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Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

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Blower Door (Air Sealing #9 )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The areas where components come together often need special attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve at kitchen door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Blower Door Test Results

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

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

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

Here are the final figures noting where we ended up:

0.20 ACH@50 and 106 cfm@50

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

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

Not Airtight

Attic Insulation

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For high-performance structures relatively high R-values for insulation (at least when compared to current building code requirements) are required from the foundation all the way up to the attic (e.g. Passive House or The Pretty Good House).

After some initial research and product pricing, we knew we were going to predominantly use Roxul (with its recent name change, it’s now known as Rockwool) for our insulation needs. But after realizing blown-in rock wool wasn’t available (at least at the time anyway — presumably this will change in the future), and that batts didn’t make much sense for this application (too costly, and they’re considered more difficult to install properly), we knew we wanted some kind of blown-in insulation. The main options, currently, are fiberglass and cellulose.

Fiberglass vs. Cellulose
Best Attic Insulation

We wanted to avoid foam as much as possible throughout the build, both because of its  environmental impact and the fire risk associated with its use, so we didn’t consider spray foam as a real potential option.

After evaluating blown-in fiberglass and cellulose, we decided that cellulose made the most sense for us.

The next decision was to figure out how much, meaning how many inches did we want to blow into the attic. Our first builder was going to do R-49, which is the current code minimum standard here in Illinois. At the time, even before things went horribly wrong with this builder, this felt like too little. I had read stories about other Passive House projects using significantly more, but many of these were in even colder climates than ours (we’re in climate Zone 5 here in the suburbs of Chicago).

How much do I need?
How much insulation is enough?

We decided that rather than settle on a hard R-value as our goal, we would just do a solid two feet of cellulose since we would be doing the installation of the material ourselves (less out near the 12″ raised heel trusses on the north and south sides of the house). There wasn’t a significantly greater cost in materials to go from an R-49 (just under 15″) to the approximately 24″ we blew into the attic.

After doing a little research, and speaking with a Passive House consultant and a local general contractor who consulted with us on various issues as they arose, the consensus seemed to be that attic insulation was an easy, relatively inexpensive place to sneak in more R-value, which is particularly beneficial in our predominantly cold weather climate (the ceiling/attic is where a significant amount of conditioned air wants to escape in the winter anyway). The blown-in cellulose, like the Rockwool, also has some nice sound deadening qualities as an additional benefit.

How much insulation do you need for Passive House?

The cellulose brand in our local Home Depot is GreenFiber, so that was the product we ended up using. Their product is DIY friendly, even allowing homeowners to rent machines for the actual installation:

We started out with 200 bags delivered to the job site. We assumed we were going to need more (the GreenFiber insulation calculator suggested we would need 250 bags to reach 2′ throughout the attic), but thought it might be easier to estimate a final total once the first 200 bags were installed.

The boys, who helped us with various grunt work chores throughout the project, were nice enough to return and help us bring the bags of insulation indoors the night before we started the installation in the attic. We set up a bucket brigade between the driveway and the kitchen, so it went pretty quickly.

guys w: cellulose
The boys after helping us bring in the first 200 bags of cellulose insulation: Luke, Smitty, Eduardo, my wife Anita, and Ricky.

On the day of installation, getting everything set up and started was fairly straightforward. Apart from a loose hose connection at the machine, which a small strip of Tescon Vana tape rectified, we had no issues with the blower. While my wife fed the bags of cellulose into the blower, I was up in the attic directing it into place.

The first couple of hours were actually kind of fun, but getting a consistent two feet of insulation throughout the attic was time consuming and eventually mind-numbingly boring. The first 12″-18″ weren’t so bad, it was having to wait in each section of the attic for that last foot or so to be blown in place that it began to feel like real drudgery.

cellulose installed looking east
From the attic opening, looking east towards the front of the house.

It also didn’t help that I had a fever and a cold on the day of installation, so being up in the attic surrounded and covered in dust didn’t improve my mood. The process, although very DIY friendly, does require patience and a willingness to cover up — eyes, mouth, and nose — for adequate protection against all the dust floating around.

The day before blowing in the cellulose I went through the attic and marked my goal of 24″ of insulation on various roof trusses so I would have a good visual goal to shoot for. In fact, had I known just how dusty and challenging visibility was going to be during the blowing process, I would have marked every single roof truss at the 24″ level to make the job a little easier.

We didn’t have much in the way in terms of obstacles from various services, other than a few pipe vents for plumbing and radon, along with a small amount of electrical conduit for solar on the roof and a single light in the attic (we kept the majority of all services in our ceiling service core and our walls). This made for a fairly straightforward installation of the cellulose.

cellulose installed looking west
From the attic opening, looking west towards the back of the house.
south east corner w: cellulose
Another view, this time a little further to the right, showing the far northwest corner of the attic.
vents by bench w: cellulose
Cellulose at its full depth around the plumbing vents and radon stack.
cellulose at the attic hatch
Finishing up. The attic access hatch is visible at the bottom of the photo.
bench behind attic hatch opening
The bench next to the attic access opening as we finish up blowing in the cellulose.
building up cellulose around attic chutes
Cellulose hitting the underside of the insulation chutes as it gets blown into place at the edge of the roof by the raised heel trusses.

