kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Category Archives: Exterior Design

Siding Part 2: Charred Cedar (Shou Sugi Ban)

0

Building a Passive House: Science, then Art

We wanted the process of creating our new home to be fun, so from the outset we approached the build as a mix of science experiment and art project.

For the structure, this meant utilizing building science research to properly air seal, insulate, and ventilate to ensure that we ended up with a house that’s hopefully durable, stingy with its use of electricity, and that functions well on a daily basis for many years to come.

In terms of design, it meant spending an inordinate amount of time on the floor plan, carefully defining how we would move through and live in the structure, while also carefully considering the seemingly infinite options when it comes to finishes, both for the interior and the exterior of the home (with an emphasis on low or no VOC products to protect indoor air quality) .

With most of the wall assembly details finally in place on the house, putting up the charred cedar siding represented the first real transition from science to art. And with Passive House details mostly taken care of, we could begin to make decisions in real time regarding how we wanted the house to look, both inside and out, in terms of finishes.

Since our house is relatively small, at least by recent American standards, many of the sins associated with McMansions were easy to avoid (McMansion Hell faces lawsuit).

 

 

On a side note, if trends continue, owners of these McMansions may be in for a rude awakening when it comes time to sell:

 

South Barrington McMansions Languishing

 

McMansions at Fire-Sale Prices

 

Affluent Chicago suburbs aren’t alone in facing this dilemma:

 

McMansions No One Wants

 

Killing the McMansion

 

If such reports prove to be accurate, and tastes really are fundamentally changing, perhaps it can be tied to a growing awareness of climate change and its implications. After all, these larger homes tend to be energy hogs, not to mention maintenance nightmares because of poorly planned and executed construction details — in part, a consequence of preferring quantity over quality. Moreover, there’s a growing chorus of voices espousing the benefits of simplicity (e.g. the tiny house movement, or minimalism). This is often wedded to an appreciation for the handmade or artisan object, as opposed to the mass-produced, and typically homogenous, product.

Nevertheless, it seems doubtful that the suburbs will ever be abandoned wholesale, and for any number of reasons.

For more on suburbia, go here: Building in the Suburbs

 

 

Massing: Basic Forms

For our house, the structure is a basic rectangular box with a gable roof (long sides face north and south with the gable ends to the east and west). It’s not unlike the basic form most children would come up with if prompted to draw a house. We really like the simplicity of this kind of roof style for aesthetic reasons, but also for the ease of installation and the long-term durability of the roof.

 

When we concentrate on the essential elements in design, when we omit all superfluous elements, we find forms become: quiet, comfortable, understandable and, most importantly, long-lasting.
—Dieter Rams

 

Bronwyn Barry has even coined a hashtag for this use of very basic forms,  #BoxyButBeautifulespecially popular with Passive House design since it can help eliminate potential thermal bridges while making air sealing more straightforward.

 

1st layer rockwool at frt door

Wojtek installing Rockwool around the front door, next to the garage.

 

We tried to avoid having the garage as part of the front of the house, in particular having the garage door facing the street (a look I’m not fond of), but physical limitations, in terms of the lot itself, left us with little choice in the matter. So rather than repeat the gable roofline of the house, we went with a shed roof for the garage. The shed roof adds some visual interest, while it also ensures that any rainfall in this area immediately gets sent to the north side of the house where we want it — away from the foundation as well as bypassing the driveway altogether (water flows to the north on our street).

We also felt that these two rooflines fit in well with our Urban Rustic design aesthetic. As a mash-up between early 20th century city and farm, both the simple gable and stark shed rooflines would be equally at home in an agricultural setting or on a densely packed inner city block.

In addition, it was important to us to have some fun with color, so on the exterior using black charred cedar with some natural highlights would give us the bold look we were going for, while accent walls inside with bright, playful colors would help bring the interior to life, accompanied by hand-made or hand-selected decorative objects in various bold colors.

When done well, this child-like use of color can lend a space or structure a real sense of vibrant energy.

 

 

Already a fan of Jack White’s use of color for album artwork and the staging of live shows for The White Stripes, I appreciated the way he chose to decorate the exterior of his Third Man Records in Nashville. A form that was as basic as it gets — single story brick warehouse — becomes vivid and hard to miss, in a good way, with a splash of color on what would otherwise be a monochromatic black box. The “insert” around the front door, offering a little shelter with some nice shadow lines, along with the crisp signage finish off what is a clean, sleek, but still playful, look.

 

 

He’s done something similar with the interiors, in this case, for the Detroit store:

 

 

 

Siding Layout for our Charred Cedar (Shou Sugi Ban)

Since we were building custom, rather than working within the constraints of tract housing in a larger subdivision (as we did with our first house) where many of the design choices are already made for you, we knew we wanted to take some chances in terms of materials and layout.

It also helps that we’re in a neighborhood with mixed architectural styles, including single-family homes and townhomes, with structures and exteriors running the gamut between old and new, as well as traditional and contemporary. We felt like this gave us more latitude to try something different without upsetting the overall look of the neighborhood.

With a smaller structure and only two basic rooflines, we knew any experimentation or design risk was going to have to occur at the level of siding materials and their orientation.

Knowing its weaknesses, I never imagined using wood for any part of the exterior of my house should the day come when I could build my own home. Brick, stone, metal, any number of man-made products (e.g. PVC or Boral), all seemed like the smarter way to go to avoid maintenance headaches and costly repairs. I assumed we’d end up using Hardie plank siding, or one of their paneling configurations, or maybe even some kind of metal product.

But then I came across charred cedar, or shou sugi ban.

It’s hard to remember now exactly where I saw it for the first time since it would’ve been before 2015 probably, but I think it was a Dwell magazine profile of Terunobu Fujimori’s work. I may have even first seen the same architect featured in Philip Jodidio’s book Architecture Now! (HOUSES, volume 1). Regardless, once seen, it was hard to forget.

 

 

When we first began working with our initial builder, Evolutionary Home Builders, I brought them some rudimentary drawings I had done, expressing our desire to try something creative and out of the ordinary, especially in terms of siding layout.

 

sketch black:gray

An early drawing of mine showing mostly gray with black accents for siding.

 

Instead, their architect, Patrick Danaher, came back with an extremely conservative layout, one that’s fairly omnipresent when looking at single story ranch homes in the Chicago area.

 

ehb s and w elevations

Proposed siding layout from Evolutionary Home Builders.

 

Our use of charred cedar would have been the one change from what is typically a combination of brick or stone on the bottom 2/3 of a wall with painted or stained wood up above, usually with a limestone ledge in-between to visually and physically separate the two materials.

 

brown - brick typical layout

Popular way to break up the cladding on a ranch home, in this case mixing brick and wood.

 

 

brick w: light sd

Another example of the same layout, this time with lighter colored siding.

 

The photos above are included not to disparage this look, which I actually like, but to give specific examples from our area of this traditional layout; one that’s seen on probably thousands of homes in just the Chicago area alone. Although attractive, I couldn’t help but feel that this layout was a cliched repeat of what’s already been done countless times before, which, nevertheless, would’ve been entirely appropriate had we been asking for a more traditional look.

Instead, it was pretty shocking to get their initial drawings since I had clearly expressed our willingness to think outside the box in order to experiment with something unique and fun, even avant-garde (or, at the very least, contemporary). The fact that Brandon Weiss (the owner) and Eric Barton (chief field officer) were also in these design meetings and they, too, had nothing to offer on this point did not seem to bode well for our project.

Initially I lacked the confidence to argue against Patrick’s suggested layout (they’re supposed to be the experts, right?). I just assumed my ideas were simply too bizarre to work. Over time, particularly as I saw how they did things with a lack of care and a lack of attention to detail (see below), combined with looking around online and seeing how other projects experimented with unique siding layouts, I eventually realized there was no reason not to try something bolder and more well thought-out.

In the meantime, I put together a fairly large sample board, mixing the charred cedar with the natural cedar mostly in accordance with their initial suggested layout:

 

charred cedar sample board with natural

Sample board with natural and charred cedar.

 

This sample board, although attractive, confirmed a couple of things I was worried about:

First, the layout was way too traditional looking, even with the charred cedar.

Second, this amount of natural cedar around the house would be a pain to maintain over the years, costing me significant time and energy, if not money (the maintenance labor would be DIY), probably requiring a fresh coat of tung oil at least every other year, if not annually. Since we wanted a natural look, any kind of traditional spar varnish, or other shiny clear-coat, didn’t seem appropriate. Although one option, open to us even now, is to just let the tung oil break down and let the natural boards turn gray over time (although it can be a somewhat unpredictable process).

Finally, since we felt the charred wood next to the natural was visually so electric, I thought it best to limit the combination to try and heighten the effect.

 

natural-and-charred-together

“Natural” cedar, treated with tung oil, next to the charred cedar.

 

In the end, Patrick’s suggested layout struck me as rather staid and uninspired (if not, to put it bluntly, half-assed).

On a side note, we didn’t have much luck with the three or four architects we came across during our build. They seemed mostly disinterested when they weren’t outright lazy. See the floating toilet in our initial drawings:

 

floating toilet

First look at our initial drawings from Evolutionary Home Builders — note the floating toilet in the middle of the basement floor.

 

No one — not the architect of record, not Patrick, not even Brandon the owner — could be bothered to give the drawings even a cursory edit/revision before handing them over to us. This certainly planted the seed, along with their generally disordered style of communication, that all was not well regarding the level of care, or even interest, our project was going to receive from them for the duration of the build.

I guess the situation could’ve been even worse:

 

 

Unfortunately, the issues we had in establishing our siding layout were emblematic of our overall experience building a new house, whether it was with architects, general contractors, or some (but certainly not all) of our sub-contractors: we were shocked by the overall lack of integrity, curiosity, and workmanship.

Far too often it felt like rather than having partners in an exciting process we were actually being held back by people who didn’t seem to really enjoy what they did for a living. Making matters still worse, not only did they seem bored, but the work itself was often mediocre when it wasn’t clearly incompetent.

Unfortunately, even acting as our own GC didn’t help matters, since a competent GC with a long track record has had the time to develop relationships with subcontractors he or she can trust to deliver in terms of schedule and craftsmanship.

I keep coming back to these issues in multiple blog posts mainly as a warning to others who are considering pursuing their own self-build (or even hiring a general contractor to do the work for them), encouraging them to have realistic expectations and to better understand just what they’re up against when it comes to the construction industry — particularly if they wish to try anything new or different.

At any rate, with the decision made to use the charred cedar, we went ahead and prepped the wood before construction began. You can read about the details here:

Cedar Siding Delivered…
Oiling Charred Cedar Siding

 

 

Installing the Charred Cedar

With all of the components of our wall assembly in place, Wojtek and Mark finally started installing the charred cedar on the house, beginning with the garage. This was easily one of the most exciting moments of the build.

I think Wojtek and Mark were secretly excited, too, if only because they were finally finished with all of the insulation and layers of strapping.

 

1st pce char going on

Wojtek and Mark installing the first piece of charred cedar on the south side of the garage.

 

 

1st few rows south sd sd gar

Wojtek and Mark making progress on the south side of the garage.

 

It was more than a little exciting to see the first pieces going up, especially considering how far off-track our project had gotten early on.

 

s garage char 1:2 way

First few rows of charred cedar going up on the south side of the garage.

 

With no choice but to have the garage thrust forward and so prominent on our front elevation, we just had to make the best of the situation. One way of addressing it was to shake up the orientation of the charred cedar. Since the house itself was going to be all vertical (we just find it more interesting), it made sense to change the north and south sides of the garage to horizontal.

 

south garage 1st pce east wojtek and mark

Wojtek and Mark starting the east, vertically oriented, side of the garage.

 

In doing so, on the south side by the front porch this horizontal orientation would draw in the viewer’s attention, hopefully pointing it towards the front door of the house. Even as you walk up the front steps this horizontal orientation, I would argue, does its subtle magic fairly well. At the street, or out in the front yard, this effect seems to work even better.

 

garage south sd start east wojtek and mark

Finally getting to see the combination of horizontal and vertical orientations combined.

 

In mixing the siding’s orientation in this way it also helps to show what the material can do visually. Lastly, having these two sides of the garage oriented horizontally should also emphasize that this portion of the structure serves a different function (i.e. garage vs. house).

After having the charred cedar hidden away in storage for so long, it was extremely rewarding to finally see it going up.

 

close up char on garage texture

Close-up of several charred cedar boards.

 

It was nice to see that it was every bit as beautiful and interesting to look at as we had initially thought while making it.

 

oil and texture on garage sd

The range of textures and subtle variation in color makes the charred cedar truly unique.

 

In keeping with our Urban Rustic aesthetic, the charred cedar — which would look just as good on a farmhouse or outbuilding as it would on an early 20th century artisan workshop or small factory warehouse — also represents our desire to bring in elements that reflect the Japanese notion of wabi-sabi.

 

 

For example, stressing the wood with fire instantly gives it an aged appearance, and the amount of variation also makes clear it’s a natural material, as opposed to an industrial product manufactured to meet narrow and precise tolerances, with the goal being absolute uniformity. Whether it’s the knots, the lighter or heavier areas of char, some areas of natural cedar peeking through, or the ‘oil stain’ marks, the charred cedar emphasizes and celebrates imperfections and inconsistencies in the wood, sometimes to great effect even within a single piece — to the point where the most singular board catches your eye and you can’t help but linger over it. Instead of being annoyed by difference, the charred cedar actually encourages you to go looking for the most unique boards.

 

 

Following installation guidelines, Wojtek and Mark used only stainless steel nails to attach all of the cedar siding.

 

garage sd out front door

View of the garage from the front doorway.

 

 

south gar sd mostly done mark in bg

First look at a large section of the charred cedar siding installed.

 

 

south gar sd bringing you in to frt dr

A second view.

 

With the south side of the garage mostly complete, Wojtek and Mark could move on to the north side.

 

n side garage furring and coravent

North side of the garage prepped and ready for siding.

 

 

1st pce north gar sd

First few pieces going up on the north side of the garage.

 

For the soffits, we were initially going to use another Cor-A-Vent product, their PS-400 Strip Vent to complete our ‘cold’ roof assemblies, which on the house already included a ridge vent.

 

Cor-A-Vent PS-400 Box

Box of PS-400 strips for soffit ventilation.

 

But after opening the box and really taking a look at the product, they just seemed really flimsy. I’m sure they work fine, but holding them in your hand doesn’t exactly breed confidence. Also, seeing Wojtek’s stink face as he carefully studied a couple of pieces only confirmed that we needed another option.

After looking around online, I ended up finding a product at a local Home Depot.

 

mesh for soffits

Metal mesh product we used for soffit ventilation.

 

Not only did the metal mesh appear more substantial, I thought it would look better with the charred cedar than the PS-400, making for a nice contrast with the wood. I also really liked how it revealed some of the structure through the mesh for a more raw, unfinished look — again, in keeping with our Urban Rustic design goals.

 

close up soffit screen complete

Close-up of the soffit metal mesh installed.

 

 

outside view n gar soffit

First section of soffit going up with the metal mesh in place for ventilating the roof.

