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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.

Siding Part 2: Charred Cedar (Shou Sugi Ban) with Natural Accents

0

Building a Passive House: Science, then Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Barrington McMansions Languishing
McMansions at Fire-Sale Prices

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

McMansions No One Wants
Killing the McMansion

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

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

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

Massing: Basic Forms

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

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

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

1st layer rockwool at frt door
Wojtek installing Rockwool around the front door, next to the garage.

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

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

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

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

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

3rdmanrecords
Facade of Third Man Records in Nashville.

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

Siding Layout for our Charred Cedar (Shou Sugi Ban)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ehb s and w elevations
Proposed siding layout from Evolutionary Home Builders.

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

brown - brick typical layout
Popular way to break up the cladding on a ranch home, in this case mixing brick and wood.
brick w: light sd
Another example of the same layout, this time with lighter colored siding.

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

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

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

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

charred cedar sample board with natural
Sample board with natural and charred cedar.

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

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

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

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

natural-and-charred-together
“Natural” cedar, treated with tung oil, next to the charred cedar.

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

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

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

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

I guess the situation could’ve been even worse:

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

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

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

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

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

Cedar Siding Delivered…
Oiling Charred Cedar Siding

Installing the Charred Cedar

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

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

1st pce char going on
Wojtek and Mark installing the first piece of charred cedar on the south side of the garage.
1st few rows south sd sd gar
Wojtek and Mark making progress on the south side of the garage.

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

s garage char 1:2 way
First few rows of charred cedar going up on the south side of the garage.

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

south garage 1st pce east wojtek and mark
Wojtek and Mark starting the east, vertically oriented, side of the garage.

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

garage south sd start east wojtek and mark
Finally getting to see the combination of horizontal and vertical orientations combined.

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

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

close up char on garage texture
Close-up of several charred cedar boards.

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

oil and texture on garage sd
The range of textures and subtle variation in color makes the charred cedar truly unique.

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

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

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

garage sd out front door
View of the garage from the front doorway.
south gar sd mostly done mark in bg
First look at a large section of the charred cedar siding installed.
south gar sd bringing you in to frt dr
A second view.

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

n side garage furring and coravent
North side of the garage prepped and ready for siding.
1st pce north gar sd
First few pieces going up on the north side of the garage.

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

Cor-A-Vent PS-400 Box
Box of PS-400 strips for soffit ventilation.

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

After looking around online, I ended up finding a product at a local Home Depot — Kwikmesh, a galvanized all-purpose metal mesh on a roll.

mesh for soffits
Metal mesh product we used for soffit ventilation.

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

close up soffit screen complete
Close-up of the soffit metal mesh installed.
outside view n gar soffit
First section of soffit going up with the metal mesh in place for ventilating the roof.
mark w: gar soffit screen mostly complete
Mark waiting for a cut, with most of the soffit and siding installed on the north side of the garage.
garage soffit w: screen complete
Section of soffit complete with Kwikmesh installed.
north garage sd soffit complete
North side complete, with the frieze board finishing off the rainscreen details.

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

https:::hammerandhand.com:best-practices:manual:4-rain-screens:4-1-top-wall:
Courtesy of Hammer and Hand and their Best Practices Manual.

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

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

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

wd view top of garage rscreen
Top of the wall is ready for siding, and for establishing the air gap for the rainscreen.
mark blocking 4 frieze and vent
Mark adding blocking in preparation for the frieze board to finish off the top of the wall.

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

wide view garage frieze w: blocking sd
Top of the Cor-A-Vent and the top piece of siding. Frieze board being installed over blocking in the background.

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

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

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

garage south sd start east wojtek and mark
Wojtek and Mark moving across the front of the garage with the charred cedar now oriented vertically.

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

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

char as garage sd east goes up
Anita starting to burn additional boards as Mark and Wojtek keep working.
most of east side garage complete
Mark mostly done with the front of the garage.

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

sd soffit w: frieze for vent gap
Overhang on the front of the garage: frieze board completing the rainscreen, soffit boards, and rake boards being installed.
garage soffit and rake
Closer view of garage soffit and rake being installed.
garage side view strapping vent sd
Cut away view of the siding with a rainscreen set-up behind it.

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

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

outside corner soffit w: tiger stripe
Close-up of the garage soffit at an outside corner.
nw corner garage start n sd
The guys making the transition from the garage to the north side of the house.

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

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

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

mark at mechanicals
Mark working around the mechanicals on the north side.

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

Installing the Natural Cedar Accents

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

stacks of nat'l and char in garage
Natural cedar boards tung oiled and ready to be installed.

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

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

west 1st cple pcs nat'l wojtek and mark

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

west after 1st few nat'l pces
Adding natural boards around the window on the west facade.

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

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

mark just past nat'l on west
Mark completing the natural accent around the left window.

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

mark and wojtek west sd after nat'l
Mark approaching the center of the west facade.

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

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

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

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

lking up sd at west peak
Looking up at the center of the west facade.
lking up sd at west peak wider view
Wider view of the peak on the west facade.

