kimchi & kraut

Passive House + Net Zero Energy + Permaculture Yard

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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!

HVAC Part 1: Zehnder ERV

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DIY Installation

Building with Passive House principles in mind, we knew that, in addition to maintaining a tight building envelope, and incorporating substantial amounts of insulation around the structure, we also needed to install continuous mechanical ventilation in order to have adequate levels of fresh air, not to mention the ability to expel stale air.

We also needed our system, either an HRV or an ERV, to be highly efficient, meaning it could hold onto some of the heat in the conditioned air even as it introduced fresh and, oftentimes, cold air by means of heat exchange as the two streams of air (fresh and stale) passed by one another inside the main unit (without actually mixing together).

After researching the many options, we ended up going with Zehnder’s ERV, in our case, the ComfoAir 350 (the various Zehnder units are based on overall cfm demand of the structure).

We only considered two other brands for our mechanical ventilation (HRV vs. ERV):

UltimateAire

and

Renewaire

In all the research I did prior to construction, these three brands showed up the most in the projects I read about.

Here’s a good debate on the Green Building Advisor website discussing brand options: ERV Choices

Another interesting option would be the CERV system. Because they’re a smaller, newer company, we didn’t feel comfortable pursuing it, but it does look like a viable option worth considering if building a Passive House or Pretty Good House.

I was also familiar with Panasonic units, but I had always read that they weren’t efficient enough in terms of the heat exchange function (or heat recovery) to seriously consider using it in a Passive House or a Pretty Good House in a predominantly cold climate region like ours, here in the Chicago area.

Our Zehnder ComfoAir 350 is said to be 84% efficient in terms of heat recovery (the same principle applies in summer, only working in reverse, when you’re trying to hold onto cooled, conditioned air). Based on what I read during the design phase, the consensus seemed to be that, although more expensive, the Zehnder has a strong track record of performance and durability.

The Zehnder also came with its own ductwork, which we knew would simplify installation, allowing us to do it ourselves, rather than hire someone else to come in and run more conventional ductwork through the house (conventional ductwork would’ve taken up a lot more space as well). Even though the unit itself was more expensive, we thought we could offset some of the total cost for a ventilation system by installing the Zehnder ourselves, thereby saving some money on labor costs.

As far as the ERV/HRV debate for Northern US states, we decided to opt for the ERV because it was supposed to help us hold onto some humidity in winter months, especially important when most structures in the Chicago area are exceedingly dry for most of the winter (and our winters are long). Although I read repeatedly during the design stage that ERV’s can also help control summer outdoor humidity entering the house, this has not been our experience at all. In fact, the ERV seems pretty useless in this regard (more on this below).

The system quote we received was easy to understand, and Zehnder was nice enough to essentially design the system, both in terms of layout (i.e., where we should put all the supply and exhaust points), along with the quantity, or cfm’s, of air for each point. In the end, after commissioning the unit, the system should be balanced, meaning the unit should be bringing in as much fresh outdoor air as it is expelling stale indoor air.

As far as Zehnder units being DIY friendly in terms of installation, in our opinion, this is highly debatable since the installation manual is far from comprehensive. Our installation manual ended at physically installing the main unit on the wall. Not very helpful.

Without a detailed installation manual showing step-by-step how all the individual pieces fit together, you end up with a pile of what initially seems like random parts.

zehnder pile of parts
Everything we need to install our Zehnder ERV. Most of the smaller components are still in the many cardboard boxes off to the right.

This was incredibly frustrating, especially since Zehnder units are purchased at a premium when compared to other competitive brands, and with the expectation of durability and design precision. It never occurred to me to ask before purchasing the unit for an installation manual, since it seemed a fair assumption that no one would sell a premium product without detailed instructions on how to put it together.

We were only able to proceed because of numerous online videos, googling Zehnder unit photos, and by staring at and experimenting with the various parts to try and figure out how it all was supposed to come together. It was an unnecessary and torturous puzzle that shouldn’t have needed solving, and it wasted hours of my life that I’ll never get back. If you do an internet search and type in: “google review Zehnder America” the experience Sean Hoppes had with his installation wasn’t all that different from ours.