Thankfully I was able to keep the cellulose out of the insulation chutes, instead slowly piling it up just below each chute. The siding guys already had most of the soffits installed (this was the end of October, 2017 last year), including a channel for air flow for our “vented roof” assembly, so any cellulose that found its way into the chutes and down into the soffits would’ve been a real pain to remove (I’ll have a separate post later about the siding installation, including the many details of our rain screen and 4″ of Rockwool on the exterior side of the Zip sheathing).

The bench next to the attic access hatch ended up working out really well, and I was very thankful it was in place.

lid on bench w: cellulose
Lid of the attic access hatch sitting on its bench next to the attic opening after the installation of the cellulose is nearly complete.

By the end of the first day it was clear we didn’t have enough cellulose to finish the whole attic. We started with 200 bags, but we finished up the second day at just under 300 bags total (288 was the final number of bags installed, so a little more than the 250 recommended by the GreenFiber calculator). What we didn’t use we were able to return to Home Depot for a refund.

how much more cellulose
My wife wondering how many more bags until we’re done — unfortunately the answer was simply ‘more’ as she popped her head up into the attic several times towards the end of the installation.

Apart from the north and south sides of the attic around the raised heel trusses, we had a solid 24″ throughout the attic, in fact, a little more in the center of the attic where it was easiest to pile it up and let it accumulate (closer to 28-30″ in some areas). This probably explains, too, the additional 38 bags we used that exceeded the initial estimate by the GreenFiber calculator.

covered in cellulose
This is where a degree from Michigan gets you. #GoBlue. It was a long day.

On a side note, there was also some concern about the weight of the cellulose on the Intello (our ceiling air barrier), but in the end, even where the cellulose was at its deepest, there was thankfully very little sagging evident in the Intello. Even if it had been worse, the 1×4’s were in place to help support the Intello and the cellulose for the long term (the 1×4’s were spaced roughly 16″ apart between the 2×6’s of the service core).

sag1
Slight sag in the Intello evident after installing the cellulose in the attic.
sag2 closer view
Close-up of the slight sag in the Intello near the west gable end of the house.
sag3 Intello touching 1x4's
Another view of the slight sag in the Intello as it touches the 1×4’s directly below it.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the cellulose will settle a bit, especially during the first few months. This is obviously very important when it comes to establishing what depth you’re initially going to blow in and your expectations about long-term R-value after settling has occurred (something to consider before signing a contract if you’re going to be hiring someone to do the work — both parties should agree and understand what the final R-value will be before the work commences).

I was back up in the attic recently as I finished up painting the master bedroom and closet. Since I already had drop cloths down, I thought I should take what will hopefully be one last look at the attic.

ladder in wic
Ladder under the attic access hatch in the master bedroom closet.

On average, the cellulose looks like it has settled about 2-4 inches below its original depth, depending on where I looked.

settling1
Some of the red horizontal lines at 24″ now clearly visible in some parts of the attic.

Even with this settling, the attic probably still comes in close to R-70 on average —significantly less out at the north and south ends of the roof with the raised heel trusses, but a little more in spots towards the middle of the attic where some red lines are still hidden below the cellulose.

settling2
You can see my red arrow and horizontal line at the 24″ level off to the right.

Just under or over R-70 in the attic is in tune with both the Pretty Good House and Passive House metrics for attic insulation for my climate region (Zone 5 here in the suburbs of Chicago).

While I was up in the attic I also noted that there was no evidence of any water or moisture damage on the OSB roof sheathing, or any indication of wind washing of the cellulose, so the attic seems to be performing as designed, which is a great relief.

Attic Access Hatch (Air Sealing #7 )

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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 )

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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)

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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

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

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

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.

{January, 2021 Update: For actual energy demand and costs, please check out this post: Our Energy Bills}

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

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Installing Intello

We thought about using the Zip sheathing as our air barrier on the ceiling, attaching it to the bottom of the roof trusses, something I had seen on other builds, but after learning about Intello we decided to use that instead:

Floris Keverling Buisman, from 475 High Performance Building Supply, did our WUFI analysis for us, and he suggested the Intello would be a better fit for our project. The Intello is a smart vapor retarder, so it can expand and contract when it’s needed, and it’s obviously less physically demanding to install than the Zip sheathing.

Once the air sealing was complete around the top of our outside perimeter walls, and the insulation chutes had been installed, we were almost ready for the Intello. At the gable ends of the house, one last detail needed to be put in place, circled in red in the picture below:

2x6 on its side
2×6 on its side, circled in red.

By adding this 2×6 on its side, which is in the same plane as the bottom of the roof trusses, it makes it possible to carry the Intello over the transition from the ceiling (under the roof trusses) to the walls (top plates). This is one of those details that is hard to ‘see’ when in the planning, more abstract, and two dimensional phase of designing a structure.

another angle of 2x6 on side
Another view of the 2×6 lying flat in the same plane as the bottom of the roof truss (far left).

Once the trusses were placed on the top of the walls and you start picturing how the Intello will be attached to the ceiling, it becomes much more obvious that something in this space at the gable ends of the house is needed in order to accomplish the transition from the ceiling to the walls.

long view w wdw to front door framing
Marking progress: Ceiling ready for the Intello.

After reading about so many other projects that utilized Intello, it was exciting to unwrap the first box.

unwrapping first box of Intello
Big day: opening the first box of Intello.

The directions are pretty straightforward, and the product is relatively easy to install as long as you don’t have to do it alone.

Intello instructions
Reading through the instructions one last time before starting.