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

west facade sd after peak

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

west sd mostly done guys start south

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

west facade after sd b4 gutters
West facade mostly complete.

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

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

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

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

sd west b4 gutters
Waiting for gutters and downspouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

repsol full

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

repsol screen saver
Vivid screensaver.

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

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

Another example of this thick-thin combination:

racing strip hash marks wheel
Hash marks on the wheel of a Dodge Charger.

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

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

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

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

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

mark ready for natl at kitch
Mark almost ready for the natural cedar boards.

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

1st couple at kitch

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

mark past natl at kitch
Mark and Wojtek moving past the natural cedar boards.

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

kitch dr
Kitchen door with its charred and natural cedar.

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

1st pce nat'l at frt dr
Putting up the first piece of natural cedar around the front door.
mark finishing up nat'l at frt dr
Mark nailing in the first couple of natural boards.

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

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

mark just after nat'l at frt dr

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

sd done b4 frt dr
First look at the east facade fully sided. Our little black box almost complete.

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

Check out the details of their installation here:

Windows, Doors, and Suntuitive
Brian Jason Bob install front door
Brian, Jason, and Bob install our front door.
frt dr frt yard
Front door just after installation.

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

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

frt dr clup b4 trim
Close-up of the front porch just after the door was installed.

Installing Sill Pans

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

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

sill pan inside edge b4 return trim 2nd view
Metal sill pan slid under bottom aluminum edge of the window.

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

inside corner sill pan b4 return trim
A second view of the same area.
mbr wdw w: sill pan b4 final pce trim
From inside looking down at the sill pan.
side view sill pan edge beyond sd
Outside edge of the sill pan.
south wdw after sd b4 trim
Window waiting for the last few pieces of trim.

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

k wdw trimmed out fmly rm wdw bg
Kitchen window with all the trim pieces installed.
innie wdw face - frameless look
Once the screens were installed, there was almost no room to spare. We really like this “frameless” look combined with the “innie” window position — it creates some really nice shadows at various times during the day.
frt dr sill pan
Front door sill pan installed.
kitch dr sill pan
Kitchen door with the sill pan installed.
Wojtek installing first sill pan
Wojtek pulling off the protective plastic on the sill pan.
mark and wojtek install 1st pce garage roof flashing
Mark and Wojtek installing flashing on the top of our garage roof.
2nd shed rf flash
Wojtek screwing down the flashing.

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

mbr wdw frame sill pan

Gutters and Downspouts

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

nordic ne
nordic n

Decorative Details

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

Our exterior lights were found on Amazon: Hyperikon

house numbers out of storage
‘Wobbly’ house numbers.
doorbell
Gecko doorbell finally installed.
house # and drbell
Front door details complete: trim, sill pan, doorbell, house numbers, and exterior light.

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

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

708 white porcelain w: spax

Stucco for Inside Window Wells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wdw wll 3
Gutters going up just after the railings around the window wells were installed.
wdw wll 2
View of the railing from a basement window.

How Durable is the Charred Cedar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some pictures showing the extent of the fading:

west b4 tar
West facade facing the backyard.
kitchdr19b4
South side.
s east end b4 tar
Another view of the south side.
south garage b4 tar
South side of the garage.
garage b4 tar
East-facing side of the garage.

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

close up missing char
Arguably the worst area of fading on the charred cedar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A second view of the eaves with the ‘tiger striping’, along with the soffit vent, gutter and downspout, and, if you look closely enough, a moth hanging out on the Kwikmesh screen:

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

w sw as pine tar being applied
Starting on the west side with the black pine tar.
pine tar fmly rm wdw - bleached out to rgt
Making progress on the south side.

Our little black box with revitalized skin:

w after tar evening
West facade complete.
south west fmly rm after tar
Southwest corner after pine tar.
south tower after tar
Another view of this southwest corner.
porch after tar
Front entry and the south side of the garage after pine tar.
front after tar
Another view of the east facade after the pine tar.
708 after tar
Closer view of the charred cedar after the pine tar.
close up char texture after tar
Close-up: the black pine tar had no negative impact on the heavily charred areas.
after tar still variation color texture
On areas with the lightest char the black pine tar soaked in but didn’t completely make the surface an opaque black. My guess is, a second coat probably would’ve made it opaque.

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

black box in snow1
Our little black box in snow. Another reason we chose to go with black siding.

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

black box in snow2
We like the solidity that the black siding gives to the house when there’s snow on the ground.

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

Bridgersteel

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

Still another product worth considering:

Thermory USA

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

black box snowing
House as the snow falls. We enjoy the sharp contrast between the snow and the black siding.

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

sd at kitch dr at night
Kitchen door and stoop with the light on.

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

frt dr w: light
The house at magic hour.

Building in the Suburbs

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Once you’ve decided to pursue a new construction build, regardless of where you buy land, it’s likely to raise some issues regarding unintended consequences (whether or not the homeowner, builder, or developer wishes to acknowledge this is another matter).

In a rural setting, for example, you’re likely to be removing fertile farmland, or cutting down someone’s idea of a pastoral idyll or enchanted forest.