Looking on the current Zehnder website (February, 2019), I can’t find a more detailed set of instructions, either written or in a video format, which is disappointing. This seems like a pretty glaring oversight on Zehnder’s part, and one that should be remedied immediately.

Having lived with the unit for almost a year now, overall we’re happy with its performance, and we feel like we could install one fairly easily now that we’ve gone through the entire process, so it’s a shame we can’t say only nice things about the product simply because the installation manual was so limited or, more to the point, non-existent.

With each video and each photo, it was possible to glean one more crucial nugget of information, which took hours, whereas a detailed written manual or a step-by-step video would’ve made the process straightforward, and by comparison, frustration-free.

The videos below were especially helpful, but, nevertheless, they still leave out quite a bit of pertinent information necessary for any first-time installer (especially regarding all the parts that need to be installed on top of the main unit):

Unless there are no DIYers in Europe installing these units, and this is the expectation Zehnder has for its units both for overseas and here in the US, not having a comprehensive installation manual makes no sense. I’m not sure how even a licensed and competent HVAC installer would fare much better without direct experience installing the units. My guess is they would be searching online for missing info much like we did.

Once we got the main unit installed on the wall, and we figured out how all the parts fit together on top of the unit, by the time we got to installing the small, white 3″ ComfoTubes and the large, gray ComfoPipe, the process became much easier.

main unit attached to basement wall
Mounting the main unit to the basement foundation wall with Tapcon concrete screws.

In regards to the gray ComfoPipe for the main fresh air supply and the main exhaust, both of which pass through the wall assembly, we found it more effective to put individual sections together on the floor, and, once fully connected, we marked the points at which the pipes met with a permanent marker.

marking comfopipe w: sharpie
Marking sections of connected ComfoPipe with a Sharpie while they’re on the floor ensures a tight fit once a connection has been made off the floor.

If you try to piece the tubes together one piece at a time in mid-air it’s much harder to gauge when the pieces are actually tightly put together. With each connection point of pipe clearly marked with a Sharpie, it gives you an obvious goal to shoot for once you have the pipe almost in its final position. More to the point, it’s obvious when sections of pipe get out of alignment, or the connection isn’t nearly tight enough — it’s much more difficult to accurately gauge if only going by “feel” once the sections of ComfoPipe are off the floor.

drilling hole for Zehnder exhaust
Making initial cut in the Zip sheathing.

Using a piece of ComfoPipe, we outlined on the interior side of our Zip sheathing exactly where we wanted the pipe to end up (trying to get as close to center as possible — makes air sealing around any penetration much easier). After a hole was cut with a 3″ hole saw, we cut out the rest of the hole using a jigsaw.

hole in Zip for heat pump pvc
Hole cut and ready for the ComfoPipe.
hole set-up for comfopipe
Hole made in our Zip sheathing, ready for the ComfoPipe from outside to make a connection with the section inside.
ext - comfo pipe going thru zip into basement
Ready to push the ComfoPipe into the house from outside to make the connection inside.
Zehnder chipmunk's back
Chipmunks are back.

Once we started using the Sharpie, it was relatively easy to get all the ComfoPipe installed and air sealed around the Zip sheathing.

comfo pipe thru zip
Making the connection between inside and outside.
setting up comfo pipe
Adding a Roflex gasket to make air sealing much easier.
comfo pipe sealed int.
ComfoPipe air sealed on the interior side with Roflex gasket and Tescon Vana.
close up comfopipe sealed
Close-up of the ComfoPipe air sealed at the Zip sheathing.
installing comfo pipe next to main unit
Finishing up the last sections of ComfoPipe as they leave the main unit.

Following the directions, we kept the ComfoPipe exit points for supply and exhaust more than 10′ apart outside, where they enter and exit the structure, in order to avoid any possibility of the two air streams mixing, which would undermine the effectiveness of the system.

comfopipe ext sealed and covered
Repeating the same air sealing process on the exterior for the ComfoPipe, adding black garbage bags over the opening with rubber bands to keep out dust, dirt, birds, and any critters that might otherwise try to enter the structure during construction.

On the outside, we made sure to extend the ComfoPipe out farther than we needed, giving us some leeway once insulation and siding were installed over the Zip sheathing. This allowed us to cut the ComfoPipe back to the proper depth before installing the permanent covers supplied by Zehnder.

comfo pipe ext close up sealed
Close-up of ComfoPipe as it exits the structure (before insulation, furring strips, siding, and its final cover).