I didn’t get a chance to touch and feel the product before ordering (always fun to do with any new product), so here are some close-ups of the Intello to give you some sense of what it’s like:

Intello close up front side 2
Front: shiny side of the Intello — this side will be facing the living space.

I was curious about its strength and tried to tear it with various objects, including the cut ends of 2×4’s and the brackets we eventually used to help establish our service core. The material is surprisingly tear resistant, but a utility knife, or a stray sharp edge will cut through it (as our first plumber proved to me with his careless actions — a story for another post).

close up Intello back side
Back: matte side of the Intello — this side will be facing the attic.

Having never used the Intello before, I decided to start small and began by experimenting with it in a corner. Getting the corners fully covered while getting the material to sit flat before applying the blue Tescon Vana tape proved to be the most challenging part of using the Intello.

experimenting w: Intello in corner w: chutes above
Starting in a corner to get a feel for how the material will work.

Here’s two more pictures of the flat 2×6 helping to make the transition from the ceiling to the wall on the gable ends of the house:

In order to attach the Intello to the bottom of the roof trusses, we used the staple gun shown below. Loading it is kind of counter-intuitive (online reviews complain about it not working out of the box, but my guess is — like me — they were trying to load it improperly), but once I figured it out, it ended up working really well, almost never jamming, and it’s very comfortable to hold because it’s so lightweight. It should work with any standard air compressor. It was available on Amazon, and in Menards (a local big box store here in the Chicago suburbs).

staple gun
The staple gun we used to attach the Intello to the underside of the roof trusses.

We started with these staples:

close up Arrow staples

But we ended up going with these instead:

close up heavy duty Arrow staples

They seemed to grab better (presumably the sharp ends make a difference), and they sit flatter on a more consistent basis (less time having to go back, or stop, to hammer home proud staples flat).

stapling Intello to ceiling

As we rolled out the Intello, it took some practice to get it to sit taught and flat before stapling.

The dotted lines near the edges of the Intello help you keep the rows straight as you overlap two sheets and progress from one row to the next. The lines also make it easier to maintain a straight line with the Tescon Vana tape (don’t ask me when I realized this latter detail — too embarrassing to admit).

taping Intello along dotted line
Follow the dotted line…

We checked our initial row from above in the attic:

first row of Intello from attic
View from the attic as the first row is installed.

Working our way through the interior walls, especially the bathrooms, was more time consuming and took more effort (I grew to hate those interior bathroom walls — first the Intello, then the service core details described below), but once we were out in the open the Intello was fairly easy to install.

Intello covering ceiling, chutes in bg
First three rows of Intello as they approach the basement stairwell. Note the insulation chutes in the b.g. in the attic — they took up so much time and effort, and now they slowly disappear (just like most important aspects of infrastructure).
northwest corner of air sealed attic w: Intello
View of the Intello from a corner of the attic — note the 2×6, far left, lying flat, that helps the Intello transition from the ceiling to the top of the walls.
Intello from attic at outside corner
Another view of the Intello from the attic after installation.

As Eduardo and Jesus rolled out sections of the Intello I followed, pulling on the Intello a little to help make it sit tight and flat before stapling it in place.

Eduardo and Jesus helping me put up Intello on ceiling
Eduardo and Jesus giving me a hand installing the Intello.

There were a couple of sections, some of the first ones we installed, that I managed to wrinkle (one, in particular, became problematic during our first blower door test — and, of course, it was in a tight spot around the bathroom shower area), but overall, the installation of the Intello went pretty well. Like most things you do for the first time, we got comfortable and good at it just as we were finishing up.

Eduardo Jesus and full moon night sky in b.g.
Eduardo and Jesus helping me finish up the main areas as a full moon makes the night sky glow outside in the background. It was a long day — longer still for Eduardo since Jesus was talkin’ trash and nonsense all day (they’re football teammates). Needless to say, Eduardo has the patience of a saint.
Intello from attic w: insulation chutes in bg
View of the Intello from the attic — offering up its 2001: A Space Odyssey glow.

After learning about a project on the 475HPBS website…

Masonry Retrofit

… we decided to use the Tescon Vana tape to cover the staples, as well as all the seams, in the Intello. I have no idea what actual impact covering the staples has on air tightness, but visually as you tape over the staples you can see how, if nothing else, it will help the staples resist pulling out under pressure from the eventual blown-in cellulose in the attic.

Even as the build progresses, it’s interesting how details like this pop up, making building “green” a never-ending process of learning something new — someone’s always coming up with a new product or a new way to do things better, faster, or less complicated — which makes the process itself very exciting.

OB applying tape
OB — the Palatine High School legend — the man, the myth, helps me tape over the seams and staples in the Intello. One of the many jobs he’s been kind enough to help me get done. We’d be so far behind schedule without all of his help.
on plank
View from above what will be the basement stairwell while installing the Intello on the ceiling.
installing Intello on the ceiling around the basement opening
Almost finished installing the Intello — saved the hardest part for last.

This was a nice moment, being able to look back and see the Intello completely installed. It’s almost a shame that we have to cover it with drywall.

Intello on ceiling long view
Intello installed and taped.

