we haven’t gone for a gator appearance on the back (smooth side) of each board, instead going for a lighter char, which also helps to speed things up for each board.

How much will all this cost?

How long will it take?

For our single story, just under 1700 sq. ft. house (outside dimensions), with an attached 2-car garage, these are how our numbers break down:

  • Time to burn (per board): about 1-2 minutes a side
  • In 6-8 hours, 40-80 boards is realistic (depends on level of char, and if it’s 1x or T&G)
  • Total time to burn all the boards we should need: ±80 hours
  • For torch, hearing protection, welding gloves, extension hose: $100-150
  • Per 100 lb. tank: $80-90 (8 total tanks to finish).
  • 1×2’s, or similar material, for stacking the completed boards: $100-200
  • #3 or better Cedar (1×6 T&G, 1×6, and 1×8): approx. $8-10,000

Keep in mind, this doesn’t include the time or expense required to oil each board (again, more on that later).

One final, additional challenge was getting quality boards.

Our first order of cedar, via a big box store, came from Mary’s River (they’ve either gone out of business, or their manufacturing plant burned down — depends on who you ask). Their rate of waste was about 10-15%, so not bad at all. It felt like I had to go looking for bad boards (board bends to the left or right at the end, U-shaped from the middle, broken or missing tongues/grooves, or cracked/split boards).

In subsequent orders, with a company called Tri-Pro, the rate of waste was about 40%. Luckily, the big box stores are okay with returns, nevertheless this gets frustrating.

And even with the big box stores themselves, there can be significant differences in quality from one location to another. Our first couple of orders were poorly packed and just wrong. Then, after going to a second location to order, in Long Grove, this showed up:

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet

A neatly packed pallet — when you’ve dealt with a messy one, this is a thing of beauty.

 

charred-cedar-neatly-packed-pallet-broken-down

Deconstructing the pallet. The plywood really makes a difference in protecting the wood.

 

pallet-from-menards-paperwork

“We are proud of this pallet”… and it clearly shows. Thank you!

I can’t tell you whether the person (or persons) who put this specific pallet together actually enjoys their job, but what I know for sure is that they give a shit (to be perfectly blunt).

Unfortunately, this level of quality and pride in workmanship is exceedingly rare — anywhere, in any occupation — so when you see it, it can’t help but stand out and grab your attention.

charred-cedar-putting-the-weasel-to-work

We even got the Beast involved — pulling labels, tags, and staples.

“How did I get here?…”

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So Why Build an Eco-friendly “Green” Home Anyway?

In the summer my wife and I teach a class together, called Excel 2, which is one small component of a larger, overall Excel Program (my wife is a high school Social Studies teacher).

Typically, Excel students come from first-generation immigrant families. They are college-bound students who have exhibited great potential, but who are in need of some encouragement, particularly in regards to taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses (huffington post). For most of our students, they will be the first ones in their family to attend college, so it is understandably an intimidating prospect in any number of ways.

The course itself is three weeks in the summer session, its focus on developing reading and writing skills by utilizing non-fiction reading assignments. We emphasize the importance of correct spelling, proper grammar usage, and attention to detail by requiring multiple revisions to several thesis paragraphs, which are themselves based mostly on college-level reading assignments.

You can imagine how well this goes over with incoming high school sophomores and juniors — especially in summer. We’ve tried to overcome this dilemma (how to motivate young high school students to tackle a course based on rigor when many of their friends are out enjoying summer break) by delving into topics they are intimately familiar with, but hopefully in ways they have not yet confronted.

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Some of our Excel students with my wife, Anita: (front row) Aubrey and Imani, (back row) Eduardo, Anita, Cecelia, and Karen. 

As a whole, 50% of the students attending Palatine High School qualify for free and reduced lunch. Not surprisingly, then, the Excel students face some unique, if not daunting challenges, both in and out of the classroom. In addition to the normal stresses associated with being a teenager, many of them deal with balancing school work with long work hours at low-paying jobs (helping their families make ends meet), social pressures to stray down the wrong path (in any number of ways), and even (most heart-breaking of all) confronting what researchers term being food insecure — in plain English, not always knowing when or where they will get their next meal.