As far as the white tubing is concerned, we really enjoyed how easy it was to put the 3″ ComfoTubes together.

During the design phase, and even after we brought the Zehnder unit to the job site, we always intended to place the diffusers for supply and exhaust points on ceilings. But after really looking at all the cuts in our ceiling service chase that would be required to make this happen, we decided to opt for placing all of them on walls instead.

It proved to be one of the better decisions we made during construction. Not only did we avoid having to make many cuts in our ceiling structure, which would’ve meant a struggle to appropriately map them out around conduit, ceiling lights, and plumbing vents, it had the added benefit of making it much easier to do ongoing maintenance at the diffusers, mainly checking on and cleaning filters, once we moved in.

cone diffuser filter
Cone shaped filter for exhaust diffusers (bathrooms, kitchen, laundry room, and basement in our case).

In fact, during commissioning, our Zehnder rep told me they have issues with homeowners not keeping their exhaust diffuser filters properly cleaned, effectively undermining the efficiency and overall performance of the units. This is understandable if the diffusers are on ceilings, whether at 8′ or 9′. It would be easy to forget about them, or even if you did remember, one can understand the reluctance to drag out a 6′ step ladder every time they needed to be cleaned. We were also told that placement of the diffusers is extremely flexible — almost anywhere can work (check with Zehnder directly just to make sure your proposed placement will work).

inside diffuser filter
Diffuser filter in bathroom after about a month. Once all the construction dust settled down from completing interior finishes, these filters don’t get dirty nearly as quickly as they once did — in other words, this isn’t bad at all.

By keeping them around 7′ off the finished floor, it’s easy for me to check and clean the exhaust diffuser filters on a regular basis (1-2) times a month. I always have 2 sets of filters, so it’s easy to remove the dirty ones, put in clean ones, and then rinse and dry out the dirty ones.

Once we decided to go through walls (both 2×6 and 2×4 framed walls), it was just a matter of deciding where in each wall we wanted the diffusers to be placed, and then cutting the corresponding hole through the wall’s bottom plate and the subfloor — being careful to check, and re-check, in the basement for any floor joists, plumbing, or electric conduit that might be in the way.

For bathrooms we placed the diffusers between showers and toilets, slightly cheating towards the showers to ensure maximum moisture removal.

changa drilling for tubes
Apparently cutting the holes through the floor looked like fun since my wife was happy to take over this chore for me. The DeWalt we were using worked great until it crapped out on us a couple of holes short of finishing. We definitely noticed a difference going back to a normal drill and hole saw set-up.

At the unit itself, Zehnder supplied us with blue (fresh air) and red (stale air) tags, to mark each ComfoTube as it leaves or returns to the main unit. This should make any potential maintenance or repair issues in the future easier to resolve, as well as helping to avoid confusion as you set in place each pipe at a diffuser.

first few return tubes are in
Attaching the white ComfoTubes to the main unit, carefully labeling each pipe for future reference.
main unit w: exhaust tubing installed
ComfoTubes being installed at the main unit.
top of silencers #2
Close-up of the top of the main unit, as ComfoTubes are being installed.
Sydney helping us
Sydney, one of our former Excel students, was nice enough to stop by and help us pull the ComfoTubes from the basement up to the first floor.
OB helping us pull and set-up the tubes
OB was also nice enough to come back to help us push and pull the ComfoTubes into place for the diffusers.
spaghetti
Pulling more tubing than we need up to the first floor. Later it’s cut back to properly fit to the various diffuser boxes.
setting up a port
Putting together a diffuser box.

Since we’re leaving the basement ceiling unfinished, it’s an ideal place to see how all the components come together: ComfoTubes meet at the diffuser box, along with the final cover for the diffuser, in this case for supply air. As you can see in the photo, there’s plenty of room in the metal tube of the diffuser box for deciding exactly where to cut it off in order to establish the finished height for the diffuser cover. In the basement we left them at their full height since there didn’t seem to be much incentive to cut them back.

basement supply diffuser
Basement diffuser box with attached ComfoTubes and final diffuser head (supply in this case).
laundry rm zehnder
Exhaust point in utility room with only one ComfoTube.

