kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Category Archives: Interior Design

Passive Solar: The Beauty of Light

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Does Passive Solar Design Still Make Sense?

Our ‘green’ building adventure began in 2013 when I came across various Passive House and high performance projects in Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid by Sheri Koones. The red house featured on the cover and built by GO Logic, in particular, seemed like a striking departure from conventional homebuilding as practiced in the US.

In its overall shape it echoed an earlier project that I only became aware of later, the Smith House in Illinois by Katrin Klingenberg.

Arguably, in both cases, these homes have too much glass on their south elevations, both in terms of potential overheating of the interior and in purely aesthetic visual terms. Nevertheless, using south-facing glazing to bring in the sun during the winter months while getting some Btu’s of free heat made a lot of sense to us, especially in a heating dominated climate like ours here in the Chicago area.

By the time construction began, we had settled on what seemed like a significant amount of windows and a kitchen door for our south elevation. We felt the layout would be an appropriate amount both in terms of passive solar heating and aesthetics, in addition to daylighting needs.

Moreover, by addressing the main weaknesses of the original Passive Solar movement of the 1970’s, namely the lack of air tightness and sufficient levels of insulation, we hoped that we could strike a balance between enjoying the seasonal movement of the sun in and out of our home while mostly eliminating the risk of overheating, even during shoulder seasons (spring and fall).

Since our build, however, there appears to be growing concern about just how effective this design strategy really is for Passive Houses or high-performance homes more generally. In effect, are the potential savings on a heating bill really worth the risk of temporarily overheating interior spaces?

Joe Lstiburek, of Building Science Corporation fame, puts it bluntly when quoted in a GBA article regarding the use of high SHGC glass:

“Don’t bother with the passive solar. Your house will overheat in the winter. Yes, you heard that right. Even in Chicago. … You should go with very, very low SHGCs, around 0.2, in your glazing. If this sounds familiar to those of you who are as old as me, it should.

“We were here in the late 1970s when ‘mass and glass’ took on ‘superinsulated.’ Superinsulated won,” Lstiburek continued. “And superinsulated won with lousy windows compared to what we have today. What are you folks thinking? Today’s ‘ultra-efficient’ crushes the old ‘superinsulated,’ and you want to collect solar energy? Leave that to the PV.”

Clearly, he’s not entirely wrong, especially when some of the early failures in the Passive House movement revolved around this very issue of overheating. If you were an early adopter of the Passive House concept, especially if you were the homeowner, and you ended up with comfort issues because of too much glass on your southern facade it certainly would make you doubt the purported precision of the Passive House energy modeling.

Nevertheless, with careful planning, it is possible to avoid this issue of overheating while still getting to enjoy most of the benefits associated with passive solar design. In our case, this meant limiting windows on the north side (net energy losers) to just our daughter’s bedroom, while glazing on the east side shows up only in a small area of our front door.

Small amount of glass in our front door offering some daylighting benefit for our entry area.

In addition, we avoided any potential for overheating from our west-facing windows by using self-tinting Suntuitive glass in our master bedroom and family room. This glass can fluctuate in its SHGC between (.08 – .18) depending on whether in its fully tinted or clear state (varies depending on surface temperature of the glass).

West facade with self-tinting Suntuitive glass.

With the other three sides of the house accounted for, we were able to concentrate all of our attention on the best window layout for the south side of the house. The utility room, which is on the southeast corner of the house, only really needed a small window, so we went with a single 3′ x 5′ unit. In the kitchen, the window above the sink was already going to be limited because of the lower cabinets, and was mainly for a view while doing dishes. This unit ended up being 4′ x 5′. For the kitchen door we went with a mostly glazed door with privacy glass, which has worked out well as it lets in an abundant amount of daylight while it’s never caused any issues with overheating.

The real challenge was getting the family room window on the south side of the house sized correctly. The temptation was to go too large since we had the space to do it. Instead, we wanted to retain some empty wall space for artwork on either side of this window, while also remembering that even the best window is still a lousy wall (e.g. R-40 wall vs. R-6 window).

In the end, we decided to go with a 3′ x 9′ window in our family room, slightly smaller* than the units on the west facade with Suntuitive.

{*7-27-20 Correction: I messed this up. The dimensions weren’t different between the south-facing family room window and the west-facing windows with Suntuitive — it was a height off the floor change. For the south-facing family room window we went slightly higher, 32″ off the finished floor, in order to gain a little more privacy, while on the west-facing windows we maintained a lower height of 27″ off the finished floor to maximize our views out and into our backyard. This 5″ difference may not sound like much, but it has a dramatic effect in terms of overall views and perspective when standing at these windows.}

In terms of wall area on our south facade, the windows and kitchen door account for just under 15% of the total, so not a crazy amount, and obviously nowhere near the amount of glass in a curtain wall.

The Sun’s Path Month-to-Month

For those who haven’t directly experienced a space that utilizes passive solar design principles, it may be helpful to see in photos what exactly this effect means month-to-month in a real home.

In our case, we have a long interior wall that runs east-west along the longest axis of our home. This wall effectively separates the private areas to the north (bedrooms and bathrooms) from the public areas to the south (family room, kitchen, and utility room). For context, this long wall stands almost 16 feet from all of the south-facing windows.

In our kitchen and family room, here’s what the sun looks like near midday in January:

jan fmly rm
Sun in January, slowly moving away from the back wall (at right) that runs east-west along the longest axis of the house.
jan ldry rm
Sun pouring into the utility room in January.

By the middle of February, the sun is already making its way towards the windows, barely able to reach the family room couch, while it still adds plenty of sunshine and warmth to the kitchen and family room areas:

sun feb fam
Sun in mid-February.

By the Spring equinox, the sun has continued its slow march across the family room floor towards the south-facing windows:

sun mar fam
Sun in March.

In the basement, with the help of two large south-facing windows (each 4′ x 4′) and our oversized window wells, the sun is making the same progression as it brightens up the below grade space:

sun mar base
Basement in mid-March.

Although we chose to forego any windows on the east side of our house, mainly for privacy and energy loss reasons, the small amount of glass in our front door still allows our entry area to be bathed in beautiful early morning light without contributing a significant amount of heat gain:

sun mar morning east
East-facing entry area flooded with morning light from the minimal glazing in the front door.

The seasonal path of the sun can also be marked on the exterior by its progress up or down the facade of our south elevation. By mid-March you can see the shadow line formed by our substantial roof overhang beginning to make its way down the siding — at this point, just above the windows and kitchen door. This invisible ‘curtain’ will cover the glass in the windows entirely by the end of June, completely denying the heat of the sun direct entry into the structure.

sun ext mar
South elevation in mid-March. Note the shadow line just above the windows and kitchen door.

Even in April the sun is mostly denied entry; reduced to a sliver of light hitting the wood floor in the family room:

sun apr fam
Family room in April.

In June, by the time of the summer solstice, the sun has been pushed outside completely, limited to the metal sill pans on the exterior of the windows.

Our south elevation during the rough framing stage. Layout from left to right: family room, kitchen door, kitchen window, and utility room.

With significant and thoughtfully placed windows on the south side (combined with a substantial roof overhang), we’re able to enjoy views to the outdoors year-round, allowing us to maintain an unbroken connection to nature in our yard, without any of the heat or glare normally associated with the summer sun. It also means we don’t need to bother with curtains or other window treatments, or the hassle of managing when they should be opened or closed.

Also, since the transition from winter (welcoming the sun in) to summer (denying the sun entry) has proven to be seamless, we’ve been able to avoid installing any curtains or window treatments in order to hide from any periods of unwanted sunlight. Basically, this invisible ‘curtain’ effect of passive solar design means we enjoy all the benefits of window treatments without any of the hassles (routine opening and closing, cleaning, or maintenance and repair), all while maintaining an unobstructed view of the outdoors. This is especially rewarding during the long winter months when starved for sunlight and extra warmth, but equally pleasurable as life begins to hum in the yard with the return of spring and summer.

In the photo below, the family room window (at left) and the kitchen door are protected from the heat of the sun by the roof overhang. The window on the back wall (facing west) is protected by self-tinting Suntuitive glass, which also allows us to enjoy unimpeded views of our backyard without the need for curtains or window treatments, even on the sunniest and hottest days of summer.

sun june fam
Family room in June with no direct sun allowed entry into the space.

On the exterior, by the middle of June, this shadow ‘curtain’ has fallen over the entire face of the south-facing windows, denying the sun entry into the home where it could cause unpleasant glare and unwanted heat gain (these windows have a SHGC of .54), which would needlessly increase cooling loads for our Mitsubishi heat pump system, while also reducing overall occupant comfort.

Around the summer solstice in June, this is what the set-up looks like outdoors:

Southwest corner of the house around the summer solstice.
A second view of this ‘curtain’ effect; this time from the southeast corner of the home.

This effect is also visible from the interior while looking out the south-facing windows. With a substantial roof overhang the sun can barely reach the metal sill pans by the middle of June:

sun june util
Utility room window in the middle of June. Note the sun hitting the outside edge of the metal sill pan.

In June, the sun is able to get slightly deeper inside the home in the basement — in this case managing to hit the surface of the window stool or sill.

sun base june

Even in the heart of the summer, the sun is still denied direct access to the interior spaces on the main floor:

sun july fam
Family room in July. The sun remains outside.

A second look at the metal sill pan from the utility room window, this time in July:

sun july util

After slowly making its way back into the south-facing living areas, by November the sun is once again approaching the back wall in the family room and kitchen:

sun nov family
Family room by mid-November.

Even though the utility room window is a relatively modest size (3′ x 5′), it provides ample daylight and plenty of warm sunshine over the course of our long winter months:

sun utility nov
Sunlight spilling out of the utility room by mid-November.

Here’s another view of the sun exiting the utility room on its way to the back wall in the main living area:

sun utility nov 2
Sun in mid-November.
sun nov kitch
Sun hitting the kitchen countertops in November, bathing the space in a warm glow.