Look out the plane window on a flight from New Orleans to Chicago, or Denver to Cincinnati. Everything you see is already in agricultural production. This huge expanse of naturally fertile ground literally feeds the world. The suburbs growing around any city show that we are losing agricultural land even as the human population continues to grow. 

— David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations

With nature setting limits on land viable for agriculture, future generations may be horrified by our willingness to build over these acres of fertile soil with so little thought for the potential long-term consequences.

Many of Wendell Berry’s essays lament this lack of respect for the land, whether it’s cultivated field or wild forest:

In a larger city, on the other hand, you might be tearing down something people find historically significant, or maybe just significant to the character of a specific block or neighborhood.

Building in the suburbs, even when it’s done on a previously empty infill lot in a well-established subdivision like ours, still comes with its own set of unique implications.

For example, at one extreme there is a great fondness for suburbia, even a kind of utopian idealism.

It’s not uncommon at this point in their history for this idealism to be wrapped up in fond childhood memories, eliciting a vibrant strain of nostalgia (some might suggest of an unhealthy, cloying variety) for suburban life.

All too often suburbia is just the unquestioned background for mainstream life, for example, in the string of popular 1980’s films by John Hughes:

Although it’s hard not to notice in this case, at least, that the main characters escape from the suburbs to the big city when they’re in the mood for some excitement, adventure, and cultural enrichment.

At the other end of the spectrum there is utter contempt for suburbia and its perceived values, readily apparent in any number of movies, novels, or the DIY Punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s (and still going strong).

From this perspective, the suburbs are where the soul goes to die (particularly for the adults who have made their peace with authority, or so the argument would run). In other words, there may be safety in the suburbs, but it comes with a price. In fact, for many of its critics, suburbia represents mostly denial rather than any kind of meaningful affirmation.

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful… A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.

— Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

For many young people the suburbs are what you end up trying to escape. The suburbs are missing something; the only thing on offer is the bland, the same, the quiet, and the sleepy. At best the suburbs in this case can be thought of as an uncomfortable launching pad, or a spur motivating escape plans. Your dreams and aspirations lie elsewhere, and the sooner you can move on the better.

As far apart as these two extremes might appear, feelings about the suburbs can even fall somewhere in-between (especially for those of us who were raised in suburbia), as a kind of bittersweet mix of love and contempt — e.g. ‘I didn’t choose to grow up in the suburbs, but that’s where many of my most vivid memories reside‘.

Early on in his 33 1/3 study of Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs, Eric Eidelstein makes a similar point, “There’s nothing I wanted more than to leave my suburban upbringing. Now that I have, a part of me wishes I could dip my toes back into the bubble… Suburbia is innocence and ignorance… freedom and constraint… lightness and darkness.” The key, and devastating, word in that passage being ‘bubble’.

This Smashing Pumpkins song and video captures a similar feeling:

Two wildly different episodes from the original Twilight Zone TV-series reflect these violently divergent attitudes towards suburbia. The first is a love letter to a golden childhood, forever lost to the passing of time and the realities of adulthood. The second represents a kind of hell of conformity, reeking of paranoia and dread. Civility is revealed to be only a thin veneer that easily falls away under the slightest pressure, exposing ugly truths buried just below the surface of everyday life. For anyone who grew up in the suburbs these storylines are relatable, no doubt to varying degrees.

The Monsters are Due on Maple Street:

Walking Distance:

In my own case, living in the suburbs entailed countless hours of playing various sports with friends in the neighborhood, and seemingly endless bicycle rides through contiguous subdivisions waiting for the day we could drive cars (or ride motorcycles) and actually go somewhere, alongside memories of the ‘perfect’ neighbors who, later it was revealed, had separately engaged in fraud and embezzlement at work, seemingly out of unadulterated greed since neither of them ‘needed’ the money.

Perhaps no other work better captures this strange mixture of paean and warning about what lays just below the surface in the suburbs than David Lynch’s Blue Velvet:

For decades Americans have abandoned small farming communities and larger metropolitan areas to flee to the suburbs, mainly in the hopes of rounding off the sharp edges of life as it’s experienced on a farm or in a large city.

The suburban ideal offered the promise of… an environment that would combine the best of both city and rural life.

—Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier

What was clearly being left behind were the extremes. For example, brutal, albeit beautiful at times, farm life.

Days of Heaven:

Dawn to Dusk:

And the seemingly cartoonish, but no less lethal, aggression often associated with the big city.

The Warriors:

Mean Streets (NSFW):

As Jackson notes in Crabgrass Frontier, the suburbs “offered the exciting prospect that disorder, prostitution, and mayhem could be kept at a distance, far away in the festering metropolis.” Simultaneously, although nurturing a carefully manicured lawn (a practice that dates back to at least the 19th century), the average suburban plot freed its owner from the back-breaking labor associated with farming, along with its attendant risks like crop failures, the vagaries of maintaining livestock, or the whims of the marketplace.

