kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Zero Net Energy + Permaculture Yard

Tag Archives: Sonnen

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!

The Passive House Nightmare

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When building a Passive House goes horribly wrong

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

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

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

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

 

Lot on April, 8 2016

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 325,000-350,000 Original 40′ x 40’= 1600 sq. ft.
  • 13,500-14,500        Extra 66 sq. ft. (1666 sq. ft.)
  • 20,000-25,000        H2O, sewer issue; 2 ret. walls
  • 20-30,000                  Garage
  • 30,000                          Design-Build PSA
  • 408,500-449,500 Total Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

(1)  Response letter from Brandon

Some of the more irritating assertions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

One last sucker punch from Brandon:

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