By late December, around the winter solstice, the sun is finally able to hit the back wall in the main living area, maximizing the amount of direct sunlight that enters the house:

sun dec family mbr
Sun during the winter solstice, at the doorway to the master bedroom.

sun kit dec
In late December, the sun hits the back wall where the family room meets the kitchen.

sun dec utility barn door
Sunlight from the utility room window hitting the barn door in the main living area.

Even in the basement, where it’s more difficult for the sun to make its way into the space, with our oversized window wells and two large windows the sun manages to get very close to the center of the space just in front of the structural beam. This light pouring in helps keep us connected to the outdoors, mostly eliminating the cave-like feel normally associated with many below grade spaces. Even on the coldest days in winter, this daylighting effect makes the basement a warm, inviting space.

basement bfws sun
Sunlight entering the basement in mid-December.

Some Final Thoughts

We were expecting to enjoy the seasonal movement of the sun, watching it progress in and out of the main living space, warming us in the winter while also helping to moderate summertime AC demand. One unanticipated surprise, however, is how effective our window layout has been in maintaining a high level of daylighting, even on the grayest of overcast days.

Short of a menacing thunderstorm that turns the skies gray-black, we almost never have to turn on lights during the day. For instance, in the photo below it has snowed overnight, and the skies are an unrelenting blanket of gray. Nevertheless, because daylight has ample means for entering the living space, no artificial light is necessary. Note, too, in the background, how clear the Suntuitive glass is when not in its fully tinted state.

The kitchen door, because it consists mostly of privacy glass, contributes a great deal to this daylighting effect — both in summer and winter — and we’re extremely happy we didn’t choose a more opaque door style.

Another side benefit in this regard is how the porch light outside this glass-filled door also acts as a de facto night light for the kitchen — its soft, but effective, glow makes it easy to navigate around the space in the middle of the night without having to turn on any interior lights.

cloudy day still light
Even on a cold, gray winter day the windows allow in a great deal of daylight, dramatically improving the overall livability of the space while allowing us to keep the lights turned off.

One final, unanticipated surprise is how much the house is flooded with light on cloudless nights when there’s a full moon. The moonlight creates a soft, beautiful source of light as it falls across these interior spaces.

In terms of shoulder seasons, when sunlight still has some access to the interior but outdoor temperatures are mild or even occasionally warm, we haven’t really noticed a problem. In spring, if outdoor temps should reach the 70’s during the day it is frankly welcomed with open arms, as we’re starved for warm sunshine at winter’s end. In the fall, if there’s an occasional too warm day, we simply open a couple of windows. So far we’ve never had to turn on the AC in October, for instance.

If there’s any failure in our set-up, it would be the family room couch. From the end of December until the end of January, if it’s a sunny day, regardless of how cold it gets outside, sitting on the couch is uncomfortable, if not impossible. Sitting in shorts and a tank top would be the only way to make it remotely comfortable.

Thankfully, we’re almost never on the couch during this time, so it’s never been a problem for us. Having said that, if this family room were dedicated office space and I needed to be sitting at my desk from 10am-2pm, it would be extremely uncomfortable. This is a good example of how carefully not just an overall floor plan needs to be designed, but how even individual spaces need special attention, in particular for year-round HVAC comfort based on how occupants are actually going to be using the space.

Overall, we’ve been very pleased with the layout of our windows and their ability, in conjunction with the roof overhang to the south, to allow in ample amounts of sunlight during the colder months while still being able to keep it out on the hottest days of the year. With detailed planning, our experience suggests that designing living spaces for a real passive solar benefit is still a worthwhile goal.

Although it may be safer to ignore this design strategy altogether in the hottest climates (simply designing to keep the sun outside year-round may be the better option, which would include the use of low SHGC glass as Lstiburek recommends), passive solar has proven to be a great source of enjoyment for us, particularly during our winters here in Chicago, which tend to release their grip too slowly and ever so begrudgingly.

If given the chance, we would definitely design our house again with these passive solar techniques in mind.

Flooring: Basement Paint Splatter

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The Original Plan

We didn’t want to spend a lot of money on basement flooring, so we knew we wanted to keep things simple, especially since we weren’t going for a high-end look for the space. The basement is mostly unfinished, at least by traditional standards. We use the space mainly for working out, reading, office work, some smaller arts and crafts projects, and we’ve created a few small areas for miscellaneous storage.

Whatever we came up with had to be durable, if only to avoid having to replace any flooring should the basement ever have a problem with water (e.g. from a failed sump pump or a leaky hot water tank).

The plan initially was to just seal the floor with tung oil, much like we did for our wood floors. I thought if I used a slurry mix to patch some surface imperfections in the concrete beforehand that it might produce a pleasant mottled look across the entire floor once it was finished with the tung oil.

Unfortunately, once this patching was done, it quickly became apparent that the look was just messy, if not just boring and forgettable. Even tinting the slurry mix to various shades of blue and green didn’t seem to help at all.

base after patches b4 tung
Basement slab ready for tung oil finish.

With the patching complete, I went ahead and did the tung oil application just to get rid of the constant concrete dust on the surface of the basement floor.

base b4 after tung
Tung oil just applied on the left, darkening the concrete as it seals it.

I applied it the same way I did for the hardwood flooring on the main level. I also broke it up into sections, using the preformed contraction joints in the concrete slab as a guide.

base section w: tung
Tung oil applied, waiting for it to soak in before applying it again to any ‘dry’ spots.

I knew I’d have several months while other projects were being finished upstairs to figure out another solution.

close-up corner base tung

An even closer view after the tung oil has been applied:

base tung oil
Concrete mostly dry; ready to wipe down any excess tung oil remaining on the surface.

Jackson Pollock as Inspiration

After almost a year had passed, and with much of the work on the first floor finally complete, it was time to come back and finish up the basement floor.

My first thought was to use the painting techniques of Jackson Pollock as an inspiration.

After looking through online photo galleries of his work and watching some videos, I realized I’d forgotten just how layered much of his work is.

It was while researching his work that I also came across an East Coast (mainly New York?) beach house tradition of splatter painting floors, done mainly, it seems, to hide the sand and mess brought in from the beach, all while giving the floors some added durability.

We decided we’d try to mimic some of Pollock’s technique, but do it in lighter layers so more of the tung oiled concrete could show through.

Since it was too cold at the time to have Green Building Supply ship me all of the paint required, we decided to take a trip to Madison, Wisconsin for the weekend to pick up the remainder of what I needed from Premier Paint and Wallpaper.

Premier is a really nice family-owned independent paint store with a wide variety of brands and products. The paint stores around us are exclusively national chains like Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, or PPG. When you walk into these stores you definitely feel the difference compared to a mom and pop operation.

Premier mixed up what we needed, and we were off to enjoy the rest of our weekend in Madison where there’s always something to do outdoors, and there’s no shortage of great restaurants, like Sal’s Tomato Pies:

sal's

In terms of colors for our splatter technique, we decided to stick with the blue we had used for the basement steel beam and columns, along with white as a neutral color, while finishing with a bright green to liven things up a bit. This combination mimics the iconic color scheme used by Kawasaki motorcycles:

With the walls prepped to prevent overspray from the splatter hitting them, my daughter and I started to experiment in the back corner of the basement with the white color first. We felt like the white color would be the best option as our base coat color, complementing the now tung oil darkened color of the concrete.

base walls prepped
Practicing our technique first with the white concrete paint.

We also took our time to experiment with the other colors, figuring out exactly how we wanted the paint to fall on the concrete — either in droplets or in long, stringy patterns.

experimenting w: each color
Testing out the blue and green paint colors.

Based on this first section, we felt like we could go fairly heavy with the white and still have some of the darker tones of the concrete underneath come through the final finish. In each section we first started with the white to establish a base coat to work off of for the subsequent applications of the blue and then green.

base white going down
This section is ready for the blue and green.

We then played around with how much blue and green we wanted to finish up with on top of the white and the darker concrete underneath.

experimenting more blue
Experimenting with how much blue and green we should use.

Here’s one of the first completed areas around a steel post or lally column:

basement pole
It was exciting to see the colors finally come together to such vivid effect.

A second view of a completed area, this time out in the middle of the floor:

base 3 colors done

As we finished up a section, we would start to sort through the remaining moving boxes and put together each space more permanently. It was also a good opportunity to further purge anything still in boxes that we didn’t end up needing in our new home.

For one area of books we used the traditional set-up of cinder blocks and wood shelves, but we added some character by taking the time to paint the blocks using the floor colors. We also turned the blocks on their side to hide their empty centers. I had seen this technique used in a YouTube video as a way to dress up this type of shelving normally associated with a college dorm room or one’s first apartment:

It definitely added some time to the project as each block required a couple coats of paint, but it was a nice way for my daughter and I to have some more fun with color, too.

This section of books on cinder blocks helps to close off and define this sitting and reading area from the storage and arts and crafts area behind it.

base setting up space
Getting a section of the basement mostly put together.

We were pleasantly surprised by the wide variety of looks, textures, and playful randomness in the overall pattern of the paint splatter.

another view cinder
A closer view of the painted cinder blocks.

It’s definitely unpredictable to a great degree, but with practice it did become easier to control, and we did develop a feel for how we wanted each area to end up looking.

blk lgt cinder
An even closer view of the cinder blocks, including an unfinished gas pipe ‘robot’ light.
getting white base coat down
Establishing the white base coat in another section before adding the blue and green.

Here are several close-ups showing some of the texture created by the splattered paint, whether as drops or longer, stringy ropes.

splatterd
splattera
splatterc

A wider shot showing the layering of the three colors, with the darkened concrete and some of the slurry patches still visible underneath.

splattere

We weren’t afraid to leave some areas with a lighter application of paint. The mix of light and heavier areas of coverage helps to give the floor visual interest, and it hopefully emphasizes the human element involved in the final look of the finish.

basement spatter close up
An area with lighter coats of paint.

Once the white paint was applied, we would let it dry overnight. The next day we would come back and apply the blue.

base flr lgt bg
Close-up view of a lighter area with the dark concrete still visible underneath.