 

 

mark w: gar soffit screen mostly complete

Mark waiting for a cut, with most of the soffit and siding installed on this side of the garage.

 

 

garage soffit w: screen complete

Section of soffit complete with metal mesh installed.

 

 

north garage sd soffit complete

North side complete, with the frieze board finishing off the rainscreen details.

 

We were going to copy a Hammer and Hand diagram for the top of a wall, in particular their rainscreen detail for the frieze board:

 

https:::hammerandhand.com:best-practices:manual:4-rain-screens:4-1-top-wall:

Courtesy of Hammer and Hand and their Best Practices Manual.

 

After talking through the details, Wojtek and Mark found the notch in the frieze board to be an overly fussy detail, preferring to keep this piece fully intact. To do this, they ripped down 2×2 furring strips to a thickness they could use as blocking behind the frieze board, pushing the frieze board out just beyond the plane of the siding, leaving a roughly 1/4″ continuous gap.

Apart from slightly more room directly above the Cor-A-Vent strip, the end result is much the same — a small gap between the frieze board and the top piece of tongue and groove siding allows air behind the siding to flow freely up and out of the wall assembly through the top of the Cor-A-Vent strips.

The Cor-A-Vent strips are kept about a 1/4″ below the initial blocking directly above them.

 

wd view top of garage rscreen

Top of the wall is ready for siding, and for establishing the air gap for the wall’s rainscreen.

 

 

mark blocking 4 frieze and vent

Mark adding blocking in preparation for the frieze board to finish off the top of the wall.

 

A close-up view from the side showing the details for the rainscreen at the top of the wall:

 

wide view garage frieze w: blocking sd

Top of the Cor-A-Vent and the top piece of siding. Frieze board being installed over blocking in the background.

 

On the house, the guys adjusted the placement of the frieze blocking, lowering it so that it was in line with the first layer of 2×4 blocking, thus closing off any unnecessary open space behind the frieze board.

 

close up rainscreen gap n garage

Close-up of the soffit with frieze board and air gap for the rainscreen directly below it.

 

With the north and south sides of the garage mostly complete, the guys moved on to the front of the garage.

 

garage south sd start east wojtek and mark

Wojtek and Mark moving across the front of the garage with the charred cedar now oriented vertically.

 

The change to our wall assembly — using 2×4’s instead of 1×4’s for our first layer of strapping so that the siding could hang down just past the metal flashing and Rockwool on the foundation — had one nasty unintended consequence for the north side of the house: the 14′ boards we had purchased, charred, and oiled were now about 3″ too short — they were initially supposed to sit just above the flashing and Rockwool, not hang down several inches below this area.

With little time to spare, since Wojtek and Mark were cruising right along, my wife Anita and our friend Maria worked tirelessly to get longer boards completed in time, while I tung oiled each board almost as soon as it was burned.

 

char as garage sd east goes up

Anita starting to burn additional boards as Mark and Wojtek keep working.

 

 

most of east side garage complete

Mark mostly done with the front of the garage.

 

For the front of the garage, Wojtek and Mark repeated the same rainscreen details, only this time with the siding oriented vertically.

 

sd soffit w: frieze for vent gap

Overhang on the front of the garage: frieze board completing the rainscreen, soffit boards, and rake boards being installed.

 

 

garage soffit and rake

Closer view of garage soffit and rake being installed.

 

 

garage side view strapping vent sd

Cut away view of the siding with a rainscreen set-up behind it.

 

Wojtek and Mark did a nice job with the soffits at all of the outside corners.

Note the ‘tiger striping’ on the bottom edge of the rake fascia board, along with the variation in color and texture from one board to another — an example of ‘perfectly imperfect’ according to wabi-sabi principles — including the subtle pencil marks for their cuts (still visible almost two years later).

 

outside corner soffit w: tiger stripe

Close-up of the garage soffit at an outside corner.

 

 

nw corner garage start n sd

The guys making the transition from the garage to the north side of the house.

 

For the north side of the house I wanted to keep the charred cedar a monolithic black. The only real relief from this was the change in orientation of the siding from the north side of the garage to the house, along with a single window for my daughter’s bedroom.

 

north side char

Charred cedar on the north side of the garage and the house.

 

Knowing that the other three sides of the house would be getting some natural cedar accents, I thought keeping at least one side of the house entirely black would make for a nice overall effect.

 

mark at mechanicals

Mark working around the mechanicals on the north side.

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers did something similar, having their team logo on only one side of their helmets, leaving the opposite side a solid black. I always thought this was visually striking.

 

 

 

 

Installing the Natural Cedar Accents

The west side of the house would be the first opportunity to use some of the natural accents. Based on my initial drawings and the sample board, I wanted to limit the natural as much as possible while still allowing it to have a strong visual punch.

 

stacks of nat'l and char in garage

Natural cedar boards tung oiled and ready to be installed.

 

I wanted to take advantage of the drop-off in grade that’s present in the backyard by using the natural boards around the window on the left. In doing so, it would draw attention to the change in grade, emphasizing that the left side of the west facade is significantly taller than the right side.

Using the structure of the window itself as a guide would help me to decide exactly how many natural boards to use.

 

west 1st cple pcs nat'l wojtek and mark

 

In addition, I knew I wanted a more informal look, making it consistent with our Urban Rustic and wabi-sabi design goals, so using an odd number of boards in an asymmetrical way would help achieve this.

 

west after 1st few nat'l pces

Adding natural boards around the window on the west facade.

 

By focusing on the window in this way, 11 natural boards turned out to be the right number. Looking closely at the way the window itself is framed (large center piece of glass surrounded by two smaller pieces), if we had gone with fewer boards the natural would be too far away from the dead center of the window opening, so insufficiently ‘wrapping around’ the window, while any additional natural boards would’ve risked being too close to dead center, making the overall look too symmetrical.

Obviously, a lot of the details regarding these decisions are subjective, but having some kind of framework for a final decision is nice to have, rather than going strictly on instinct alone.

 

mark just past nat'l on west

Mark completing the natural accent around the left window.

 

It was only after Mark went back to the black charred siding that I was sure we had exactly the right amount of natural boards around the window.

 

mark and wojtek west sd after nat'l

Mark approaching the center of the west facade.

 

By going just past the first piece of glass, the natural boards have a nice asymmetrical look to them — hugging or slightly wrapping around the window just enough, making a connection, but not too much.

After so many months of planning, worrying, and waiting — and then finally getting to see this combination of charred cedar with the natural cedar — watching the siding go up was easily one of the most gratifying parts of the entire build.

 

wojtek burning cut edge

Wojtek and Mark were nice enough to take the time to char all the cut edges.

 

When the guys got to the middle of the west facade they were in for a nice surprise — dead center of the peak lined up perfectly with the seam between two boards.

 

lking up sd at west peak

Looking up at the center of the west facade.

 

 

lking up sd at west peak wider view

Wider view of the peak on the west facade.

 

On most houses the back side tends to be rather boring, as if it were mostly forgotten about (at least in visual terms). In part this is no doubt because the details used to create visual interest are normally reserved for the front elevation where they can show off to the street. Where the front might be covered with stone accents, metalwork, elaborate lighting fixtures, or some other decorative accents, the other three sides tend to blend together as the basic siding material just continues its standard layout or pattern around the perimeter of the house. These decorative accents add cost to a build, so it makes some sense to reserve them for the side of the house that most people will see.

 

west facade sd after peak

 

Sometimes, however, this effect can be jarring. In a Chicago suburb there’s a house that uses elaborate stonework on the front facade, which in this particular case is actually two sides that face the street, but when you walk around to the back of the home the siding material transitions to wood. Because the transition is so abrupt, and the quality of the materials is so different, in terms of both cost and visual impact, it almost feels like walking behind the elaborate facade of a building on a movie set to discover it’s only a single wall propped up to mimic a much more substantial building. This lack of cohesiveness lends a kind of sadness to the house, as if it announces that the elaborate plans for the exterior cladding were ruined by unexpected budget constraints.

 

west sd mostly done guys start south

 

Consequently, we felt it was important to give each side of the house its own distinctive face. Because of the size and layout of our lot, and the way the houses next to us are positioned, it’s difficult to view more than one side of our home at any one time, which only encouraged us to make this a priority.

 

west facade after sd b4 gutters

West facade mostly complete.

 

Quick side note: these windows on the west facade are the ones with Suntuitive glass. Because of this, we’ve never required any blinds or any protection from glaring afternoon sun. As a result, we’ve been able to enjoy a constant, unimpeded view of the backyard.

More than a year after the siding had been up my daughter and I were in the backyard doing some gardening when she pointed out that the back of the house looks like David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane makeup. We have a magnet of Bowie on our kitchen fridge. She has a point.

It’s not difficult to see a face in the facade, and the music reference fits in nicely with our rock ‘n roll theme for the interior of the house.

 

 

The effect of the natural cedar is also reminiscent of racing stripes, especially those seen on sports cars or muscle cars, or even motorcycles (e.g. the graphics on racing sportbikes). This was partly done with tongue planted firmly in cheek — if high-performance cars and motorcycles look good with racing stripes why not on a high-performance home? — but mainly because I’ve always enjoyed the visual power of these types of graphics.

 

sd west b4 gutters

Waiting for gutters and downspouts.

 

Also in keeping with the racing stripes idea, we wanted the house to look distinctive on every side, much like the well-designed shape of the most memorable sports cars or motorcycles that look good from almost any angle.

At the beginning of each episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee Jerry Seinfeld does a great job introducing each vehicle, explaining why some of them — even if decades old and built with what we consider now to be obsolete technology — can still elicit such intense feelings of affection or outright joy.

 

 

And there’s no shortage of design options when it comes to racing stripes and their various layouts.

Many are symmetrical, for instance, a double stripe laid down in thick pairs with little space between. This style is popular on the hoods of muscle cars.

 

Shelby stripes

Shelby Mustang. This one is more elaborate with the added red stripes along the outside edges.

 

Sometimes the striping is fairly subtle, arguably more of a pinstripe effect:

 

 

And of course the racing stripes don’t always have to impart a sense of speed or domination, sometimes they’re a nod to smart, even cute, styling.

 

 

Motorcycle graphics are probably the most extreme version of racing stripes, many of them even outlandish, but mostly in a vibrant, fun way.

 

 

Ducatis look great when they’re fitted out in monochromatic red, or even all matte black, but white stripes definitely add another dimension to the overall look of the bike:

 

 

This is one of the more iconic layouts, from Honda’s factory MotoGP racing team, Repsol.

 

repsol full

 

I think the layout and color combination looks even better in close-up as a screensaver:

 

repsol screen saver

Vivid screensaver.

 

My favorite racing stripe layout is a combination of one thick and one thin, probably because of the asymmetry since it’s typically applied off to one side, or offset, rather than applied directly down the center.

 

love bug

“Herbie” for sale in an antique shop in Cincinnati.

 

Another example of this thick-thin combination:

 

racing strip hash marks wheel

Hash marks on the wheel of a Dodge Charger.

 

The other nice thing about the racing stripe idea was that, as a visual motif, we could carry it over into some of the interior finishes. This is something we intended to do with the charred cedar as well — using an element from the exterior to decorate a part of the interior.

The blue-green-white combination, long associated with Kawasaki, would prove to be the most overt example where we would borrow some famous imagery from motorcycle racing and apply it inside the house in a new context, but for much the same reason, namely trying to impart a sense of playful energy and added brightness (more on this in a future post).

 

 

At any rate, I really enjoyed coming up with a kind of narrative for the look of the house, hopefully showcasing, in a unique way, what the charred cedar and the natural boards can do visually as siding on a home.

For the south side, we decided to use the kitchen door as our guide for putting up the natural cedar, while the front door would be used on the east-facing facade.

Another element around the two doors to consider was exterior lighting. A single fixture at each door would project an upward and downward concentrated beam of light, highlighting the natural boards in the dark as they pinpoint their focus on this band of natural wood surrounded by total blackness.

mark ready for natl at kitch

Mark almost ready for the natural cedar boards.

 

We started the natural boards to the right of center of the door’s glass, cheating a bit so that they started pretty much directly above the door handle.

 

1st couple at kitch

 

It also worked out nicely that the natural boards ended up in an A-B-A pattern from back of the house to front; meaning to the left of the window in back, to the right of the kitchen door, and then to the left of the front door.

 

mark past natl at kitch

Mark and Wojtek moving past the natural cedar boards.

 

We ended up at 5 boards for this side of the house, allowing the striping to stay proportional to the size of the opening while sitting just beyond the eventual light fixture. It also helps that the kitchen door, made up largely of glass and a neutral gray color, doesn’t take any attention away from the natural boards.

 

kitch dr

Kitchen door with its charred and natural cedar.

 

At the front door, I initially pictured the natural boards installed on the right side of the entryway. In two dimensional drawings this seemed to make sense, but after seeing everything in place in reality, it became pretty clear that to the left of the front door would be far better. To the right of the front door would’ve meant the natural boards would look ‘squeezed’.

 

1st pce nat'l at frt dr

Putting up the first piece of natural cedar around the front door.

 

 

mark finishing up nat'l at frt dr

Mark nailing in the first couple of natural boards.

 

Starting the natural boards just outside where the light fixture will sit, we ended up at 7 total boards for around the front door. Since the front door is slightly larger than the kitchen door, and it’s the main focus of the house, it made sense to have slightly more natural boards in this area.

Many thanks to Wojtek and Mark for their patience in playing along as I figured out exactly how many natural boards to use, and exactly where they should be positioned.

 

mark just after nat'l at frt dr

 

As each section of natural boards went up, it was evident that beyond a certain point the racing stripe effect would be lost: one too many boards and it wouldn’t look right, in effect, overpowering the opening; too few boards would mean not enough impact — less like a proper decorative accent and more like a disconnected mistake.

 

sd done b4 frt dr

First look at the east facade fully sided. Our little black box almost complete.

 

Bob Riggs, his son Brian, and Jason were nice enough to come back to install my front door for me. We used the Hannoband expanding foam tape to seal around this door, just as we did for all of the other windows and the kitchen door.

Check out the details of their installation here:

Windows, Doors, and Suntuitive

 

Brian Jason Bob install front door

Brian, Jason, and Bob install our front door.

 

 

frt dr frt yard

Front door just after installation.

 

The front porch with its charred cedar, natural cedar, and the bright red door reminds me of Coco Chanel’s famous “little black dress ensemble” — the charred cedar the little black dress, the natural boards the string of pearls, and the front door the splash of red lipstick.

 

 

Our shiny front door is the one sleek, clean, and clearly new element of our exterior. This contrast between industrially produced, sharp looking object and the burnt and heavily knotted wood in some ways personifies the Urban Rustic aesthetic.

 

frt dr clup b4 trim

Close-up of the front porch just after the door was installed.

 

 

Installing Sill Pans

When most of the siding and overhangs were complete, Wojtek and Mark started installing the metal sill pans for all the windows and doors.

Greg, the owner of Siding and Windows Group, suggested we use Lakefront Supply for all the flashings, which turned out well as they were able to create exactly what we needed.

