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Passive Solar: The Beauty of Light

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Does Passive Solar Design Still Make Sense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West facade with self-tinting Suntuitive glass.

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

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

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

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

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

The Sun’s Path Month-to-Month

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

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

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

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

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

sun feb fam
Sun in mid-February.

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

sun mar fam
Sun in March.

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

sun mar base
Basement in mid-March.

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

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

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

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

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

sun apr fam
Family room in April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sun base june

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

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

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

sun july util

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

sun nov family
Family room by mid-November.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flooring: Basement Paint Splatter

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The Original Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

close-up corner base tung

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

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

Jackson Pollock as Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sal's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

base 3 colors done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

splatterd
splattera
splatterc

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

splattere

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

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

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

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

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

basement spatter in sunlight

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

blue strings
The floor finish under ceiling lights at night.

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

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

base 3 colors done

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

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

wide shot base spatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

outside corner
Back corner of the basement office.

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

another outside corner
An outside corner.

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

basement spatter near fdn wall

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

spatter at outside wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

base closet
Corner of the basement office complete.

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

basement office complete

And here’s the foot of the basement stairs:

foot of stairs

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

apei
Reading and hang out area finally complete.

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

Here’s another view of the reading area:

apeii

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

floor w: concrete lightbulb

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

beam books

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

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

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

spun cu

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

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

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

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

big lebowski
Found this poster online.

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

blue glass arrow
Blue glass embedded in white concrete arrow.

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

chinesebeauty1
Chinese ‘beauty’.

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

hulk go green

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

Flooring: Tile

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Porcelain Tile

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

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

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

For tile underlayment, Wonderboard Lite was our base.

wonderboard

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

Mapei thinset bags

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

The shower kit also came with all the drain components.

shower drain cover

Colors and Textures

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

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

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

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

tile grout selections

Tile almost complete in the kitchen:

kitchen tile being installed

Tile started in the master bathroom:

mbath floor tile going down

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

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

2nd shower tile going in

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

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

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

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

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

2nd shower done

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

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

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

2nd bath floor

Finished master bath shower with glass panel:

master shower done

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

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

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

Master bath niche with red glass accent:

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

Master bathroom floor in the weathered black tile:

master bath floor

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

2nd master bath tile

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

entry tile

The hickory meeting up with the kitchen tile:

kitchen family rm corner finished

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

Building in the Suburbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

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

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

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

This Smashing Pumpkins song and video captures a similar feeling:

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

The Monsters are Due on Maple Street:

Walking Distance:

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

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

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

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

—Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier

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

Days of Heaven:

Dawn to Dusk:

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

The Warriors:

Mean Streets (NSFW):

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chicken run from Rebel Without a Cause:

Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is one attempt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Aaron Shkuda, The Lofts of SoHo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siding Part 1: Continuous Insulation with a Rainscreen

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Continuous Insulation vs. Double-Stud Wall

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

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

 

High R-Walls

 

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

 

Passive House Lessons

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

2 Layers of Rockwool over Zip Sheathing

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

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

Wall Assembly

 

 

Finding Subcontractors for a Passive House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Installing Rockwool over the Zip Sheathing

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

installing head flashing above wdw

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

 

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

 

z flashing nw corner

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

 

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

 

1st pcs rockwool going up n side

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

 

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

 

orange cap nails for 1st layer rockwool

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

 

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

 

1st layer rockwool n side

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

 

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

 

20171002_081038

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

 

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

 

1st layer rockwool at wdw buck

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

 

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

 

starting 2nd layer rockwool n side

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

 

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

 

2nd layer rockwool at utilities

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

 

 

weaving outside corner w: 2nd layer

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

 

 

2nd layer rockwool fastener at wdw

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

 

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

 

plates for 2nd layer rockwool

 

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

 

trufast screw bucket

 

 

inside bucket trufast screws

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

 

 

w side 2 layers rockwool

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

 

 

1st layer rockwool into s side garage

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

 

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

 

2nd layer rockwool closing gap at garage

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

 

 

nw corner 2 layers rockwool

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

 

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

 

 

Installing Battens and Creating our Rainscreen

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

headlok missed framing

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

 

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

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

 

monkey on furring strips

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

 

 

garage only 2x4s

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

 

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

 

recess 4 screws

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

 

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

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

 

rainscreen2.jpg

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

 

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

 

starting 1x4s n side

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

 

 

cor-a-vent-product-label

The main product we used to establish our ventilated rainscreen.

 

 

insect screen for rscreen

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

 

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

 

shims behind 1x4s

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

 

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

Really impressive work by Wojtek and Mark.

 

lking down furring behind rscreen at fdn

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

 

 

rscreen furring at foundation

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Window Trim

 

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

 

Sills and Thresholds – Installation Details

 

wdw rscreen and frame detail

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

 

 

from int wdw rscreen and sill

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

 

 

lking down wdw rainscreen

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

 

 

rscreen at hd flash on wdw

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

 

 

out corner hd flshng ready for sd

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

 

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

 

kitch dr prepped 4 sd

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

 

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

 

frt porch prep - rscreen water

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

 

 

west w: 2 layers battens

West facade prepped for siding.

 

 

flashing details on porch

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

 

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

 

Mark and Wojteck at front door

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

 

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

 

Mark and Wojtek on the roof

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

 

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

Blower Door (Air Sealing #9 )

2

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

HF Sealant in corners b4 blower door

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

 

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

 

sealant on wdw components junction

Seam near bottom of window where components meet — sealed with HF Sealant.

 

Where components come together is often an area that needs special or further 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 air leaks.

 

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

 

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, old reliable — 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.

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:

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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 Peterson Roofing 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.

Stone Basement Window Wells

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The Design Goal

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

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

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

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

After exploring the options, including this line of products:

Spycor window wells

We decided to go with real retaining wall cement blocks.

The Execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first wall begins to rise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 3

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This can’t be happening again…

It is February of 2017 as I write this.

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

The Passive House Nightmare

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

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

Who do we hire as our next builder?

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

The Passive House Nightmare: Part 2

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

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

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

Unfortunately, this proved fruitless.

flooded basement

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

job-site-shut-down-west-side

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

new beginnings
New beginnings.

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

relentless
Relentless.

Details to follow…