Since each color would have areas of fairly heavy coverage, after the white was down we always applied the blue and green coats in our socks to avoid even the possibility of our shoes pulling up any areas of uncured paint.

basement spatter in sunlight

Most of the photos show the colors in daylight, with the sun coming through the two basement windows, but we’re equally happy with how the floor looks under artificial light at night.

blue strings
The floor finish under ceiling lights at night.

We typically gave the blue 24 hours to dry as well, although there were a couple of times where we waited only about 6-8 hours before starting the green. With less paint on the floor, it seemed to take the blue less time to sufficiently dry.

The goal was to apply less paint with each change in color. We definitely wanted the white to remain the main background color, with the blue and the green acting as pops of accent color.

base 3 colors done

When the floors had only been sealed with the tung oil, although it solved the concrete dust issue, it did make several areas slippery smooth. Because the paint splatter hits the concrete in various thicknesses, the slightly uneven texture this produces helps make the final finish slip resistant. Even with this high build in some spots it’s never been a problem; instead, this texture is pleasant both underfoot or even to the touch.

I was a little worried about the thicker areas of paint drying and curing properly, but apart from some bubbles that popped as the paint dried, and some areas where the paint film shows some wrinkling on the surface, we had no issues in this regard.

wide shot base spatter

In addition to being slip resistant, it was also a relatively inexpensive finish to create, requiring just 3 gallons of white, 2 gallons of blue, and a single gallon of the green. This was in addition to the initial tung oil and citrus solvent (around 4-5 gallons of each) that we had applied to first seal the concrete. For slightly less than a dollar a square foot, the paint splatter technique produces a unique, one of a kind floor finish.

And the choice of colors is limited only by one’s imagination. We even contemplated adding some stencils that could’ve incorporated numbers, letters or words, or even distinct shapes. Instead, we decided to keep things simple and stick with just the splatter pattern. Nevertheless, there’s no reason not to explore all of these options before settling on a final design.

spatter cu texture
Extreme close-up view of the final finish.

One other key advantage to the paint splatter is that if any part of the floor were to see damage, whether from abrasion or moisture pushing the paint off the concrete, it would be relatively easy to repair with some additional paint applied using the same process.

This would not be the case had we used a single color, cut and rolled the typical way, across the entire basement floor. Any damage, even in a small area, with a single color tends to look horrible, and it would be difficult to correct it without leaving a ‘crater’ look in the area that had peeled and then been repaired.

base paint cans
The products we used for each color of paint splatter.

Premier couldn’t mix the blue in the Safecoat product, so we had to use the Fixall enamel instead. Even though it has more VOC’s than the Safecoat, within a couple of days any noticeable smell had dissipated. It probably helps that the total square footage of blue applied is fairly small.

outside corner
Back corner of the basement office.

At outside walls we ended up letting the paint hit the Air Dam that’s covering the gap between the slab and the foundation wall (there’s rigid foam below this gap acting as a thermal break between the slab and foundation wall).

another outside corner
An outside corner.

Since it was somewhat random how the paint hit this gap, some spots were hit heavily, while most just saw a slight smattering of color in this area.

basement spatter near fdn wall

There were only a couple of spots where the paint splatter managed to get behind or beyond the paper we had taped on the walls to protect them. For those spots it was easy to go back and touch them up with a small brush of wall paint.

spatter at outside wall

In terms of technique, we used paint stirring sticks to apply each color. Depending on the effect we wanted, how we worked our wrist determined the pattern of the paint. For example, if we loaded up the stick with a lot of paint, or even just a little, and we flicked the stick hard — like you would using a fly swatter — you could get a lot of drips and ‘dots’ over the floor. With a lot of paint on the stick you ended up with heavy droplets and spray. With less paint, you still had drops and a spray effect, but the coverage was much lighter over the tung oiled concrete.

This worked great for applying the white base coat when we were trying to get a lot of color on the floor all at once, and at different rates of coverage.

For the blue and the green we again loaded up the stick heavily with paint, but with very little movement of the wrist — just with a slow and deliberate arm motion — we let the paint fall off the stick using slowly undulating half-circles, figure eights, and wave motions.

The photo below shows a corner of the basement office with just the slurry patches and the tung oiled finish. With the walls protected, we could begin laying down the three colors of paint splatter.

office before splatter
Corner of basement office ready for paint splatter.

Here’s the same area after the three colors of paint splatter have been applied:

base closet
Corner of the basement office complete.

And here’s the main area of the basement office as we were finishing up:

basement office complete

And here’s the foot of the basement stairs:

foot of stairs

The final finish is definitely playful and whimsical, bringing a lot of life to the floor through the use of bright, bold splashes of color. With a combination of toned-down colors, I can imagine this splatter technique working even in a space that’s been more traditionally designed and decorated.

apei
Reading and hang out area finally complete.

By staying neutral with the wall color, and by leaving the ceiling unfinished, it keeps the visual emphasis on the floor and the bright blue of the structural beam.

Here’s another view of the reading area:

apeii

A close-up of the floor, along with the concrete lightbulb:

floor w: concrete lightbulb

We managed to sneak in some extra storage by placing smaller books on the steel beam:

beam books

We also added pops of red accents in the basement, something we would continue on the main floor of the house:

red wrench
Found this oversized wrench online.
red lantern
My mom contributed this antique kerosene lantern for use as one of our red accents.
oil burner
This light switch cover seemed nicely ironic for an all-electric home. It also fits in well with our Urban Rustic design scheme.

This chair was our only splurge on new furniture in the house —- an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee ended with Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey enjoying a good spin:

spun cu

Undoubtedly, a ridiculously expensive chunk of plastic, but worth every penny if you go by the giggles-per-person of those trying it out for the first time:

A revealing test to see if your inner child is still alive and kicking.

redcoffeebrgt
Plates on a decorative piece of concrete. Real coffee beans were embedded in the bottom of the form to create this look, along with dark tung oil applied to the white concrete.

Eventually I’ll get more artwork up on the currently mostly bare concrete walls — it should really help to tie the room together:

big lebowski
Found this poster online.

The paint splatter and tung oil finish has been in place for over a year now. It’s holding up well, even under the friction from the Spun chair wobbling around, or the office chairs and workout bench being slid across the floor.

blue glass arrow
Blue glass embedded in white concrete arrow.

The only thing I would do differently is probably try and find a concrete sealer that’s less expensive than the tung oil and citrus solvent combination.

chinesebeauty1
Chinese ‘beauty’.

Using a different product would require testing it in a small area first for adhesion — both the sealer over the bare concrete and, once the sealer is cured, to make sure that the concrete paint fully adheres to the sealer without any issues. It would take some time to establish this definitively, but well worth the effort in order to avoid any potential issues with peeling paint.

hulk go green

Apart from its relatively easy application and excellent durability, we love the floor finish because it was so much fun to create. While it’s definitely not a formal looking finish, it is a project the whole family could be involved in, regardless of age or ability. And we would gladly do it again if given the chance. We can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a fairly inexpensive way to finish a floor in a unique way.

Flooring: Tile

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Porcelain Tile

We chose porcelain tile mainly for its durability, plus we found a collection of tile that mimics aged concrete, which we felt would work really well with our Urban Rustic theme for the house.

The Iris US Ecocrete collection allowed us to use two different colors while maintaining a consistent overall look through the house. For example, in the kitchen, entry, and utility room we went with the Sage color; a nice mix of green, gray, and even some spots of very dark green or black. For the master bath we went with the Weathered Black since we were going to have some red accents and we wanted to play with color a little bit.

The Ecocrete tiles are also Greenguard certified, and they have a slightly rough surface texture to help prevent slips or falls.

For tile underlayment, Wonderboard Lite was our base.

wonderboard

For thinset and grout, Mapei products were used, readily available from Floor and Decor.

Mapei thinset bags

For our shower walls, we used a newer system from USG, their Durock Glass-Mat backerboard. For the floors we used their pre-sloped shower tray system.

The shower kit also came with all the drain components.

shower drain cover

Colors and Textures

In the photo below, all of our tile selections are laid out in preparation for deciding on grout colors.

The porcelain hexagon tile was used on the floor of our second bathroom, in addition to the floor of each shower. These were the only areas where we didn’t use the Ecocrete tiles.

The blue glass accent tile was used in our second bathroom shower, while the red glass was used in our master bath shower.

The white subway tile was used in both showers for the ceilings and the walls.

tile grout selections

Tile almost complete in the kitchen:

kitchen tile being installed

Tile started in the master bathroom:

mbath floor tile going down

For the two showers we decided to orient the slightly larger than traditional subway tile in a vertical pattern, a subtle repetition of the strong vertical lines of our charred cedar siding.

In the second bathroom shower we used a 4″ x 10″ subway tile, while in the master shower we went even larger using tile that measured 6″ x 17″.

2nd shower tile going in

We kept the glass accent tile to a minimum, utilizing it inside each niche and next to the shower head and valve.

2nd shower niche going in
Blue glass going inside the niche.

Using a frameless fixed panel of glass without a door keeps each shower more open and easier to access. It also means one less thing to have to clean, maintain, or eventually replace.

By covering the curb with a towel before turning on the water, very little water escapes to splash on the nearby baseboard or drywall. A small price to pay, we feel, in order to keep the shower area more open.

In terms of size, the second bathroom shower measures 3′ wide and 5 1/2′ long, while the master shower is slightly larger at 3′ x 5′ 10″. Both spaces are very comfortable to shower in.

2nd shower done

We chose to tile the ceiling of each shower since, in our experience at least, drywall doesn’t tend to hold up very well in this area, instead flaking or peeling off over time. By combining the tiled ceilings with their lower height than the room, visually we like how it makes clear that the shower area is its own dedicated space.

2nd shower niche done
The blue glass almost looks black until you step into the shower.

We liked the look of the traditional hexagon pattern, plus it feels nice underfoot, both in the showers and on the floor of the second bathroom.