In staking out a middle ground, suburbia tries to avoid the excessive “liveliness” of the big city, while also studiously avoiding the brutal cycles of life and death that anchor and allow a working farm to thrive. Nevertheless, suburbia remains tethered to city and farm; almost entirely dependent on the city’s industry and markets (both for employment and consumption), while the farms supply virtually all of its food supply. In a way, then, suburbia represents both a denial of life and death.

But the extremes are no less real, and they remain virtually impossible to avoid altogether. Denial just makes the situation worse.

In the case of Blue Velvet, for instance, where the villain, Frank Booth, is presented as evil incarnate stalking around the suburbs at night, things may be even worse than they first appear. As David Foster Wallace points out, “…the real horror in the movie surrounds discoveries that Jeffrey makes about himself… not of Dark Frank but of his own dark affinities with Frank is the engine of the movie’s anxiety.” Lynch, according to Wallace, drives this point home in the car scene when Frank turns back to Jeffrey and says “‘You’re like me’. This moment is shot from Jeffrey’s visual perspective, so that when Frank turns around in the seat he speaks both to Jeffrey and to us [emphasis added].”

If the suburbs at their worst represent an attempt to push away harsh realities, then it can’t go on forever, and, in the meantime, the attempt itself can produce some pretty nasty consequences.

This kind of angst in the suburbs almost seems inbred at this point; not only has it survived but it’s thrived for decades, seen in the boredom and unfocused rage of Rebel Without a Cause right up to the grunge and riot grrrl movements of the early 90’s and beyond.

The chicken run from Rebel Without a Cause:

Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl:

Meanwhile, the kind of human wreckage detailed in Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege is clearly deeply rooted in suburban realities and conventional notions of what constitutes success and ‘the good life.

As a result, reasons for disliking the suburbs are legion, especially evident once you start looking for opinions. Moving beyond the general stereotypes of conformity and isolation, there are also stark realities regarding how suburbia came to be and how it’s been maintained, which is especially devastating when you realize nothing was a foregone conclusion, and that choices have been made at every stage of their progression.

In confronting “The prevailing myth… that the postwar suburbs blossomed because of the preference of consumers who made free choices in an open environment,” Jackson points out that “Because of public policies favoring the suburbs, only one possibility was economically feasible.” Once government programs like “FHA and VA mortgage insurance, the highway system, the financing of sewers…”, not to mention “…the unusual American practice of allowing taxpayers to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes” are taken into account, the suburbs seem not only inevitable but carefully planned for — even if many of their long-term consequences were not.

Understanding this historical context makes a work like Family Properties even more of a heartbreaking read. Whether it’s the well-documented history of red lining, blockbusting, ‘contract selling’, restrictive covenants, or even more publicly overt acts of racism, the suburbs certainly have an ugly past.

As Beryl Satter makes clear, being forced to ‘buy on contract’ meant African Americans lost “their savings during the very years when whites of similar class background were getting an immense economic boost through FHA-backed mortgages that enabled them to purchase new homes for little money down… While contract sellers became millionaires, their harsh terms and inflated prices destroyed whole communities.”

In effect, one group of Americans enjoyed the benefits of homeownership, including selling years later for a substantial profit (in many cases passing this money on to a second generation as part of an inheritance), while another group of Americans lost their entire life savings.

And that past, unfortunately, never seems to be very far away.

It is this kind of historical context that helps explain, at least in part, the resonance of a movie like Get Out:

It’s undeniable, then, that the suburbs, as an idea and a physical reality, are overdue for some kind of transformation — in terms of socioeconomic issues, resource demands and energy use, architectural aesthetics, transportation, water management, their relationship to nature (both wild and cultivated), etc. The list of issues that could be addressed is truly daunting.

Here is one attempt:

The suburbs are also dragging around other cultural baggage besides just single-family homes and endless miles of congested highways. For instance, it’s almost impossible to bring up suburbia without acknowledging the rise and fall of the shopping mall, at least the dominant style of mall popular since the second half of the 20th century:

As others have clearly documented (perhaps most vividly by Dead Malls), many of these shopping malls look to be on their way out, as both cultural touchstones and architectural objects:

In their place, one proposed solution is Lifestyle Centers. It’s not at all clear that anyone has a definitive, bullet-proof, strategy for overhauling these structures, and ‘lifestyle centers’ appear to be little more than a variation on the original shopping mall form. In fact, it appears cities and developers are just guessing at what might work.

One solution for the suburbs in general might be pockets of self-contained neighborhoods, mimicking the dynamic energy of urban living Jane Jacobs wrote about in Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is reminiscent of many traditional European city, and even smaller village, neighborhoods:

Whether or not the housing density necessary to achieve this is possible (e.g. building up to avoid excessive sprawl, with each individual residential unit smaller than what we’ve grown to think of as normal), it would also require a high-level of city planning and cooperation amongst all the stakeholders to incorporate all the services and day-to-day needs of the population, all while managing to also maintain and hold onto significant green spaces. A tall order indeed.

Even so, there have been pioneers and experiments trying to explore various possibilities.

For example, Village Homes in Davis, California, developed in the 1970’s, pursued a more holistic approach to residential construction.

His comments at the end of the video regarding their battle with the status quo is particularly telling. You can read more about the project here: Village Homes

More recently, the founding partners of GO Logic worked to create Belfast Cohousing Ecovillage.

The hope is that living arrangements and social networks like these will improve the participants’ quality of life.

These kinds of cooperative living and working arrangements are growing in popularity, with a major historical antecedent being Mondragon in Spain.

As Americans grow increasingly disenchanted working for large, unaccountable corporate entities, these kinds of organizations have the potential for significant expansion, even in places like Cincinnati, which is hardly thought of as a progressive redoubt.

South Mountain Company, based on Martha’s Vineyard, would be one successful example from the construction and design fields (Marc Rosenbaum, who’s had a significant presence on GBA, is one of their employees/co-owners). John Abrams, the founder, wrote Companies We Keep, a compelling and detailed read on the evolution of the business.

For anyone who’s interested, the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is an excellent resource for those wanting to pursue this idea further.

There are still other projects, for instance, community gardens or larger scale suburban permacultureguerrilla gardening, or even Brad Lancaster’s street project, which try to improve the quality of life at the neighborhood level of a subdivision or even a single block (note that it’s no accident that all of these smaller projects improve our connection to nature).

Even something as small as planting a hell-strip on your own with colorful perennials is a start — something we see more and more of in the residential neighborhoods just outside of downtown Chicago, and even out here in the suburbs. Considering their tiny area of square footage, these mini-gardens have an incredibly powerful visual impact.

These projects represent mostly small-scale, but no less valid, attempts to make suburban life better and more meaningful for residents and visitors alike. In addition, these projects point to our intrinsic need for maintaining a real connection with nature, now often referred to with the buzzword notion of Biophilic Design, itself an outgrowth of E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis.

Almost anything would be preferable to the typical mix of poorly built cookie-cutter homes surrounded by congested roadways and the endless, and largely undifferentiated, strip mall hell that we currently endure:

As with strip malls, if houses prove to be equally unloved, even despised, it’s easy as a culture to let them rot or just bulldoze them and start over. If people are going to put in time, money, and effort to save something, it had better be well-loved, i.e. fulfill some pretty fundamental needs.

The existing and aging housing stock ringing every large city in America isn’t going anywhere. Whether rehabbed in a sporadic and piecemeal way, with varying amounts of success (both in terms of build quality and energy consumption), or the issue is addressed head-on by local and federal programs, something will need to be done.

It’s possible to imagine a large-scale retrofit program, with Passive House, or at least Pretty Good House, goals set as the benchmark. After tearing down the most dilapidated units, making way for the new, there would still be ample opportunity to rehab existing structures in a thoughtful way that could be a real boom for employment (maybe even allowing us to finally establish a much needed national apprenticeship system) as it also works to draw down on our housing stock’s demand for energy. It would also be offering people work that has real, tangible benefits to our society and the world as a whole, something that’s missing from most construction work at the moment.

If one’s intent, however, is just to dismantle the logic of the suburbs, there’s certainly no shortage of intellectual rocks lying around if you want to pick some up and start throwing them through the shiny, glass-filled facade of suburbia.

And frankly, it’s kind of fun to do. For example, how about suburbanites as brain-dead zombies out to mindlessly consume:

Whether it’s their costly infrastructure and massive energy consumption, their car dependency, their love affair with lawns, their lack of density, their total isolation from farming (or nature more generally; even where it does pop up it tends to look and feel like an afterthought), or the isolation from what the city has to offer, the suburbs certainly have their issues, many of them profound if not existential.

And even though I think all of these issues are certainly well worth thinking about, especially if you have the ability to choose between rural, urban, and suburban locations for work, the fact remains that for many people the suburbs are, in fact, still the best option for housing.

So the question remains: How do we make the suburbs better? 

In our case, my wife works less than ten minutes from home. Unfortunately, a car is still the only real option for transportation (rather unbelievably) — e.g. busy roadways and a lack of continuous pedestrian or cycling pathways make what is an otherwise short commute somewhat perilous to navigate. Nonetheless, moving into Chicago proper, or out to a rural setting, didn’t make much sense to us, mainly because of the added drive time.

After deciding that we would try and build something new here in Palatine, a suburb of Chicago, we concluded that we should do our best to make something that would be loved and cared for long after we’ve moved on.

For the house itself this meant making choices regarding the structure, while for the yard, at least in our case, it meant pursuing permaculture principles rather than the more typical suburban lawn with some foundation plantings (more on the specific details in future posts).

Obviously, one house here or there that bucks current trends isn’t going to change much about an entire culture. A house like ours is mostly just to demonstrate what’s possible. Nevertheless, there’s real opportunity for large scale change, whether in our bigger cities, rural areas, or even the suburbs.

In the cities it could mean carving out space for many more community gardens, insisting on Passive House (or at least Pretty Good House) structures, limiting the use of cars while overhauling public transportation, all while giving priority to pedestrians.

Also, coming up with various strategies to avoid gentrification so that once a neighborhood is fully revitalized the original, long-term residents aren’t forced out by a higher cost of living (mainly through increased rents and property taxes).

As Aaron Shkuda documents in his book The Lofts of SoHo (Gentrification, Art, and Industry in New York, 1950-1980), a large influx of artists and the culturally much-maligned ‘hipsters’ is typically the initial spark a struggling neighborhood needs to begin a turnaround.

“The form of development that artists pioneered in SoHo provided a way for cities to confront the urban crisis without the financial and social costs of slum clearance… the mode of development that grew in SoHo was the antithesis of urban renewal. It was unplanned, and it stymied the attempts of experts or politicians to control it… SoHo provided a distinctly urban alternative to the structures built through urban renewal. These projects mainly attempted to provide urban residents with amenities found in the suburbs, such as easy auto access, security, and a verdant, non-urban feel. SoHo was gritty, urban, dense, and all the more popular for it… the history of SoHo demonstrates that it is perhaps the neighborhoods that artists create, rather than the artists themselves, that help draw and retain [educated professionals].” 

—Aaron Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo

In fact, as Shkuda points out, this formula has repeatedly proven so successful that “it is difficult to find a contemporary American city without residential lofts.” In effect, large, empty or abandoned, spaces converted into residential lofts is a stamp of approval, announcing that a specific neighborhood is now desirable or even the height of ‘cool’.

The trick is making sure the transformation — making an area worth going to because of art galleries, artisan shops, unique restaurants, bars and coffee shops, and overall cultural vibe — doesn’t overshoot the mark, moving past rebirth to a stage where only the wealthy can afford to stick around and participate.

Moreover, the fact that SoHo emerged from the ashes of deindustrialization not through centralized planning but rather the hard work and vision of individuals is worth celebrating. More importantly, it’s worth remembering as others take on the largely thankless task of urban renewal in their own neighborhoods (perhaps much the same applies to rural and suburban areas: if you want something different, make it different).

In rural areas we could encourage a transition from factory farms to a more holistic agroforestry model (hopefully inspiring some young people to come back from the city and suburbs to pursue a viable and rewarding career in farming). This model could include ample opportunities for agro-tourism, both to benefit locals and those who will visit from the suburbs and cities.

In the suburbs, in addition to renovating aging housing stock (again, to Passive House or Pretty Good House levels of performance), the development of walking and cycling trails, not unlike the Atlanta Beltline, for example, which would include walkable areas that thoughtfully combine residential and commercial zones, all while remaining focused on our need for nature via biophilic design strategies, could be the transformation that allows the suburbs to move beyond well-earned, but stale, cliches.

In addition, the suburbs require not just a new vision regarding mixed use, but also mixed income, providing housing to all, whether poor, old, young, or its more traditional economically secure nuclear families.

Unfortunately, if the glacial rate of change from conventional to ‘green’ building techniques in the construction industry is any indicator, then the suburbs may just carry on doing their thing, loved by some as they alienate and agitate others, all while remaining quietly, but defiantly, resistant to change.

Siding Part 1: Continuous Insulation with a Rainscreen

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Continuous Insulation vs. Double-Stud Wall

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

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

High R-Walls

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

Passive House Lessons

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

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

2 Layers of Rockwool over Zip Sheathing

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

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

Wall Assembly

Finding Subcontractors for a Passive House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Installing Rockwool over the Zip Sheathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1st pcs rockwool going up n side
Putting up the first pieces of Rockwool on the north side.

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

orange cap nails for 1st layer rockwool
Plastic cap nails we used to attach the first layer of Rockwool. I purchased these from a local roofing supply house.

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

1st layer rockwool n side
First layer of Rockwool mostly complete on the north side. Before installing the bottom row of Rockwool we used shims to create a slight gap between the Rockwool and the metal Z-flashing on the foundation insulation to allow any water that ever reached the green Zip sheathing a clear pathway out.

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

20171002_081038
Outside corner showing the Z-flashing covering the face of the Rockwool on the foundation with the first layer of Rockwool covering the Zip sheathing above.

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

1st layer rockwool at wdw buck
First layer of Rockwool meeting up with a plywood window buck. We tried to keep connections like these as tight as possible, especially since the window buck itself already represents a slight thermal bridge.

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

starting 2nd layer rockwool n side
Mark and Wojtek beginning the second layer of Rockwool on the north side.

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

2nd layer rockwool at utilities
Second layer of Rockwool installed around mechanicals. Note the sill cock, or hose bibb: although it runs into the house, we left it loose so that it could be adjusted until the siding was complete — only then was it permanently soldered into place.
weaving outside corner w: 2nd layer
Weaving the seams at the outside corners to avoid undermining the thermal performance of the Rockwool.
2nd layer rockwool fastener at wdw
Close-up of the fasteners we used to attach the second layer of Rockwool.

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

plates for 2nd layer rockwool

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

trufast screw bucket
inside bucket trufast screws
The Trufast screws and plates were purchased from a local roofing supply house.
w side 2 layers rockwool
West side of the house with 2 layers of Rockwool complete.
1st layer rockwool into s side garage
First layer of Rockwool filling the gap between the house and garage framing.

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

2nd layer rockwool closing gap at garage
Second layer of Rockwool closing the gap between house and garage completely, ensuring our thermal layer is unbroken around the perimeter of the house.
nw corner 2 layers rockwool
Northwest corner of the house with the 2 layers of Rockwool installed.

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

Installing Battens and Creating our Rainscreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

monkey on furring strips
The Beast testing out the structural integrity of our strapping on the garage. Note the Cor-A-Vent strip below the bottom horizontal furring stip, helping to establish a ventilated rainscreen.
garage only 2x4s
Common wall inside the garage. Only a single layer of strapping was necessary in preparation for drywall.

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

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

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

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

rainscreen2.jpg
Why use a rainscreen? Illustration courtesy of Hammer and Hand.

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

starting 1x4s n side
1×4’s being installed horizontally on the north side in preparation for the charred cedar that will be installed vertically. Also note the Cor-A-Vent strips just above the foundation and below the window.
cor-a-vent-product-label
The main product we used to establish our ventilated rainscreen.
insect screen for rscreen
Window screen we cut to size for added insurance at the bottom of the walls around the Cor-A-Vent strips.

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

shims behind 1x4s
Shims behind some of the 1×4 furring strips to ensure a flat plane for the vertical cedar siding.

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

Really impressive work by Wojtek and Mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Window Trim

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

Sills and Thresholds – Installation Details
wdw rscreen and frame detail
The many details coming together around a window. In addition, each window eventually received a dedicated metal sill pan as a durable way to ward off water intrusion.
from int wdw rscreen and sill
Looking through an open window to the sill and the rainscreen gap at the outside edge. Note the Extoseal Encors protecting the sill of our window buck.
lking down wdw rainscreen
Outside edge of the window sill, looking down into the mesh of the Cor-A-Vent strip with daylight still visible from below.
rscreen at hd flash on wdw
Head flashing at the top of a window with doubled up Cor-A-Vent strips above it.
out corner hd flshng ready for sd
Same area, but with a 1×4 nailed across the Cor-A-Vent, creating a nailing surface for the cedar siding.

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

kitch dr prepped 4 sd
Many of the same air and water sealing elements and rainscreen details present around the windows ended up at the top and bottom of doors as well.

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

frt porch prep - rscreen water
Front porch: elements in place to try and prevent moisture damage.
west w: 2 layers battens
West facade prepped for siding.
flashing details on porch
Wojtek and Mark did a nice job with all the metal flashing details around the house — these kind of areas are the unsung heroes of a structure that manages water safely, and unfortunately go largely unnoticed by most homeowners.

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

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

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

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

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

Blower Door (Air Sealing #9 )

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When it was time to schedule our blower door test we considered using Eco Achievers, but we only knew about them because they’ve worked extensively on projects for our original builder, Evolutionary Home Builders. We decided the potential awkwardness, or even a possible conflict of interest, wasn’t worth pursuing their services. An example of guilt-by-association I suppose, one that is probably unfounded but, nevertheless, the strong affiliation with our original builder made it difficult for us to reach out to them for help. They also hired one of Brandon’s former employees (this employee was nothing but nice and professional towards us as we were deciding to part ways with Brandon), which would’ve only added another layer of awkwardness to the situation.

Unsure how to proceed, I looked online and found Anthony from Building Energy Experts. He was able to come out and do a blower door test for us, helping me hunt down a couple of small leaks, so that we ended up at 0.34 ACH@50 for this initial test.

Here’s a Hammer and Hand video discussing the use of a blower door:

On a side note: all of the Hammer and Hand videos, along with their Best Practices Manual, were incredibly helpful as we tried to figure out all the Passive House details related to our build. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Hammer and Hand, the Green Building Advisor website, BSC, and 475 HPBS, our build would’ve been impossible to accomplish on our own. I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to all of these great resources who invest valuable time sharing such a wealth of information.

Below is a Hammer and Hand video noting the importance of properly detailing corners to avoid air leaks:

Because of this video, I sealed all of my corners for the windows and doors like this:

HF Sealant in corners b4 blower door
Adding Pro Clima HF Sealant after completing taping of the corner, just for added insurance against potential air leakage.

I also added some HF Sealant to the lower portion of the windows, since some air leakage showed up in this area with Anthony where components of the window itself come together in a seam.

sealant on wdw components junction
Seam near bottom of window where components meet — sealed with HF Sealant.

The areas where components come together often need special attention.

close up corner and wdw components seam w: sealant
Close-up of this same area — seam in components sealed, along with the bottom corner of the window and the gap between window buck and window.

Even with layers of redundancy in place, in the picture below there was a small air leak still present at the bottom plate – sub flooring connection. A coating of HF Sealant easily blocked it.

Once the stud bays were insulated (after most of the siding was up), the interior walls would eventually be covered with Intello (I’ll cover the details in a future post on interior insulation), adding yet another layer of redundancy for mitigating potential air intrusion.

area of kitchen sill plate leakage
Area of kitchen sill plate leakage.