All of the diffuser boxes required at least 2 ComfoTubes, except for the laundry/utility room, which only required one. Using one of the supplied black plastic caps made it easy to block off one of the outlets in the diffuser box. These black caps are also handy when pulling the ComfoTubes around into position since they help to keep out any construction debris.

laundry rm exhaust
One outlet in the diffuser box is blocked off for the laundry room since we only required 12cfm for this area (12cfm per opening/ComfoTube).

Our kitchen required the most cfm’s, at 36, so it required a special diffuser box and 3 ComfoTubes.

kitchen octopus
3-hole diffuser box (36 cfm) for kitchen exhaust.

Again, since we didn’t place it in the ceiling, we put it across the kitchen, basically on a diagonal from the stove. So far we haven’t had any issues with cooking grease or odors, and our range hood (recirculating) seems to be doing its job just as well.

sunlight coming down comfo tubes
Sunlight coming down the ComfoTubes into the basement from the main floor.

Using scrap lumber, we were able to give each diffuser its proper stability in the wall cavities. Although the mounting hardware for each diffuser box seems rather fragile, we managed to avoid any issues.

Applying a bit of hand soap around each opening in a diffuser box made getting a solid fit between the ComfoTube, the black O-ring, and the diffuser box fairly straightforward.

connecting tube in kitchen
Attaching ComfoTubes with black O-rings and sliding clips on the diffuser box.
tubes for octopus in kitchen
ComfoTubes for kitchen exhaust going through the subflooring and into the basement.
black 0 ring
Putting the black O-ring on the ComfoTube.

It was also fairly easy to get each ComfoTube exactly where we wanted it. Since they’re so small (at least compared to traditional sheet metal ductwork), the tubes are easy to manipulate and move around, whether over a basement beam, around plumbing, electric, or any other structural component that’s not easily relocated. As long as you don’t need to make a short 90° turn, the tubes are easy to work with, so I imagine they would be ideal for renovation work in older homes.

long shot before tightening comfo tubes
It was fairly easy to put the ComfoTubes exactly where we needed them to go.

With most of the ComfoTubes in place, we just needed to add a couple of walls in the basement before finishing up the last few ComfoTubes.

raising basement wall w: Jesus and Eduardo
Jesus and Eduardo were nice enough to come back to help me put up a couple of basement walls.

Once all the ComfoTubes were installed at all the diffusers and at the main unit in the basement, we were able to pull all the lines tighter for a less messy final installation.

spaghetti comfotubes
Before pulling the tubing tight.

Using 2×4’s, we created a little window for the ComfoTubes to pass through under the floor joists. This structure helped to get the ComfoTubes moving away from the main unit in an orderly way that made it much easier to organize all the tubing once it was all installed:

zehnder installed w: tubes
All the ComfoTubes pulled tight, up by the floor joists, kept in place with some plumbing hangers.

Using plumbing hangers also kept the ComfoTubes under control and organized.

hanger straps for comfo tubes
Straps used to corral the sometimes unwieldy ComfoTubes, which can resemble spaghetti if left unorganized. They also worked well at stabilizing the gray ComfoPipe.

The commissioning of the unit, after drywall was complete, was fairly easy and straightforward, apart from a couple of wiring and electrical issues that had to be dealt with by phone with a Zehnder rep beforehand. And ordering filters from the Zehnder website has also been a straightforward and painless process so far (they’re not cheap, but they do seem to be highly effective).

The only issue we’ve really noticed with the unit is during summer when outdoor humidity levels are high. Since the ERV is constantly running, there’s no way to avoid bringing in some humid air in the summer.

And, unfortunately, it’s enough so that our Mitsubishi heat pump set-up (a future Part 2 of 2 for HVAC details) can’t properly get rid of the excess humidity either, even as it keeps the interior more than adequately cooled. We tried setting the heads to dehumidify, but they just dropped the temperature (almost to 60° F) without budging the humidity in the house very much — the rooms were freezing and clammy. As noted earlier, an ERV just can’t handle elevated levels of humidity in the summer on its own.