2nd bath floor

Finished master bath shower with glass panel:

master shower done

In both showers we used a Speakman shower head and valve. They’re reasonably priced, and they have a good reputation for durability. We had seen them used in hotels on a couple of vacations prior to our build. We were surprised by their quality, especially for a brand we had never previously heard of before.

All of our plumbing fixtures, including these shower heads, are Water Sense certified in order to keep our total water usage to a minimum, while also hopefully reducing our annual water bill.

Although I’ve read complaints from users online about their dissatisfaction with a lower flow shower head — some even going so far as to remove the flow restrictor inside the head in order to increase the flow of water — we couldn’t be happier with our shower heads, faucets, and toilets. So far, at least, we’ve had zero issues with any of these Water Sense certified fixtures.

Master bath niche with red glass accent:

master bath niche
The seat is nice to have, not for sitting though, mainly for holding shampoo and soap, and a nice spot to put a towel for drying off.

Master bathroom floor in the weathered black tile:

master bath floor

A second view of the black tile as it meets up with the hickory flooring in the master bedroom:

2nd master bath tile

The tile in the entry area as it meets up with the hickory wood flooring:

entry tile

The hickory meeting up with the kitchen tile:

kitchen family rm corner finished

With all of our flooring complete on the main floor, the only area left to finish up was our basement floor. I’ll discuss the decorative finish we came up with for the concrete slab in the next blog post.

Flooring: 3/4″ Hardwood

4

Hardwood vs. Carpet

In our previous home we made the decision not to use any carpet. Not only did we prefer the look of combining tile (for wet areas) with hardwood (living areas and bedrooms), we also knew these surfaces would be easier to keep clean than carpeting. Although I grew up in two homes that both had mostly wall-to-wall carpeting, it was only after having to rip up several rooms of carpet that I realized just how much dirt and general detritus gets trapped below the surface.

There does seem to be an element of generational change (some would argue even social class) involved in this choice between carpet and hardwood. For example, my parents, who grew up on farms in the 1940’s without carpet, were shocked that we preferred hardwood flooring since having wall-to-wall carpeting was a big deal for them when they moved to Chicago in the late 1950’s. To them, hardwood flooring signified the outdated past while carpeting was the future.

Having lived with both, I don’t think I’d ever choose to go back to carpet. In addition to being much more visually interesting, I find hardwood flooring not just easier to keep clean but much easier to fix or repair should damage occur.

Which species of wood?

For our last house we went with pre-finished 3/4″ x 5 1/4″ wide plank Australian Cypress. Even though we loved the look of the Australian Cypress, it was more expensive than other species and it seemed to dent more easily than its Janka hardness score would suggest.

Oak is, by far, the most popular wood species for flooring, seen in countless stain color variations, but we wanted to try something with more natural color variation from one board to another.

For our new home we knew we still wanted to go with only hardwood and tile, even though there are now more eco-friendly and sustainable carpet options. We also knew we’d have to utilize a low or no VOC finish for the wood flooring in order to maintain a high level of indoor air quality.

Another option to consider is engineered vs. 3/4″ solid hardwood flooring. Because of the additional wear layer, and because I’d previously worked with a solid hardwood in my last house, we opted for the 3/4″ solid.

Also, since we went with a prefinished hardwood last time, this time we decided to try a traditional install, meaning sanded and finished in place.

The only real gripe we had with the pre-finished flooring in our last house was the beveled edge between boards, creating grooves that can trap dirt. Also, we felt it was slightly less visually appealing than a traditionally finished floor. Nevertheless, we would consider pre-finished flooring to be a viable option, especially if you’re having to work under severe time constraints and you need a room or whole house completed quickly.

3/4″ x 4″ Hickory

After considering various wood species, we settled on Hickory since it can look similar to the Australian Cypress, while its Janka hardness score is slightly higher, giving us some added durability. It’s also harvested and shipped from within the US, so it cuts down on shipping costs and total embodied carbon emissions.

Looking around locally, including our local Floor & Decor, I could only find manufacturers who packaged their flooring in boxes of shorter boards (the longest boards typically in the 4′-7′ range). Using shorter boards tends to produce a choppy look, reminiscent of a brick running bond pattern.

Online the options seemed much better, although shipping costs had to be factored in. It was also difficult to find the color variation we were after since much of the Hickory that’s available would be classified as clear or select (NWFA). In the end, we used Countryplank, ordering their Old Growth Hickory in random lengths (2′-10′).

After initially receiving someone else’s order in an entirely different species, Mark from Countryplank quickly took care of the problem and got my correct flooring to me the following week. Once it showed up on site, the boys were back to help me carry it in the house — as always, many thanks to them for helping us out with the grunt work.

unloading wood flooring
Smitty and Ricky helping us unload the truck.

Of course when the flooring was being delivered it turned out to be one of the coldest days of the year with plenty of snow around. Thankfully, with the guys helping us, it went pretty quick.

Installation

Before installing the Australian Cypress in my last house, I used a book from Don Bollinger as a helpful how-to guide. The book came with a video companion, which I’ve since lost, but much of the footage has shown up on YouTube:

And there are many other helpful videos available as well:

After clearing a room of tools and other construction related items, I set to work prepping the Advantech subfloor.

family rm b4 wood floor
Setting up to prep the family room subfloor.

Although the Advantech is said to resist moisture better than other OSB or plywood subflooring, because of the delay in construction after firing our pair of GC’s, the sheets of Advantech saw more exposure from the weather than is ideal.

Nevertheless, apart from having to grind and sand down some edges that had expanded due to moisture, the Advantech held up incredibly well. In addition, since the framers used nails to fasten it to the floor joists I went through each room adding decking screws to help stiffen the floor even more.

Once this was done, I was able to put down some red rosin paper. In my last house I had used 15# roofing felt, but since it’s embedded with asphalt I decided, for the sake of indoor air quality, that the red rosin paper was the better option. Rather than using it to control moisture, it’s mainly helpful in keeping a neater workspace as the flooring goes down.

mbr red rosin
Red rosin paper going down in the master bedroom.

With all of the red rosin paper down, it was time to bring in the tools and to start arranging piles of wood flooring based on length and color. As I unwrapped each pile of boards I went looking for the longest and darkest boards, making sure to have them nearby as I tried to use the longest boards first, and then be selective about how to place the darkest and most attractive pieces. When all the rooms were complete, I wanted the leftovers to be mostly shorter and lighter colored pieces.

family rm prepped 4 wood
Family room prepped for hardwood flooring.

The only other major decision before beginning to install the flooring was orientation. Most homes utilize the longest wall in a space as a guide, installing the wood parallel to this wall. Ideally this would also mean the flooring runs straight from the front door entry area to the back of the house in bowling alley fashion. This assumes the floor joists are perpendicular to the direction of the wood flooring. In our last home, and in our current Passive House, we could have oriented the hardwood flooring in this ‘straight’ pattern, but after trying and loving a diagonal pattern in our last home we knew we wanted to stick with this angled pattern. The only significant downside to the diagonal pattern is additional cuts are necessary so, therefore, more wood is required.

family rm wood going down
Arranging pieces before getting started.

The use of spline pieces, or split tongue, was helpful when making a change of direction, or establishing the border where the hardwood flooring met the tile in the kitchen, utility room, entry, and bathrooms.

kitchen outside corner w: router
Finishing up the family room. Note the shorter pieces of spline on the tile, and the router used to make a connection between the main pieces and the wood border next to the kitchen tile.

When I needed to create a groove I used a groove bit with the Bosch router before gluing and installing a section of spline. This was especially helpful where the wood met up with tile and I needed to first create a border piece.

First, using a table saw I would cut off the tongue side of the board, facing this side towards the tile. Now with the groove side exposed I could cut to length the piece I needed to butt up against this border piece against the tile. Once it was cut to length I could use the router to make a groove on the end that would be in contact with the border. With the border piece and the field piece now having grooves it was easy to add the spline in between, making for a tight, durable connection between these two pieces with some wood glue.

family rm mostly done
Done with the family room and ready to head towards the front door.

The diagonal pattern also means that the flooring nailer runs out of room before you get to the wall because of the angle involved. For these last few inches I utilized a trim nail gun, shooting into the tongue and face nailing a couple of nails at the outside edge. Even though these nails are significantly weaker than the flooring nails, we haven’t experienced any gapping or other issues at the perimeter of our walls. This may be due to the fact that we don’t see wide swings in the levels of indoor humidity (typically the house stays within 30-55% relative humidity; most of the year hovering around 40%) because of the air tightness and high levels of insulation required of a Passive House.

It probably also explains the lack of floor squeaks. When there are wide swings in outdoor humidity we sometimes get a couple of ‘pops’ from the wood flooring itself, but we’ve never had an issue with the floor joists/Advantech connection squeaking. In our last home, a conventionally built tract home, similar changes in humidity made our wood floors sound like they were in a hundred year old farmhouse, popping with almost every step until the humidity and the wood itself had a chance to stabilize.

One of the best tool purchases for the entire build was this Powernail ‘persuader’. Whether at walls, or out in the field, this tool works exceptionally well at closing unsightly gaps that would otherwise need to be filled with wood filler.

powernail persuader
The Powernail ensured a much tighter floor installation.

And the Powernail was an excellent guide for identifying bad boards — if it couldn’t close gaps on a particular board, it meant that board shouldn’t be used.

For spots or areas that would need some extra attention during sanding, I marked these with a pencil, either with an X or a circle.

marks for xtra sanding
Spots requiring careful sanding marked with X’s or circles.

Before sanding I also went around applying wood filler to all of the nail holes, any voids in the many knots, and to any remaining gaps between boards (mostly where the ends butt together). For the deepest voids in the knots I made two passes with the wood filler, sanding in between coats. In the end this produced a much smoother finish.

I found the Timbermate brand online, and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with and how well it’s performed over time. I started out with half a dozen different colors, but eventually narrowed this down to just two colors: Beech/Pine and Chestnut. In effect, these two colors spanned the wide variation in color from light to darker boards.