2×6 Service Core

A design goal for the ceiling was to keep mechanicals, like HVAC and electric, on the conditioned side of the ceiling air barrier. By doing this, we avoid having to insulate any ductwork for HVAC, or air sealing and insulating around ceiling lights. In effect, we completely isolate the attic, making its sole purpose (apart from ventilating our “cold roof” assembly) holding our blown-in cellulose insulation (this set-up makes it much easier to air seal the ceiling and get the insulation right — at least based on the projects I’ve read about). In order to do this, we created a service chase, or service core, with 2×6’s:

service chase w: first couple of 2x6's
First couple of 2×6’s going in.

In addition to serving as a space to safely pass mechanicals through, the only other job for the 2×6’s is to hold up the ceiling drywall. The roof trusses, directly above each 2×6, are still carrying the load of the roof and stabilizing the perimeter walls.

Simpson L-Bracket w: fasteners
Simpson bracket and fasteners we used to attach the 2×6’s to the underside of the trusses.

Here’s what the 2×6’s looked like with their brackets once everything was installed.

close up service chase w: bracket-screws
Service core 2×6 with bracket and Simpson SDS bolts.

OB and my wife were invaluable as they helped me cut and install all the 2×6’s.

We installed the brackets first, before raising up each individual 2×6 to fit against the brackets.

jesus helping me install 2x6's
Jesus helping me install the 2×6’s.

Since the brackets were directly attached underneath a roof truss, we were able to keep the 2×6’s fairly straight, even when an individual board itself was less than perfectly straight.

service chase w: just brackets
Brackets installed before the 2×6’s go up.

A feisty Robin kept trying to set up a nest on our partition wall (our windows and doors aren’t in yet). Apparently she believed we had created an elaborate bird house just for her. It took almost a week before she finally gave up — but not before starting multiple nests in multiple spots along the wall.

bird nest
Robin making one of her many attempts at a nest on our partition wall.

Along the outside walls, at the top of the wall assembly, there was a gap that we utilized for maintaining continuous insulation. This meant there will be no break in our thermal layer going from the blown-in cellulose insulation in the attic to the monolithic layer of Roxul Comfortboard 80 (2″ + 2″) that will be on the exterior side of the Zip sheathing.

trusses - Intello - Roxul
Adding Roxul at the top of our wall.
layer of Roxul at top of outside wall
Close-up of the Roxul going in on top of the top plates.
Intello - Roxul - wall
Another view after the Roxul has been installed.
long view from west window w: service core complete
Marking further progress: Intello and 2×6’s installed.

Once the 2×6’s were up, we had to install our pieces of 1×4 in order to prevent the 24″ of blown-in cellulose that will be going into the attic from causing the Intello to sag.

The plans called for the 1×4’s to be installed right after the Intello but before the 2×6’s, which would have been a lot easier and quicker, but, unfortunately, the GC’s we fired installed the interior walls too high, making this impossible.

Here’s what it should’ve looked like if we could’ve done Intello and then the 1×4’s (photos courtesy of 475 HPBS) before installing the 2×6 service core:

Having no choice but to methodically cut each 1×4 to fit between each set of 2×6’s, OB was nice enough to help me get it done.

close up of partition wall w: service core and 1x4 cross battens

Installing the 1×4’s between the 2×6’s began with some experimentation:

service core w: cross battens and L-brackets
Using L-brackets at first —  it proved too time consuming and expensive.

After experimenting with a finish nailer (too easy to miss and penetrate the Intello), we eventually settled on Deckmate screws. It was definitely a laborious process, but eventually we got into a rhythm and got it done, although we wouldn’t recommend doing it this way — way too time consuming.

ceiling w: 1x4 battens
Completing our service core.

We tried to keep the 1×4’s about 16″ apart, which should prevent any significant sagging in the blown-in cellulose from occurring (I’ll post photos once the cellulose has been put in the attic).

A lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into completing this house.

Here’s some proof:

screw got me
A decking screw got me.

In trying to avoid puncturing the Intello, I would hold a couple of fingers on the back side of the 2×6, feeling for any screws that would come through on a bad angle. A couple of times I drove a screw too quickly and paid the price.

looking up at Intello and service core from basement
View of the service core from the basement. Installing the 2×6’s and the 1×4’s also required walking the plank a few more times.
installing ceiling w: OB
OB making my life easier as I work on the plank installing the 1×4’s.

Maintaining the Intello After Installation

Unfortunately, there was a delay in getting shingles on our roof, due in large part to our first disorganized and incompetent plumber (again, more on this later). Consequently, we were in the awkward position of having our ceiling air barrier and service core all set up but every time it rained we still had a leaking roof. In most areas it wasn’t a big deal, but in about a dozen spots rain would collect and, in some cases, cause a bulge in the Intello as it held up the weight of the captured water. To relieve and ultimately to avoid this pressure, I cut small slits in the Intello where the rain would consistently collect.

small hole in Intello for rain before shingles
Slit in the Intello to allow rain water to fall through, marked with a red marker for easy identification later.

Once the shingles were finally on, I went back and found all of these slits and taped over them with the Tescon Vana.

Tescon Vana covering hole in Intello
Hole in the Intello covered and air sealed with the Tescon Vana tape.

We also found a couple of weak spots in the Intello as we installed it, and even later, during the installation of the service core. These spots were marked as well, and they, too, got covered with the Tescon Vana tape just for added insurance against air leakage.

imperfection in the Intello marked for Tescon Vana
Weak spot, or imperfection, in the Intello. This got covered with Tescon Vana as well.