By having meters in various areas of the house it’s easy to see when humidity levels become a problem (we’ve been happy with our AcuRite gauges). Last summer our solution was to buy a couple of small dehumidifies, one for the first floor and one for the basement. They worked, but they also ate up a lot of energy. Setting the Zehnder fan speed to LOW seemed to help somewhat, but not enough to avoid using the dehumidifiers. This summer we’re going to try a stand-alone Ultra-Aire whole-house dehumidifier, which should use less electricity, and it should perform at least as well, if not better, at removing excess humidity.

Having read that anything above 60% indoor humidity can be problematic, especially in tighter, high-performance homes, it was disheartening to see the numbers move towards 70% in early summer. This is what prompted the purchase of the dehumidifiers.

From everything I had read during the design phase regarding Passive House, I knew indoor humidity in the summer could be a slight issue, but having experienced it firsthand, it now seems obvious that incorporating a dedicated dehumidifier in any structure that will see elevated levels of summer humidity, even if it’s only expected to last for just a few weeks, is simply a necessity. Based on what I’ve read recently, it sounds like Passive House designers, who were already doing this for Southern US states, are moving towards doing it in states much farther north. Presumably this would also hold true for anyone designing a Pretty Good House as well.

Granted, 60-70% indoor humidity (or even higher) for a couple of weeks probably won’t ruin any structure, but for us, at least, keeping it in the 50-60% range during the hottest days of summer not only gives us some added peace of mind, regardless of the hit we’ll take in terms of overall energy use, but it’s also an issue of comfort (I grew up in a house without air conditioning and still have vivid memories —all of them bad — of enduring hot and humid summer days and, even worse, long summer nights).

Much like the initial complaints of overheating, due to excessive or improper placement of glazing, especially on southern facades, this issue with excessive humidity seems to be part of the evolution in understanding how Passive Houses, or high-performance homes generally, actually work in real-world conditions. Although the concept has been around since the 1990’s, anyone building to or even just towards the Passive House standard should know they are guinea pigs to some extent, no matter how well established the idea may be in building science terms.

In the winter, we’ve had no issues. When temperatures fall below 20° F, we set the Zehnder to LOW, in the hopes that it will reduce demand on the heat pumps slightly, and it seems to hold onto humidity somewhat when the cold air being introduced would otherwise be excessively dry. Indoor humidity levels have been pretty consistent: above freezing they typically stay around 40%, and when temperatures plummet towards zero or below they’ve still stayed in the 30-35% range. We’ve rarely seen indoor humidity drop below 30%, even on the coldest days, which definitely makes a difference on overall comfort levels. I’ve also noticed that wood flooring and wood trim doesn’t shrink nearly as much as it did in our last, conventionally built home.

Also, even when we experienced record low temperatures last month (January, 2019), hitting -24° F without windchill, the Zehnder kept on running without any issues. As far as we know, it never shut off to try and protect itself from the cold (our mini-split system did, but more on that later). The product literature is somewhat vague, only noting that low temperatures could cause a unit to shut off, but it’s unclear at exactly what temperatures or what combination of other environmental conditions might cause this to happen.

Most people either tape or use sealant on the gray ComfoPipe seams to block air leakage. During our blower door test no air leakage showed up, even with a smoke pen test. Nevertheless, during our recent cold snap some frost was evident on the ComfoPipe seams, so I’ll eventually caulk these seams with Pro Clima’s HF Sealant, since there must be some air leakage, be it ever so minor.

In terms of the boost function, when turned on it pulls from all the exhaust diffusers, not just a particular bathroom or the kitchen. Again, for the kitchen, even if we’ve been roasting garlic or cooking something else that’s equally pungent, by the next morning any cooking smell is usually completely gone. There’s never been any lingering smells emanating from the kitchen.

For the kitchen, when you want to utilize the boost function you just set the ComfoSense wall unit to HIGH (the Zehnder equivalent to a standard wall thermostat). Unlike the bathroom boost switches, which run on a timer (set at the main unit in the basement), when you’re done cooking you have to remember to go back and lower the fan speed, otherwise it just stays on HIGH.

The ComfoSense unit also can display error functions or tell you when filters at the unit need to be cleaned. It also has an AWAY function, meaning you can have minimal fan speed to exchange air while you’re on vacation instead of just unplugging the unit altogether.

boost rocker switch
Boost rocker switch in the bathroom.