Although it claims to be zero VOC, it does have a distinct and slightly funky smell as it comes out of the jar. This odor completely disappeared once it was sanded down and the floors were sealed with tung oil. The Timbermate is also very easy to sand smooth.

wood putty for floors

Sanding the Floors

Thankfully, the flooring didn’t require a lot of sanding, nowhere near the amount typical in strip oak flooring. Overall, the flooring did seem to be precision milled and I ended up with very few completely unusable boards.

not much sanding
This was about as bad as it got. Most boards came together much better than this.

I could’ve rented a traditional floor sander and edger, but after reading about Festool’s orbital sander and then a similar sander from Bosch, I decided to try the Bosch out and see what it could do. I started in a smaller room, my daughter’s bedroom, just to see how long it would take to do a room-sized amount of sanding. Starting with 40 grit for the worst areas, I slowly worked my way through increasing grits, ending at 150 for a smooth finish ready for tung oil.

Since I was able to work through the various grits in just over an hour, I decided to keep using the Bosch sander for the duration of our project. Again, if I was sanding conventional oak strip flooring purchased from a big box store, I definitely would’ve rented the normal sander/edger combo.

bosch sander
Bosch orbital sander.

Since I was installing and finishing room by room (we had a lot of construction ‘stuff’ to maneuver around, but that we wanted to keep onsite), renting the equipment, in addition to being more expensive, would’ve meant a lot of back and forth between home and the tool rental center. Also, once the flooring was done, I still owned an excellent sander. It’s easily the best sander — palm or orbital — I’ve ever owned. The lack of vibration compared to comparable sanders makes working with the Bosch a real pleasure.

bosch sander ready to go
Utility room ready to be sanded.

Hooked up to a shop vac with a HEPA filter, the sanding dust was kept to a bare minimum, making the house pleasant to work in, regardless of the amount of sanding just completed.

Just before starting the wood floors my Fein shop vacuum died on me. I picked up a Ridgid brand vacuum from Home Depot mainly because it was the quickest option, fully expecting to be disappointed by its performance. To my surprise, it worked even better than the Fein vacuum and at a much lower price point.

rigid vacuum
I was surprised how well this Ridgid vacuum effectively contained the sanding dust.

Once the floors had been sanded down, it was finally time to start finishing with tung oil.

wood entry tile
Front entry transitioning to hardwood flooring.

Finishing the Floors with Tung Oil

Before we started the tung oil we made sure to tape edges where the wood met tile, mainly to keep clean-up to a minimum, but to also protect the grout from being darkened by the tung oil.

wood tile tape b4 tung
Utility room ready for tung oil.

Real Milk Paint, the company I purchased the tung oil from, has an excellent how-to video on doing wood floors:

We used close to a 50/50 mix of tung oil and citrus solvent, with just slightly more citrus solvent added to encourage deeper penetration of the tung oil.

My ‘helpers’ enjoyed doing the first coat with me in each room since there was such a dramatic color change as the tung oil initially went down. The tung oil really makes the grain and all the color variation in the wood really come to life.

First, we brushed in from the perimeter edges several inches, before rolling the rest of the floor with a lambswool roller connected to a paint stick. We were careful to not get too far ahead of the roller with the cutting in, hoping to avoid any ‘flashing’ that could show up where these areas meet up once the floor was completely dry.

family rm 1st coat
Anita brushing in the edges before rolling out the remainder of the floor.

It was always exciting to watch this dramatic transition from light and dusty to amber, dark, and stunning.

starting in br closet tung
Beast helping me start in her bedroom closet.
tung oiling s's br
Making our way across her bedroom floor.

Close-up of the hickory as the tung oil is applied:

dry tung
Dramatic change in color as the tung oil is applied.

Making progress across the family room floor:

dry tung family rm
First coat of tung oil going down in the family room.

Once the floor had a full coat of tung oil applied, we waited about 45 minutes before looking for areas where the oil had completely soaked in — this was especially pronounced around the many knots in the wood.

kitchen wet stay wet
Family room coated with tung oil.

After waiting an additional 45 minutes, we hit these ‘dry’ spots again. Once another 45 minutes were up we then wiped down the floors with cotton rags, available in 20 pound boxes from a local paint store.

s's br just tung oiled
Floor rolled, waiting for the tung oil to soak in.

Typically the floors were completely dry within 24 hours, but sometimes we waited one more day before repeating the same process a second and final time.

br entry after tung
Following morning after first application of tung oil.

After two separate days of applying the tung oil in this way, the floor was finally finished and I was ready to move on to the next room.

s's br after tung
2nd bedroom ready for baseboard.

It does take quite a few rags to wipe the floors down properly. It’s also worth noting that we were extremely careful once we were done to dispose of the rags responsibly in order to avoid a fire from the oil-soaked rags — a more common occurrence than most people realize.

final wipe down in mbr
Anita doing a final wipe down in the master bedroom.

In fact, when we thought we were done wiping, we’d go back one last time, walking the floor with rags under our shoes to get the last bit of tung oil that was inevitably still oozing up out of the hickory.

kitchen family rm after 1st ct tung
Family room ready for second day of tung oil application.

Here’s a close-up after the first coat color change next to the kitchen tile. We really like the contrast between the warmth of the wood and the cool gray of the tile:

kitchen wood connection after tung
Family room meets kitchen tile.

We also used this tung oil process on our basement stairs, which had hickory treads, along with a landing covered in hickory installed diagonally like the rest of the flooring.

Paul, from Signature Stairs, was the salesperson for our basement stairs. He made measuring and ordering what we wanted very easy, and he even took the time to stop by right after the stairs were installed and immediately took care of a minor touch-up for us. We’ve been extremely happy with the stairs. In fact, they were so well built we’ve yet to have even a single squeak, which, when compared to our last home, is extremely impressive.

base stair steps after tung

Because of the amount of variation in the wood, it was a lot of fun playing around with how best to show off the darker pieces. I always tried to keep in mind where furniture would end up, saving the most dramatic pieces for those areas that would remain out in the open and highly visible.

mbr b4 tung
Master bedroom ready to be sanded.

And it was always exciting to see the transformation from unfinished to very rich looking as the colors in the wood popped after the application of the tung oil.

mbr after tung
Master bedroom after tung oil.

We really love the color variation from one board to another. The range of colors and textures in the grain is stunningly beautiful. Visually the floors run the gamut from what looks like pine, walnut, tropical hardwood, oak, maple, birdseye maple, some boards with insect damage and staining, to of course clear hickory. This wide variety of colors and textures celebrates the full breadth of what the wood has to offer (as opposed to just clear grade), and it nicely adds to our overall Urban Rustic and wabi sabi design aesthetic for the house.

Here are some close-ups of individual boards showing this wide variation in looks:

tropical
Some of the darker boards look like walnut.
orange w: insect
A few boards had this insect or worm hole damage, including some attractive streaking.
lighter almost pine
Waves reminiscent of end grain Douglas fir.
light w: staining
There were several boards with this dark streaking over a much lighter background, as if the wood had been exposed to fire.
brown light red
The darker colors ranged from this walnut brown (at left) to a much redder, almost exotic tropical hardwood color (on the right).
lightest
The darker pieces were nicely balanced by many other lighter, more natural toned boards.
close-up knot w: staining
Even the knots themselves can be quite dramatic in terms of colors and smoky looking swirls.
beetle pine
There were even a couple of boards that look very much like beetle kill pine.

The orientation of the flooring was installed going with the main direction of foot traffic so that it feels like you’re almost always moving with the pattern in the floor rather than against it. In order to maintain this feeling throughout the house, it required changing direction in a couple of areas, for instance, where the kitchen and family room transition to the bedrooms. In these areas I used a transition piece in the door jamb of each bedroom to mark the change in direction.

mbr cu floor color variation
Master bedroom complete. Ready to change direction into the family room.

When the flooring changes direction it makes for a dramatic visual accent as the contrasting angles meet up. Below is the same area shown above, now with the family room flooring installed (but unfinished) next to the tung oiled master bedroom flooring:

family rm mbr wd flr meet
Change in direction from the family room (on the left) to the master bedroom (on the right).

Living with Oil-finished Hardwood Flooring

The tung oil finish is definitely softer and more prone to damage when it is first put down than a floor covered in a clear coat would be. After move in day I definitely noticed some scuff marks but no major damage. Since then, the tung oil finish has been holding up well.

Granted, we take our shoes off when entering the house, which definitely helps to keep dust and dirt under control, particularly the grit that can scratch wood floors. It also helps that we keep all food and drink in the kitchen. But this would’ve also held true had we gone with a clear coat finish on the wood, so there was no change in our behavior required from our last house to this one.

There’s only been a couple of times that a significant scratch or dent required getting out the Timbermate wood filler, the orbital sander, and the tung oil. In these cases, it was much easier to repair these relatively small spots than it otherwise would’ve been had the same damage occurred under a clear coat.

Overall, the main advantage a natural oil finish has over any clear coat is the amount of texture in the wood grain that’s allowed to come through (especially when viewed on an angle), combined with a matte finish, so the wood tends to look much more natural and warmer looking than it would if covered by multiple coats of clear finish.

mbr bath wood transition
Transition between master bath and master bedroom.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I would use an oil finish if we had a large dog, or if we preferred to keep our shoes on all the time. Under those circumstances, I’m guessing you’d have to commit to an annual spot sanding and tung oil application, at least in high traffic areas, to keep up with the damage so that it didn’t become too unsightly.

Whether using a natural oil finish, or a more common clear coat, it’s worth exploring the options, including coming up with a few sample boards just to make sure you’ll be happy with the final look. A website like Green Building Supply is especially helpful in this regard, as they offer several brands of each kind of finish in low or no VOC products.

finished floor variation

It’s also worth noting that the initial wide contrast between the lightest and darkest boards has mellowed over time, so although the contrast is still evident it’s not quite as dramatic as it once was when the tung oil was first applied. Even so, we’re extremely happy with how our wood floors have turned out, and we have no regrets in terms of our choice of wood species or the use of an oil finish.