After having to fire our GC’s, we couldn’t have kept the project going without the help of family and friends. As awful as some aspects of the build have been, it’s been heartwarming to find people willing to help us see the project through to the end (much more on this later).

2 Cheshire Cats
Couple of Cheshire cats — clearly up to no good — helping us to keep the job site clean.

Insulation Baffles vs. Insulation Chutes

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Our structure was designed with a “cold roof”, or ventilated roof assembly. By having continuous ventilation in our north and south soffits, with a ridge vent on the top of our roof, outdoor air can freely enter the soffits and exit out the roof’s ridge vent. The benefits of this set-up are explained in these comprehensive articles:

BSC – Roof Design
All About Attic Venting
FHB Roof Venting

Here is the product we’re going to use in the soffits:

Cor-A-Vent

In order to make this kind of roof assembly work, insulation baffles or insulation chutes are necessary, especially if the attic is going to have any kind of significant amount of insulation, in particular blown-in insulation that could potentially move around and block off the soffit ventilation from the attic, thereby short circuiting air flow from the soffits through the roof’s ridge vent.

When it was time to install the insulation baffles, I assumed I could just go to one of the big box stores and (thankfully for a change) just buy something off the shelf. It didn’t work out that way.

At Home Depot they had Durovent (a foam based insulation baffle) and an AccuVent baffle (black plastic). Both were a disappointment.

I didn’t buy the Durovent — even just seeing it on the shelf and handling it in the store, it looked cheap and unimpressive. It was hard to imagine it holding up under the pressure of any significant amount of blown-in insulation pressing against it.

The AccuVent product Home Depot carried only worked in a straight line (no curve to wrap over the back of the Zip sheathing at the top of the wall assembly), ideal for a cathedral ceiling application. After looking around online, I found this other AccuVent product:

Seeing the video made me think it would be an easy installation, but once I had the product on the job site and tried to install one, the realization hit that they would be a pain to properly air seal, and again, I had concerns about blown-in insulation pressing up against it for years.

AccuVent out of the box
AccuVent on the job site. It’s hard not to look at these foam/plastic baffles, regardless of brand, and not think: “flimsy”.

Here’s the specific product info:

AccuVent label close up

And here are the installation instructions:

AccuVent install label

When I realized the AccuVent wasn’t right for our project, it was a moment of, “Uh-oh, now what the hell do I do?”

I assumed there must be a sturdier plastic baffle, but I never found one. Instead, I came across this article:

Site Built Baffles

As usual, GBA — had already addressed the issue.

It was nice to have a solution, but I also knew it would be time consuming and back breaking (also neck straining) — the only thing worse than working with sheet goods is working with sheet goods above your head on a ladder. Nevertheless, I would sleep better knowing it was panels of OSB rubbing up against 2 feet of blown-in cellulose insulation rather than sheets of flimsy plastic. Long term solutions do wonders for peace of mind.

first chute installed and sealed
First insulation chute installed.

I used small, cut pieces of 2×4 (six per OSB sheet) as a screwing base (visible in the photo below) to install each insulation chute  — screwing the blocks first to the roof trusses, then, after putting the OSB into place, screwing through the OSB and into the bottom of each 2×4.

close up looking down chute before sealing
The blocks were first screwed to the trusses, before each sheet of OSB was attached to the 2×4 blocks from below.

Then, after installing each sheet of OSB, I went around the perimeter sealing all the gaps. Here’s the product I used for that:

close up Quad Max product label
The OSI sealant I used to cover the gaps.

Here’s what the chutes looked like once they were installed on the south side of the house:

insulation chutes long view

And this is what the chutes looked like when completed at the top of the Zip sheathing:

sealed top of wall w: sealed insulation chute

There weren’t always sizable gaps where the OSB chute met the top of the Zip, but when there were, this was pretty typical:

unsealed warped chute before sealing w: small piece

Same area after adding a thin piece of OSB to help cover the gap, and then sealing the area with the OSI sealant:

sealed small piece at bottom of chute

Looking down a chute before sealing with the OSI:

close up looking down chute before sealing
Gaps visible at the edges before sealing them up with the OSI.

Same view after sealing up the gaps:

close up looking down sealed chute

I showed up on a rainy morning to continue installing the chutes, and this picture shows the dramatic before and after view of without chutes and with chutes installed and sealed:

blue glow before and after chutes
On the left: no chutes and light visible through the soffit. On the right: chutes installed and  completely sealed.

Here’s a long view of the chutes:

epic long view of insulation chutes
49 installed with one to go (far left corner).
insulation chutes in corner
Final chute installed and sealed.
insulation chutes from outside
View from outside showing the ends of some of the OSB chutes peeking over the edge of the soffit.
close up of OSB insulation chutes from outside
Closer view of the top of the Zip sheathing meeting the OSB chute.
Intello from attic w: insulation chutes in bg
In the attic with the insulation chutes in the background, after the Intello was installed on the ceiling below.

Once the chutes were installed, I was finally ready to put the Intello on the ceiling, which thankfully I didn’t have to install by myself.

[December, 2020 Update: If you’re trying to avoid the time and materials associated with installing site-built plywood chutes, a newer (at least to me) product like Smart Baffles is probably worth considering:

https://dciproducts.com/smartbaffle/

Although, as with any new product, it’s worth the time and effort to do a mock up, in this case with a roof assembly (much like the one shown in their video), along with a partial wall assembly, in order to see how the product works (evaluate the durability of the product, ease of installation, final fit, etc.), especially where (and how) the baffle will meet up with the top of the outside walls. With a mock up, you can avoid (or work through) any issues with the product before you’re on the job site actually installing them (when time and money really matters).]