The boost switch in a bathroom is set to run for 30 minutes on the highest fan speed. So far, this seems to be plenty of time for it to work properly. Unlike a normal bath fan, which tends to be quite loud, even when the Zehnder is in boost mode it’s still incredibly quiet, so guests need to know they only need to press the switch once — it is indeed working.

For the bathrooms, the boost function has been working really well at removing moisture after showers. Nevertheless, in the winter, when temperatures are below 20° F and we decline to use the boost function after showers (again, hoping to hold onto some of the added humidity), the bathroom humidity levels still quickly drop from the 60’s and 70’s back to the mid-30’s in less than an hour (and this is even when the Zehnder fan speed is set to LOW).

We’ve also been happy with the diffusers, in terms of installing/removing them when necessary, but also in terms of their overall look. Whether on more neutral colored walls, or something bolder, they just look nice in our opinion.

supply diffuser
Zehnder supply diffuser on a neutral background on the wall.

They’re subtle enough to blend in to the background, but attractive enough so when they are noticed they don’t stand out in a negative way.

Zehnder exhaust diffuser
Utility room with a Zehnder exhaust diffuser on a neutral background — around the corner from the clothes dryer.
diffuser w: bold colors in bg
Zehnder supply diffuser on a much bolder background.

As far as changing filters at the unit, or even cleaning the core itself, so far it’s been a trouble-free experience.

Here’s a photo of a supply-side filter after one month of exposure in winter:

zehnder supply filter
A Zehnder supply-side filter (MERV 13) after 1 month in winter.

During the summer, of course, they look much worse after a month with so much more “stuff” floating around (e.g. pollen, debris from landscaping, insects, etc.). Also unsurprisingly, the exhaust-side filter always takes much longer to get dirty as stale air makes its way out of the structure (it probably helps that we don’t have any cats or dogs).

And since we didn’t need the framed-out HVAC chase in the corner of our Master Bath for all the ComfoTubes that we initially planned to send up into our ceilings, we ended up using this area for some much needed niche shelving for various toiletries and even some towels.

Overall, then, we’ve been extremely happy with our Zehnder ERV unit.

Attic Access Hatch (Air Sealing #7 )

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

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

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

There were two main products I considered using for this:

Battic Door (R-50 / without ladder)

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

Battic Stair Cover

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

Energy Guardian Push Up Hatch Cover

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

Some other products that I’m aware of include:

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

WIPPRO Klimatec 160

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

Attic Ladder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

attic access looking down - directly

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

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

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

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

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

GBA – gable access to attic
Custom Gable Vents
AZdiy

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

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

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

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

bench surrounded by cellulose
Bench for the Battic hatch lid.

WRB: Zip Sheathing (Air Sealing #6 )

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Sealing the Seams and Penetrations in Zip Sheathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wall Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stud bays w: 1x4's, before HF

Long view after applying the HF Sealant:

ceiling walls - HF Sealant

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

thick bead HF sealant in stud bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

Inventory of Penetrations through the Zip Air Barrier

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

Wall Assembly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

electric meter close up gasket : t. vana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hosebib w: gasket
Frost free hose bib with gasket.

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

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

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

exterior light conduit before gasket
Penetration for conduit before gasket.

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

gasket for exterior light
Conduit after gasket.

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

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

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

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

heat pump electric w: t. vana before disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional areas where the duct seal proved to be invaluable:

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

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

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

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

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

solar disconnect before removing

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

solar disconnect before duct seal

Close-up of the conduit:

close up solar disconnect before duct seal

An even closer look:

close up penetration in solar box before duct seal

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

close up solar box after duct seal

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

heat pump box before removing

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

close up penetration in heat pump box w: duct seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

sealed plumbing vent from below

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

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

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

plumbing vent too close to 2x6 sealed w: tape

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

vent too close w: sealant too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cable box
Cable box installed after the siding went up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceiling Details (Air Sealing #4)

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Installing Intello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think you know how to load it?

side view of open staple gun
Staple gun ready for loading.

Guess again.

Instead of loading from the bottom, like all the finish nailers I’ve ever used, the staples load higher up, where the staples exit. And yes, there was quite a bit of swearing as I made the transition from “What the…” to “Ohhhh, now I get it…”.