We present the class to the students as an opportunity to test themselves, to really see where they are, currently, in terms of a whole host of skills. The main goal of the Excel 2 program, therefore, is to really challenge their abilities, not just in terms of reading and writing skills, but also soft skills such as interpersonal communication, the importance of body language, time management, and self-discipline.

Essentially, we try to give them a college-level course experience, hoping it better prepares them for the eventual reality. In other words, we’d rather they struggle in high school with us than have it happen when away from home for the first time, off on their own, at college  (atlantic)  (newsweek)  (washington post).

Here’s an example of our ever-changing syllabus:  Excel 2 – 2015

As you can see from the reading assignments, we encourage our students to start asking questions about everyday things they may be taking for granted. We hope this sharpens their critical thinking skills, but we also hope it encourages them to be more active participants in their lives, rather than just sleepwalking through their days as passive consumers.

Consequently, when it came time for us to find a new place to live, we saw it as a good opportunity to practice what we preach:

  • What exactly do you want from a new house?
  • If you’re going to buy a house (and you’re lucky enough to even contemplate doing so), what should it look like? A condo? A townhouse? Or a single-family residence?
  • In which neighborhood are you going to buy?
  • How many square feet do you want (or need)? How many bedrooms? Do you want (or need) a formal living room or dining room? Do you want (or need) a basement?
  • What architectural style appeals to you?
  • How are you going to furnish the interior?
  • Should you care about indoor air quality (IAQ)? And if you do, how do you protect it or improve it?
  • What do you want in your walls and attic for insulation? How much do you need?
  • How much will utilities cost? Are there cost-effective ways to reduce those costs?
  • Are renewables — solar, wind, or geothermal — worth considering? How long is the payback period?
  • Do you want your house to be environmentally friendly — and what does that mean anyway?

Instead of moving into the typical, leaky, not very environmentally friendly suburban condo, townhome, or house (we were leaving behind the latter), we thought it would be more interesting to see just how “green” we could make our next house.

Because we wanted a yard to do plenty of landscaping and gardening, we narrowed the choices down to a single-family house. And, instead of tackling the challenges that come with a retrofit, we decided to try building new.

Much like hearing Jonathan Ive talk about an Apple keyboard, we appreciated the detail required to meet the certified Passive House standard. At the time (summer 2014), this seemed like the way to go.

After the experience we had with our original builder (2015), and then subsequently trying to learn as much as possible about the Passive House standard, in addition to discovering the Pretty Good House concept along the way, our house plans have evolved into a kind of 3-headed hybrid: Passive House science + Pretty Good House + Net Zero (Zero Net Energy: ZNE).

The goal of all three is to dramatically reduce the energy consumption of our house as much as possible (especially our dependence on the energy grid). We also want to do a significant amount of planting and growing in our yard, mostly xeric plants that require little additional watering, in order to combine house and yard into an eco-friendly system of sorts.

Our last home (approx. 2800 sq. ft.) was a fairly typical suburban tract house. It had builder-grade windows and doors (most of which had to be replaced after just a few years), very little insulation in the walls (the switch for the back porch light would actually ice up when temperatures fell below 20° F), and it had a great deal of under-utilized space (e.g. a two-story foyer, a formal living room and dining room, and a fourth bedroom, all of which saw little use).

With our new home (just over 1500 sq. ft. of living space), we’re trying to turn all of this on its head so we end up with something we really want and will enjoy. To paraphrase Kevin McCloud: ‘maybe it’s better to have a little bit of something special than a lot of something mediocre’.

An oft-quoted statistic (1)­ suggests a significant amount of our greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to our structures (typically the figure is in the 40-50% range) — including residential, commercial, industrial, and governmental — so maybe change really does begin at home (SA) (greenbelt movement).

 

(1) According to a recent Fine Homebuilding article, “Better Than Average”, by Brian Pontolilo: “It’s not clear how much our homes contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions and to climate change. The most recent data available from the Department of Energy is from 2009-2010. Outdated as it is, this data indicates that residential buildings contribute around 20% of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. This includes fossil fuels used on-site (e.g. natural gas for cooking and heating) as well as electricity.” (September, 2016 issue, p. 64)

 

And if you’re wondering about the quote in the title of this blog entry, it’s a line from this song: