kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

Tag Archives: Illinois Pretty Good House

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was a big deal for them when they moved to Chicago in the late 1950’s. To them, hardwood flooring signified the outdated past while carpeting was the future.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 1: Continuous Insulation with a Rainscreen

10

Continuous Insulation vs. Double-Stud Wall

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

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

High R-Walls

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

Passive House Lessons

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

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

2 Layers of Rockwool over Zip Sheathing

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

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

Wall Assembly

Finding Subcontractors for a Passive House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Installing Rockwool over the Zip Sheathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

plates for 2nd layer rockwool

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

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

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

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

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

Installing Battens and Creating our Rainscreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really impressive work by Wojtek and Mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Window Trim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blower Door (Air Sealing #9 )

2

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

Attic Access Hatch (Air Sealing #7 )

0

Our attic is designed mainly to hold our blown-in insulation (a future post will go over the details), as opposed to a place for running HVAC equipment, conduit for electric, or as a potential area for carving out additional storage space.

Nevertheless, in order to have access to our attic for future maintenance or repairs, I installed a well-insulated attic hatch in our master bedroom closet ceiling.

Following Passive House and Pretty Good House principles required trying to protect the thermal envelope, even in this relatively small area, in order to avoid what can be a notorious point of air leakage and heat loss (i.e., the stack effect).

There were two main products I considered using for this:

Battic Door (R-50 / without ladder)

They also have a product that allows for a built-in ladder for easier access to the attic (you won’t need to drag your ladder in from the garage) while also maintaining a high R-value:

Battic Stair Cover

The other product I considered using was from ESS Energy Products:

Energy Guardian Push Up Hatch Cover

We ended up going with the Battic product, which I purchased through the Home Depot website (this saved me a trip to the store since it was delivered to site).

Some other products that I’m aware of include:

475 High Performance Building Supply used to sell a Passive House certified version with a fold-down ladder included, but I don’t currently see it listed on their website:

WIPPRO Klimatec 160

Or this product that also incorporates a ladder is available from Conservation Technology:

Attic Ladder

Because the Energy Guardian hatch is made out of rigid foam, I thought the Battic door was the better choice since it seemed like it would be a little sturdier and more durable. To be honest, once the product arrived and I unpacked it, I realized it was something I, or anyone with basic carpentry skills, could put together themselves (assuming you have the time).

Following the directions, I cut an X in the Intello on the ceiling between two roof trusses (and our 2×6 service core below each truss) in order to establish the opening for the Battic frame.

I folded the cut edges of Intello up into the attic for the two long sides of the Battic frame. For the two shorter sides of the Battic frame it was easier for air sealing to push the Intello down into the living area.

At this point I was able to screw the Battic frame into place.

looking up into battic attic hatch
Battic frame initially installed between roof trusses and 2×6 service core.

Once in place, I used a mix of Contega HF Sealant and Tescon Vana tape to air seal the Intello to the Battic frame.

battic - taped sealed to intello
Air sealing the Intello to the Battic frame (short side between trusses).
tescon vana air sealed battic w: HF behind Intello
Another view of the Intello sealed to the Battic frame.
looking down at air sealed battic from attic
View of the installed Battic frame from the attic.
attic access air sealed - attic side
Air sealing the connections between the Intello, the Battic frame, and the roof trusses in the attic.
air sealed corner of battic
Using HF Sealant to make the connections as air tight as possible.

Once the outside perimeter of the Battic frame had been air sealed to the Intello, the only place left for air infiltration was where the lid would meet the frame of the Battic hatch once it was installed (more on this later when I discuss my first blower door test).

There was some additional framing required, but it was just a couple of “headers” between the roof trusses to add structural integrity to the two shorter sides of the Battic frame.

attic access from below
Battic frame with additional 2×6’s on one of the short sides.

Since we were using a significant amount of blown-in insulation in the attic, it made it necessary to build up the sides of the Battic frame in the attic with some plywood to get the top of the opening above where the insulation would eventually stop.

Here’s another view of the 3 sides of plywood installed:

attic access looking down - directly

The fourth and final side of plywood was installed just prior to blowing in the insulation — in the interim this made getting in and out of the attic much easier.

After a couple of practice attempts, it quickly became apparent that raising and removing the lid once in place, and fighting to get it back down into the master bedroom closet, wasn’t worth the trouble. Instead, I built a small bench in the attic next to the Battic frame so I could push the lid up above the level of blown-in insulation, this way it could have somewhere to safely sit while dealing with any issue in the attic.

bench for attic access lid
Battic lid resting on the bench.

It’s very easy to grab the lid off the bench and bring it back down into position while slowly walking down the ladder in the master bedroom closet to make the final connection/seal.

Although the installation process was fairly straightforward and headache free for the Battic product, if I had it to do over, I think I would have the attic access point on the exterior of the structure, for example, on the gable end of the house in the backyard.

GBA – gable access to attic
Custom Gable Vents
AZdiy

Putting the access point above the air barrier would make meticulously air sealing the entry point for the attic less important, so keeping water out of the attic would be the main goal. An additional plywood buck would’ve been necessary, replicating what I did for our windows and doors (more on this later), but I think it still would’ve been the better option overall.

Putting the attic access on the exterior of the house would also mean avoiding an ugly hole somewhere in our drywalled ceiling. No matter how nicely trimmed out, these attic access points on the interior of a home never look right to me. We’ve tried to hide ours as much as possible by sticking it in our master bedroom closet, which has worked out well, but not having one at all on the interior of the house would make for a cleaner, better solution in my opinion.

If granted a do-over, I would also add a cat walk in the attic through the roof trusses. This would make getting to any point in the attic much easier to navigate. It would also help to avoid disturbing the blown-in insulation too much.

And here’s a photo of the bench in the attic, next to the opening for the Battic attic hatch, after the blown-in insulation was installed:

bench surrounded by cellulose
Bench for the Battic hatch lid.

WRB: Zip Sheathing (Air Sealing #6 )

2

Sealing the Seams and Penetrations in Zip Sheathing

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

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

Also, for years I’d seen it used on various jobs featured in Fine Homebuilding Magazine.

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

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

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

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

Framing (Air Sealing #2)
north side house garage gap long view
Northeast corner of the house where it meets the garage.

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

Wall Assembly

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

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

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

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

house-garage-gap-for-4%22-roxul
Garage (at left) house (at right) connection. Gap will eventually be filled with 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80.
garage-house-gap-2
Closer view of this same garage – house connection. Flashing will cover the bottom of the Zip and then carry over the top of the Roxul that covers the foundation.
north-side-seams-taped
View of the north side of the house as Tescon Vana tape air seals the nail holes and the seams in the Zip sheathing.

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

west side being taped
West facade as taping proceeds.
taping north side before mechanicals : windows
Northwest corner of the house, transitioning from the Tescon Vana to the black Contega tape at the corner.
finishing up seams on west facade
Finishing up some of the final seams in the Zip on the West facade.

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

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

down Zip - out of alignment before 1x4's
Horizontal seam in Zip sheathing refusing to lie flat against the 2×6 framing members.

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

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

1x4 in study bay before HF
1×4 used to pull an unruly seam in the Zip sheathing together.
screw thru zip for 1x4 in stud bay
Screw from the interior poking outside as it initially gets the 1×4 in place.

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

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

stud bays w: 1x4's, before HF

Long view after applying the HF Sealant:

ceiling walls - HF Sealant

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

thick bead HF sealant in stud bay

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

stud bay w: 1x4 and HF sealant
1×4 installed and HF sealant applied to all gaps and screw/nail holes in the stud bay.

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

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

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

interior walls sealed w: HF sealant
Using HF Sealant between vertical framing members.

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

sitting on roof trusses sealing
Sealing around fasteners and framing in the attic with HF Sealant.

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

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

Inventory of Penetrations through the Zip Air Barrier

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

Wall Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

John & Donny installing meter
John and Danny installing the electric meter.

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

close up meter thru Zip w: TVana gaskets
Electric meter with Tescon Vana – Roflex gaskets installed.
meter - hole, t. vana prior to appl.

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

electric meter close up gasket : t. vana

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

meter to panel - interior
Air sealing the electric meter on the interior side.

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

main panel in - progress
The house is ready for power.

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

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

Solar on the Roof
corrected solar on:off
Solar disconnect (on/off) with its Tescon Vana gasket.

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

hosebib w: gasket
Frost free hose bib with gasket.

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

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

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

exterior light conduit before gasket
Penetration for conduit before gasket.

And here’s the conduit after the gasket and some tape:

gasket for exterior light
Conduit after gasket.

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

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

conduit for heat pumps
Penetrations for our Mitsubishi heat pump system.

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

heat pump electric w: t. vana before disconnect

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

hole in Zip for heat pump pvc
Hole cut for the heat pump refrigerant lines.

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

heat pump - pvc pipe in hole for lines
4″ PVC plumbing pipe for the refrigerant lines.

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

heat pump - int side - pvc, gasket, 2x4
Before applying Tescon Vana around the Roflex gasket.

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

gaps around pvc lines before duct seal
PVC pipe with refrigerant lines installed.

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

duct seal label
A real lifesaver when it comes to air sealing. Readily available at big box stores, or online at Amazon.

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

heat pump pvc w: duct seal close up interior
Using duct seal to block off air from the interior side.
heat pump pvc w: gasket before t. vana close up
Another view of the PVC pipe with duct seal.
heat pump refrigerant lines - int. leaving basement
The refrigerant lines transitioning from the basement ceiling to the PVC pipe before leaving the structure.

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

heat pump lines before tape after duct seal
Exterior view of the PVC pipe with heat pump refrigerant lines exiting the structure. Air sealed with a Roflex gasket and duct seal inside the pipe.

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

heat pump lines leaving house - sealed
Same area after completing the air sealing with Tescon Vana tape.

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

Heat pump lines w: duct seal and siding
Air sealing for the refrigerant lines complete after the siding is installed.

Additional areas where the duct seal proved to be invaluable:

close up exterior outlet box w: duct seal
Exterior electrical boxes for lights and outlets.

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

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

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

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

solar disconnect before removing

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

solar disconnect before duct seal

Close-up of the conduit:

close up solar disconnect before duct seal

An even closer look:

close up penetration in solar box before duct seal

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

close up solar box after duct seal

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

heat pump box before removing

Close-up of the conduit sealed with the duct seal:

close up penetration in heat pump box w: duct seal

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

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

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

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

plumbing vent thru Intello gasket:t. vana
Plumbing waste vent going into the attic.

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

sealed plumbing vent from below

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

plumbing vent installed too close to 2x6
Installed this close to framing makes air sealing the vent needlessly complicated and frustrating.

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

plumbing vent too close to 2x6 sealed w: tape

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

vent too close w: sealant too

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

ext - comfo pipe going thru zip into basement
First section of Comfo pipe going through the Zip sheathing.
Zehnder tube exiting w: gasket
The gray Zehnder Comfo pipe (for supply air stream) exiting the structure with a Roflex gasket.
Zehnder pipe sealed w: gasket and tape
Closer view of the Comfo pipe air sealed with a gasket and Tescon Vana tape.
close up Zehnder Comfo Pipe w: gasket and t. vana
An even closer view of this same area where pipe meets gasket and tape.

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

ext Zehnder gasket : t. vana
Zehnder Comfo pipe installed, air sealed, and ready for commissioning.

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

Zehnder exhaust and supply pipes ext fully sealed
Supply pipe in the background, exhaust in the foreground. The garbage bags keep out weather and animals until after the siding is up and the permanent covers can be installed.

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

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

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

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

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

ejector pit air sealed with duct seal
Ejector pit air sealed with duct seal.

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

cable box
Cable box installed after the siding went up.

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

close up exterior of closed cable box
Closer view of the cable box.
cable box ext without cover
The cable wire exiting the house through the conduit, which is air sealed with duct seal.
cable wire int. basement
Cable wire on the interior of the house exiting through the Roxul insulation and Zip sheathing via the conduit and then air sealed from the interior with duct seal.

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

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

Air sealing the penetrations was challenging at times, but also a lot of fun — always keeping in mind the goal of meeting the Passive House standard of 0.6 ACH@50 for our blower door test.

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

Hopefully this inventory of penetrations will prove helpful to someone in the planning stages of their own “air tight” build. It always helps seeing how other people do things — in particular, the strategies they employ and the specific products they use.

Seeing these real world examples of air sealing around the many penetrations in a structure will hopefully give others the confidence to come up with their own plan of attack for building an airtight structure.

Basement Slab (Air Sealing #5)

0

The Bottom of our Thermal Envelope

Following Passive House principles, we knew we were going to insulate and air seal our basement slab. As explained on the Passipedia website:

“The most important principle for energy efficient construction is a continuous insulating envelope all around the building… which minimises heat losses like a warm coat. In addition to the insulating envelope, there should also be an airtight layer… as most insulation materials are not airtight. Independently of the construction, materials or building technology, one rule is always applicable: both insulation and airtight layers need to be continuous.”

airtightness_with_logo
Illustration courtesy of: passipedia.org

The illustration above also shows the “red pen test”, which is supposed to occur in the design phase of a project, when it’s much easier to address weaknesses or errors in the details of a design — not necessarily just for air sealing, it’s also effective when looking for points of potential water intrusion (e.g., this GBA article), or even to test the thermal layer for areas of thermal bridging. The basic idea is that if your layers aren’t continuous you’ll find yourself lifting your red pen, meaning it’s an area that needs to be addressed.

An effective way of thinking about a structure, utilized by high-performance builders, is to think in terms of 6 sides rather than just 4 when contemplating the details for air sealing and insulating: 4 walls, the attic/roof, and the basement (or frost-protected slab).

A similar approach to Passive House for building high-performance structures is adopted by advocates of The Pretty Good House concept, even if it’s less stringent, more open to interpretation, and tends to be more “rule of thumb” rather than energy model driven (e.g. PHPP or WUFI).

Based on our climate region, which is Zone 5, we decided we wanted to shoot for 16/20/40/60 for insulation R-values — the series of numbers represent R-values for under the basement slab/ the exterior foundation walls/ framed exterior walls/ and the attic (our attic R-value proved to be significantly higher than 60, but more on that later) — which is in the ballpark for both PGH and Passive House (here’s an excellent overall summary of the PH concept I recently came across: EcoCor).

Arguably, the “sweet spot” for how much insulation makes sense for these areas, even when adjusted for climate region, is still a topic for heated debate. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that the more simple the form your structure takes — for example, 2-story cubes without basements —

the easier it is to achieve Passive House, or similar building standards, since it simplifies framing, air sealing, and limits the exterior surface area in ways that a single story ranch that is spread out and has all kinds of nooks and crannies does not (the difference also has serious ramifications for overall heating and cooling demand). Likewise, simple forms also make it easier to figure out how much insulation you need to reach a benchmark like Passive House or PGH. A simple form can also have durability implications.

Our R-values were based on a number of considerations: the construction drawings of our original builder, information made available by Hammer and Hand (in particular their Madrona House project), and articles on the Building Science Corporation (in particular: 1 and 2) and Green Building Advisor websites. These resources, all of which have proven to be indispensable at every stage of the build, have made our project possible.

In terms of the details around the slab and the foundation walls, this article from the DOE also proved to be especially helpful: Foundation Handbook

2-04_no-cap
Illustration courtesy of: foundation handbook.ornl.gov

After considering various insulation choices (Wall Assembly), we decided to go with Roxul for under our slab, the exterior of our foundation, and our wall assembly (blown-in cellulose in the attic was the only significant deviation from the use of Roxul).

Here’s how the basement slab portion of our project progressed:

Roxul Comfortboard 80 (2″ + 2″)

To get to an R-value of 16 we used two layers of 2″ thick Roxul Comfortboard 80 (R-4 per inch).

We installed each layer with staggered seams, although the Roxul representative I spoke with via email insisted that because the Roxul is so dimensionally stable this isn’t nearly as important as it would be with rigid foam insulation (the same holds true with a double layer of Comfortboard 80 on the exterior side of wall sheathing).

roxul in basement 2 layers
Putting down the 2 layers of Roxul Comfortboard 80 with help from the concrete guys.
roxul long view two layers
The second layer of Roxul being installed.
roxul before stego
Installing the Roxul around the rough-in bathroom pipes, sump, and ejector pits.

One of the many benefits of using Roxul is that the material wants to stick to itself, whether in batt or rigid board form. This makes for tighter joints between pieces, and even when cuts around obstructions are less than perfect it’s easy to fill in any gaps with torn apart pieces of Roxul (again, this holds true for both Comfortboard 80 and their version of batt insulation).

roxul stuffed in around basement pole
Stuffing bits of Roxul around the base of one of the steel columns.

Close-up of the Roxul installed around the roughed-in bath PVC pipes.

roxul around rough-in bath

Another view of the 2-layers, mostly installed:

roxul before stego - facing ladder

A Roxul rep told me to take into account a loss of R-1 due to the compressive pressure of the poured concrete, thus our R-16 for two layers of Roxul is, according to Roxul, really an R-15. Having installed the two layers myself, walked on it during and after installing the vapor barrier (see below), my guess is in some areas this loss in R-value is even greater than R-1.

Based on the comments quoted in a GBA article (Sub-Slab Mineral Wool), I would have to say my experience was exactly the same: in some areas the Roxul seemed to lose most, if not all, of its rigidity. I’ve also noticed while working with both the Comfortboard 80 and their batts that there seems to be a variation in the material from one piece to another and even bag to bag. Some pieces are very easy to cut (these pieces are noticeably stiffer), while other pieces seem “mushier” or lacking in rigidity — either under or over-cooked perhaps — making them more difficult to cut and work with. This seems like less of an issue for vertical applications (i.e. walls), while potentially troublesome for horizontal applications under a slab — especially if you’re depending on that R-4 per inch to meet the demands of energy modeling for a certification program like Passive House.

I’m glad we’ve been able to mostly avoid foam insulation in the build, but seeing the Roxul in a real world application does make me wonder if some kind of rigid foam might’ve given me a more consistent whole floor R-value. Going with a denser version of Roxul would’ve been another, more expensive, option as well (Comfortboard 110).

Stego Wrap

Once the two layers of Roxul were down, it was time to install the vapor barrier over the insulation. While the Roxul acts like a blanket, helping to maintain a consistent temperature in the basement, the vapor barrier helps to keep moisture and soil gases (mainly Radon as I understand it), at bay.

The product I’ve seen used in most Passive House, Pretty Good House, or equivalent projects, is Stego Wrap. Here are two videos detailing its installation and its benefits:

Another product I came across while researching options was Perminator.

Here’s a video detailing the use of the product:

In my area — the suburbs of Chicago — the closest supplier of Stego Wrap was HD Supply.

starting stego around roug-in pipes
Starting around the rough-in bathroom pipes.

We used the 10 mil version of the Stego Wrap. The material is very durable and fairly hard to damage. Even when tears occurred, it was easy to patch with pieces of the Stego red tape, or a combination of a cut piece of Stego Wrap with pieces of the red tape.

stego going down
Stego Wrap carried up the wall and taped to keep it in place during the pour.

Installing the two layers of Roxul on the basement floor was pretty straightforward, while installing the Stego Wrap was generally a pain in the ass. Maybe I was just tired, but I really didn’t enjoy installing it at all. For example, it was difficult to keep it tight to the walls, although I learned to leave it hanging fairly loose at floor-wall junctions, which definitely helped. Getting the first row straight, flat, and smooth was time consuming, and annoying, but it did make getting successive rows installed straight much easier.

jesus helping me w: first row stego
Jesus helping me install the first row of Stego Wrap.
almost halfway w: stego wrap
Making progress with the Stego Wrap.
sealed basement pipe close up before pour
Stego Wrap wth red Stego tape and a Roflex gasket from 475 HPBS.

The pipes after air sealing with EPDM gaskets and red Stego tape:

sealed basement pipes with overlapping Stego

Once all the Stego was in place, we added a 1/2″ of rigid foam insulation at the floor-wall junction as a thermal break. I wanted to use Roxul Comfortboard 80 (their 1.25″ thick version) even for this, but time (Comfortboard 80 is still a special order item in my area, meaning it’s always about 2 weeks away from the time you place your order — hopefully this changes in the near future) and money made the foam an easier choice.

stego w: foam close up

We kept the foam in place by running a bead of OSI sealant on the back of each section before pushing it up against the Stego Wrap. For the most part this seemed to work well.

stego w: foam at slab edge
Roxul, Stego Wrap, and foam installed.

Here’s a close-up of everything installed in a corner:

stego w: foam at a corner

One of the real disappointments of installing the basement slab was seeing the concrete guys put down the welded wire mesh (typically noted as W.W.M. on construction drawings) — basically chicken wire with pointy ends (I exaggerate, but not by much).

If I could do it over again, I would look into using a concrete mix containing sufficient pieces of fiberglass, or some other alternative, so that using the welded wire mesh could be avoided altogether.

I was already familiar with the idea of fiberglass used in place of metal rebar in concrete forms, having experimented with decorative concrete last year and having seen videos like these:

I’m not sure why I didn’t think to ask for fiber reinforced concrete instead of the normal welded wire mesh — it was one detail that just got missed, unfortunately.

As the wire mesh went down, the guys could see how annoyed and concerned I was by the holes it was making in the Stego Wrap that one of them, Oscar, started helping me bend the pointy ends up. Once they were safely pointed up, I went around with the red tape to patch the many tiny holes in the Stego Wrap. Not a fun way to kill a couple of hours.

Why my architect or the concrete guys didn’t suggest a mix with fiberglass instead of the welded wire mesh is unclear. The reality with any green build, especially if you’re acting as GC, is you’re likely to be the only one who really cares about getting the many details right, especially if the architect and subcontractors have never built like this before — they were just doing what they always do.

A couple shots of the basement floor with the welded wire mesh in place:

A closer view with all the elements in place prior to the pour:

corner of basement pre-pour

Concrete

Here’s various shots of the slab itself being poured:

hole in floor for basement slab
It was necessary to cut a hole in the subfloor just inside the front door in order to get the concrete into the basement.
concrete going thru floor
long view of brace for pour
The guys starting at the back of the basement.
leveling back corner of basement
back corner of basement pour #2
One corner complete.
pour heading towards basement stairwell
leveling towards stairwell
pour at stairwell
Tools at stairwell
finishing concrete at stairwell
troweling at stairwell
Enrique completing the trowel finish.
cement truck kissing corner of garage
Side of the garage kissed by the cement truck.
close sewer clean out
Close.
close long view sewer
Really close.

Slab Edge

Once the slab was in place, I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with the edge along the perimeter. As usual when I get stuck on some detail, I asked a question on GBA:

How do I seal…
Stego Wrap and Foam cut away from slab edge
Cutting away the excess Stego Wrap and pink foam.
close up of slab edge
Close-up of the wall-slab junction after cutting everything down flush with the floor.

Using the Prosoco Air Dam seemed like the best, and most straightforward, option. In addition, after considering various ways to cover this gap after the Air Dam was down between the wall and floor, and after priming and painting the basement walls, I realized the gap visually disappears for the most part, and really wasn’t worth thinking about.

wall-slab connection after air dam.jpg
Junction between wall and slab after using Air Dam and priming and painting the wall.
close up of wall - slab conection after air dam
Close-up of Air Dam after primer and paint, at the wall-slab connection.
another view slab:wall connection
Another view of the slab – wall connection.

By not putting anything down to cover this gap, if the basement ever does experience water damage, it’s one less thing to remove and replace.

Solar on the Roof

0

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

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

laying out the solar panels pre-install
The guys from Rethink staging the panels on the garage roof.

The System

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

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

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

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

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

conduit for solar in the attic before gasket
Anthony’s conduit entering the attic, sealed with a gasket from below.

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

conduit for solar in the attic after gasket
3/4″ conduit sealed for a second time on the attic side of the Intello.
solar mounting system being installed
The guys setting up the racking system for the panels.
close up solar base
Close-up of the base that’s holding the solar panels.
Rethink guys on the roof
Anthony, Dan, and Cherif completing the install on the roof of the house.
close up of solar panels being installed
The low profile racking system has a very sleek look.

Marking another big leap in the progress of the build:

solar panels on roof
The view of our 11 solar panels from our neighbor’s driveway.
solar panels installed on the roof.jpg
Another view of the solar panels installed on the roof.

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

solar on:off against Zip sheathing #2
My screw up.

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

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

corrected solar on:off

The Cost

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

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

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

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 3

0

This can’t be happening again…

It is February of 2017 as I write this.

This project began for us back in the summer of 2014 — nearly three years ago — when we first sat down with Brandon Weiss in what was then his new office in Geneva, Illinois. As detailed here…

The Passive House Nightmare

…things didn’t go well for us with Brandon and his company, Evolutionary Home Builders.

After we decided to move forward and try to complete what we started, the question became:

Who do we hire as our next builder?

After our interactions with Mark Miller and Katrin Klingenberg, detailed here:

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2

PHIUS (Passive House Institute US) did not seem like a resource we could utilize — the Passive House world is small, smaller still when you reduce it to a single geographical area like Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. And the thought of interviewing conventional builders, and trying to convince one to take on the detail required in a Passive House level build, seemed overwhelming.

As a result, we decided to go with two guys close to home who have conventional building experience.

The logic underlying the relationship was that they would GC the build, taking care of all the conventional building details, while I took care of all the Passive House details.

Unfortunately, this proved fruitless.

flooded basement

Events revealed they didn’t have the requisite skill set necessary to complete the job, and we have subsequently taken over the project ourselves. It’s taken weeks to get things back on track, hence the delay in posting anything new regarding the progress of the build.

job-site-shut-down-west-side

When the build is complete, I’ll return to this matter, offering more details that will hopefully help other consumers who want to build a new house avoid our unfortunate experience.

new beginnings
New beginnings.

The really sad thing is there are quality people who make a living as general contractors, but unfortunately it remains a minefield out there for consumers without meaningful connections. If you don’t already know the answer to the question ‘Who should build our new house?’ before you start the process, then it’s truly a case of caveat emptor. And if things should go poorly, you will feel like you’re on a very lonely island.

relentless
Relentless.

Details to follow…

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2

0

Our original builder decides to settle, then disappears…

Back in early March, 2016, Brandon Weiss (owner of Evolutionary Home Builders) contacted me via voicemail and email letting us know he was interested in settling our dispute with him. This occurred — we believe not coincidentally — after he learned I had been in contact with his former clients, the Illinois Attorney General’s Consumer Fraud Bureau, and Katrin Klingenberg (founder and Executive Director of Passive House Institute US), in addition to leaving a review of EHB on the Houzz website.

He claimed he was willing to meet all of our terms — the same terms, in fact, that we had offered months ago — a partial refund of $15,000 (of the $30,000 we initially gave him), release of the copyright on our drawings, and releasing us from the contractual demand that we not build with any other contractor on our own lot for two years.

It became clear, after some back and forth, that Brandon was willing to settle, but only if we were prepared to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and only if we met with him in person. He was insistent on this last point. Brandon claimed it was because I had made public our exchanged emails and other documents pertaining to our case. We believe, however, that his intentions were to get us in a room in the hopes of intimidating us into accepting altered terms, or pressuring us to immediately sign an agreement without the benefit of review by our legal counsel.

After our lawyer asked Brandon to provide verbiage, meaning ‘what exactly do you expect us to sign’, prior to our meeting, Brandon disappeared — ceasing to respond at all — which, once again, only confirmed our suspicions regarding his real intentions all along.

Why disappear after we requested something as straightforward as seeing the document prior to our meeting? What’s in the language that’s so objectionable that we can’t see it beforehand? Who would be willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement without having their lawyer look it over first? Why do we have to sign it immediately, without ample time to review it? If normal real estate transactions can occur with only a client’s lawyer present, why not in this case? We feel Brandon has been less than transparent or fair with us, so why would we want to sit down with him ever again?

Alice wikia.com
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Our original lawyer gave up on this as a lost cause, so we hired a second lawyer to contact Brandon one more time. Brandon’s response: ‘same terms — and, no, you can’t see the document beforehand’.

Why not meet our terms, which are pretty basic and more than fair, and move on? Why, instead, does he continue to take such a hyper-aggressive stance? Why be so ruthless?

Furthermore, if Brandon is so sure he’s done nothing wrong, why is he so afraid of the paper trail documenting our experience with him and his company? Why the lack of transparency and obsession with secrecy, and insistence on the need for a non-disclosure agreement if Brandon, Patrick, and Eric have nothing to hide?

Even in terms of construction related information, they act as if they’re doing something that has real proprietary significance (hence, the claim of intellectual property regarding the budget numbers), but they’re not. Virtually everything they do — the products chosen, the process of putting them together — is open-sourced on the internet, in books and magazines, and even in free videos on YouTube.

It’s always been my understanding that the Passive House community (and the larger Green Building Movement generally) prides itself on exactly this kind of openness since it’s supposed to benefit builder and client alike (e.g. Green Building Advisor, Proud Green Home, Building GreenMatt Risinger, GO Logic, Fine Homebuilding, along with countless other sites and forums).

…if Brandon’s original build budget numbers were accurate, then the premium to build to the Passive House standard is at least 25-30%, in which case PHIUS needs to stop telling consumers it is only 10%. If Brandon’s numbers, on the other hand, were less than entirely honest, why defend him?

In addition, if you compare Brandon and EHB’s attitude towards construction related information with another Passive House builder, Hammer and Hand, it’s hard to imagine how the contrast could be any more stark (think North Korea vs. South Korea). In Brandon’s case, he seems to treat virtually everything as intellectual property, while Hammer and Hand is busy giving away information through countless job site videos and their Best Practices Manual. Based on this alone, who would you trust to build your new house? Who would you entrust with your life savings?

It’s not as if Evolutionary Home Builders are Coca-Cola or KFC — there’s no secret recipe or formula for what they do. Even more to the point: What information in their possession is not readily available from any number of other sources? The IP claim is so weak that even if they broke down the construction budget by components and every phase of the build, with a dollar amount assigned to each one, it would still be a case of ‘so what’. No one, even at that point, would know how much of each dollar amount is profit or overhead, so the information is virtually meaningless.

Knowledge is nice to have, to be sure, but it means nothing without proper execution — as any venture capitalist in Silicon Valley will calmly explain before refusing to sign a start-up’s NDA. In other words, if you’re a Passive House builder, for example, put your time and effort into building high quality structures at a fair price that your clients are thrilled with (so your clients will sing your praises), rather than wasting time worrying about protecting information that’s so easily accessible anyway (via the internet, books, magazines, etc.).

Put still another way: If the sum total of what you believe is your intellectual property can be revealed and then successfully copied by others when simply written down on a piece of paper (e.g. budget numbers), then there probably isn’t much to protect to begin with. Isn’t this the implicit message sent by any number of builders, including Hammer and Hand, when they are so open about the details of how they build?

Consequently, it doesn’t seem to matter from which angle you approach the claim of intellectual property — product, process, or even how they price out a build — the claim itself rings hollow. All of which leads to the obvious question: If it’s not intellectual property that they’re trying to protect with a non-disclosure agreement, what is it that they want hidden from view?

Humpty_Dumpty wikia.com
Words by Lewis Carroll. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

The response to our situation by Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) also proved to be a disappointment. We have reached out twice now — originally to Mark Miller, and, most recently, to Katrin Klingenberg — yet, in each instance, our request for help was soundly rebuffed.

For example, after our budget meeting with Brandon and his team in late November, 2015, we contacted Chicago architect Mark Miller in early December, having found his information on the PHIUS website as a Certified Passive House Consultant and a Certified PHIUS Builder. Here is how that exchange went: emails.

What gets interesting is comparing the dates of our initial email exchange with Mr. Miller with Brandon’s email containing the bizarre offer (12-9-15 email) to send us to Belize. It doesn’t take a master detective to deduce what happened during that twenty four hour period between the 9th and 10th of December:

After Mr. Miller contacted Brandon or Patrick on the 9th to find out about our project, and one or both of them portrayed us in a negative light, that very same day Brandon sent us the Belize invitation — no doubt his lame attempt at soothing what he perceived to be our ruffled feathers. It was obvious what had transpired, so it wasn’t all that surprising to get Mr. Miller’s final, patronizing reply the next day on the 10th.

As to Mr. Miller’s points, specifically:

  • “… may not have been for a well-defined project…”  Our project has remained the same going back even before our initial meeting with Brandon: approximately 1600 sq. ft. single-story home, insulated well above code, with high-performance windows and doors, 2-BR, 2-Bath, main kitchen/family room area, a 9′ unfinished full-basement, charred cedar for the exterior siding, and we’ve kept the same flooring selections we originally started with, along with a basic door casing and baseboard trim package.
  • “… reduce costs to better help meet your budget.”  Only after EHB went way over budget. Only after we made it clear we were walking away. No doubt they would have been happy to see us just accept the $500,000 price and move forward with the build.
  • “… wish list items…”  What wish list items? The only thing we added after the preliminary budget was 66 sq. ft. of construction space (original 40′ x 40′ structure changed to 49′ x 34′ structure). We’re going for a pared-down design aesthetic based on our tastes, but also to save money, so there is no crown molding, chair railing, wainscoting, coffered ceilings, an oak-lined office, or master bathroom wrapped in Carrara marble. Clearly this is why the only “solutions” Brandon and his team came up with for cost savings during the November, 2015 budget meeting included dramatic structural changes, not altering or deleting extravagant interior design choices.
  • “… PH plaque…”  Mr. Miller refers to this twice, so I can only assume Brandon or Patrick put this in his head. To hint that our attitude was “Passive House certification or bust” is particularly grating since we asked if pulling back from the standard could produce meaningful savings in our May, 2015 meeting with Brandon and Patrick, to which they responded, “No, this is the way we build.”
  • “… wish list items…compromise somewhere… shift perspective… PH plaque… brag to your friends/family…”  It’s pretty obvious that Brandon or Patrick painted us as wildly unreasonable clients who wanted the world for a steal. I would argue the emails between Brandon and myself draw a very different picture.
wikia.com
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Lewis Carroll. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

In Mr. Miller’s defense, we were not his clients, and he was basing his response to us on what Brandon or Patrick told him. Nevertheless, we were asking for help, and we did offer to show him everything related to our project, but unfortunately he ignored the offer.

When we reached out to Ms. Klingenberg, we fared no better: emails.

We were not expecting her to act as judge or jury, we were genuinely asking for help in the form of guidance:

  • Why were the numbers of the build budget so different from those outlined in the PSA?
  • What did Brandon mean by “additional Passive House components were necessary” (because he never told us, even though we repeatedly asked)?
  • What could we have done differently?
  • Since the Passive House community is so small, who could we trust, moving forward, to not have a conflict of interest with Brandon? Is there an architect, a general contractor, or Passive House consultant in the Chicago area that they thought we could reach out to?

Instead we got the more polite equivalent of: ‘Shut up. Go away.’

Why is their first impulse to try and put me in my place, to try and squash me? It must be said, the arrogance on display throughout this process has been startling. Is it really so difficult to be nice to other people — especially when they are asking for help?

wikia.com Queen of Hearts
The Queen of Hearts. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Regarding Ms. Klingenberg’s response, in particular, what is[Brandon’s] side of the story”. She doesn’t choose to share it with us. And what exactly justifies any builder taking $30,000 from a client and then giving them nothing in return?

As to her suggestion, “the next steps are outlined in your contract,” does she really believe, quoting the PSA now, that “[forced] arbitration before the Northern Illinois Home Builders Association” is the best setting for us to get a fair hearing? This is like suggesting that if a customer had a dispute with ExxonMobil it would make sense to ask the American Petroleum Institute to act as referee.

And I’m certainly not alone in believing forced arbitration to be an overly business-friendly, Kafkaesque joke ( Bill  /  Study Shines Light  /  Part I   /  Part II  ), with serious consequences for consumers, and even for the overall health of democracy in America (#ripoffclause). In fact, there is a growing movement in the US pushing members of Congress to prohibit forced arbitration clauses altogether. When people with authority (the arbitrator) have the option to take the side of the strong against the weak, regardless of the evidence (after all, it’s the companies who pay for the arbitrator), justice is rarely going to be the result.

It’s also surprising, even reprehensible in my opinion, that PHIUS not only tolerates but apparently supports forced arbitration. As an institution they portray themselves as enlightened and forward-thinking, so how can they allow their certified members to utilize such deeply flawed, even reactionary, language in their contracts with clients?

Where do Ms. Klingenberg’s loyalties lie: with the certified members, or with the homeowners? If the honest answer is with the certified members, then this is useful information for any consumer weighing the costs associated with a certified Passive House build.

If the construction industry is serious about cleaning up its reputation (and make no mistake about it, its current status is horrific — e.g. when we tell anyone that we’re building a new house the typical response is roughly: ‘why would you want to put yourself through that?‘), then getting rid of forced arbitration clauses in contracts would be an excellent place to start.

Which prompts several questions:

  • Why isn’t PHIUS out front leading on this issue?
  • If not PHIUS, then who? It’s a certainty that The National Association of Home Builders won’t be leading the charge.
  • Why doesn’t PHIUS require their certified members to eliminate all forced arbitration clauses from their contracts? 

If their answer is: ‘it’s current industry standard’ — well, so is building to code, but they don’t tolerate that. PHIUS holds their members to a higher standard when it comes to the structure, so why give them a pass on how they treat the human beings who have to pay for them and live in them?

Maybe more to the point: Why are they using forced arbitration as an excuse to ignore Brandon’s behavior?

“…as a 2009 Economist editorial put it, ‘You cannot claim that your mission is to ‘educate the leaders who make a difference to the world’ and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign’.”

Isn’t a PSA document like the one used by Brandon and EHB a license to defraud clients? By including language such as a non-refundable deposit, and insisting on forced arbitration before an industry paid-for arbitrator, a client has no meaningful options should a dispute arise.

And if, in fact, Brandon baits potential clients with a reasonable sounding preliminary budget in the PSA (this is what we believe he did to us), taking a hefty down payment at signing, and then switches that budget number significantly, and without cause, when presenting a build budget (again, what we believe he did to us), by definition the client has no effective means of defending themselves. It’s a case of Hobson’s choice –— take what’s offered (a ridiculously exorbitant budget) or get nothing at all (again, what we believe happened to us).

Moreover, when Ms. Klingenberg suggests, “We can try to help with advice during the certification process…”, it sounds like she’s more than happy to take our money for certification, but she otherwise can’t be bothered to address what Brandon and EHB have done to our life savings, the time we have lost, or the needless stress that has been inflicted — even when, in large measure, it was their PHIUS stamp of approval (via certification) that encouraged us to pursue a build with Brandon and EHB in the first place.

wikia.com Sir John Tenniel
Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Mr. Miller’s and Ms. Klingenberg’s replies exhibit a total indifference to the facts at hand. Apparently they would prefer to close ranks around Brandon and EHB rather than confront what Brandon has done to me and my family — taking $30,000 of our life savings and giving us, quite literally, nothing in return. If their responses are any barometer, then clearly PHIUS believes this to be a fair exchange.

Also troubling, if the Passive House concept is ever truly going to be a mainstream idea, rather than perceived as a niche design option for the wealthy, doesn’t PHIUS and its certified members want people like my wife and I — a high school teacher and a stay at home parent — to pursue and even celebrate the Passive House standard? After all, they have a tab at the top of their website soliciting donations for the cause: “Help Make Passive Building Mainstream”.

Moreover, if the premium to build to the Passive House standard is really only 10%, then, considering our own experience, what other conclusion is there but that the fix is in? In other words, if Brandon’s original build budget numbers were accurate, then the premium to build to the Passive House standard is at least 25-30%, in which case PHIUS needs to stop telling consumers it is only 10%. If Brandon’s numbers, on the other hand, were less than entirely honest, why defend him?

Where do Ms. Klingenberg’s loyalties lie: with the certified members, or with the homeowners? If the honest answer is with the certified members, then this is useful information for any consumer weighing the costs associated with a certified Passive House build.

As Martin Parker notes in a Guardian article regarding Business Schools and MBA Programs and their propensity to dismiss critics when things go horribly wrong in the economy, “That’s a tricky position, though, because, as a 2009 Economist editorial put it, ‘You cannot claim that your mission is to ‘educate the leaders who make a difference to the world’ and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign’.”

In addition, and rather pointedly, doesn’t Ms. Klingenberg’s response represent a dramatic failure of leadership? What should a person in a leadership role do when bad news comes their way: Confront it, work through it, and then move on? Ignore it? Or — worst option of all — should they try to bury it?

How can she (or Mr. Miller, for that matter) offer such flippant responses when someone else’s life savings are on the line? Do certified PHIUS members really believe this is an appropriate way to respond?

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Furthermore, why are they so quick to take Brandon’s side? In the case of Mr. Miller, without even examining the evidence I was willing to offer. In Ms. Klingenberg’s case, is it because Brandon successfully achieved the Passive House standard on several projects? Doesn’t it matter how he achieved the standard? For example, you would think they might be interested in what Brandon’s previous clients have to say regarding their own experience building with him — e.g. pricing, timeline, job site conditions, the cost to build vs. an actual real estate valuation, etc.. Or does none of this matter?

More importantly, why not make customer satisfaction a component of the Passive House requirements? After all, what is the point of meeting all the stringent guidelines for Passive House certification if the result is a homeowner who feels beaten up by a design and build process that forces the conclusion that they have been financially exploited?

Does PHIUS only care about boxes and how they perform, or do they have a genuine interest in the people who live in them? If the answer is both, then why are they not actively evaluating the experience of homeowners along with the performance of the structures? How can a certified Passive House structure that contains an owner who is now cynical about the build process not be considered a failure?

Cup.410.g.74  55
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

Moreover, as an institution, does PHIUS have policies in place to censure, or otherwise hold to account, its certified members should they behave unethically or even criminally? If such policies exist, have they ever actually been enforced? Or, are we to believe all of their members are morally and ethically perfect?

For a certified PHIUS member who is in good standing, who treats people the right way, it would certainly be irksome to know Brandon and his team get to be listed next to them without even an asterisk to note the difference. Don’t certified members want there to be clear-cut guidelines regarding how architects, builders, and consultants should conduct themselves, and shouldn’t there be serious consequences for those who choose to contravene those guidelines?

“Nonprofit executives and board members also should be willing to ask uncomfortable questions: Not just ‘Is it legal?’ but also ‘Is it fair?’ ‘Is it honest?’ ‘Does it advance societal interests or pose unreasonable risks?’ and ‘How would it feel to defend the decision on the evening news?’ Not only do leaders need to ask those questions of themselves, they also need to invite unwelcome answers from others. To counter self-serving biases and organizational pressures, people in positions of power should actively solicit diverse perspectives and dissenting views. Every leader’s internal moral compass needs to be checked against external reference points.”

— Deborah L. Rhode & Amanda K. Packel

But then expecting even a modicum of objectivity from Mr. Miller, Ms. Klingenberg, or PHIUS was probably expecting too much:

2015 Passive House Projects Competition

2016 Passive House Projects Competition

Should the leader of an organization sit on a panel with other judges handing out awards to that organization’s members? It seems like this would be an excellent time to recuse oneself, if only to avoid even a hint of favoritism or undue bias. As a Law School Professor might frame it: ‘It’s not enough to refrain from unethical behavior, you need to avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior.

Yet, as a consumer, I’m expected to believe Ms. Klingenberg examined the evidence I sent her with an open mind, and that she reached an impartial determination as to what transpired between my family and EHB [?]. One wonders, did she even bother to contact any of Brandon’s former clients to ask about their experience building with Brandon and EHB? She didn’t take the time to sit down with us, or even ask us any questions via email, to establish whether we were just irrational cranks or if we had legitimate points to make. Apparently Brandon’s say-so that he had done nothing wrong was good enough for her.

It bears repeating what was at risk here: a family’s life savings. It’s also worth noting that it’s not enough for PHIUS to proclaim progressive values, those values should be reflected in the actions of individual members, as well as the actions and policies of the institution itself. Based on our own experience, we feel PHIUS is just one more institution that consumers and citizens cannot depend on to do the right thing when it matters most. But maybe to them this is all simply a case of: ‘it’s just business’.

It is undeniable that institutions have a nasty habit of closing ranks around their members, even the ones who clearly misbehave. If the member in question turns out to be a bad actor, however, then it is also true that this unquestionably reflects poorly on the institution’s integrity. Consider the recent history of the Chicago police department: Code of Silence  /  Laquan McDonald’s Shooting  /  Brutal History

What will Mr. Miller, Ms. Klingenberg, and PHIUS do as individuals and as an institution when this happens again (inevitably — when you consider the whole ‘leopard and his spots’ brand of folk wisdom)? Before protecting Brandon and EHB so forcefully, maybe they should make sure he is telling them the truth.

“If the existing order were a model order, and just and right in every respect, I naturally would have no objections to it. Since, however, it is a mixture of much that is good and much that is evil, unjust, and defective, to be called a friend of the existing order often is to be called a friend of what has outlived its usefulness and is principally evil. Progress is unceasing. Society is constantly changing. Institutions which at first suited the conditions under which they originated may become criminally unjust a half century later.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

commons.wikimedia.org

In light of the ever-quickening pace of our modern world, perhaps Goethe’s suggested timetable should be halved, in which case the Passive House concept is ripe for fundamental reform — going well beyond adjustments for climatic differences. History, it should be added, suggests those who currently hold positions of authority in the Passive House movement are unlikely to make the hard choices, or have the stomach to execute a meaningful overhaul.

For more details on how this all got started, check out these posts:

The Passive House Nightmare
“How Did I Get Here?…”

The Passive House Nightmare

0

When building a Passive House goes horribly wrong

The following is a review of our original builder, Evolutionary Home Builders (Geneva, Illinois):

  • Brandon Weiss – owner (also works with Dvele and Sonnen)
  • Patrick Danaher – architect and project manager
  • Eric Barton – chief field officer (now on his own as Biltmore Homes)

What was supposed to be a straightforward, pleasant experience building a rather compact, eco-friendly Passive House dragged on for a year and a half (roughly September, 2014 to December, 2015) to little effect. After spending $30,000, we have no house, of course, but also no drawings, and not even a partial refund. We gave them $30,000, and they gave us nothing in return.

Presumably, only those contemplating a build with Evolutionary Home Builders (EHB) will punish themselves by slogging through the following documentation, which lays out our unfortunate experience. The information is here to let consumers know what our experience was like. Consider it a cautionary tale.

Lot on April, 8 2016
Our (still empty) lot on April 8, 2016.

My wife and I put our house up for sale in spring, 2014, in hopes of moving closer to her work in Palatine, Illinois (she is a school teacher; I am a stay at home dad for our daughter). Faced with a decision on where to live, we decided to build a new home. After reading up on the options available, we concluded we wanted to build as “green” as possible, and building to the Passive House standard seemed like a worthwhile goal. We knew the numbers would be tight, in light of our limited nest egg, but we believed how we built our new home was just as important as what we built.

In doing our research, we came across Brandon Weiss and his project in River Forest — the first certified Passive House in the Chicago area. Based on his reputation (various certifications such as Master Builder and certified Passive House builder, and any number of articles from local media outlets detailing his projects in the area), we chose to move forward with Brandon and what had recently become Evolutionary Home Builders (EHB).

Even before purchasing a lot, we put down, in September, 2014, at Brandon’s request, $30,000 for a Design-Build Professional Services Agreement (PSA). At that time he assured us a Passive House was possible at $200-205/ sq. ft. for a single-story home under 2,000 sq. ft., and with a full 9’ basement included (the total dependent on the quality of finishes and any extras).

The PSA outlined a prospective budget for our 1600 square foot structure, with a total ranging between $375,000-410,000 (this included the initial $30,000). The timeline we were given included 90 days to design and 6-8 months to build. We assumed that this meant there was a good chance we could move into our new home by the end of 2015, or the early part of 2016 if hiccups occurred during the build process.

After some delay, the design phase only began in earnest towards the end of January, 2015. They were working off of drawings I had given Brandon back in June, 2014, during our initial meeting in his new office showing a 40’ x 40’ floor plan created on RoomSketcher, along with hand-drawn exterior elevation ideas. During the design phase their in-house architect, Patrick Danaher, changed it to a 49′ x 34′ structure.

It was not until the end of July, 2015, however, that we received our first official construction drawings. Nevertheless, we were very excited to see actual plans for our future home, and I kept insisting to my wife that no matter how much it felt like our project was an afterthought, EHB are supposed to be the experts in their field, so they will be worth the wait.

After additional delays, we were finally presented with hard budget numbers in late November, 2015. In that meeting, without any warning, we were given the following price to construct: $470,000. This seemed high, I assumed it must include the $30,000 PSA payment, and that I must be misunderstanding something. It was only while driving home, as my wife patiently explained to me that the $470,000 number did not include the $30,000 (therefore the total price would be $500,000), that I realized we could not afford to proceed with the build. Also worth noting: the $470,000 included nothing for contingencies or potential escalation costs.

In addition, during this budget meeting we requested a hard copy of the numbers to take with us. We were told no, we could not have it, that these numbers were only preliminary, and that a hard copy would only be made available to us after signing an official Build Contract (we were presented with various numbers in an Excel spreadsheet format, which proved more confusing than helpful — particularly since Patrick kept scrolling up and down, never allowing us to see the columns of numbers in their entirety).

In our subsequent email exchanges, a phone call with Brandon, and a face-to-face sit-down with Brandon, the claim was made repeatedly that the budget numbers contained intellectual property. Even if true, which seems doubtful, why was our $30,000 insufficient proof of our commitment to build with EHB? How could we make informed decisions without all of the budget numbers in front of us?

Moreover, the numbers presented to us were even worse than they initially appeared because Brandon had removed substantial value by changing a 9’ basement to an 8’ basement, removing a window from the basement (leaving us with only one), and by converting the concrete driveway to an asphalt driveway.

In effect, the $500,000 number should have really been $515-525,000 if the 9’ basement, the second basement window, and the concrete driveway had been left in (these items had previously been in the drawings, and they had always been understood to be included based on email exchanges and conversations in their office). The point is not that we had our hearts set on a concrete driveway, for example, rather it is how Brandon and his team appeared to manipulate the numbers in order to make them look less bad than they really were — it felt like they were trying to be devious.

Overall, then, the budgeting process struck us as fundamentally dishonest. When pressed repeatedly as to why the build budget was so different from the numbers outlined in the PSA, Brandon only offered a vague explanation, noting “additional Passive House components were necessary” — what these were, or why they were necessary, was never explained.

In our final meeting (the face-to-face sit-down), Brandon did finally admit that the energy modeling in the PHPP software showed a significant penalty for a single-story structure with a full basement. Since EHB sell themselves as experts in this field, and they had never done a single-story home before, and they had nearly a year to research potential issues with this type of structure, why were we only now — over a year into the design process — finding out about it?

No one, at any time, suggested we needed to convert our single-story structure into a two-story structure if we intended to hit the budget numbers as laid out in the PSA. There is also no language in the PSA regarding potential budget increases based on how the energy modeling turns out.

Our take away impression: EHB felt we would accept virtually any number given to us since we were so far along in the process and they already had our $30,000. That, in effect, we could not walk away, and that we would just accept the inflated price and move forward with the build.

Keep in mind, if we had proceeded, we would have ended up with a $625,000 2-BR, 2-Bath, 1666 sq. ft. single-story home ($500,000 to build + $125,000 for the lot), with no high-end finishes (not even any ceiling lighting in the family room or the two bedrooms), and before spending anything on landscaping (not to mention an 8’ basement with only one window). I was going to install 5” wide hickory wood flooring and wider trim for the door casings and baseboard, but the extra material cost would have been offset by my free, “sweat equity” labor. These were the only finishes in the house that could be construed as “high-end”.

More importantly, because no equivalent home exists in the Palatine market, our house would have been impossible to ever sell for anything near what we would have paid for it. This, in turn, raises the question: Even if we had accepted the $500,000 price ($625,000 with the lot), how were we ever going to secure financing for the project when the cost was so far above anything resembling market value?

This idea that their budget made the house financially irresponsible to build appeared to be entirely lost on Brandon. This is particularly disturbing given that the very first sentence of his PSA document specifies fiscal prudence as an explicit goal: “The goal of the parties is to build a well-constructed, healthy, super energy efficient and sustainable home at an economical price [emphasis added].

Based on the PSA (which is all we ever had to go on), the budget we were expecting should have looked something like this:

  1. $325-350,000 (Original 40′ x 40′ layout = 1600 sq. ft.)
  2. $13,500-14,500 (Extra 66 sq. ft. = 1666 sq. ft.)
  3. $20-25,000 (Water and sewer issue, and 2 retaining walls)
  4. $20-30,000 (Garage)
  5. $30,000 (Design-Build PSA)
  6. $408,500-449,500 (TOTAL COST)

We’re not the unreasonable client who wants to add additional square footage, and additional high-end finishes, and then balks when the cost goes up. Note, too, that the numbers to build range from just over $203/ sq. ft. – $218.75/ sq. ft., so we were willing, even at the time of signing the PSA, to end up at nearly $220/ sq. ft. instead of the $205 Brandon initially quoted. Nevertheless, their budget came in at an astounding $249/ sq. ft. As a result, their budget leaves at least $70-90,000+ unexplained (again, at least $70,000 because of the missing 9’ basement, second window in the basement, and concrete driveway).

At that point, in December, 2015, we reached out to several of Brandon’s prior clients to see what their experience had been like (admittedly, we should have done this before handing over our $30,000). It was revealing, and quite depressing. Not one of them would feel comfortable recommending Brandon and EHB to family or friends without serious reservations. Most of his former clients flat out said they would not recommend Brandon or EHB under any circumstances. In fact, in our discussions, several common themes developed that were congruent with our own experience:

1. Poor communication skills:  Via email, or in person, they (meaning Brandon, Patrick, and Eric) leave questions unanswered, and they fail to listen — therefore requests have to be repeated over and over, or else they are implemented incorrectly.

2. Budget numbers cannot be trusted:  We heard repeatedly, from separate clients, that whatever you are told add at least 25% to get an accurate idea of real costs (whether in the PSA or the harder numbers of an actual Build Budget). It is important to emphasize, this is prior to any change orders on the part of clients. In other words, as it was explained to us, during the build process Brandon would come to the clients and repeatedly tell them what they had ordered was discontinued, or the item was out of stock, and the alternative was going to be more expensive. As the clients pointed out, in the middle of the build process, what choice do you have but to pay? In addition, we were told by clients, independently of one another, that Brandon and EHB had — rather perversely — done us a favor by manipulating the numbers prior to our build commencing, rather than after, since it allows us to walk away before losing significantly more money (which had been their own experience with EHB).