Roof Details (Air Sealing #3)

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Top of Wall and Roof Connection

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

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

An Affordable-Passive-House  (pdf)

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

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

Wall-to-Roof Air Barrier

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

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

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

021221072-2_med.jpg
Illustration from Fine Homebuilding magazine.

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

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

grace-ice-water-shield
Purchased this box at Home Depot.

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

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

grace-vycor-in-the-sun-ii
Grace Ice and Water Shield applied to the top of our wall — covering the Zip sheathing/top plate connection.

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

sealing top of wall w: Grace Vycor in sun
Using a J-Roller to get the Grace Ice and Water Shield to stick better.
grace-vycor-in-the-sun
This Simpsons sky didn’t last long. In a matter of hours it was back to rainy, gray, and cold — typical Chicago winter weather for February.

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

wagner-heat-gun
Wagner heat gun for warming up the Grace membrane.

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

extoseal-encors-as-gasket
Pro Clima’s Extoseal Encors available from 475 HPBS.

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

installing Extoseal Encors on top of wall cloudy
Finishing up the top of the wall.

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

Trusses

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

first-truss-swinging-into-place
First truss swinging into place.
trusses-going-in-from-inside
Sammy, Zach, and Billy (out of view to the right), landing and setting the trusses.

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

starting-garage-trusses
Sammy, Zach, and Billy landing trusses on the garage.
long-view-of-crane-and-house-east-side
Setting the trusses on the garage. The basic silhouette of the house starts to come to life.

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

Top of Wall (Interior)

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

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

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

sealed top of wall from inside
HF Sealant helps to air seal the Zip-truss and Zip-Grace/Extoseal Encors connections.
view of top row of Zip sheathing 1
Looking up at the top row of Zip sheathing attached to the outside edge of the raised heel trusses.

Shingles

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

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

synthetic underlayment at roof peak
Synthetic underlayment covering the ridge line until the shingles and a ridge vent can be installed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

shingles being installed w: vents
Shingles going down on the roof of the house.

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

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

roofers shingling south side
Seeing this felt like a tremendous amount of progress was being made. It also meant an end to our roof leaks on the interior.
shingle installation progressing
Shingles going on quickly. Only two penetrations through the roof — main waste stack and radon.

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

attic just before ridge vent installed
Attic as cathedral.

Framing (Air Sealing #2)

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Mudsills

In a conventionally built home, mudsills are typically an area of significant air leakage (if you’ve ever seen sill sealer — a thin layer of foam normally used to address this lumber-concrete connection — under an actual mudsill, you can visibly see just how poorly it performs).

In contrast, after reading about various strategies employed to reach the Passive House standard of 0.6 ACH@50 for air tightness, I decided to use the approach developed by architect Steve Baczek specifically for mudsills. There is an excellent article in Fine Homebuilding magazine that describes the details, and there is a companion series of videos available on Green Building Advisor (after the first video, membership is required, but it’s well worth it for this series of videos, as well as all the other information available on GBA).

We didn’t use the layer of poly, or the termite shield, but the remaining details we followed fairly closely. And we did make one product substitution — instead of using the Tremco acoustical sealant, we decided to go with the Contega HF sealant (less messy, lower VOC’s, and skins over and firms up enough to apply the Pro Clima tapes, all while remaining permanently flexible like the Tremco product —  these products are available at foursevenfive.com).

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Billy and Phil setting up chalk lines for the mudsills.
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Nils applying a thick, continuous bead of Contega HF sealant, including around the bolts, before the 2×6 pressure treated sill plate gets installed with a BG65 gasket underneath.
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BG65 gasket from Conservation Technology stapled to the bottom of a scrap piece of sill plate.
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BG65 gasket rolled up in the box it shipped in.
Sammy and Billy stapling the BG65 gasket to the sill plates before installation.
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Mudsill installed with some squeeze out of the sealant.

Installing the sealant on the mudsill (interior/exterior edges, seams, and bolts/nuts/washers) required some gymnastics:

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In theory, she’s helping me.
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Mudsill after installation: sealant covering sill plate – BG65 gasket – concrete connection, with seams filled.

Once again, based on Steve Baczek’s design — going from exterior to interior — here is our Mudsill Air Sealing Approach:

  • Bead of sealant on the exterior side of the 2×6/foundation connection
  • BG65 gasket under the sill plate — along with a thick bead of sealant under the gasket and sill plate (including around bolts)
  • Bead of sealant on the interior side of the 2×6/foundation connection
  • And then, finally, a taped connection on the interior side of the 2×6/foundation connection as a last line of defense against air infiltration (which I’ll complete once all the trades go through the interior of the house).

The approach assumes I will make mistakes at certain points with each layer of air sealing, so I’m counting on these layers of redundancy to protect me from myself. Again, this is the first time I’ve ever done this, so the theory is that even if I make a mistake in one area, it’s unlikely that I will make a mistake in exactly the same spot with successive layers of air sealing.

Obviously I’m trying to do my best with each layer, but I like the idea of added layers of protection (a Passive House obsession), especially when accounting for the long-term life of the structure. Even if each layer could be installed perfectly, presumably each layer will fail eventually at different times and in different places (hopefully 50-100 years from now if the accelerated aging studies are accurate), so hopefully these layers of redundancy will help maintain significant air tightness far longer than if I chose to use fewer layers. Plus, I’m enjoying sealing everything up, so I don’t mind the process, which always helps.