Dressing up the Basement: Steel Beam and Concrete Walls

2

With the Zehnder and the Mitsubishi systems installed, I had some time to kill waiting for the siding guys to start, and for my first blower door test to take place, so I moved on to painting my structural steel beam and the exposed concrete walls in the basement. Apart from a couple of walls for my wife’s office that would eventually be drywalled and painted, and a decorative finish for the concrete floor, these were going to be some of the limited finished surfaces in the basement.

We’re glad we decided to leave the basement ceiling unfinished. In doing so, not only did it mean a more straightforward installation process for mechanicals, it also means if any issues develop in the future we’ll have easy access to identify and solve any problems.

I debated whether or not to spray the basement ceiling — the floor joists and the underside of the sub flooring — but decided that the color change (some shade of gray? black?) wasn’t worth the effort.

Although obviously not to everyone’s taste, we like the unfinished look of the ceiling, especially when combined with the texture of the painted concrete walls and our painted steel beam (not to mention the eventual decorative finish for our concrete floor slab — I’ll go through the details in a future blog post since it was applied much later in the build).

For the beam, I first used a wire brush and some sandpaper to remove any loose and flaking rust. Using a Sherwin Williams primer, their All-Surface Primer tinted gray, I applied a heavy, uniform coat to help prevent the return of any rust in the future (keeping humidity in the basement under control should help a lot in this regard).

beam w: primer and rusty red
After wire brushing off loose rust, priming the beam in preparation for paint.

After priming, I then applied two coats of a Safecoat product, their semi-gloss in Patriot Blue.

Safecoat semi-gloss Patriot Blue for steel beam
Patriot Blue for the steel beam.

If I could do it over, I think I’d use Safecoat primers and paints for almost all of the interior surfaces. For the sake of convenience, since they have stores near me, I mainly used Benjamin Moore’s Aura Matte and Satin for walls and trim, and ended up mostly disappointed with their performance — hiding is pretty mediocre, flashing when you try to do spot touch-ups, and over-priced for the level of quality. Benjamin Moore does a great job with their marketing materials and with the look of their labels, I just wish the same level of thought and attention to detail went into the quality of their finishes.

Safecoat is available at various stores in the US, but unless you want a stock white, tinting may happen at Safecoat headquarters before shipping to individual stores, so there can be a wait involved (check with your local supplier for details).

I had good luck ordering from Green Building Supply in Iowa. After ordering online, the products are shipped directly to the job site or your home. This gives you access to high quality No or Low VOC products that, at least in my case, are otherwise currently unavailable in local hardware or paint stores.

Unfortunately, they can’t ship during cold spells, since the paint could freeze and be ruined. When it was cold and I needed product, I found Premier Paint and Wallpaper just outside of downtown Madison, Wisconsin (about a 2 hour drive for us). They’re a family-owned shop, and it shows. They have a nice selection of Safe Coat products. In fact, their wide range of products from various brands is impressive, and the people who work there are really helpful and just easy to work with. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a similar paint store in my area. Around me, Benjamin Moore (aka JC Licht), Sherwin Williams, and Pittsburgh Paint stores dominate the market. The smaller mom-and-pop stores, for the most part, don’t really exist anymore, which is a shame.

beam w: primer and paint
Paint going over the primer.

The Safecoat products that I’ve used typically have some odor, but what little smell they do have tends to dissipate rather quickly (this is particularly noticeable if you change back to a more conventional coating with more VOCs that may take weeks before its distinct odor finally disappears).

painted beam w: zehnder and hpump
Finished beam.

It’s a shame that so many structural beams end up covered over, normally considered too humble, i.e. ugly, to be left alone. In keeping with our Urban Rustic design aesthetic, we think that if they’re given even just a little bit of attention and care they can prove to be a real visual asset to a space, especially in a basement if a more relaxed, informal look and feel is acceptable or even ideal.

cu paintd beam in basement
Close-up of the painted I-beam.

Leaving the spine of the house exposed like this with a bold color emphasizes the job it’s actually doing, and it honors the material by making it front and center visually in the space, rather than trying to hide it away behind drywall or wood. This seems only appropriate since beams like this help keep a house standing upright.

basement walls primed
Another view of the beam, and the recently primed concrete walls.

Once the beam was completed, I moved on to priming the exposed concrete walls.

beast helping me prime basement
Getting some help priming the concrete walls. She lasted about 15 minutes, at which point it clearly turned into work.

Paint color can be a finicky thing. After priming the concrete walls, I used a Benjamin Moore color, Jute, as the finish coat. In the basement it looks great, exactly what we were looking for: a nice, warm neutral khaki color. Upstairs, however, when I later did a test swatch on the new drywall this same color looked horrible, taking on pinkish flesh tones, so we ended up having to use a different color for most of the first floor. Testing out colors, even in relatively small areas, can save a lot of time, money, and headaches later on.

painted basement walls
Concrete walls after paint.

It was really important to me that the basement foundation walls be left exposed, with no insulation or drywall.

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I wanted all of the texture, imperfections, and overall character of the exposed concrete to be vividly on display.

20190831_120625
There are a couple of areas of ‘honeycombing’ around one basement window. Under the right lighting, it creates a nice visual effect.
20190831_120205
Areas with exposed conduit were also painted.
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With a good chunk of the basement complete, it was time to move outside and get some work done before the siding began, and before we had our first blower door test performed…

HVAC Part 2: Ductless Mini Split

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System Requirements

The plan for our house was to combine an HRV or an ERV (for a continuous supply of fresh air), with a ductless mini split air source heat pump system for our ventilation, heating, and air conditioning needs. Almost all of the projects I had read about utilized this same combination, especially here in the US.

The only real debate, apart from specific brand options, was whether or not to utilize only one distribution head on our main floor, as opposed to installing multiple heads for a more ‘dialed-in’ level of comfort (e.g. in the basement or the bedrooms).

Our original builder had in our construction drawings one head in the kitchen/family room and one in the basement, which was pretty standard for a Passive House level project. It was, therefore, pretty shocking to find out that our second builder (there were two partners) and their HVAC subcontractor were suggesting a system that was grossly oversized for our needs. You can read about the details here: GBA: Oversized System 

This was just one of many ‘red flags’ that convinced us to move on and GC the project ourselves. It’s also a reminder that old habits die hard, meaning even seasoned contractors, in any trade, need to be willing to learn new ideas and techniques if they want to truly be considered professionals and craftsmen — unfortunately, they’re the exception to the rule, at least in our experience.

One of the disappointments associated with our build is, in fact, the disinterest (in some cases even outright hectoring contempt) shown by various tradespeople in our area for ‘green’ building generally. Doubtless, at least a partial explanation for why much of the Midwest seems so far behind in adopting ‘green’ building techniques, especially when it comes to air sealing, insulation, and IAQ beyond code minimum standards. Hopefully this changes significantly in the coming years.

Consequently, I took Steve Knapp’s advice (from the comments section of my question) and contacted Home Energy Partners (their new name: HVAC Design Pros). Isaac responded quickly and eventually did our Manual J, confirming we needed a much smaller system, one that is more consistent with a Passive House project, or even just a high-performance build more generally.

Here are a couple of Matt Risinger videos detailing a mini split set-up that’s fairly typical for a Passive House or a Pretty Good House (GBA article on the 2.0 version).

Once we were on our own, in addition to going with a Zehnder ERV and a Mitsubishi ductless mini split air-source heat pump system, we also pursued the possibility of using a Sanden heat pump water heater.

After seeing it used on a Hammer and Hand project, we thought it was a really interesting piece of cutting edge technology:

Unfortunately, after getting a quote from Greg of Sutor Heating and Cooling, and a poor response from Sanden regarding questions we had about the system (they were unresponsive to emails), we decided to stick with our Zehnder, the Mitsubishi heat pump, and then go with a Rheem heat pump water heater (going with the Rheem saved us just over $6,000 in initial cost). Hopefully, as it becomes more popular in the US, the Sanden can come down significantly in price, or maybe less expensive copycat products will someday show up on the market.

Greg was initially willing to work with us, even though we were technically out of his service area, when the Sanden was involved, but once it was only a ductless mini split he suggested we find a Mitsubishi Diamond installer closer to us, which we understood. He was nothing but professional, taking the time to answer any number of technical questions and offering what proved to be sage advice regarding various details for our system.

In fact, taking Greg’s advice, we contacted a Diamond installer close to us, but unfortunately the first installer we contacted disappeared when we were trying to get him to communicate with our electrician on installation details (an infuriating and painfully common experience when trying to build a new house — especially one with unconventional Passive House details).

Finding our Installer

At this point, we were lucky to find Mike from Compass Heating and Air. He came out to the job site and we walked through the details together. He proved to be knowledgeable, helpful, detail-oriented, and extremely professional. Installing our Mitsubishi ductless mini split system with Mike proved to be one of the easiest portions of our build. We never felt like we had to look over his shoulder, making sure he got details right, or that we had to constantly confirm that he did what he said he was going to do — in fact, it was the opposite: ‘Mike’s on site, so that’s one less thing I have to worry about’.

Compass truck on site
Mike and his crew at the job site to install our Mitsubishi ductless mini split system for heating and air conditioning.

Mike also confirmed what Greg and Isaac also pointed out: comfort issues may develop if we tried to get by with just one distribution head on the main floor.

In fact, looking back through old emails, Greg was nice enough to walk me through some of the options employed by those trying to get by with a single head for an entire floor (sometimes even two floors), including leaving bedroom doors open throughout the day (ideally, even at night), and even the use of Tjernlund room-to-room ventilators.

Again, to his credit, Greg tried to stress how important it was that homeowners have realistic expectations regarding the overall effectiveness of these techniques and options.

He also was at pains to make clear how the work of any competent HVAC installer can be easily undermined by a structure that underperforms. In other words, they can design an appropriately sized HVAC system for a Passive House, but if shortcuts occur during the build and the final blower door number comes in higher than expected, or the budget for insulation gets cut, reducing R-values in the structure, then the system they designed has little chance of working as intended. Based on what he wrote, I’m guessing he has dealt with exactly this outcome in the real world — not fun for him, or the homeowners to be sure.