 

sill pan inside edge b4 return trim 2nd view

Metal sill pan slid under bottom aluminum edge of the window.

 

In the photo below you can see the horizontal layer of 1×4 strapping, which becomes a nailing surface for the 1×6 cedar board that will be used as a return back to the window frame.

 

inside corner sill pan b4 return trim

A second view of the same area.

 

 

mbr wdw w: sill pan b4 final pce trim

From inside looking down at the sill pan.

 

 

side view sill pan edge beyond sd

Outside edge of the sill pan.

 

 

south wdw after sd b4 trim

Window waiting for the last few pieces of trim.

 

We were going for a “frameless” look for the windows; meaning, once all the trim was installed, very little of the window frame is left exposed.

 

k wdw trimmed out fmly rm wdw bg

Kitchen window with all the trim pieces installed.

 

 

innie wdw face - frameless look

Once the screens were installed, there was almost no room to spare. We really like this “frameless” look combined with the “innie” window position — it creates some really nice shadows at various times during the day.

 

 

frt dr sill pan

Front door sill pan installed.

 

 

kitch dr sill pan

Kitchen door with the sill pan installed.

 

 

Wojtek installing first sill pan

Wojtek pulling off the protective plastic on the sill pan.

 

 

mark and wojtek install 1st pce garage roof flashing

Mark and Wojtek installing flashing on the top of our garage roof.

 

 

2nd shed rf flash

Wojtek screwing down the flashing.

 

All of the elements finally in place: master bedroom window with natural accent, charred cedar used to return the siding back to the frame of the window, with the metal sill pan underneath.

 

mbr wdw frame sill pan

 

 

Gutters and Downspouts

For the gutters and downspouts we went with Nordic Steel. They’re expensive, but they’ve lived up to the marketing claims: with a larger half-round gutter and wide diameter downspout, we’ve never had to clean out our gutters (so far, anyway). They also look really nice, and they fit in well with the Urban Rustic feel we’re going for.

 

nordic ne

 

 

nordic n

 

 

Decorative Details

It was exciting to finally get the small, decorative pieces for the exterior out of storage. For example, I purchased our metal house numbers and our front doorbell on Etsy, at Modish Metal Art. As it turned out, Etsy proved to be an invaluable resource, both for decorating the exterior and the interior of our house (more on this later).

Our exterior lights were found on Amazon: Hyperikon

 

house numbers out of storage

‘Wobbly’ house numbers.

 

 

doorbell

Gecko doorbell finally installed.

 

 

house # and drbell

Front door details complete: trim, sill pan, doorbell, house numbers, and exterior light.

 

I found these white porcelain numbers on Etsy — made in Japan, so they seemed perfect for our shou sugi ban. Unfortunately, this Etsy store is no longer in business.

With some Spax screws, and the charred cedar as a background, the white numbers really pop.

 

708 white porcelain w: spax

 

 

Stucco for Inside Window Wells

For inside our basement window wells we initially thought we would just carry the wood siding all the way down. Once the retaining walls were in, and we saw how complicated the cuts would need to be around the stone — not to mention all the work required in hammer drilling concrete bolts into the foundation to establish strapping for the charred cedar — we realized wood wasn’t really a viable option.

After contacting Rockwool directly, they told me stucco over the exposed Comfortboard 80 would work fine, although it wasn’t presented as an option in the paperwork they had originally given to me. This was a great relief, and Wojtek had a friend who installed stucco, so it ended up working out really well.

The window bucks around the basement windows took a real beating during the prolonged construction process, so I touched up the sills with Prosoco’s Fast Flash to make sure they were watertight.

 

Tomasz

Tomasz installing the lathe with long concrete screws in preparation for our traditional 3-coat stucco.

 

Tomasz would eventually take the stucco up to the Cor-A-Vent insect screen, and then Wojtek and Mark would lower the charred cedar below this point by several inches, completely hiding the seam between the two materials.

 

stucco 2nd coat k dr

Charred siding, corner of the window well, and the stucco (only 2 coats at this point) meet.

 

For the railings around the window wells we wanted to use a hog wire panel (in keeping with the Urban Rustic theme). Initially, I thought I would use Wild Hog Railing combined with wooden posts, but decided an all-metal railing system would be better, mainly for durability reasons.

 

wdw wll 3

Gutters going up just after the railings around the window wells were installed.

 

 

wdw wll 2

View of the railing from a basement window.

 

 

How Durable is the Charred Cedar?

Initially at least, our luck hasn’t been great with the charred cedar.

For instance, during our first summer with the siding last year we noticed that we had some carpenter bees buzzing around the house. At first, I didn’t think much of it since the charred cedar is supposed to be insect-resistant. But then I noticed a bee digging a hole above one of the windows and realized something needed to be done.

After reading up on their lifecycle, I used a spray inside the holes that were present (about 10 total after I went looking), following up a couple of days later with a few puffs of diatomaceous earth. After waiting two more days, I then stuffed each hole with some steel wool before covering each entry point with some black sealant. Once patched, these areas are virtually invisible.

This spring and summer we kept a careful eye on these specific areas, along with the house more generally, but no bees emerged, so it looks like the problem has been resolved. Nevertheless, it’s something we’ll need to look for every May and early June.

Looking back, the bees nested in the exposed sub-fascia on two sides of the house before the siding and overhangs were installed. At the time, not understanding their lifecycle, I just plugged these holes with some caulk, thinking that would suffice. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and their offspring emerged the following spring/early summer digging through the charred cedar fascia. If I had properly addressed these spots with a spray and then diatomaceous earth combination initially, there’s a good chance I could’ve avoided this problem altogether.

Since their offspring return to the area where they initially emerged to create their own nest sites (or even to reuse the existing one), it’s extremely important to address the problem as soon as possible, otherwise one or two small nests can quickly expand to dozens of bees swarming around the eaves of a home in early summer. And, even more sinister, it’s these nesting tunnels that attract the attention of woodpeckers who go looking for them, hammering the wood to get to the larvae below the surface, and scarring, if not ruining, the wood in the process.

In fact, this past January there was a morning where I heard a sound like a machine breaking down, almost like a chain breaking off its wheel. When the sound moved across to the other side of the house I suddenly realized it was a woodpecker. Luckily, he was sitting on a downspout right outside our window, so just opening the window was enough to startle him and make him fly off. When I went outside to look for damage I only saw a couple of small spots, as if he were just testing the wood for insects and found nothing. Thankfully, he hasn’t been back since. We’re hoping it stays that way.

Also, after the siding was up for about a year, especially after its first summer, it started to show some wear. Since the north side has held up the best, I can only assume it’s exposure to the sun that caused most of the wear to occur on the other three sides of the house and garage (although I’m sure rain played its part, too).

 

north light orange

Although showing some wear, these boards have retained their orange and yellow undertones on the north side of the garage.

 

In general, areas with a heavier layer of char have held up better, but sometimes even in these areas we’ve seen some missing char develop.

Here are some pictures showing the extent of the fading:

 

west b4 tar

West facade facing the backyard.

 

 

kitchdr19b4

South side.

 

 

s east end b4 tar

Another view of the south side.

 

 

south garage b4 tar

South side of the garage.

 

 

garage b4 tar

East-facing side of the garage.

 

The wear occurred slowly, so it kind of crept up on us. At some point, both my wife and I started to remark on the changes. And some areas are far worse than others:

 

close up missing char

Arguably the worst area of fading on the charred cedar.

 

Although the charred wood wasn’t in any immediate danger, and I enjoyed this ‘aged’ look, my wife said she preferred the original, more opaque, black look of the siding. And to be honest, since many of these exposed areas were turning gray, I worried about how well any product we might try in the future would soak in and adhere, so I decided to address it this year rather than wait any longer.

Thankfully, I was aware of Kent’s blog, Blue Heron Ecohaus, having seen it featured on GBA. He goes into detail regarding his decision to use Auson black pine tar instead of going with a shou sugi ban finish.

Our siding was installed in the Fall of 2017, and last summer I experimented with the recommended 50/50 mix of Auson and linseed oil, using it to touch-up a handful of boards, including all the cut edges that Wojtek and Mark had meticulously burned. Without any tung oil, these exposed edges had faded badly, almost to the same consistent gray on every piece. Again, this may be because they didn’t receive an especially heavy level of char when burned, but I can’t know for sure.

The guy in this video had a lot more fun applying the product than I did:

 

 

Even though the charred wood is said to easily last for decades, we also knew that it should get oiled about every 15 years to improve its durability, so having to do touch-ups wasn’t as heartbreaking as it might otherwise have been. I guess our 15 year mark came early. It also helped that it wasn’t necessary to do any overhangs (fascia or soffit) — those areas seem to be holding up really well, including the areas of ‘tiger striping’.

 

tiger striping on south overhangs

Area of fascia and soffit on the south side of the house with ‘tiger striping’.

 

Here are some pictures of the ‘refreshed’ charred cedar:

 

w sw as pine tar being applied

Starting on the west side with the black pine tar.

 

 

pine tar fmly rm wdw - bleached out to rgt

Making progress on the south side.

 

Our little black box with revitalized skin:

 

w after tar evening

West facade complete.

 

 

south west fmly rm after tar

Southwest corner after pine tar.

 

 

south tower after tar

Another view of this southwest corner.

 

 

porch after tar

Front entry and the south side of the garage after pine tar.

 

 

front after tar

Another view of the east facade after the pine tar.

 

 

708 after tar

Closer view of the charred cedar after the pine tar.

 

 

close up char texture after tar

Close-up: the black pine tar had no negative impact on the heavily charred areas.

 

 

after tar still variation color texture

On areas with the lightest char the black pine tar soaked in but didn’t completely make the surface an opaque black. My guess is, a second coat probably would’ve made it opaque.

 

If I was going to do charred cedar, or shou sugi ban, again — at this point, that’s a big ‘if’ — I would definitely insist on doing a uniformly heavy char finish (or ‘gator’ finish), and I would use the black pine tar to try and seal-in the char as much as possible. As beautiful as the lighter charred areas were when they first went up, they just couldn’t stand up to the weather — at least that was our experience anyway.

Nevertheless, the pieces of shou sugi ban that we’ve incorporated into our interior have held up nicely with just a tung oil finish, showing no signs of deteriorating, presumably because they’ve avoided any direct sun or rain (more on these areas in a future post).

Another option would be to use a metal siding version of charred wood:

 

Bridgersteel

 

I’m guessing it’s expensive, but it could be a viable alternative, especially for those unwilling or unable to do maintenance chores for the charred wood siding over time but who are, nevertheless, in love with the look of real shou sugi ban.

 

Still another product worth considering:

 

Thermory USA

 

This product is newer, so its long-term durability is still debatable until time proves definitively one way or the other, although the idea does seem promising.

On a bad day — like when I had to hunt down carpenter bees, or touch-up the char with the pine tar — I know I should’ve gone with a more care-free siding material like metal. And yet, on most days, when the overhangs and siding are perfectly fine, it’s hard to argue against the singular look that charred cedar can produce.

 

sd at kitch dr at night

Kitchen door and stoop with the light on.

 

So even with all the time, effort, money, and frustration that’s gone into making the charred cedar work, I still love the way it looks every time I pull into the driveway, or notice it while working in the yard. It’s just important to understand that as with anything worth doing, or any labor of love — like building our house it could be said — it comes at a price.

 

frt dr w: light

 

Siding Part 1: Continuous Insulation with a Rainscreen

10

Continuous Insulation vs. Double-Stud Wall

Although builders can make either approach to high-performance walls work, we decided continuous insulation (or CI for short) made the most sense to us. And while continuous insulation has its own challenges, especially in terms of air and water sealing details around windows and doors, intuitively we felt insulation on the outside of our sheathing would give us our best chance at long-term durability for the structure.

In spite of the fact that these kind of wall assemblies are climate specific, for anyone interested in the performance of various wall assembly approaches this BSC paper is an excellent place to start:

 

High R-Walls

 

Or you can check out Hammer and Hand’s evolving wall assembly strategies here:

 

Passive House Lessons

 

And here’s a mock-up wall assembly by Hammer and Hand showing many of the details we incorporated into our own house:

 

 

While many believe a double stud wall simplifies much of the framing, we decided that a continuous insulation approach, which in theory should better manage seasonal moisture changes inside the walls while it also eliminates thermal bridges, was worth the extra effort.

 

 

2 Layers of Rockwool over Zip Sheathing

Based on the drawings from our original builder, Evolutionary Home Builders, who was going to use 3.75″ inches of rigid foam, and the recommendations of both PHIUS and Green Building Advisor for our climate zone 5 location (leaning heavily towards PH performance), we decided to go with 4″ of Rockwool Comfortboard 80 on top of our Zip Sheathing.

For more information regarding how we came up with the specifics of our wall assembly, go here:

Wall Assembly

 

 

Finding Subcontractors for a Passive House

In the Chicagoland area it’s still a struggle to find builders or subcontractors who are knowledgable about, or even interested in, “green building”. In fact, despite our well-documented experience with Evolutionary Home Builders, clients continue to hire Brandon Weiss (Dvele and Sonnen) and Eric Barton (apparently now on his own as Biltmore Homes, or Biltmore ICF) presumably because the options here in Chicago remain so limited. We assume this is the case because we still get the occasional email from current or former clients who have also had a negative experience working with Brandon or Eric. In addition, even though PHIUS has dozens of certified builders and consultants listed for Illinois and the larger Midwest region, it’s unclear just how many of them have worked directly on an actual Passive House project.

Until there’s more demand from consumers, or the building codes change significantly, it’s difficult to imagine the situation improving much in the near future. This is unfortunate since particularly here in the Chicago area, or the Midwest more broadly, homes could really benefit from the Passive House model, or something close to it, e.g. The Pretty Good House concept, because of our weather extremes (dry, cold winters and hot, humid summers). The combination of meticulous air sealing, high R-values, and continuous ventilation associated with any high-performance build is hard to beat in terms of day-to-day occupant comfort, not to mention the significant reduction in both overall energy demand and the cost of utilities.

In our own case, when I think of all the individual trades we had to hire, securing a siding contractor was far and away the most difficult. Our HVAC contractor for the ductless mini-splits was already somewhat familiar with “green” building and PH, so working with me on air sealing details and dealing with a thick wall assembly didn’t worry him. Also, if I had it to do over, I don’t think I’d bring up all the PH details with a plumbing or electrical contractor when getting bids since the air sealing details are pretty straightforward and can easily be planned for and executed on-site after they begin their work (assuming someone else, most likely a rough carpenter, GC, or homeowner is tasked with all the air sealing chores). And if the concrete sub is unfamiliar with insulation under a basement slab, or over the exterior walls of the foundation, then it’s easy enough for framers, or even homeowners if necessary, to do this work, along with installing a vapor barrier like Stego Wrap before the basement slab gets poured.