For larger gaps (not just for mudsills, but anywhere in the building envelope), roughly 3/8″ inch or larger, I am utilizing backer rod to help fill the gap before applying sealant.

This is what it looks like:

The backer rod (readily available at any hardware store) makes life easier for caulks and sealants — less stress on the connection between materials as the inevitable expansion and contraction occurs in the gap.

Hammer and Hand’s Best Practices Manual has the best explanation for their use that I’ve come across:

“While the humble sealant joint may be uncelebrated, it is vital to building durability and longevity. Proper installation is key to sealant joint integrity and function throughout a life of expansion and compression, wetting and drying, exposure, and temperature fluctuation.

Note: Because sealants are just as good at keeping moisture in as they are in keeping it out, placing a bead of caulk in the wrong location can result in moisture accumulation, mold and rot, envelope failure, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in repair and remediation. If we know anything, we know that building envelopes will get wet – the question is, “where will the water go?” Make sure you know the answer throughout construction, especially as you seal joints…

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Diagram courtesy of Hammer and Hand’s Best Practices Manual.

… Joint Rule of Thumb: Sealant should be hourglass-shaped and width should be twice depth (shown in diagram).
Backer rod diameter should be 25% larger than the joint to be filled.
Joint size should be 4x the expected amount of movement (usually about 1/2” of space on all sides of the window casement).
Ideal joints are within a range of 1/4” at minimum and 1/2” at maximum. Joints outside this range require special design and installation.
Always use the right tool: sealant is not caulk and should never be tooled with a finger (saliva interferes with bond).
Substrates need to be clean, dry, and properly prepared (primer if necessary).
When dealing with thermally sensitive materials, apply sealant under average temperature conditions because joints expand and contract with changes in temperature…”

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Example: Piece of backer rod being inserted into gap between header and 2×6.
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It’s not visible, but the wood-concrete connection at the side wall has a piece of backer rod embedded between the two materials, making it easier for the sealant to bridge the gap over the long term.

Air Sealing: Rim Joist – Floor Joist – Mudsill Connections

Since there was time between completion of the rim joist/floor joist installation and the installation of the sub flooring (a weekend), I took the opportunity to seal up all the visible connections.

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Billy and Johnny installing the floor joists.

Once the subfloor goes in, these connections are still accessible from inside the basement, but the space to work in would be really cramped and uncomfortable (at least I thought so).

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Rim joist – floor joist – mudsill connections prior to sealant being applied.

The same areas after applying the sealant:

I found the silver Newborn sausage gun (photo below) worked great for thick beads under the mudsills, but the blue gun worked even better for all other seams. Because the blue gun utilizes disposable tips, it was easy to cut the tip to exactly the size I needed, thus using (wasting?) less material (and hopefully saving a little bit of money).

An added benefit of the disposable tips is less time required for clean up at the end of the day (always a good thing). Both guns work great, and appear to be really well-made, although I would probably only buy the silver one again if I consistently needed a fat bead of sealant.

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Newborn sausage guns I found on Amazon. The blue one works great for thin beads, the silver for thicker beads (e.g., under mudsills).

In the photo below, I filled larger gaps with either backer rod, or in the case of the largest gap, bits of pulled apart Roxul Comfortboard 80, before applying the sealant. Since this is the first time I’ve done this, these are the kind of connections that I failed to anticipate beforehand. They are definitely worth planning for.

The temptation is to just fill these kinds of voids with sealant, but for the long-term durability of the connection backer rod or some kind of insulation stuffed into the gap is a better solution. Filling the voids before sealing doesn’t take much additional effort, so it’s definitely worth taking the time to do it right.

Knee Walls Installed

Because our lot is sloped, the plans called for a series of knee walls:

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The guys installing the knee walls (left to right: Johnny, Nils, Sammy, and Billy).

When I saw the first piece of Zip about to be installed, I realized the bottom edge, which is exposed OSB, would be sitting directly on top of the Roxul on the foundation. While it’s unlikely that water will find its way to this edge (the flashing for the wall assembly will be installed over the exterior face of the Zip at the bottom of the wall), it seemed like a good idea to tape this edge with the Tescon Vana for added protection and peace of mind (even if it only protects this exposed edge until the rest of the wall assembly is installed).

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First piece of 7/16″ Zip wall sheathing installed.

Knee wall pictured below had all exposed seams in the framing lumber filled with the Contega HF sealant before also applying the Tescon Vana tape, all of which was done prior to the Zip sheathing being installed. The sealant takes about 48 hours to cure enough before you can effectively cover it with the Pro Clima tapes (something to consider when setting up scheduling goals).

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Knee wall being covered in Zip sheathing.
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Close-up of knee wall with Zip sheathing and sealed seams.

For the bottom, exposed edge of the Zip sheathing, I cut the Tescon Vana tape like I was wrapping a present…

Once the Zip sheathing was installed on the knee walls, I could move into the basement and seal up the connections between the Zip and the framing members, in addition to hitting any seams in the framing itself.

Once the house gets closed in, I will go back and tape the connection between the top of the foundation and the mudsill for one last layer of protection against air infiltration.

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Knee wall with Zip sheathing after sealing up all the connections.