Consequently, by the time Mike from Compass Heating and Air got involved, we had pretty much already settled on using multiple heads. Although it was nice to hear the same consistent message from Greg, Isaac, and Mike in this regard.

In the end, we decided to delete the head in the basement, instead going with three separate heads on the main floor — the largest in the kitchen/family room, and then the other two would go in our bedrooms.

Here are the specs for our system:

Hyper-Heat Compressor (30,000 Btu)

MSZ-FH15NA  (kitchen/family room)

MSZ-FH06NA  (master bedroom)

MSZ-FH06NA  (2nd BR)

head in mbr w: section of drywall
Master bedroom Mitsubishi head and Zehnder supply, both covered to protect against construction debris.

Having the Zehnder supply diffusers on the same wall and near the head of the Mitsubishi has been working well for us. As far as we can tell, there are no discernible issues with this arrangement. By way of comparison, the Mitsubishi head and Zehnder supply diffuser are on separate walls in my daughter’s bedroom — in effect, they’re pushing air towards the center of the room from walls that are perpendicular to one another — but we can’t tell any difference in terms of performance, either when heating or cooling.

mbr and family rm erv:heads construction
Facing camera: Family room Zehnder supply diffuser with Mitsubishi head. To the left, and facing MBR: Zehnder supply and lines for MBR Mitsubishi head.

Mike was also really good about communicating the system’s requirements to our electrician and our plumber. It was nice to watch all of them walk through the details together, thereby ensuring there were no problems once it came time to start up the individual heads.

condensate and refrigerant
Components for setting up a ductless mini split: refrigerant lines, electric supply, and a drain for condensate.

Living with a Ductless Mini Split

Having lived with the HVAC system, both the heat pump and ERV, for about a year now, our only real complaint is summer humidity, which I discussed in a previous post here: HVAC (1 of 2): Zehnder ERV

This summer we’re going to try using a dedicated, whole-house dehumidifier, which we think should resolve the issue.

Otherwise, our system has been trouble-free.

In winter, the heads do make some noise, tending to ‘crack’ or ‘pop’, especially when first turning on, or when they come out of defrost mode. Although I’ve read complaints about this online, it’s never really bothered us. I remember how loud our conventional gas-fired furnace was in our last house, especially when it first turned on, so I think it’s important to remember the level of certain sounds in their appropriate context.

Also, this ‘crack’ or ‘pop’ sound is, I suspect, louder than it otherwise would be say in a conventionally built home, since Passive Houses are known to be significantly quieter because of all the air sealing and, in particular, all of the insulation surrounding the structure.

There’s also a noticeable humming sound when the compressor is going through a defrost cycle (especially noticeable at night when the house is otherwise quiet). The heads also temporarily send out cooler air during this defrost cycle, but the cycle is short enough that it hasn’t posed any real comfort issue for us.

heat pump being installed on pad
Setting up the compressor outside.

Regarding interior noise generally, the same holds true even for our refrigerator in the kitchen. We virtually never noticed the fridge in our last house when it was cycling, but in our Passive House it’s arguably the loudest, most consistent noise in the house, especially at night, or if quietly sitting and reading. Again, it took some getting used to, but not really that big of a deal.

In other words, having blocked out, or at least muffled, most of the noise from outdoors (due to extensive air sealing and extensive insulation), any noise indoors becomes much more noticeable and pronounced. The Rockwool we installed between bedrooms-bathrooms, and the kitchen-utility room for sound attenuation definitely helps in this regard (more on this in a later post).

ext line set fully sealed
Line set for the heat pump system exiting the structure after being air sealed.

Just how quiet is a Passive House? Well, one example would be the train tracks that are just a couple of blocks away: When the windows are closed the noise from a passing train is mostly cancelled out — as opposed to when the windows are open, and the train, in contrast, sounds like it’s thundering through our next door neighbor’s yard.

pvc tied down w: duct seal
Interior view of the line set exiting the house.

As far as extreme cold outdoor temperatures are concerned, the system experienced a real test with our recent Polar Vortex weather. Mike was nice enough to check in with us the day before it started just to remind me that the system could shut down if temperatures fell below -18° F, which is what our local weather forecast was predicting.

In fact, this proved entirely accurate. As temperatures eventually fell to -24° F overnight, the system was, in fact, off for a few hours (the Mitsubishi shuts off to protect itself).

With the Zehnder ERV already set to LOW, and using just a couple of small space heaters (one in each bedroom — roughly equivalent to running 2 hair dryers simultaneously), it was easy to get the interior temperatures back up to 68-70° F in less than an hour (from a measured low of 61° F when we first woke up), at which point we turned off the space heaters.

And it was just under 2 hours before the temperatures rose enough outdoors for the heat pump to turn back on. On the second day, the system again turned off, but the interruption was even shorter this time, so we didn’t even bother to turn on the space heaters.

On both days the sun was shining, which definitely helped as light poured in through our south-facing windows, mainly in the kitchen and family room. Even with no additional heat, either from the heat pump or the two small space heaters, the kitchen remained a comfortable 70° F throughout that first day, regardless of the temperature outside.

In the summer, when we have the AC running, we just set the desired temperature on the remotes and largely forget about the system. The three heads together, even in each individual space, have no problem keeping the house and individual rooms cool enough. In this case, it no doubt helps that we have a substantial overhang on the southern portion of our roof, mostly denying the sun an entry point into the home during the hottest days of the year (and the Suntuitive glass on our west-facing windows takes care of afternoon summer sun).

conduit for heat pump thru zip
Conduit for the heat pump exiting the house and air sealed with Roflex/Tescon Vana tape and gasket.

You can see more detailed info regarding air sealing penetrations through the Zip sheathing here: WRB: Zip Sheathing

refrigerant condensate next to beam
Clean, neat lines for the heat pump.

Single or Multiple Heads?

As far as using a single head to try and heat and cool the entire first floor, in our case about 1500 sq. ft., I can only say that I’m glad we chose to use multiple heads. This really hit home as I was completing interior finishes. For instance, there were times when only the head in the family room/kitchen area was running. When you walked into the bedrooms you could definitely feel the temperature difference since those heads had been turned off (roughly a 5-10° difference). As Greg, Isaac, and Mike — to their credit — were all quick to point out, for some homeowners this temperature swing would be acceptable, even something that could be calmly ignored, while for other homeowners it might well be a heartbreaking and deeply frustrating realization.

Depending on how sensitive someone is to these temperature differences, it could  prove a devastating disappointment if the homeowner is expecting uniform consistency throughout their home. Also, since much of the selling point of Passive House techniques is, in the end, occupant comfort, and not just reduced energy consumption, moving from a comfortable kitchen, for example, to a bedroom that some would find outright chilly, might induce some homeowners to ponder: ‘What was the point of all that air sealing and insulation if I’m still cold in the wintertime and hot in the summer?’ If they hadn’t been warned beforehand, like we were, it would be difficult to argue with their reasoning.

Obviously it’s only our opinion, but if it’s at all possible to fit it into the budget, by all means utilize more than one distribution head. Even if you yourself never feel compelled to turn on any of the other heads in a multi-zone system, a spouse, one of your kids, or a guest probably will want to have the option at some point.

cu beam w: zehnder and hp
Zehnder ComfoTubes and various lines for the heat pump as they enter the basement from the MBR and the family room.

In addition, I would also guess that when going to sell the house multiple heads would be significantly easier to sell to a potential buyer (who wouldn’t appreciate customized HVAC in specific rooms?) rather than trying to prove that a single head is sufficient for an entire home, no matter how small or well-designed. Thoughts worth considering before committing to a specific HVAC system.

north facade w: siding
Compressor with finished charred siding and decorative gravel-cobblestone border.

Also worth noting, utilizing the Q&A section of the Green Building Advisor website is an excellent resource for exploring options before committing to a final HVAC set-up. It’s an excellent way to hear from designers and builders who have experience with multiple ‘green’ projects, not to mention actual homeowners who live in high-performance homes and experience these HVAC systems in the real world, as opposed to just data points put into a proposed energy model (incorrect inputs, along with actual occupant behavior are just two ways a potential system could end up being profoundly inappropriate).

This kind of feedback — before construction begins — is undeniably priceless. In fact, I regret not asking more questions on GBA as they came up during the design and construction phases of our build since it is such a valuable resource of useful information.

compressor in snow
View of the same area after our recent Polar Vortex (snowfall, then below-zero temps).

The one real risk we took with our HVAC set-up was foregoing any direct conditioning in the basement, either heat or AC. In the summer, no matter how high the temperatures outdoors, the basement stays within 5 degrees of the upstairs temperatures and humidity, so no comfort issues in this regard have presented themselves. In the winter, however, the temperature remains in the 59-61° range, with almost identical humidity readings as the main floor.

ice under unit
Some ice build-up, but almost all of it on the concrete pad below, not on the compressor itself.

Most of the time this isn’t a problem for us, since we’re either working out (the slight chill gets you moving and keeps you moving), or else we’re doing arts and crafts projects, or reading on a couch under a blanket. The only time the chill gets annoying is when sitting at the computer for an extended period of time, so we may try using a plug-in space heater in the office next winter (although the challenge will be to find one that’s reasonably energy-efficient while also remaining effective).

little ice build-up
Close-up, showing very little ice present on the compressor itself.

Mitsubishi Wall-mounted Heads: Beauty or Beast

I’ve read that some interior designers, and even some homeowners, have expressed aesthetic concerns about the distribution heads. If you go on design-oriented websites like Houzz you can come across some really strong negative opinions on the topic.

family rm:kitchen hp head and zehnder

For us, they’ve never been a problem. Much like the Suntuitive glass on our west-facing windows, or even a dark or bright color on an interior accent wall, after a few days, like anything else, you just get used to it. I never found them to be ugly in the first place though.

MBR w: hp head and zehnder

I also grew up with hydronic metal baseboards for heat, while in apartments and our first home we had the typical floor supply and wall return grilles for a gas furnace — point being, the details of any HVAC system are never completely absent from any living space. There’s always something that shows up visually and, typically, that needs to be cleaned at some point.