For siding, however, because of the level of detail involved before the siding itself could be installed, it was a real challenge to even get quotes. As things turned out, we had nearly twenty contractors (a mix of dedicated siding contractors and carpenters) visit the job site before we received an actual estimate. Many of those who visited the job site expressed genuine interest, most going so far as to acknowledge that this kind of wall assembly made sense and would probably be mandated by the residential code at some point in the future, but almost without exception they would disappear after leaving the job site — no bid forthcoming, and no response to my follow-up phone calls or emails.

Clearly they were terrified, not without justification, to tackle something so new, viewing our project through a lens of risk rather than as an opportunity to learn something new. From their point of view, why not stick with the type of jobs they’ve successfully completed hundreds of times in the past? It also didn’t help that I was a first time homeowner/GC, rather than a GC with a long track record of previously built homes in the area.

In addition, not only is continuous insulation over sheathing a novel concept in the Chicago area, especially in residential builds, even utilizing a ventilated rainscreen gap behind siding is almost unheard of — typically Hardieplank lap siding is installed directly over Tyvek or similar housewrap (this can be observed directly on hundreds of job sites across the city and suburbs). And this isn’t entirely the fault of contractors. For instance, how many homeowners when presented with the idea of continuous insulation, or a rain screen gap, balk at the extra costs associated with these techniques without carefully considering the potential energy savings or increased durability for the structure?

While there are any number of certified LEED projects in our area, and even some Passive House projects (both residential and commercial) in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, for the most part consumers are still largely unaware of Passive House or other “green” building standards like Living Building Challenge. Clearly “green” building, let alone Passive House, has its work cut out for it here in the Midwest if it ever hopes to have a meaningful impact on the construction industry.

 

 

Installing Rockwool over the Zip sheathing

Mike Conners, from Kenwood Passivhaus, was nice enough to recommend Siding and Window Group, which definitely got us out of a jam. Thankfully, Greg, the owner, was up for the challenge and was nice enough to let us work with two of his best guys, Wojtek and Mark.

Initially Wojtek and Mark dropped off some of their equipment at the site the day before they were to start work on the house. This gave me a chance to go through many of the details with them directly for the first time. Although a little apprehensive, they were also curious, asking a lot of questions as they tried to picture how all the elements of the assembly would come together. In addition to the construction drawings, the series of videos from Hammer and Hand regarding their Madrona Passive House project were incredibly helpful (this project in particular was a big Building Science inspiration for us).

 

 

 

 

Also, this video from Pro Trade Craft helped to answer some of the “How do you…?” questions that came up during the design and build phases:

 

 

As sophisticated and intricate as some architectural drawings may be, in my experience nothing beats a good job site demonstration video that shows how some newfangled product or process should be properly installed or executed.

On the first day, while Wojtek and Mark installed the Z-flashing between the Zip sheathing and the foundation, along with head flashings above the windows and doors, I started putting up the first pieces of Rockwool over the Zip sheathing.

 

installing head flashing above wdw

We found it easier to embed the metal flashings in a bead of Prosoco’s Fast Flash. Once in position, an additional bead of Fast Flash went over the face of the flashing, ensuring a water tight connection between the metal and the Zip sheathing.

 

For the first layer of Rockwool we installed the pieces horizontally between studs as much as we could, knowing that the second layer of Rockwool would be oriented vertically. This alternating pattern helps to ensure seams are overlapped between layers so there aren’t any areas where the seams line up, an outcome that could undermine the thermal performance of the 2 layers of Rockwool.

 

z flashing nw corner

Z-flashing carried down over the exposed face of the Rockwool on the outside of the foundation walls — once installed, the gravel is pushed back so it covers the area where the flashing terminates on the face of the Rockwool. The other 3 sides of the house had much less exposure in this foundation-gravel border connection.

 

We didn’t worry too much about the orange plastic cap nails missing studs since they were sized to mostly end up in the Zip sheathing. In the end only a couple of them made it completely through the Zip without hitting a stud.

 

1st pcs rockwool going up n side

Putting up the first pieces of Rockwool on the north side.

 

Every so often Wojtek would come around the corner and watch what I was doing before asking questions about specific elements in the wall assembly.

 

orange cap nails for 1st layer rockwool

Plastic cap nails we used to attach the first layer of Rockwool. I purchased these from a local roofing supply house.

 

By the time I had about a quarter of the north side covered, Wojtek and Mark were ready to take over from me.

 

1st layer rockwool n side

First layer of Rockwool mostly complete on the north side. Before installing the bottom row of Rockwool we used shims to create a slight gap between the Rockwool and the metal Z-flashing on the foundation insulation to allow any water that ever reached the green Zip sheathing a clear pathway out.

 

In a pattern that would repeat itself with each layer of the remaining wall assembly, Wojtek and Mark would carefully think through the details as they progressed slowly at first, asking questions as issues arose, before getting the feel for what they were doing and eventually picking up speed as they progressed around each side of the house.

 

20171002_081038

Outside corner showing the Z-flashing covering the face of the Rockwool on the foundation with the first layer of Rockwool covering the Zip sheathing above.

 

Working through the many details with Wojtek and Mark — the majority of which occur at junctions like windows and doors, the top and bottom of the walls, along with mainly outside corners — was both collaborative and deeply gratifying. They demonstrated not only curiosity and an ability to problem solve on the fly, they also clearly wanted to do things right, both for me as a customer and for the house as a completed structure (it felt like both aesthetically and in building science terms).

 

1st layer rockwool at wdw buck

First layer of Rockwool meeting up with a plywood window buck. We tried to keep connections like these as tight as possible, especially since the window buck itself already represents a slight thermal bridge.

 

They never hurried over specific problem areas, arrogantly suggesting they knew better, instead they patiently considered unanticipated consequences, potential long-term issues, and actively questioned my assumptions in a positive way that tried to make the overall quality of the installation better. This mixture of curiosity, intelligence, and craftsmanship was a real pleasure to observe and work with.

 

starting 2nd layer rockwool n side

Mark and Wojtek beginning the second layer of Rockwool on the north side.

 

If a GC built this level of rapport with each subcontractor, I can certainly understand their refusal to work with anyone outside of their core team — it just makes life so much easier, and it makes being on the job site a lot more fun.

 

2nd layer rockwool at utilities

Second layer of Rockwool installed around mechanicals. Note the sill cock, or hose bibb: although it runs into the house, we left it loose so that it could be adjusted until the siding was complete — only then was it permanently soldered into place.

 

 

weaving outside corner w: 2nd layer

Weaving the seams at the outside corners to avoid undermining the thermal performance of the Rockwool.

 

 

2nd layer rockwool fastener at wdw

Close-up of the fasteners we used to attach the second layer of Rockwool.

 

For the second layer of Rockwool, Wojtek and Mark tried to hit only studs with the black Trufast screws. In fact, screwing into the studs with these fasteners, in effect, became a guide for accurately hitting studs with the first layer of strapping.

 

plates for 2nd layer rockwool

 

These Trufast screws and plates worked well and were easy for Wojtek and Mark to install.

 

trufast screw bucket

 

 

inside bucket trufast screws

The Trufast screws and plates were purchased from a local roofing supply house.

 

 

w side 2 layers rockwool

West side of the house with 2 layers of Rockwool complete.

 

 

1st layer rockwool into s side garage

First layer of Rockwool filling the gap between the house and garage framing.

 

If our lot had been larger, we would’ve gone with a completely detached garage, but unfortunately it just wasn’t an option.

 

2nd layer rockwool closing gap at garage

Second layer of Rockwool closing the gap between house and garage completely, ensuring our thermal layer is unbroken around the perimeter of the house.

 

 

nw corner 2 layers rockwool

Northwest corner of the house with the 2 layers of Rockwool installed.

 

It was exciting to see the house finally wrapped in its 4″ of Rockwool insulation.

 

 

Installing Battens and Creating our Rainscreen

Initially we were going to use 2 layers of 1×4 furring strips (also referred to as strapping or battens); the first layer installed vertically, attaching directly over the 2×6 framing members through the 2 layers of Rockwool and the Zip sheathing, with the second layer installed horizontally, anticipating the charred cedar that would be oriented vertically on the house.

Pro Trade Craft has many really informative videos, including this one on using a rainscreen behind siding:

 

 

Nevertheless, as the second layer of Rockwool went up, Wojtek and Mark pointed out that putting the siding in the same plane as the Rockwool/metal flashing on the basement foundation would be needlessly tricky. In other words, maintaining about a 1/8″ horizontal gap between the bottom edge of the vertical siding and the metal flashing on the foundation around the house would be nearly impossible, and any variation might prove unsightly.

As a solution, we decided to use 2×4’s for the first layer of strapping. By adding to the overall thickness of the remaining wall assembly it meant the eventual siding — now pushed slightly out and farther away from the Z-flashing covering the face of the Rockwool on the foundation — could be lowered so that visually it slightly covered what would’ve been a gap between the top of the metal flashing on the foundation insulation and the bottom edge of the siding. Wojtek and Mark also found that the 2×4’s were easier to install than the 1×4 furring strips directly over the Rockwool so that it didn’t overly compress the insulation (an easy thing to do).

Unfortunately, increasing the overall wall thickness with 2×4’s meant having to use longer Fastenmaster Headlok screws (it would also cost us later when it came to the siding on the north side of the house — more on this later). Apart from this change, the additional overall wall thickness mostly just increased the air gap in our rainscreen, which arguably just increased potential air flow while also expanding the drainage plane behind the eventual siding.

 

 

In one of the Hammer and Hand videos Sam Hagerman mentions that at least 1.5″ of screw should be embedded into the framing (excluding the thickness of the sheathing) for this type of wall assembly, but when I asked a Fastenmaster engineer about this directly he recommended a full 2″ of their screws should be embedded into the framing members in order to avoid any significant deflection over time.

As a result, we ended up using 8.5″ Headlok screws. The screws work incredibly well, requiring no pre-drilling, and they’re fun to use with an impact driver (keep your battery charger nearby). Along with the plastic cap nails and Trufast screws, I think we ended up with less than a dozen fasteners that missed the mark for the entire house — a testament to Wojtek and Mark’s skill. I was able to seal around these errant fasteners from the inside with a dab of HF Sealant.

 

headlok missed framing

Sealing around a Headlok screw that missed a 2×6 framing member.

 

During the design stage, using these longer screws prompted concerns regarding deflection, but based on this GBA article, data provided by Fastenmaster, along with some fun on-site testing, the lattice network of strapping (whether all 1×4’s or our mix of 2×4’s and 1×4’s) proved to be incredibly strong, especially when the siding material is going to be relatively light tongue and groove cedar.

For the garage, since insulation wasn’t going to cover three of the walls (only the common wall with the house was treated as part of the house wall assembly), we used significantly shorter Headlok screws for the first layer of furring strips.

 

monkey on furring strips

The Beast testing out the structural integrity of our strapping on the garage. Note the Cor-A-Vent strip below the bottom horizontal furring stip, helping to establish a ventilated rainscreen.

 

 

garage only 2x4s

Common wall inside the garage. Only a single layer of strapping was necessary in preparation for drywall.

 

Mark took the time to recess these screws to make sure they didn’t interfere with the eventual drywall.

 

recess 4 screws

Recessed Headlok screw on a 2×4 in the garage. Ready for drywall.

 

A small detail, but one of many examples showing Wojtek and Mark’s attention to detail, not to mention their ability to properly assess a situation and act appropriately without having to be told what to do.

Once the 2×4’s were all installed vertically through the structural 2×6’s as our first layer of strapping, Wojtek and Mark could install the components of the rainscreen, including the Cor-A-Vent strips at the top and bottom of the walls, as well as above and below windows and doors. In combination with the 2×4’s and the 1×4’s, this system creates a drainage plane for any water that makes its way behind the siding, while also providing a space for significant air flow, speeding up the drying time for the siding when it does get wet.

 

rainscreen2.jpg

Why use a rainscreen? Illustration courtesy of Hammer and Hand.

 

In addition to the Cor-A-Vent strips, we also added window screening at the bottom of the walls just as added insurance against insects. We noticed that on the garage, even without any insulation, the Cor-A-Vent didn’t sit perfectly flat in some areas on the Zip sheathing. Since the Rockwool on the foundation, now covered by the metal flashing, was unlikely to be perfectly level, or otherwise true, along any stretch of wall, it made sense to us to double up our protection in this way against insects getting into the bottom of our walls at this juncture.

 

starting 1x4s n side

1×4’s being installed horizontally on the north side in preparation for the charred cedar that will be installed vertically. Also note the Cor-A-Vent strips just above the foundation and below the window.

 

 

cor-a-vent-product-label

The main product we used to establish our ventilated rainscreen.

 

 

insect screen for rscreen

Window screen we cut to size for added insurance at the bottom of the walls around the Cor-A-Vent strips.

 

Wojtek and Mark also did a nice job of taking their time to shim the 1×4 layer of furring strips, thus ensuring a flat installation of the charred cedar.

 

shims behind 1x4s

Shims behind some of the 1×4 furring strips to ensure a flat plane for the vertical cedar siding.

 

This really paid off, not only making their lives easier when installing the tongue and groove cedar, but also providing aesthetic benefits in the overall look of the siding. This was especially true on the north side of the house, which has the largest area of charred siding with almost no interruptions, apart from a single window. It’s also the tallest part of the house, so without proper shimming the outcome could’ve been really ugly. Instead, once the cedar siding was installed it was impossible to tell there was 4″ of Rockwool and 2 layers of strapping between it and the Zip sheathing.

Really impressive work by Wojtek and Mark.

 

lking down furring behind rscreen at fdn

Looking down behind the ventilated rainscreen — 2×4, 1×4, with Cor-A-Vent and window screen at the bottom, just above the top of the foundation. This gap behind the siding provides ample air flow for the cedar siding, ensuring that the wood never remains wet for long.

 

 

rscreen furring at foundation

Strapping and rainscreen elements around a penetration near the top of the foundation.

 

Things got somewhat complicated around windows and doors, but once we worked through all the details for one window it made the remaining windows and doors relatively straightforward to complete.

Below you can see all the elements coming together: the window itself, the window buck covered with tapes for air and water sealing, the over-insulation for the window frame, the Cor-A-Vent strip to establish air flow below the window and behind the eventual cedar siding, along with the strapping that both establishes the air gap for the rainscreen while also providing a nailing surface for the siding.

Once most of the siding was complete around each window, but before the 1×6 charred cedar pieces used to return the siding to the window frames were installed, each window received a dedicated metal sill pan. The pan slid underneath the bottom edge of the aluminum clad window frame and then extended out just past the edge of the finished siding (I’ll include photos showing this detail in the next blog post about installing the charred cedar siding).

Here’s a JLC article discussing a couple of options for trim details in a thicker wall assembly with similar “innie” or “in-between” windows:

 

Window Trim

 

And here’s a detailed slide presentation by Bronwyn Barry regarding details like these for a Passive House wall assembly:

 

Sills and Thresholds – Installation Details

 

wdw rscreen and frame detail

The many details coming together around a window. In addition, each window eventually received a dedicated metal sill pan as a durable way to ward off water intrusion.

 

 

from int wdw rscreen and sill

Looking through an open window to the sill and the rainscreen gap at the outside edge. Note the Extoseal Encors protecting the sill of our window buck.