Subflooring

We decided to use Huber’s Advantech Subflooring after years of reading about it in Fine Homebuilding magazine, and based on the online comments from installers who see the added benefits that come with what is an admittedly higher price point. For instance, it’s more resistant to moisture, so it should produce more stable, flatter flooring (e.g. hardwood or tile) when the house is complete, in addition to preventing annoying floor squeaks.

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First sheets of subflooring being installed by Billy, Phil, and Nils.

In order to maintain a high level of indoor air quality (IAQ), we’ve been seeking out low or no VOC products. So, in addition to the Advantech subflooring, which is formaldehyde-free, we chose the Liquid Nails brand of subfloor adhesive (LN-902/LNP-902) because it is Greenguard certified. Another great resource for anyone trying to build or maintain a “clean” structure is available at the International Living Future Institute website: The Red List

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The product takes much longer to dry when it’s cold and wet outside — at least 2-3 days in our experience (sometimes even longer). It’s nice to see more “green” products showing up in the big box stores, rather than having to always special order them.
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Standing by what will be the kitchen door. The subflooring was installed with nails and Liquid Nails subfloor adhesive.
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Corner of our slowly growing wall assembly. The connection between the subflooring and the top of the rim joists was eventually sealed with the Contega HF sealant. 

Basement slowly being covered by subflooring:

Walls Go Up

Our wall assembly is almost entirely based on Hammer and Hand’s Madrona House project, which I discuss here: Wall Assembly

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Our blank canvas.

In preparation for construction, I built a mock wall assembly in order to easily explain to anyone on site how the various components should go together. It also gave me a chance to practice using the Contega HF sealant, along with the various Pro Clima tapes from 475 High Performance Building Supply.

It’s been exciting to see the walls go up, incorporating the many details in the mock wall assembly.

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Men at work: Zach, Phil, and Sammy laying out the walls.
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Zach and Phil installing the Zip sheathing over the framing.
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Phil laying down a consistent and continuous bead of construction adhesive (trying to avoid a bead that runs back and forth between fat and thin), before the Zip sheathing is installed.
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We were fighting the rain, ice, and mud, but I was able to get the Tescon Vana tape over some of the seams in the Zip sheathing before the walls went up.
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Sammy and Billy help me apply the Contega HF sealant to each nail hole, and then make it lie flat with a swipe of the spatula, so the Tescon Vana tape that will be applied later will also lie flat.
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Section of wall nailed, taped, and nail holes caulked — ready to be raised up.

The final step before the walls were raised was to staple the B75 gasket to the bottom of each sill plate.

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First section of wall going up: Billy, Zach, and Sammy doing the heavy lifting.
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Zach establishes plumb, while Phil readies to make the wall secure.
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The guys continue with the south walls.

View from south-east corner of the house with the guys framing in the shadow of the water tower:

The only section of wall where the B75 gasket rolled up on itself is shown below — no doubt because this was the most difficult section to get into place because of the stair opening. Otherwise, the guys had no issues with the gasket.

Even on this wall where the gasket did roll up on itself, I will cut off the excess that ended up on the interior side before sealing the connection with the subflooring, and then spend some time filling the void on the exterior side with backer rod and sealant as well.

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Zach is the only dedicated, full-time framing carpenter on the crew (the other guys do a variety of carpentry-related work). He has a production background, and it shows with the energy and ease with which he works. He clearly enjoys what he does for a living (In photo: Zach, Sammy, and Billy). Sammy and Billy may not realize it yet, but they’re learning a lot from him (even if he does razz them all day long).

Below you can see some of the junctions where different materials meet, and the effort that’s going into air sealing these inevitable gaps: sealant at rim joist corners, rim joist – subfloor connection, and gasket under the wall sill plate:

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Wall is up.
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Same corner as above, but now looking down the exterior side of the wall.

We’ve tried very hard to keep foam out of the wall assembly and the overall structure itself (based on environmental concerns), however, one place where it did find its way in was the insulated headers for above our windows and doors:

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Billy and Sammy putting the insulated headers together.
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End of the day. The fourth wall awaits.
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First look at what will become our front facade.

Once the perimeter walls were up, I went around with an impact driver and decking screws to tighten the connection between the Zip and the framing members, especially at the top of the walls. Although the Liquid Nails adhesive helps a lot, it still makes for an imperfect connection between the sheathing and the framing members:

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Looking down at the top plate. The visible gap is between the side of the top plate and the Zip sheathing. I was able to close gaps like this one at the top of the walls using decking screws. The decking screws also closed similar gaps around window and door rough openings. This should make sealing these areas easier, and the connection more durable.
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Leaning over the top of the wall to install the decking screws.

Having seen construction adhesive and nails in action, I would recommend a glue-and-screw approach if you’re trying to fully maximize the tightness of the connection between the sheathing and the framing.

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Nice view as I apply the sealant.
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My wife giving our Zip sheathing blue chicken pox with the Tescon Vana tape in order to seal all the nail holes.
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It’s difficult to see, but this tape is embedded inside a sheet of ice. It rained overnight, before turning to ice. We’re asking a lot of these tapes and sealants. This piece of tape looks like fingertips holding on for dear life.
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The Beast gets a first glimpse of the view from her bedroom window.
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I was wondering why I would ever need more than one of these. Now I know — bent, scratched, and cracked, the Pressfix from 475 HPBS did its job well.