3. The design capabilities of EHB are mediocre at best:  Every client we spoke with urged us to seek outside design help, both in the form of an architect and for any interior design work.

4. Don’t be fooled by the hype:  Brandon is very good at marketing his projects, and he has enjoyed a great deal of free advertising by having his homes covered in local media outlets, and on the internet more broadly. So why have his clients, when given the opportunity, not spoken out about their negative experiences? We believe that, even after being put through a gut-wrenching build process, few clients will have the nerve to criticize Brandon and his team when a journalist calls to talk about what a unique home they have just built, and how great it must be to live in. Understandably, homeowners in this situation are already looking for reasons to justify what they have gone through — both emotionally and financially. The message we received from his clients: there is a wide gulf between surface (how EHB present themselves) and substance (what the design-build process is really like).

5. EHB builds a solid wall assembly:  Every client was happy with the quality of their structure, but they were equally unhappy with how this was achieved — for reasons outlined above. Our conclusion: EHB is a conventional builder who can put up a better wall assembly. In every other respect, however, EHB fulfills the stereotype of the average homebuilder: over promises, under delivers, is sloppy with budget numbers, and plays fast and loose with their clients’ life savings.

I should also note, after the initial email and phone call letting EHB know we could not move forward, Brandon, during our final sit-down, explained how he was able to reduce the budget to $403,000 by getting donated materials from manufacturers, and by seeking lower numbers from their subcontractors. In other words, they were prepared to charge us $500,000, but now they could build the same house for nearly $100,000 less with no drop off in quality — either in materials or craftsmanship [?] . Furthermore, based on what their previous clients had told us, we had every reason to believe the $403,000 would climb back up to $500,000 as they clawed the money back with inevitable “unforeseen” expenses throughout the build process.

Since deciding not to move forward with Brandon and EHB, we have been told (1) there will be no partial refund of our $30,000, and that we cannot use the drawings (our lawyer has explained to us why this latter claim is unfounded). The PSA even claims we cannot build on our own lot with another builder for two years. Moreover, because of a forced arbitration clause in the PSA, we have few legal options (#ripoffclause).

We were not looking for a full refund, we understand some real work has been done, but we do feel a partial refund of $15,000 is in order since we are not moving forward because of the actions of EHB — in other words, due to no fault of our own. The fact remains, if the budget numbers had been accurate and fair, we would have proceeded to build with EHB.

We also understand that the construction process is always imperfect, that compromises will always have to be made. Yet if the evidence available is examined, we believe the only conclusion is that Brandon and his company have demonstrated a willingness to violate their clients’ trust, and that they have engaged in behavior that, at the very least, is unethical.

Nevertheless, there is no reason why you should take our word for any of this. In fact, learn from our mistake and — prior to signing or doing anything — please reach out to their former clients as listed on their website and in the many articles published about their projects. In addition, I have the PSA that my wife and I signed, a year and a half of email exchanges between myself and Brandon (here’s a sampling), along with the construction drawings, in order to substantiate my claims.

It is worrisome that builders like Brandon fail to appreciate how their actions not only harm their own reputations, but how they put the very concept of Passive House, or even the notion of green building itself, at risk. If Passive House becomes synonymous with corrupt business practices, as a way for builders to pad their profits without offering substantial value, then the progress of the green building movement may find itself impeded, if not entirely halted. This would be unfortunate in light of the ever growing body of evidence that shows the negative impact our current code-built structures have on global warming.

Based on our experience, and the experience of Brandon’s former clients (as it was told to us), we would encourage anyone interested in pursuing Passive House certification, or green building generally, to look elsewhere besides EHB. Look for a quality builder with a great reputation for service and attention to detail who is willing to take on the challenge of constructing a better wall assembly. Much of the information regarding this type of building program is open-sourced and therefore readily available in books, magazines, and on the internet (e.g. PHIUS, Green Building Advisor, and Fine Homebuilding magazine — to name just a few great resources).

If you have questions about any of this, or if I can help in any way, please feel free to contact me at my email address: zewt@hotmail.com

(1)  Response letter from Brandon

Some of the more irritating assertions:

“We agreed to look at their lot options to help them know the pros and cons of each lot.”  When Brandon and Eric Barton were out looking with us at the lot we would eventually purchase, I drew their attention to the visible fall in grade present (roughly 3′- 4′ in some areas, moving high to low from south to north), wondering if a retaining wall would be necessary. They both responded that it would not be an issue. Yet we were told late in the design process that not one but two retaining walls are necessary because of the significant grade change, and that they will cost a couple thousand dollars. How is this helping us?

“We tell our clients … design and construction can take anywhere from 12-18 months.”  We were never told any such thing. Again, we were told 90 days to design, 6-8 months to build. In fact, they brag about how quickly and efficiently they complete the build phase, so this is nonsense, particularly for a smaller house, like ours, that is just under 1700 sq. ft. (outside dimensions).

“… two large savings opportunities.”  The “opportunities” we were offered included changing cathedral ceilings to flat ceilings throughout ($5,000), and moving the garage to the south end of the lot ($3,200), which would have entailed direct access to the interior, even though from the very start I had expressed how important it was that the garage not have direct access to the house (2). So they over-charged us, we believe, by $70,000-90,000+ and their solution was to reduce costs by $8,200, which also happened to further reduce the value of the house.

“Anita answered… ‘no reason to panic'”.  It was me, not my wife, who said this. And as I explain above, I did not yet fully appreciate the significance of the numbers, due in large part to the convoluted way in which they were presented. Anita, on the other hand, rarely spoke during the meeting, having mentally latched on to the $470,000 number, assuming, unlike me, that the $470,000 did not include the $30,000 PSA payment, and terrified that even at $500,000 — without a 9′ basement and no high-end finishes — that I would still want to proceed with the build.

“…they did not want to look at the specs…”  In our final sit-down with Brandon, it is true, we did not see the benefit of looking at the specs, and for two reasons: First, he had already claimed there was intellectual property rights involved with the budget numbers, so we did not want to be accused of stealing at a later date. Secondly, at that point, we didn’t trust anything he had to say. As far as we were concerned, he had engaged in bait-and-switch sales tactics, yet he expresses astonishment that we didn’t want to look at his numbers.

“…we have continued to work on the project for them.”  Doing what, exactly?

“In our past experience… if a client needs to adjust price… there is a value engineering process to refine things.”  How could price not be an issue for us when Brandon so badly overshot the budget laid out in the PSA? In addition, from our very first meeting with Brandon we were very open and transparent with him about what we had in savings, and how important it was that I do sweat equity work to help contain costs. The goal from the very beginning was to control costs — e.g. in terms of interior design choices — so that we could more easily hit the $375-410,000 budget number, and then, at that point, reduce the price even further with my sweat equity work. The notion that we should “value engineer” down from a bloated price of $500,000 is ridiculous. If Brandon was acting in good faith, why not warn us prior to the budget meeting that costs were way over, and then during the meeting walk us through those costs, component by component, to show us where all the money was going?

“…we have met the obligations of our agreement.”  If you’ve gotten this far, I’ll let the reader evaluate this bold claim.

(2) It’s still a relatively recent idea, with a slowly growing awareness of the risks, but the research seems compelling: if you can’t avoid having an attached garage (in our case), at least avoid direct access to the garage from the house. And if that’s not possible, then start and back out, and turn off your car upon returning, as quickly as possible. It’s also worthwhile to keep chemical fertilizers, pesticides, any product containing solvents, and lawn equipment that uses gasoline and oil in a separate outdoor shed — again, if it’s at all possible.

One last sucker punch from Brandon:

payment due

For more details on our experience, including the response from PHIUS, go here:

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2