 

 

lking down wdw rainscreen

Outside edge of the window sill, looking down into the mesh of the Cor-A-Vent strip with daylight still visible from below.

 

 

rscreen at hd flash on wdw

Head flashing at the top of a window with doubled up Cor-A-Vent strips above it.

 

 

out corner hd flshng ready for sd

Same area, but with a 1×4 nailed across the Cor-A-Vent, creating a nailing surface for the cedar siding.

 

Many of the same details were repeated at the top and bottom of our two doorways. Below is a close up of the kitchen door threshold with Extoseal Encors and Cor-A-Vent again, along with additional metal flashing. Once a dedicated metal sill pan was installed (after most of the siding was installed), it felt like we did everything we could to keep water out.

 

kitch dr prepped 4 sd

Many of the same air and water sealing elements and rainscreen details present around the windows ended up at the top and bottom of doors as well.

 

In the photo below, you can see the many elements we utilized to try and prevent moisture damage around the front porch. For the door buck itself, I applied Prosoco’s Joint and Seam, both at joints in the plywood and the plywood/Zip sheathing connection, but also between the concrete and the door buck, as well as between the Rockwool and the concrete. We also kept the 2×4’s off the concrete, while also using the Cor-A-Vent strips to establish a ventilated rainscreen so that any moisture that does get behind the siding has ample opportunity to dry out in this area before it can cause any rot.

 

frt porch prep - rscreen water

Front porch: elements in place to try and prevent moisture damage.

 

 

west w: 2 layers battens

West facade prepped for siding.

 

 

flashing details on porch

Wojtek and Mark did a nice job with all the metal flashing details around the house — these kind of areas are the unsung heroes of a structure that manages water safely, and unfortunately go largely unnoticed by most homeowners.

 

In the next blog post I’ll go through the details for the top of the ventilated rainscreen when discussing how the charred cedar siding was installed.

 

Mark and Wojteck at front door

Mark and Wojtek installing Cor-A-Vent above the front door.

 

Even without the siding installed yet, it was especially rewarding to see all the underlying prep work involved in finishing our thermal layer and rainscreen come together so nicely.

 

Mark and Wojtek on the roof

Mark and Wojtek on the garage roof finishing up the battens for the front of the house.

 

Many thanks to Wojtek and Mark for executing all these details with such skill!

Gravel Border Around the Foundation

2

Before we purchased our empty lot we had been told that our subdivision has a fairly high water table, so managing underground moisture, especially with a full basement, was going to be a necessity.

In order to better control water below-grade we had our concrete subcontractor install drain tile on the exterior and interior sides of the foundation walls at the footings in order to maximize the amount of water that could be quickly and efficiently sent to our sump pump. Once our sump pump ejects the water outside it travels through an underground pipe to a culvert out by the street, moving with the aid of gravity, along with water collected from our neighbors’ homes, before ending up in the municipal system.

In addition to the spray-on damproofing applied to the exterior of our foundation walls, the 5″ of Rockwool on the outside of our foundation also encourages water to make its way down to the drain tile system before it has a chance to collect and sit, causing serious problems.

At grade, around the perimeter of the house, we also decided to install a gravel border, both for its decorative effect and its ability to encourage water to move away from the top of our foundation and down to the drain tile, particularly during periods of heavy rainfall.

We also considered various ways to protect and finish the top of the exposed Rockwool on the foundation. Here’s an older Green Building Advisor article discussing the issues involved along with possible solutions (as far as I can tell there’s still no single, obvious solution yet, although a parge coat or stucco finish is arguably the most attractive and durable, especially if combined with a gravel border as opposed to just top soil): GBA

After initially deciding to go with a combination of tile backerboard and Tuff II (giving the exposed insulation the look of finished stucco or exposed concrete), we ended up using metal flashing from coil stock instead (typically available in the widest number of options from a local roofing supply company).

 

 

It was only after construction began that I learned the tile backerboard manufacturers don’t honor warranties for this below-grade application (perhaps this will change in the future, or maybe they’ll develop a product for this specific application). Although I know the product is commonly used in this way (I couldn’t find an example of a bad experience, or a case of catsastrophic failure anywhere online), the lack of warranty protection doesn’t bolster confidence for its long-term durability.

In this regard, I imagine some kind of gravel border is probably essential, especially if the house would otherwise be surrounded by a lot of clay soil that likes to retain moisture. Also, just getting the backerboard attached to the foundation through the 5″ of Rockwool would have been time consuming (assuming you can find long enough flat-head concrete screws, which we unfortunately didn’t), so we opted instead for metal flashing mainly for its ease of installation and for some cost savings.

Starting on the green Zip sheathing as if it was a typical Z-flashing, we had the siding guys just continue the metal flashing down the face of the Rockwool on the foundation below where we knew the level of the gravel would end up (more on this in a future blog post regarding siding installation details). So far this has worked out well, with the metal flashing avoiding damage, and without much “oil canning”, even on the west side of the house, which has the largest amount of exposure. It probably helps that the metal flashing in this area around the house is the same color as our siding, helping it to ‘disappear’ visually to some extent.

When our excavator did backfill, knowing we were going to have to cover the Rockwool around the top of the foundation, we had him hold back on the top 16″ or so. With this ‘trench’ left exposed, we first applied landscape fabric in order to try and control weeds in the future, and to better contain the washed gravel that we would be putting down inside the trench.

 

gravel - west side w: just fabric

Setting up the landscape fabric.

 

As with many other areas of the house, we decided to opt for a more informal look, avoiding a perfectly consistent and squared-off border, preferring more of an undulating path as the outside edge of the border makes its way around the house.

 

gravel nw corner

Section filled with gravel.

 

And instead of moving around endless loads of gravel with wheelbarrows, we rented a compact front loader, in our case a Ditch Witch (sometimes referred to generically as a ‘dingo’), which made the project go much faster while also saving everyone’s back.

 

 

We had watched Felipe move gravel and other materials around during the construction of our stone window wells, so we knew just how versatile and useful these machines can be — and they just look like a lot of fun to use, which they are.

 

changa on ditch witch

 

We rented the machine from a Rental Max location near us, which wasn’t cheap, but we definitely felt like we got our money’s worth, as it saved us from having to endure many hours of hard labor. My wife loved using it, in part because the controls mimic those used in video games, so it was fairly intuitive for her as she quickly learned to precisely and accurately move the machine around exactly where it needed to go, including some fairly tight spots around the house.

We think the machine is worth every penny of rental cost if you have a significant amount of landscape material that needs to be moved, especially if a wheelbarrow is your only other option, or if tight spaces preclude the use of larger machines.

 

guys helping me spread gravel on west side

Luke, Jesus, and Eduardo help me shovel and rake the gravel into position as my wife drops each bucketful in place.

 

The boys were profoundly disappointed that they were never given a chance to operate the dingo, especially when they saw how much fun my wife was having using it.

 

gravel n and w views

Northwest corner of the house as the gravel border takes shape.

 

 

setting up gravel on west side

View of west facade as gravel is installed and we prep for boulders.

 

On the west side of the house we decided to add some boulders where there’s a drop-off in grade. In addition to adding some visual interest, we thought the boulders could help with surface run-off during the heaviest rainstorms.

 

setting up for boulders

Adding these little gravel beds helped get the boulders set securely in the hard clay soil.

 

We purchased the boulders locally from Lurvey. They have a nice selection of boulders and flagstones in a wide variety of styles and sizes. We would’ve chosen even larger boulders, but we were somewhat limited in this regard, having to base our selection on what we thought the dingo could safely handle.

 

first boulders going in on west side

First boulders going in.

 

In addition to the boulders, once mulch and plants are added to this area we shouldn’t see any erosion in the future.

Setting the larger boulders in place, and selecting and arranging cobblestones around the edge of the gravel border, was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun. I can see why someone like Lew French, or Dan Snow, gets so much enjoyment from their work:

 

 

And apart from their decorative function, and their ability to help prevent erosion, kids can’t help but try out their balancing skills on the boulders.

 

ninja training

Ninja in training.

 

 

north side w: gravel and first cobblestones

Cobblestones going in around the edge of the gravel border for added decoration and to keep the eventual mulch in the yard separated from the washed gravel border.

 

There will be more photos showing how the gravel border turned out in a future blog post on the installation of the siding.

 

nature taking back

 

With the clay soil left exposed around the house for many weeks, mother nature didn’t hesitate to fill the void with a wide variety of ‘weeds’, some quite beautiful in their own right.

Windows, Doors, and Suntuitive (Air Sealing #8)

0

Window Options For a Passive House, or a Pretty Good House

Even in 2017, when the majority of our build was completed, the number of Passive House quality window and door options was increasing. Today, in 2018, they’ve only continued to grow.

For example, here is an article from the Green Building Advisor website from June, 2018 discussing high-performance window options: What Windows Should I Buy?

In addition, 475 High Performance Building Supply is selling an Austrian high-performance window, Bewiso:

 

 

A New Jersey Passive House builder, Darren Macri, has created his own product line: Wythe Windows

And GO Logic is an importer of a German brand: Kneer Sud Fenstern und Turen

 

 

They have an old blog post on their site discussing their history with the brand: GO Logic

There are also some custom, small-scale, American-made options as well:

Hammer and Hand

HH Windows

They share similar characteristics, including insulated triple pane glass, thermally broken sashes and frames, multi-point locking systems for airtight seals against gaskets on the frames, the European-style tilt-turn function, and the seemingly ubiquitous but beautiful Roto hardware.

It’s nice to see that more options are becoming available to those looking for high-performance windows in the US — hopefully this means a long-term movement towards better overall building standards in terms of quality, durability, and performance.

And here’s a quick overview on high-performance builds and the need for quality windows and doors: Hammer and Hand

Although not everyone is entirely convinced, and there’s still debate regarding exactly what’s “necessary” in terms of performance (the exception would be building to the Passive House standard, either PHIUS or PHI, where the requirements are more black and white). There’s a lot more latitude if building a Pretty Good House, or the homeowner is only looking to meet the benchmark of Net Zero.

 

 

Suntuitive Dynamic Glass for Our West-Facing Windows

When my wife’s cousin found out we were trying to build a high-performance new home (a mix of Passive House and Pretty Good House), he suggested we incorporate his company’s self-tinting glass. Used largely in commercial applications since its introduction, the product is beginning to make inroads into the residential market as the cost comes down: Suntuitive

For anyone near the northwest suburbs of Chicago, you can see the glass in person at the Ziegler Maserati dealership in Schaumburg, Illinois: Exterior View

As the product has continued to evolve, they’ve been able to remove much of the “green” look to the glass. This is evident in the Ziegler dealership glass, but even in that application I didn’t think that it was all that prominent. The overall look of the glass was still impressive.

As to function, the Suntuitive coating between the layers of glass adjusts its level of tint based on the temperature of an inner layer. In the summer, this has obvious benefits when high temperatures combine with glaring sun to enter a structure, particularly in the east in the morning or the west in the afternoon (even to the south without some protection with overhangs). But the really nice thing about the product is that it doesn’t tint on the coldest days in winter, allowing for some solar heat gain and natural daylight exactly when you want it most on sunny, wintry days.

For energy reasons, and also personal aesthetic choices, we decided to forego any windows on the east side of our house. Instead, we just have our front door facing the street (it has a limited amount of privacy glass to let in some morning light). On the other hand, because we wanted to use a significant amount of glass on the west side, which faces our backyard, and we knew overhangs couldn’t offer much relief from the summer afternoon sun, Suntuitive was a great solution for us — especially since we wanted to avoid using blinds or curtains as much as possible.

Following Passive House principles for glazing, we wanted to optimize our views and connection to the outside through our limited and strategically placed number of windows.

Here’s a useful video showing the effects the sun can have on a structure in various seasons:

 

 

And here’s an interesting video discussing the challenges associated with managing both solar orientation and scenic views when they’re in conflict:

 

 

For our house, we only have a single window to the north (for my daughter’s bedroom), while the majority of our windows are on the south side, where we spend most of our time in the living spaces (open kitchen and family room). In effect, we’ve limited our windows in private areas of the house, mainly two bathrooms. Besides energy concerns, we didn’t think it made sense to add additional glass to our north, mainly because our neighbor’s house blocks any meaningful views while also reducing privacy.

Additionally, we have a significant overhang on the south side, which allows us to block out most of the summer sun while allowing in plenty of winter sun for passive solar heating during our coldest months, so the windows on the southern facade easily take care of most of our daylighting needs.

By utilizing the Suntuitive glass on only the west-facing windows (family room and master bedroom) it allows us to maintain our open view of the backyard while avoiding migraine-inducing summer afternoon sun.

Here are the specs for the particular glass we chose to use (they have a wide variety of options, including color variations): Vertical CrystalGray Triple Glaze Performance Sheet – Lee-Whetzel

Although we lose some potential solar heat gain through these windows in winter (compared to the glass in a typical Passive House certified window), we feel it’s more than compensated for by the blocking of hot, bright summer afternoon sun.

Here’s a company video describing the Suntuitive product in real world applications:

 

 

 

Unilux Windows and Doors

My wife’s cousin suggested a couple of options for the Suntuitive glass: Kolbe Windows or Unilux Windows.

We went to see the Kolbe windows in a local showroom, but they didn’t seem impressive. It also didn’t help that the salesperson was dismissive of the product, suggesting that if we were considering Kolbe we should just use Marvin instead (another brand they sold). The salesperson literally had to wander around looking for a sample unit, eventually finding one buried in a corner. We’re not even sure if what we saw represented the full breadth of the Kolbe product line.

At any rate, since Unilux was willing to work with the Suntuitive glazing, it made it easy to go with them rather than trying to convince another Passive House certified window maker that Suntuitive could be compatible with their product line.

[Note: Suntuitive is constantly adding new manufacturers willing to work with their product, so contact them directly if you have a specific brand you’d like to use on your own project.]

After deciding to go with the Unilux windows and doors, we ended up with the following specs:

[Please note: The numbers below were mostly supplied to me by my Unilux window rep. Following up with a Unilux rep on the East Cost, Scott Gibson, from Green Building Advisor, received different information. If you’re contemplating using Unilux, contact your local rep or the company directly in Germany for written confirmation regarding performance numbers — especially if you’re running data through a program like PHPP.]

 

Main Floor Windows (excludes west-facing windows with Suntuitive):

  • Interior wood with aluminum-clad exteriors
  • Glass: Unilux Super-Thermo 3
    • Triple pane with a reported R-ll center of glass
      • R-8 for whole window once frames are included
  • U-factor of 0.18
  • SHGC of 0.53

 

2-Basement Windows:

  • Isostar: interior uPVC with exterior aluminum-clad
  • The same glass as the main floor windows.

 

Two doors:

  • One for our front entry, and one for our kitchen. They both have the R-11 center of glass glazing, with the kitchen door having a significant amount of privacy glass (it faces south), which is really enjoyable on cold days with the sun shining.

 

We chose PVC for the basement windows to save some money, but also because we thought the natural wood finish on a basement window might look out of place — we’re painting the concrete foundation walls, and partially drywalling an office area, but otherwise we’re leaving the basement unfinished (it will look finished for our tastes at any rate).