In addition, the Zehnder ERV and the Mitsubishi heat pumps meant we didn’t have to utilize any framed soffits or duct chases (at least in the case of our specific floor plan) in order to hide bulky runs of traditional metal ductwork, typical in most homes when using a normal furnace. Unless designed with great care, these tend to be obtrusive, taking up premium ceiling, wall, or floor space. And if randomly placed simply for the convenience of the HVAC contractor, they can be downright ugly.

In other words, it doesn’t really matter if you’re building conventionally or if you’re building a Passive House, all the details of an HVAC system — whether it’s individual components, or even how these components will be placed inside a structure — should be carefully thought through (again, ideally before construction begins) to address any performance or aesthetic concerns.

Controlling and Adjusting the System

As far as the remote controls for the individual heads, we haven’t had any issues.

heat pump remote closed

For the most part, we set them to either heat or AC (roughly 70° and 75° respectively), and then forget about them.

heat pump remote open

To the extent I’ve looked through the manual, these seem straightforward, but again we haven’t really needed to do much in this regard. And when the weather is pleasant outdoors, we take every opportunity to turn off the system completely and then open windows.

Mike also explained the system could be combined with a Kumo cloud set-up, but we’ve been happy with just the hand-held remotes so far.

Routine Maintenance

And much like with the Zehnder ERV, I try to check the filters for the individual heads at least once a month (more like once a week when I was still doing interior finishes). Just as it takes much longer for the Zehnder filters to get dirty now that construction is over, the same has proven true for the blue filters in the Mitsubishi heads. It seems like about once a month is sufficient to keep up with the dust in the house.

Overall, we’ve been very happy with our HVAC set-up, including the Zehnder ERV and our Mitsubishi ductless mini split. As long as the units don’t have any durability issues, we should be happy with these systems for many years to come.

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

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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 at 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 copycat 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 Suntuitive 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.

Stone Basement Window Wells

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The Design Goal

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

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

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

We also thought that window wells that were more open and expansive could help draw in the sun, hopefully making the space feel less like a dungeon and more like normal living space.

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

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

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

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

Candido and Felipe excavating hole for wdw well
Candido and Felipe begin excavating the hole for the first window well.
carving outline of window well
They carve an outline for the dimensions of the window well.
shaping the hole for the window well
Felipe and Candido continue to dig out and shape the hole.
holed carved and shaped - ready for stone
Hole prepped for footings.
Candido putting down crushed stone for footing
Candido spreads out the crushed stone before setting up the form for the concrete footing.
Felipe and Candido prepping for 1st footing
Candido and Felipe set up the form for the concrete footing. I got lucky with the timing of this shot — note the flying hammer and speed square.
prep for footing: crushed stone-form-rebar
Corner of the form for the footing with rebar.
close up of rebar going into Roxul for wdw well footings
Close-up of the rebar going into the 5″ of Roxul and the foundation.

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

first wdw well prepped for first row from basement wdw
View through basement window buck before they started building up the first window well.
first blocks for first row
First row being set on the footing.

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

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

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

Candido leveling 1st row on footing
Candido leveling the first row.
Felipe and Candido starting first wdw well
Candido and Felipe trying to protect themselves from forecasted rain.
washed gravel to backfill around window wells
Piles of washed gravel for back fill behind the walls of the window wells.
wdw well tools of the trade from above
Tools of the trade.

The first wall begins to rise:

slowly rising wall w: landscape fabric and washed gravel backfill
Washed gravel installed behind the growing wall.
Candido applying adhesive to block
Candido applying adhesive before setting the next block.
Felipe and Candido double checking their work
Felipe and Candido double checking their work.
geotextile fabric
Geotextile fabric being installed for soil stabilization, and to improve the overall integrity of the wall.
Felipe prepping for capstones
Felipe covering up the fabric in preparation for the last couple of rows of block.
capstones going on
Capstones being installed on the first wall.
capstones complete #2
First window well complete before backfill.
Spring sun peeking into basement window
Spring sun sneaking into the basement window.
basement window letting in light
Light pouring in one of the two basement windows.
Candido building up the 2nd wdw well
Candido building up the second wall.
finished window well (west)
Completed second window well.

View of the first completed window well from inside the house at the kitchen doorway:

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

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

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

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

Vivian Maier and the Search for Rust

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I can still remember seeing the striking cover of Vivian Maier: Street Photographer for the first time. The image hints at the story of her life — the mystery surrounding a great talent who went unheralded while alive, but who is now universally recognized and celebrated — while remaining dramatic all on its own.

The documentary about the discovery of her cache of photos, her life, and the work, is equally compelling:

There is something oddly electric about walking the streets of a large city and capturing life as it happens in beautiful photographs. There is an intensity in the captured moment that would otherwise go unseen if not for the skilled and curious eye of a photographer like Vivian Maier. To be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes is always a gift, but especially when the outcome is such mesmerizing images.

After the initial interaction (whether positive or negative), the real test for art, it seems to me, is: Does it compel you to come back again and again? On this basis, Vivian Maier’s work is one of my personal favorites. I never find the images boring, or find myself hurrying past some images to get to others. Her photos almost force you to slow down and really take in what she’s looking at.

Portfolios: Street 1
Portfolios: Street 2
Portfolios: Street 3
Portfolios: Street 4
Portfolios: Street 5
Portfolios: Color

Since my daughter was already showing an interest in taking photos (i.e. taking advantage of a moment’s distraction to snatch our smartphones and go directly to camera mode), we decided to go on an adventure into Chicago to take some pictures. Using Vivian Maier as our inspiration, we headed into the city with cameras ready. Instead of people watching, we went looking for a particular subject matter, having narrowed our focus down to rust.

The challenge would be to find areas of rust that we thought could make compelling photographs (the real challenge was editing down the hundreds of — mostly forgettable — photos we ended up taking):

2016-06-14-00-35-03
fire-hydrant
rusted-bolt-chipping-paint
electric-cover
elevated-tracks
park-here
switch

After spending the better part of a day in the city looking for rust, one side-effect was we saw intriguing areas of rust everywhere we went for days afterward. For instance, the last photo above was taken at a farm near us. Even now, if we’re out walking, my daughter still points to interesting examples of rust. It’s amazing how well the human brain can focus if you tell it where to look.

Part of the ulterior motive behind our day of photography was to start thinking about rust as a design element for our new house. Since we will have an Urban Rustic theme, we knew what the basic elements were going to be:

Wood

Concrete

Metal

For metal, I knew it would include exposed lag bolts, washers and nuts, along with some industrial/farm tools, in addition to a couple of areas dedicated to rust. Incorporating rust in a dramatic, yet limited, way would prove more challenging and time consuming than I first imagined (more on this later).

#rustisbeautiful
photo-bomber
Our little photo bomber.

Architect vs. Client

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Can they both be right?

During the design phase of our build, a clash of ideas occurred over a relatively small detail in the plans. I thought revealing it here might prove helpful to other homeowners about to embark on the design phase of their own build or renovation.

Our overall floor plan is divided down its long, East-West axis, separating the public (kitchen and family room) from the private (bedrooms and bathrooms). This is straightforward, and nothing that hasn’t been done countless times before by other architects and builders. Sounds simple enough, but debate arose over how to transition from the public space to the second bedroom and bathroom, which are both just off the kitchen.

This is what our architect initially proposed:

2016-08-17 21.58.01

Our architect was clearly going for maximum efficiency in terms of space planning. In addition to a straight, open line from kitchen to bathroom, this design put the doorway to the second bedroom just around the corner, mostly out of sight. The architect believed, and rightly so, that this was the most efficient use of the limited space in this area.

Nevertheless, in my own head, I always assumed that there would be a “jog” (we worked hard to eliminate as many hallways as possible, but I suppose there’s no denying that’s what we’ve ended up with here).

This is what I was picturing:

bathroom - bedroom version 2

As a result, I argued for the second design, believing the jog/hallway offered a level of privacy to those using the bathroom lacking in the original drawing. This is a polite, civilized way of saying it. A friend put it more bluntly: “Why do I wanna make eye contact with somebody who’s just taken a dump?”.

Crass, to be sure, but his comment does get to the heart of the matter: If you’re standing in the kitchen as someone exits the bathroom, won’t this be an awkward situation for everyone? And how uncomfortable will it be for the person in the bathroom if they have the “bubble guts” when they know people are congregated in the kitchen?

Why not, as depicted in the second version, move the wall between kitchen and bathroom a little to the right, thereby eliminating any direct sight lines from the kitchen into the bathroom? Doesn’t this layout afford someone in the bathroom a much higher level of privacy and, therefore, comfort?

If the client (in this situation, or one like it) can acknowledge that the second layout is a less than ideal efficient use of the space, should the architect (in this situation, or one like it) acknowledge that the trade-off — between efficiency and privacy — is worth it? Or should efficient space planning be understood as an absolute and be applied accordingly?

It would be interesting to know what decision other people would make in this situation. In addition, if clients (or architects for that matter) have struggled with similar situations regarding a balance between space planning efficiency and other needs or wants — and how they resolved the problem.

In our case, we’ve opted for privacy, but we don’t pretend our choice is perfect. This raises the question: Can architect and client both be right (even if it’s for different reasons)?

What do you think?

Places Journal (Client and Architect)  

Life of an Architect  

Reasons to Employ an Architect  

Coffee with an Architect

Postscript: 

There were also selfish design reasons for the jog/hallway — e.g. artwork that will be featured on the hallway wall (seen as you exit the kitchen and head for the bedroom or bathroom), in addition to artwork that can be viewed as you exit the bathroom sink area (on the new wall between the kitchen and the bathroom). I also thought that by not being able to see directly, or easily, into the bathroom and the bedroom from the kitchen that it might add a little “drama” to the floor plan, if only for first-time visitors — ‘Hmmm, wonder what’s back there?’ At any rate, I think I’ll always enjoy this effect (along with the added privacy).