Anthony didn’t have any previous experience with a Passive House build, so it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to reach out to Floris from 475 High Performance Building Supply (he had already done our WUFI analysis for us), and Mike Conners from Kenwood Property Development to see if there was someone locally who did. Mike is a Passive House builder in Chicago who had already helped me out with some Rockwool insulation when we came up short earlier in our project (the two GC’s we fired repeatedly struggled with basic math), and he was very nice to take the time to answer some other technical questions for me as well.

Both, as it turned out, ended up recommending that I contact Steve Marchese from the Association for Energy Affordability.

Steve would eventually make three trips to the house, doing an initial blower door test after the structure was weather-tight and all the necessary penetrations had been made through our air barrier, a second test after exterior continuous insulation was installed, and a final test after drywall was up to ensure there hadn’t been any increase in air leakage during the final stages of construction.

Steve starting blower door test
Steve setting up the blower door for his first test.

Following Passive House principles for our build, we also followed the same protocols for the blower door tests: Blower Door Protocol

With the structure under pressure from the blower door fan, Steve and I walked around the house while he used a small smoke machine in order to try and find any leaks that I could then seal up.

Steve testing window gasket
Steve starting at the windows. Here testing a window gasket for air leakage.

The gaskets around our windows and doors proved to be some of the weakest areas in the house although, comparatively speaking, it was inconsequential since the overall air tightness of the structure was fairly robust (favorite word of architects).

Steve showing impact of unlocked window
Steve showing me the impact a window in the unlocked position can have on air tightness. The gasket, ordinarily squeezed in the locked position, works to bring the sash and the frame tightly together.
Steve smoke at family rm wdw
Looking for areas around the windows that might need adjusting or additional air sealing.

For instance, even though no substantial air leakage showed up around this kitchen door, during our first winter this same door eventually had ice form outside at the upper corner by the hinges, on the exposed surface of the gasket where the door meets the frame.

Steve at kitchen door

After figuring out how to adjust the door hinges, there was no longer any ice showing up this winter, not even during our Polar Vortex event in late January.

Much the same thing occurred around our front door as well, with the same solution — adjusting the hinges to get a tighter fit at the gasket between the door and the frame.

Steve testing attic hatch
Steve testing the attic hatch for any air leakage.

Steve was nice enough to go around and methodically check all the penetrations in the structure.

Steve testing plumbing vent in kitchen
Steve testing for air leaks around the kitchen plumbing vent and some conduit.
Steve testing for air leaks @ radon stack
Steve testing for air leaks around the radon stack.
Steve @ radon stack close up
Close-up of radon stack during smoke test.

There was one area in the guest bathroom where the Intello ended up getting slightly wrinkled in a corner during installation. With Tescon Vana and some HF Sealant I was able to address it so nothing, thankfully, showed up during the smoke test.

Steve testing wrinkled area of Intello
Steve testing area of Intello that I inadvertently wrinkled during its installation.

After looking around on the main floor, Steve moved down into the basement.

Steve testing for air leaks @ main panel
Checking for leaks at the main electrical panel.
Steve testing for air leaks @ main panel exit point
Checking for leaks at the conduit as it exits the structure.
Steve testing for air leak @ sump pit cap
Looking for air leakage around the sump pit lid.

The lids for the sump pit and the ejector pit were eventually sealed with duct seal putty and some Prosoco Air Dam.

Steve testing for air leaks @ ejector pit
Testing the ejector pit for air movement.
Steve testing for air leaks @ Zehnder exit point
Checking for air leakage around one of the Zehnder ComfoPipes as it exits the structure.
Steve testing for air leaks @ pvc:refrigerant lines
Looking for air leaks around the heat pump refrigerant lines as they exit the structure.
Steve smoke at sump discharge
Checking around the penetration for our sump pump discharge to the outside.

Before the second blower door test, I was able to add some duct seal putty to the lids of the sump and ejector pits.

ejector pump lid w: duct seal
Ejector pit lid with some duct seal putty.

Below is a copy of Steve’s blower door test results, showing the information you can expect to receive with such a report:

Final Blower Door Test Results

For the last two tests Steve used a smaller duct blaster fan in order to try and get a more precise reading for air leakage.

Steve at front door
With Steve just after the initial blower door test was complete.

Steve would be back two more times — once before drywall, and once after drywall — just to ensure we had no loss of air tightness develop in the interim stages of the build (especially after continuous exterior insulation with furring strips were installed).

Here are the final figures noting where we ended up:

0.20 ACH@50 and 106 cfm@50

We are well below Passive House requirements (both PHI and PHIUS), so there was a great sense of relief knowing that all the time and effort put into air sealing had paid off, giving us the tight shell we were looking for. Even so, it was still pretty exciting news, especially for a first build.

And here’s an interesting article by 475 HPBS regarding the debate over how air tightness is calculated for PHI vs. PHIUS projects, and the potential ramifications:

Not Airtight

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 construc