The total cost for the windows and doors was just over $26,000 (including the Suntuitive for the windows facing west), with the two doors representing almost $10,000 of this total.

In regards to the Suntuitive glass, it is currently selling for roughly $31/sq. ft., depending on specific application requirements. You can contact my wife’s cousin, Dan, at his email address if you have technical questions, or if you’d like to get a quote for your own project: leed@pleotint.com

I don’t believe the Unilux windows and doors are technically certified by PHIUS or PHI, but their performance metrics are close to the necessary requirements, so we were comfortable using them, especially since we had no intention of pursuing official Passive House certification anyway.

 

 

Window Bucks

After firing our two GC’s in February, 2017, we lost a few weeks as we scrambled to cut ties with them while simultaneously lining up new subcontractors to keep the project moving forward.

Once things were back on track, I was able to begin installing the window and door bucks in preparation for the delivery of the eventual windows and doors.

Using 3/4″ CDX exterior plywood, I installed the bucks so they would extend out far enough to meet up with our eventual two layers of 2″ Rockwool Comfortboard 80 and two layers of furring strips for our ventilated rainscreen (vertical and horizontal since most of our charred cedar siding would be oriented vertically).

Here’s how a similar set-up looked on Hammer and Hand’s Madrona House project:

 

 

We decided to go with “innie” windows, so our windows would be placed near the center of our wall assembly to optimize their energy performance. Placing windows near the center of the wall assembly also creates nice shadow lines on the structure throughout the day. Overall, we just really like the way recessed windows look on a house.

Prior to construction, I created a mock wall assembly with a window buck, which proved to be good practice for building the real thing.

 

mock-wall-assembly-w-sealant-in-sun

Mock-up of the wall assembly put together before construction began.

 

Mock wall assembly after practicing with the tapes:

 

mock-wall-assembly-w-tapes

This mock wall assembly gave me the chance to practice applying these tapes before doing it for real on the house.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s important with these tapes to make sure that once applied you go over them, applying pressure, to ensure the adhesive is properly activated. 475 HPBS always included at least one of their blue Pressfix tools in each box of tape that I ordered. The tool is roughly similar to a bondo spreader.

 

pro-clima-pressfix.jpg

Pressfix after heavy use.

 

We were following many of the details in Hammer and Hand’s Madrona House project:

 

 

I watched their videos dozens of times, especially this one, trying to make sure I got all of the details right. Their Best Practices Manual was also invaluable as I kept referring to it throughout the duration of the build (an incredible gift to contractors and self-builders alike who are tackling a high-performance build for the first time).

Once each buck was installed, I went around and used HF Sealant to seal all the gaps, seams, and screw holes in the window and door bucks.

 

BR #2 window buck with HF sealant

First window buck installed.

 

Here’s a close-up of the same window as the HF sealant is being applied:

 

close up of BR #2 with HF sealant

HF Sealant at the transition between the Zip sheathing and the window buck.

 

And here’s a different buck being sealed on the interior surfaces.

 

lwr rgt int wdw buck w: hf sealant

Using HF sealant to seal seams, imperfections, and screw holes in the plywood window bucks.

 

Another view of the buck being sealed up with the HF sealant:

 

int wdw buck w: hf sealant

 

With the bucks installed, I could then begin applying the various air sealing tapes to all the surfaces of the bucks. I decided to use the Pro Clima line of products, available from 475 HPBS, after ordering them and using them to create my mock wall assembly.

The other option would’ve been to use the Siga brand of air sealing tapes, available from Small Planet Supply, or the black Huber Zip sheathing tape.

Although clearly based on my own personal prejudice rather than scientific evidence, I was reluctant to use the Zip tape, 3M tape, or something similar, mainly because I knew the European brands have a much longer track record of success.

Yet another option would’ve been to use liquid applied membranes (e.g., Prosoco, again Zip, or others), which I’ll address later, when noting the details for sealing up my front door buck area.

Knowing that corners and other areas where elements meet up could be problematic for proper air sealing, as pointed out by Sam Hagerman in this Hammer and Hand video:

 

 

I started by addressing some of these areas first. For example, here’s the lower right of a window buck where it meets the Zip sheathing:

 

lowr rgt buck 1st profil at zip

 

By building up the corners in this way I was hoping to guarantee complete coverage against air and water infiltration at these tricky points.

 

lower rgt buck w: profil at zip

Same area with overlapping top layer.

 

Here’s the top of the buck where it meets up with the Zip sheathing:

 

profil on buck meeting zip

Corner where the buck meets the Zip protected again with 2 separate overlapping pieces of tape.

 

The Profil tape, which splits into thirds on the back, makes corners much easier to tackle.

After using the Tescon Vana in the upper inside corner of the buck, I used the Profil tape to address the upper outside corners of the bucks.

 

int buck w: tvana and 1st profil

Tescon Vana, then Profil for this upper outside corner.

 

Here’s two views of the second top piece for this area:

 

outside upper rgt w: profil

Putting it in place before making a small cut to fold over the outside edge.

 

Here’s another view of the same area, this time looking at the buck head-on:

 

upper rgt of wdw buck w: profil

Same area after cutting the piece and ready to fold it down into position.

 

By making small cuts in the Profil tape with a razor blade, corners are easy to shape to the form you need. Although making a cut while the tape is already in position is relatively easy to do, avoiding any damage to underlying layers is obviously very important. For this reason, it’s probably safer to make cuts before getting the tape into position.

For instance, an initial cut in the Profil tape:

 

cutting profil for corner

 

And then making a fold to establish the basic shape for an outside corner:

 

cut folded profil for outside corner

 

Once you initially set the tape in its position, gently remove the white backing paper, trying to avoid moving the tape too much, which would change its position or cause wrinkles.

I didn’t use the Profil tape for the two lower outside corners since these areas would eventually get throughly covered by the Extoseal Encors sill pan tape.

Once the corners were taped up, I moved on to the bottom of the buck, using the black Contega Solido Exo tape.

First piece of Contega being applied to the bottom of a buck where it meets the Zip sheathing:

 

contega lower lft corner

 

The same area once the piece of Contega is cut to allow it to partially wrap up the side of the buck.

 

contega under and up side

First piece of Contega being installed.

 

Note the white paper backing that helps to position the Contega exactly where you need it, while also reducing the chances for wrinkles to form (an area for potential air leaks).

The Contega, like the light blue Profil, comes with a 3-part split backing. Although this 3-part backing helps a lot, I still struggled at times to avoid wrinkles with the Contega. The Contega is noticeably thinner than the blue Tescon Vana, which is probably why I found the Tescon Vana much easier to use. In fact, if I had it to do over, I would just use a wider version of the Tescon Vana to replace the Contega.

The nice thing about the wider versions of the Tescon Vana is it also comes with a split back for ease of placement.

 

tescon vana 6 w: split backing

6″ Tescon Vana with split backing.

 

Once an initial piece of Tescon Vana (3″) covered the exposed front outside edge of the plywood, I applied the wider Tescon Vana (6″), before applying the Contega to the Zip – buck – bottom piece of Contega connection, effectively bringing these adjoining areas together.

 

starting contega up lft sde buck

Second piece of Contega going up the side of the window buck.

 

Getting the first third of the Contega attached to the Zip before removing the remaining 2 strips of white paper backing seemed to help get it to sit flat without too many wrinkles.

 

contega up lft sde of buck pulling strip

Removing the smallest of the 3 strips of white paper backing.

 

The Contega was then cut so that it lapped the first piece of Contega on the bottom of the window buck.

And here is the Contega as it ends up on the top of the window buck.

 

close up contega up over top of buck

Corners being covered multiple times: HF sealant, Profil tape, and then Contega tape.

 

Making progress across the top of the window buck, building up the layers in shingle fashion, first with the Tescon Vana on the exposed front edge of the plywood, then moving up with the Contega, before finishing with a final strip of Tescon Vana on the Zip sheathing.

 

progressing across top of buck

Moving across the top of the window buck.

 

Top of the window buck almost complete:

 

upper lft buck w: top pce of contega

 

Same area finished off with a strip of Tescon Vana:

 

head of wdw buck finished w: t vana

 

Here’s a side view of a completed window buck. Note the sloped top, achieved with a piece of beveled cedar siding. Hopefully water won’t make its way to this area above each window or door (it’ll have to get past 4″ of Rockwool), but the slope that’s present will hopefully encourage any water that does so to harmlessly drip off rather than hang around to cause potential damage.

 

prepped wdw buck w: sloped top

 

Once the exterior of the window bucks were complete, I went inside to cover the interior head and legs of each buck.

 

contega interior of buck

Contega on the top and sides of the interior of each buck.

 

Here’s a Siga video I only recently came across, showing another way to deal with corners:

 

 

The last area to be addressed was the window sills. For this area I used the Extoseal Encors product. It’s vapor-closed, highly pliable, but also thick to prevent any water that ends up on the sill from entering the structure.

 

 

I really enjoyed using the Extoseal Encors, although you do need to avoid thinning it out as you wrap it around outside corners.

The only time I had a problem with it was on my last window buck. Temperatures were rising and I was working in direct sunlight. It was only in the high 60’s, but that was enough to cause some bubbling in the material.

 

extoseal bubble in sun

Some bubbles caused by working in the sun.

 

In my experience, the Extoseal Encors performed at its best the colder it was outside.

 

window buck almost complete

After a second row of overlapping Extoseal Encors on the sill to the interior, this window buck would be complete.

 

 

Door Bucks

Once the window bucks were installed, I could move on to the two door bucks (front entry and side kitchen entry).

 

legs of kitch buck installed

Installing the door buck for the side, kitchen door.

 

Plywood portion of the door buck complete with bottom piece installed:

 

kitch dr buck looking down at plywood

Looking down on completed plywood door buck.

 

Note the small voids in the plywood pictured below. Because of gaps like these, I chose to cover the edge grain of all the plywood window and door bucks with the HF sealant before applying tapes, just to ensure no air could migrate through the layers of plywood.

 

lwr rgt door buck w: plywood

Outside corner of door buck.

 

After completing the plywood door buck, it was time to give it support from underneath. Although about 2/3 of the door would rest on the subfloor/floor joists, leaving that remaining 1/3 unsupported made me nervous.

While there’s plenty of information available regarding the use of window bucks, I found surprisingly little regarding the installation and weather-proofing of door bucks. I couldn’t find any information for this detail in my Passive House books, or any description of it online, so I consulted with a local GC to come up with a solution.

As an aside, Rick, from Cypress Builders in Palatine, Illinois, proved to be an invaluable resource for a whole host of design problems and issues during our build. After firing our two GC’s, he was kind enough to take on the role of building consultant: Every couple of weeks I would come up with a list of questions, and he would stop by the job site to run through answers and possible solutions.

To his credit, the level of detail involved in a Passive House build didn’t scare him off — it did for many of the other GC’s, carpenters, and siding companies I had out to the job site for estimates — none more blunt than one particular carpenter who could only shake his head over and over as I went through the components of our wall assembly before finally blurting out in frustration: “Why the fuck would anybody build this way”. It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time when I was struggling to line up subcontractors in order to try and finish the project.

Rick was incredibly generous with his time, knowledge, and experience — it’s no overstatement to say it’s doubtful we would’ve completed our build without him. His decades in the building industry allowed him to offer sage advice, and I always ended up calmer and more confident about completing the next stage of the build after each of his site visits. I would definitely recommend him to anyone in the Chicago suburbs looking to build or remodel (the mix of experience, honesty, and excellent communication skills is hard to find).

And for any other DIY self-builds, I can’t recommend strongly enough how important it is to look for a similar mentor for your own project. Even if things are going well, whether in the design stage or even the actual build, it can’t hurt to have a construction veteran stop by and try to spot problems, or potential problems. A second set of eyes, eyes that have seen decades of construction acumen along with plenty of stupidity, can only improve the quality of your own build. As invaluable as online resources like GBA, BSC, and Hammer and Hand have been to our build, none of those resources could visit our job site directly, so someone like Rick helped to complete the circle of advice and knowledge that can make the difference between a successful build and total disaster.

To try and give the door buck structural support, I first installed a layer of Rockwool against the green Zip sheathing directly underneath the door buck, attaching it initially with some construction adhesive. I was hoping this would act like the foam in an insulated header.

 

rockwool for under door buck

Prepping the Rockwool for the door buck.

 

After the Rockwool (2″ Comfortboard 80), I attached two 2×8’s with eight Headlok screws through the Zip, rim joist, and some of the floor joists as well.

 

 

We would eventually use these screws extensively to attach our first layer of furring strips through two layers of 2″ Rockwool Comfortboard 80 and our Zip sheathing (again, more on this later). I also used their 4 1/2″ screw to correct a couple of window headers that were out of square. With the spider drive, they work incredibly well.

Unfortunately, when installing the two 2×8’s I accidentally compressed the Rockwool slightly, requiring a final layer of 1/4″ plywood. Thankfully I was able to avoid compressing the Rockwool for my front door buck, so the 1/4″ plywood wasn’t necessary.

 

kitch buck w: 1:4 plywood

Layers of support underneath the door buck. The Rockwool is intended to act as a thermal break, much like foam in an insulated header.

 

Another view of the door buck with basic components installed:

 

kitch buck w: plywood installed

Note the visible gap between the bottom of the buck and the Rockwool on the foundation below. This gap was closed with additional pieces of Rockwool cut to fit.

 

Because of the Rockwool, sealing the end grain of the 2×8’s would’ve been difficult with only the tapes, so I first applied the HF Sealant to try and create a monolithic surface:

 

Side Door - built out w: sealant

HF Sealant covering the Rockwool and the end grain of the 2×8’s. Additional Roxul installed between the buck and the Roxul on the exterior of our foundation to close this gap.

 

If I had it to do over, I’d use Prosoco’s Fast Flash since, unlike the HF Sealant, it’s vapor open, so probably a better long-term solution should moisture of any kind find its way to this area. Once the HF Sealant was dry, it was straightforward to apply the Extoseal Encors.

But before applying the Extoseal Encors, I applied the tapes in the same pattern and manner as I did for all the window bucks.

I also added additional layers of Rockwool and a final layer of pink rigid foam to bring everything out to the same plane before installing the Extoseal Encors.

 

taping side of door buck - south side

Applying the tapes to the kitchen door buck.

 

 

lwr rigt kitch buck w: foam and extoseal

Extoseal Encors across the  bottom face of the door buck.

 

Also, in addition to the Extoseal Encors across the face of the pink foam, the concrete sub later applied a layer of EPDM rubber to try and prevent moisture intrusion/damage in this area.

 

lwr lft kitch dr buck w: first row extoseal

Second row of Extoseal Encors, wrapping down over the first.

 

Although the Extoseal Encors looks great when it first goes on, once temperatures rise it becomes gooey in the sun, so it was a challenge to maintain its integrity before the door went in. If I could do it over, I would hold off on installing the Extoseal Encors until the day before, or the morning of, the door’s installation.

 

lower lft kitch dr buck w: extoseal

From outside, looking down on the bottom left corner of the door buck: last piece of Extoseal Encors installed.

 

From outside, a close-up of the right outside corner of the door buck:

 

lower rgt kitch dr buck w: extoseal

Extoseal Encors wrapped around the outside corner of our kitchen door buck.

 

And a view of the completed door buck:

 

kitch door buck w: extoseal installed

Ready for the kitchen door.

 

For the front entry door buck I repeated the same assembly of components (minus the 1/4″ plywood and pink rigid foam), the only major change a switch to Prosoco’s R-Guard series of products; namely their Joint and Seam and Fast Flash, replacing the Pro Clima tapes and HF Sealant.

Before the start of construction, I intended to use the Prosoco products for all the air and water sealing details, but when it looked like construction would happen in the winter of 2016-17 I knew I had to change to tapes since most of them can be applied below 20° F (this includes the HF sealant), while the R-Guard series of products can only be applied in above-freezing temperatures (you’ll want to contact the manufacturers for exact installation directions and requirements).

Since it was August by the time I did the front door buck, I decided to try the Prosoco products just so I could compare them to the European-style tapes I had been using. I was able to find the R-Guard series of products online at World Class Supply.

 

frt dr buck looking down j and seam

Lower left corner of front door buck. Pink Joint and Seam on the bottom, red Fast Flash running up the leg of the door buck.

 

Exterior head and legs of the door buck covered in Joint and Seam and Fast Flash:

 

lft ext side of frt dr buck w: fast flash

 

Upper right corner of the front door buck after applying Joint and Seam and Fast Flash:

 

upper rgt frt dr buck w: fast flash

 

Lower left outside view of the front door buck after Rockwool, 2-2×8’s, Joint and Seam, and Fast Flash have been installed and applied:

 

front door lower left w: fast flash

 

There were a few gaps between the Rockwool and other components around the house where the Joint and Seam seemed to work surprisingly well as a sealant. Even though the Rockwool is fibrous, the Joint and Seam was still able to stick tenaciously — hopefully it continues to work in the long-term.

And here’s a couple more pics of the completed door buck, ready for the front door:

 

front door entry low shot of fast flash

Completed bottom section of front entry door buck.

 

Standing indoors, looking down at the right corner of the front entry door buck:

 

front door entry w: fast flash

Fast Flash around the perimeter of the front door buck.

 

As things turned out, this front door buck would end up exposed to construction foot traffic and the elements for about 4 months. Having a cheap, temporary front door helped to keep most of the rain out, but even so, the Fast Flash held up surprisingly well. Apart from a couple of tiny touch-ups with additional Fast Flash just prior to the front door being installed, there was little damage to the membrane.

And once the house was done, most people when entering or exiting skip the metal flashing and the door’s threshold (the area I was trying to give added support), preferring to step directly from the concrete stoop into the house and onto the tile since it feels more natural, but it’s nice to know that if these areas ever do see serious weight (e.g. moving heavy appliances or furniture) that it’s fully supported.

Just recently I had time to look through William Maclay’s book The New Net Zero, a fantastic resource I would’ve loved to have before and during our build, and I noticed in a diagram on page 343 the use of a (4″ x 4″) piece of fiberglass angle: “… fasten to rim joist to support extension of floor at door opening”.

If I could do it over, I would use the fiberglass angle instead of the two 2×8’s. Last winter we had a cold spell for about two weeks where temperatures stayed in single digits, and although I checked behind my Rockwool in the basement just below my two door openings at the rim joists for any signs of moisture issues and found nothing (luckily), the fiberglass angle seems like a much simpler solution since it’s thermally broken and much smaller than my two 2×8’s, which would’ve meant I could’ve almost completely insulated below the door bucks while also giving this area plenty of long-term structural support.

Of course, consulting a structural engineer or architect wouldn’t hurt either, just to establish exactly what’s required for tackling this area.

For anyone who’s interested, I found the following suppliers for fiberglass angle online:

 

Grainger

 

Strongwell

 

 

Air Sealing Products: Tapes or Liquid Membranes?

In regards to air sealing, I was really impressed with the Pro Clima series of tapes and their HF Sealant. I was equally impressed with the Prosoco R-Guard series of products (Joint and Seam, Fast Flash, and Air Dam).

Because I found the Prosoco series of products slightly easier to use since they’re less fussy to apply, I would choose tapes or liquid membranes based on the weather conditions of the job site: If it’s going to be too cold to use the Prosoco, then I would use the tapes (and the HF Sealant). Otherwise, I’d probably stick to the liquid membranes. I’m guessing the choice typically comes down to personal preference of the installers (apart from weather restrictions), or what the architect specifies on the drawings.

Here are some videos showing various liquid membranes in action:

 

 

And there are now other copy cat products available:

 

 

And 475 HPBS and Pro Clima now offer their own version of a liquid applied membrane:

VISCONN

 

 

 

Completing Air and Water Sealing of the Windows and Doors (Interior)

Our Unilux sales rep was nice enough to arrange for Bob Riggs and his crew to come down from Wisconsin to install all of our windows and doors. After firing our two GC’s, we really didn’t know who to use for the install. Not many contractors in the Chicago area have experience with these type of windows and doors, so it was hardly straightforward to find someone.

We had ordered our windows in September, 2016, we had fired our GC’s in February, 2017, and we were finally able to install our windows June, 2017. It had been a long wait, so we were excited and nervous to watch them go in. Familiar with Germany’s reputation for engineering excellence, it was one of the more exciting aspects of the build.

 

guys putting in kitchen window

Kellum, Tony, Bob Riggs, and his son Brian placing our kitchen window frame.

 

Bob and his crew did a great job for us. We’re lucky and extremely thankful that they were willing to come down to help us out of a jam. And the guys they used from JPK Builders to help them with the install were also extremely professional and easy to work with (more on this below).

As far as installation details, for the most part the guys followed the steps outlined in this Hammer and Hand video, only changing the Tremco illbruck tape for Hannoband 3E tape:

 

 

I chose to go with the Hannoband 3E tape, but there are any number of options for air and water sealing around windows and doors:

 

 

Here’s a video detailing the use of the Hannoband 3E black expanding foam tape, which I purchased from Small Planet Supply:

 

 

The Hannoband tape has some nice characteristics, such as adding some R-value to the gap, it’s water and air tight, but it’s also vapor-open. It’s also easy to work with and install, it performs really well, and using it means not having to fill the gap between window and framing with canned spray foam (prone to failure according to some Passive House designers and builders). Overall, it just seems like an elegant solution for air and water sealing what can otherwise be a difficult gap to deal with.

Here’s a short video from Tremco showing how these expanding black foam tapes work:

 

 

And here’s a photo of the Hannoband 3E, dramatically showing just how much expansion it’s capable of if left unimpeded:

 

Hannoband 3E showing expansion

On the left, Hannoband just cut from the roll of foam tape. On the right, Hannoband after 48 hours of unimpeded expansion.

 

It also comes in different sizes to better match the gap that needs filling.

The photo below was taken shortly after installation, before the foam had a chance to fully expand.

 

upper rgt wdw fr blk foam b4 expanding

Upper right corner of a window with the Hannoband 3E tape.

 

Here’s a similar corner after the foam has had time to completely expand. The HF Sealant in the corner is just added insurance against air leaks.

 

upper left int wdw frame w: blk foam

Hannoband 3E tape fully expanded.

 

It was pretty impressive to see gaps like this on the day of installation:

 

hannoband-tape-before-full-expansion.jpg

Daylight coming in right after the installation.

 

Only to come back the next day to find the gap completely closed by the expanding foam tape:

 

lft side wdw frame gap filled w: blk foam

The gap is completely closed the next day.

 

I put the Hannoband on ice the morning of the installation since the cold is said to slow down the rate of expansion, giving installers plenty of time to set windows and doors.

A closer view of the Hannoband 3E tape fully expanded between the window buck on the left, and the window frame on the right:

 

lft side of frame close up blk foam

 

A closer view of the upper left corner of one of the windows after the Hannoband has had a chance to fully expand:

 

upper left corner of window w: Hanno tape and HF but before Profil

 

The tapes aren’t cheap, but I thought they were worth every penny.

For the bottom of the window, it wasn’t really clear if the Hannoband tape was appropriate for this area, so I followed Hammer and Hand’s lead, using backer rod to fill the bottom gap before applying HF Sealant (instead of Air Dam like in their video).

 

bottom of int wdw frame w: backer rod

Backer rod being installed into the bottom gap under the window from inside.

 

Lower left corner of the window after the Hannoband tape, backer rod, and HF sealant have been installed.

 

lower lft int wdw frame w: dab of HF

Interior lower left corner of a window after the Hannoband tape, but before the Profil tape has been applied. 

 

Later, for the basement windows, when I had the Prosoco R-Guard series of products on hand, I completely sealed the interior side of the two windows with the Air Dam product, which worked really well. I also used the Air Dam to seal the connection between my basement slab – rigid foam – and foundation walls. It worked really well in that application as well.

 

lower ft int base wdw installed

Basement window before the white Air Dam has been applied between the buck and the window frame.

 

Once the Hannoband tape had a chance to completely expand (roughly 48 hours), I proceeded to tape the perimeter of the windows and kitchen door, both from the interior and the exterior. This included the exterior sills (a common air sealing technique for European windows; considered a big no-no for American-style windows).

Unfortunately, when I was outside, before applying the Profil tape across the bottom of each window, I forgot to stuff in some Roxul Comfortboard 80 (as suggested in the Hammer and Hand video above). I only realized this misstep after reviewing photos for this blog post. Worried about potential negative consequences, I asked a question on the Q&A section of GBA, and I also contacted Floris at 475 HPBS. Although this roughly 1/8″ tall gap is an unnecessary thermal bridge (thanks to my mistake), it shouldn’t impact the long-term durability of the windows or the bucks.

I rented a FLIR thermal imaging camera to check this area, and to just see how the overall structure of the house has turned out in terms of air sealing and insulation (we moved in this past Spring, 2018). Unsurprisingly, the space between the window frames and the bucks/drywall is one of the weakest areas on the entire house. Fortunately, the sills don’t show up any colder than the rest of the frame (I’ll delve more into this in a later post, including some FLIR images from around the house, after detailing the installation of our exterior insulation and siding).

For the front door, we held off on installing it until later in the build in order to protect it from the construction process as much as possible.

 

close up lower lft wdw finished w: HF sealant

Interior view of the gap between buck and window frame taped with Pro Clima Profil tape.

 

Using the Profil tape for this made the process a lot easier. With its 3-part split backing, I could use the narrowest section on the window frame. It was important not to get too much tape on the frame in order to avoid interfering with final trim details (in our case, drywall returns).

On the exterior I tried using the Tescon Vana initially, thinking the gap was wide enough between frame and buck, but the Profil tape was simply much easier to use in tight spaces.

 

rgt side ext wdw frame finished w: tvana

Left to right: exterior gray window frame, Tescon Vana, and tape-covered window buck.

 

I added a little HF Sealant to all the corners just for added protection against air leaks and water intrusion.

 

taping ext of family rm window frame

Applying the Profil tape to an exterior frame.

 

From the outside in we had Profil tape, the Hannoband tape, and then another layer of Profil tape on the interior. Doing it this way involved some time and money, but I thought it was worth it to protect against air and water infiltration for the long-term. I would also only have one chance to get these details right, so some added redundancy also meant added peace of mind.

 

upper lft int buck corner finished w: hf sealant

Another view of a window completely taped and sealed in an upper left corner.

 

I also addressed the brackets on the top of the windows with a mix of HF sealant and tape after the Hannoband had fully expanded:

 

clip above window before Profil #2

First HF sealant applied around the bracket.

 

 

clip above window w: Profil

After the HF sealant, the Profil tape is applied.

 

 

Over-insulating High-Performance Window Frames

When the window bucks were made air and water tight, I took the advice of Hammer and Hand and over-insulated the exterior frames with rigid foam:

 

 

I wanted to use Roxul for this application, but it would’ve taken too much time to order and deliver to site (roughly 2 weeks), and the foam was frankly cheaper and readily available at Home Depot. We tried to go “foam-free” as much as possible, but this was an area where we made a compromise — insulated headers and the gap between our basement slab and foundation walls were the two other areas where rigid foam was used to any great extent.

The exterior aluminum cladding had been held back 1″ from the edge of the wood window frame, allowing me to install 1.5″ of foam between the edge of the aluminum cladding and the window buck (the 1/2″ gap around the perimeter of the window buck opening allowing for proper placement of each window).

 

over insulated frames

Over-insulating the window frame.

 

For the most part this went well, but there were some areas where the interior 1/2″ thick piece of foam did overlap the aluminum frame slightly. As Speier points out in the video, this probably short circuits the intended thermal break somewhat, but by how much I don’t really know (hopefully not entirely).

Also, even if over-insulating the window frames is executed perfectly, it still leaves the window bucks themselves as thermal bridges. I’m sure these show up in the PHPP (the Passive House Planning Package) used for energy modeling, but I’m guessing the energy penalty is slight.

Instead of using 3/4″ plywood or 2x framing lumber to create window bucks, some builders, trying to avoid this area of thermal bridging, have used Thermalbucks as an alternative, but depending on the thickness of the wall assembly there may be limits to their use.

 

 

Another view of the over-insulated frame:

 

lower lft wdw buck w: foam on frame

 

I’ll add additional photos of the windows and doors to a later blog post discussing exterior insulation, the ventilated rainscreen, flashing details, and our siding.

 

kitch dr from int w: sun

Kitchen door installed.

 

 

Issues Arise with our Unilux Sales Representative

The biggest disappointment regarding our new windows and doors was the behavior of our Unilux sales rep.

For instance, when Riggs and his crew were ready to set the first window in place we realized the integrated window sills were going to be way too short (the Unilux sills ship separately and need to be screwed to the front of each window unit). Our Unilux rep immediately suggested moving the windows farther out, near the outside edge of the bucks, in order to make these shorter sills work.

There are a couple of reasons why this was infuriating. First, and most importantly, it would’ve undermined the integrity of the windows since they would’ve been resting solely on the 3/4″ plywood window bucks, rather than the 2×6 framing (the units were heavy, especially our family room and master bedroom windows, which were each 9′ wide and 4′ tall). Secondly, his suggestion immediately told me he had not bothered to look at the construction drawings and Hammer and Hand videos I had emailed to him so he could order the proper sized sills and better understand the wall assembly the windows were going into. The drawings clearly note the proper placement for the windows, and I had explicitly noted this desired mid-wall position in an email.

Luckily, before I could say anything, Tony, one of the carpenters, spoke up and pointed out that the windows needed to be screwed into the 2×6 framing members. I can’t tell you how grateful I was that he had the courage to speak up (in my experience, most people wouldn’t).

The guys also pointed out that I could have custom sills made and then installed during the siding process. Not the end of the world. Sounds good.

 

suntuitive in crate

Suntuitive glass delivered in a crate. For our application it needed to be installed into two empty Unilux frames on site.

 

Later, our Unilux rep was leading Riggs and the guys through the process of installing the Suntuitive glass in the empty west-facing window frames. The guys seemed visibly nervous, and understandably so, as our Unilux rep led them through the process for the first time.

Once the Suntuitive glass was installed, the guys broke for lunch. The Unilux rep then pointed out to me when we were alone that of the 6 pieces of glass 4 of them had the Suntuitive glass logo installed upside down. He shrugged and smirked, perhaps suggesting that it was the carpenters’ fault, or that it was no big deal.

Fair enough, I guess, since it doesn’t impact performance but boy, does it look dumb.

 

Suntuitive upside down

 

Instead of taking a few extra seconds with each piece of glass to make sure that it had the proper orientation, our Unilux rep either forgot to do this, or he just didn’t care. It was hardly the carpenters’ fault since they had never installed Suntuitive glass before.

Still later in the day, when it came time to start installing handles, rather than having what I had ordered on site, our Unilux rep had a cardboard box filled with random handles of various styles: “Is this yours?” “No.” “Is this one yours?” “No.” He only had 2 of the correct handles out of 9. At the very least, this gave the impression that our Unilux rep was disorganized. It turned out he was missing all of the drip caps as well.

Near the end of the first day of installation the guys started installing the kitchen door. Once in place, our Unilux rep went to install the lockset. Something went wrong. He struggled for what seemed like an hour (it may have only been 20 minutes) to get it installed properly. Once he had it installed, he turned and began telling me I would need to remove it to file some parts down to improve the action. For a second time, Tony immediately spoke up, telling me explicitly not to do this, to just use it for a couple of months and it would be fine — which is exactly what happened.

With just my daughter’s bedroom window and the two basement windows left to install, the guys came back the following morning for a couple of hours to finish up. The Unilux rep showed up the second day, dropping some drip caps and the basement handles on a table for me to install. This annoyed me since I had never installed either, and it would’ve taken the Unilux rep a few minutes to do it himself while the guys were working.

And then later, as everyone was leaving, our Unilux rep suggested now that I had seen the guys install the kitchen door surely I’d be fine installing the front door on my own (these Passive House doors are heavy, and ideally require 2-3 guys to install them safely — and preferably by someone who has done it before). They’re also expensive, as I noted earlier, so why would I even contemplate installing it on my own. For a third time Tony probably saw a look of terror on my face, immediately spoke up, and offered to come back to install the front door once we were ready for it.

By chance, Tony somehow managed to be standing next to me each time our Unilux rep made an asinine suggestion. I can’t put into words how grateful I am that Tony spoke up for me and, really, the integrity of our build — he certainly didn’t have to, which probably tells you all you need to know about the quality of his character.

Happy to just have all my windows and kitchen door in, and knowing that Riggs and the  guys were willing to come back to install the front door, I said nothing to our Unilux rep about his behavior.

Later that week, however, we received the Unilux rep’s final invoice. It showed that he was double billing us for job site delivery. It was for just over $300. Not the end of the world, and an easy fix, but, nevertheless, annoying since it seemed to suggest he sent us a final invoice without consulting the original contract.

The invoice also had a storage fee for $1500. He had mentioned months before in an earlier email, after we had just fired our two GC’s, that storage fees were a possibility. At that time we had a lot going on, so I didn’t consult the contract we had signed with him. I just assumed storage fees were in the details of the contract, so when I got the final invoice I planned to pay for it.

But then my wife’s cousin found out about the storage fees, and he expressed surprise, telling us that, in his opinion, no one in the industry does this.

So I went back and looked at the contract. Not a word about potential storage fees. Nothing about when storage fees would begin to accrue, and no fee schedule noting how much per day, week, or month. In an industry plagued by delays, if storage fees were a legitimate billable cost shouldn’t our Unilux rep have the details outlined in his contract?

So then I separately asked a couple of people who work in the construction industry about our situation, one with over 30 years in residential work, the other with over 20 years in commercial construction. They, unsurprisingly, had similar responses:

“What’s in the contract?”

“Nothing.”

“Well, then…”

The one who works in commercial construction was much more blunt:

“So it’s bullshit. He made it up.”

My wife wrote an email to our Unilux rep asking about the double billing for job site delivery and the storage fees, and expressing frustration with how he behaved on the job site during the installation. He responded with a series of emails that can best be described as unhinged or histrionic.

We contacted people above our Unilux rep to see if someone else could come back to finish things up — in addition to installing the front door, a piece of glass broke during installation (we think it was a manufacturing error in the glass), and a different subcontractor broke a part on a basement window that needed to be replaced. They told us our rep was the only one available in the Chicago area, probably, in part I’m guessing, because they wanted our Unilux rep to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

He came back to the site to see the broken part on the basement window, removing the working stay arm (I assumed to make it easier for him to order the correct part, which was a cylinder on the frame that attached to the stay arm). He also dropped off the rest of the missing drip caps and the rest of our correct handles.

 

broken:missing cylinder on base wdw

Missing cylinder on the frame had been snapped off by a subcontractor.

 

A few months after this, in November, after drywall had started, the Unilux rep came back to install the replacement glass for the broken window, and the part for the basement window. He was visibly angry and petulant, clearly still annoyed that we had complained about him.

 

normal basement window

Here’s our other working basement window for comparison. 

 

When we were in the basement he just handed me the working stay arm that he had removed months earlier, apparently for me to install myself. When I pointed out that he hadn’t given me the part for the frame — the actual part that had been broken and needed replacing — he just stared at the open basement window for a few long seconds before we both realized he had failed to order the correct part.

It had been almost six months since I originally requested the part. Making matters worse, he told me from the outset that the window was unsafe to use until the part had been replaced, so we had never had use of this window since its installation.

He also asked if I had the Unilux owner’s manual. No, I didn’t. He never gave me one. I didn’t know one existed. Why he didn’t give me one the first day of installation back in June, or frankly prior to installation, via email, I’ll never know. Instead, I received the owner’s manual nearly 6 months after the windows had been installed.

The owner’s manual emphasizes how important it is that the windows be opened for at least 30 minutes 3 times a day for “forced ventilation” while drywallers are mudding to ensure no moisture damage occurs to the wood on the windows. If he hadn’t happened to be on site while the drywall guys were present, odds are I never would have received this information, thereby putting the long-term integrity of our windows at risk.

And if there had been damage, then what? Replace the sashes? Replace sashes and frames (the entire window units)? Who would’ve paid for it?

Bob Riggs, his son Brian, and Jason from JPK Builders, came back a few weeks after this to install the front door without our Unilux rep present (I didn’t want him near my house again, I think for obvious reasons). The lockset for the front door was installed without incident. In fact, it happened so quickly I didn’t even see them do it. Clearly there’s nothing inherently difficult about installing Unilux locksets.

We couldn’t be happier with Bob and all the guys he brought to the job site. They work hard, they’re detail-oriented, they’re willing to learn new ideas and techniques, and they have excellent communication skills — not to mention a high level of integrity. We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Bob or JPK to family or friends. They were a pleasure to have on site, and they were very easy to work with. All of which begs the question: Why doesn’t Unilux recruit someone like Bob to sell and install their windows and doors? He’s used to selling his services anyway, and he has all the necessary construction knowledge to properly install high performance windows and doors. It seems like it would benefit both parties.

A few more months go by, it’s the end of June, 2018, and I still hear nothing about the missing part for my basement window, even though our Unilux rep had assured me in an email back in November, 2017 that he would make sure to order it and send it to me. We couldn’t use the basement window for almost a year at this point.

Reluctant to contact our Unilux rep again, I looked around on GBA and found Hawkeye Windows and Doors out of Iowa who installs Unilux windows. I spoke with Larry Martin, the owner, but it turns out he doesn’t sell Unilux windows anymore. Nevertheless, after I explain my predicament, he’s nice enough to offer to hunt down the same, or similar, Roto hardware part for me.

Within a week or two I have the part in my hand. Think about that for a second. I wasn’t even really his customer. It would’ve been so easy for him to just say no, he can’t help me. Instead, he invested time hunting down this random, miscellaneous part for me. I got better customer service from Larry for a $50 part than I did from our own Unilux rep after ordering a whole house worth of windows and doors. It’s astounding in a way, and what a world of difference from a client’s perspective.

During construction it feels like a miracle when you run across people like Bob Riggs, Tony, or Larry Martin — especially after having to deal with someone like our Unilux rep who needlessly made life difficult for us.

Unfortunately, when I go to install the part, although it could work, I realize it would require drilling new holes in the sash and frame. At that point, I get angry again: Why should I have to drill new holes in a brand new window simply because my Unilux rep is too lazy or incompetent to get me the right part?

I contact a couple of people above our Unilux rep, but I don’t hear back from them right away (one was out of town at the time), so I think I have no choice but to contact our Unilux rep again.

Here’s how our Unilux rep chose to respond to my email, carbon copying me and Eric Murray, the East Coast Regional Manager for Unilux:

“They broke this part after the installation; I had ordered one but then lost it [emphasis added].  According to what you mentioned to me a month ago.  I’ve thought Eric Whetzel was so upset with me after all ( despite all my goodwill , hard work and honesty trying to stay with them in good terms….it has been such an unfortunate experience with these clients; it never happened to me during my entire 30 year career…) I don’t understand why is he still speaking with me if he didn’t want to deal with me again? Anyway, if you did not order this yet, I will have Helmut ship directly to them and done with it”

It’s true, we wanted nothing to do with him, and I think for legitimate reasons. But what’s also true is that after more than a year he still hadn’t gotten me the part for my basement window — either out of malice, incompetence, or some mixture thereof. In addition, he claims to have ordered the part, lost it… and then what? He chose to do nothing? Unbelievable.

After this last email from our Unilux rep, he did, in fact, order the part for me, but when it arrived it turned out to be the wrong part, so it was totally incompatible with my window — wasting everyone’s time yet again.

Eventually, Eric Murray and George Wright from Unilux were nice enough to get me the part that I needed, although I’m sure they have better things to do with their time.

Just as a quick summary regarding our Unilux rep:

  • He ordered window sills with the wrong dimensions (wrong by almost 3″), even though I supplied him with construction drawings so he could get this measurement right. And his proposed solution to this problem ignored our construction drawings and what we were trying to accomplish with an “innie” window placement.
  • He didn’t bring most of the handles we had ordered to site. He never found the missing ones, so he had to re-order them.
  • He didn’t bring the drip caps.
  • He almost broke the lockset to our kitchen door, and then told me to remove it and file parts of it down to improve its action. Tony had to interject and explain why this was inappropriate.
  • He installed most of our Suntuitive glass upside down (4 out of 6 units).
  • He suggested I should install my $5,000 front door on my own.
  • He failed to give me the Unilux window and door owner’s manual, putting the integrity of our windows and doors at risk as drywall was being installed.
  • He tried to double bill us for job site delivery of the windows and doors.
  • He was going to charge us $1,500 for storage fees even though the contract says nothing about potential storage fees.

Obviously some of these items on their own would be no big deal, but when considered together what other conclusion is there but that this person is disorganized and can’t be bothered to get details right (this is the nicest way to interpret his behavior). This seems like an awful lot to get wrong for someone who was on the job site for only a day and a half.

The whole situation is unfortunate, as I explained to George Wright in an email, since we really like our windows and doors. Apart from an adjustment required on our front door and a kitchen window, they’ve been wonderful to live with. They’re beautiful to look at, and they function really well. All of this is undermined by the actions of our Unilux sales rep.

Of all the trades and services we knew we’d have to hire for our build, our Passive House window and door supplier was the last one we expected to have issues develop with customer service.

 

 

Suntuitive Glass Performance

Bob Riggs and the guys installed the windows with the Suntuitive glass at an ideal time of the year (June, 2017), just heading into the hottest and sunniest weeks of the year for us here in the Chicago area. It immediately gave us an opportunity to see what the glass can do, and how it behaves on a daily basis.

 

exterior view of Suntuitive in the evening

Suntuitive installed for our west facade.

 

It took a couple of days to get used to the colored tint, but we don’t even notice it anymore. It’s a subtle, beautiful gray that goes well with our charred cedar siding (more on that later).

We quickly realized how well the glass works in direct summer sunlight. The picture above doesn’t really tell you much, but in the picture below you can see just how deep the tinting gets when someone who’s standing in the middle of the window puts their arm out of an open side window. The Suntuitive glass really is like sunglasses for a structure.

 

suntuitive hand in open window

The Suntutive glass almost looks black from the outside when the sunlight is hitting it directly.

 

And even when it’s at its darkest, it doesn’t take long for it to go clear once the sun begins to set:

 

Suntuitive at sunset as tint fades

Evening, and the Suntuitive glass is going clear before nightfall.

 

And you get a real sense of just how effective the tinting is when you stand inside and look out between a picture window and an open window:

 

side by side suntuitive and sun

Side by side comparison: Suntuitive vs. direct sunlight.

 

Here are some more photos of the Suntuitive looking out from the interior:

 

Suntuitive at full tint in afternoon looking out Family Rm window

 

Even in the hottest sunlight, the interior side of the glass only warms slightly. It’s a really impressive product.

 

Suntuitive MBR-Family Rm at full tint in afternoon

 

Another view of the Suntuitive going clear in the evening:

 

Suntuitive at sunset looking into backyard

Suntuitive later in the evening, as it turns clear.

 

In the picture below you can see the glass beginning to tint even though the sun hasn’t quite made it into the backyard to hit the Suntuitive directly from the west. Because the tinting isn’t automatic, its effect is subtle and feels natural as it changes.

 

me taping family rm wdw from int

Suntuitive glass starting to tint.

 

With most of the windows and doors installed, I could start thinking about installing my ERV and ductless mini-split system, planning for my first blower door test, and scheduling the install of our siding.

It felt like a really big step in the build — and it meant no more blue tarps covering the window openings to keep the rain out.

Although the days were long, it helped having my wife and daughter on the job site all the time. It also gave my daughter a once in a lifetime chance to play on an active construction site, and she had a blast.

 

John Ford - beast running away

 A John Ford “Searchers” shot of the Beast running off to play.

 

It’s been fun to mark progress in the build through photos. In fact, looking through photos sometimes produces real surprises:

 

beast-looking-at-view-from-br-for-1st-time-close-up

In late January, 2017, looking out the rough opening for her bedroom window…

 

 

looking out beast's br window for 1st time

Same opening in June, 2017. A really big moment in the build: getting their first look out of my daughter’s bedroom window.

 

Six months had gone by, and we had already survived a lot, with much more to come.

 

WRB: Zip Sheathing (Air Sealing #6 )

2

Sealing the Seams and Penetrations in Zip Sheathing

 

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 (weather resistant barrier — sometimes it’s referred to as a water-resistant barrier) based largely on Hammer and Hand projects.

 

 

Also, for years I’d seen 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 some tape:

 

exterior light conduit before gasket

Penetration for conduit before gasket.

 

And here’s the conduit after the gasket and some 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@50 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 seeing 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

0

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.

 

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)

0

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

Zach asked me to 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.

 

first-truss-swinging-into-place

First truss swinging into place.

 

 

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 silhouette of the house starts to come 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