It didn’t help that there were virtually no instructions on its use, apart from a tiny black sticker with an arrow pointing to where to load it (which, of course, I only noticed after figuring this out).

staple gun open w: staples
Loading the staple gun.

We started with these staples:

close up Arrow staples

But we ended up going with these instead:

close up heavy duty Arrow staples

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

stapling Intello to ceiling

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

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

taping Intello along dotted line
Follow the dotted line…

We checked our initial row from above in the attic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After learning about a project on the 475HPBS website…

Masonry Retrofit

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

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

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

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

Intello on ceiling long view
Intello installed and taped.

2×6 Service Core

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ceiling w: 1x4 battens
Completing our service core.

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

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

Here’s some proof:

screw got me
A decking screw got me.

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

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

Maintaining the Intello After Installation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wall Assembly

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Or: Dude, what’s in your walls?

When choosing what to put in our walls, we knew we wanted to try and balance high R-values (well above the current building code) with a limited environmental impact.

Here are three articles that address the issue:

Best Wall Choices
Without Foam
Twinkies

After evaluating various materials, including sheep wool,

goodshepherdwool.com

blackmountaininsulationusa.com

we decided to use many of the following elements employed by Hammer & Hand:

madrona-wall-assembly-914x1024-e1459377577722
Hammer & Hand wall assembly for their ‘Madrona House’.

In terms of materials, there are any number of options for putting a wall assembly together. For instance, we really wanted to use the sheep wool, but cost and worries (unfounded or not) about availability, led us eventually to Roxul (the Hammer & Hand videos below proved especially helpful in this regard).

After seeing the wall assemblies Hammer & Hand has been using, and how they’ve evolved over time, we felt the Madrona House set-up represented a good balance between cost-environmental impact-availability-ease of installation. We will also be following their lead by using the Prosoco R-Guard series of products to help with air-sealing our building envelope.

Nevertheless, we did make a couple of changes to the Madrona House set-up. For example, we’re using 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 on the exterior side of the Zip sheathing (based on our colder climate zone), and we will be using Roxul R23 batts in the stud bays, along with the Intello vapor retarder, stapled and taped to cover the stud bays. Otherwise, we will be sticking pretty close to the Hammer & Hand Madrona House wall assembly.

So from drywall to exterior siding (interior – exterior), this will be our wall assembly:

  • 5/8″ Drywall
  • Intello Plus vapor retarder (475 High Performance Building Supply)
  • Roxul R23 Batts in 2×6 stud bays (24″ o.c.) (roxul.com)
  • Zip board (for structural sheathing and WRB; seams covered w/ Joint and Seam Filler)
  • 4″ of Roxul Comfortboard 80 (two layers: 2″ + 2″)
  • 2-Layers of 1×4 furring strips (aka battens or strapping) as a nailing base for the cedar siding
  • 1×6 T&G Cedar (charred and oiled with a few boards left natural as an accent — most of it oriented vertically, hence the need for a second layer of furring strips).
wall-assembly-color-coded
A crude rendering of our wall assembly using my daughter’s colored pencils.

A collection of helpful videos explaining the various elements we’re going to use, and why they’re effective:

Without the information available from sources like Building Science Corporation (they have a lot of interesting research documents) and design-builders like Hammer & Hand (not to mention Green Building Advisor and similar sites and forums that allow consumers to Q&A with expert builders and designers in “green” architecture), trying to build structures to such exacting standards (e.g. Passive House – Pretty Good House – Net Zero) would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for those without previous, direct experience in this type of building program. I can’t express how thankful I am that so many individuals and businesses like these are willing to share their years of experience and knowledge with newbies like myself.

Here are the Hammer & Hand videos that initially sparked my interest in using Roxul rather than foam:

Instead of using tape for exterior seams, we are going to use the R-Guard series of products from Prosoco:

For various interior seams and connections we anticipate using the Tescon Vana tape, or an appropriate gunned sealant.

Helpful Links

GBA (Green Building Advisor): Building Green (Starter Q&A)

GBA: Article on minimum thickness of exterior foam by climate zone

GBA Question: Foam vs. Roxul

GBA: 10 Rules of Roof Design

GBA: “Greenest”

GBA: Passive House Design (5-part video series) Requires membership after Part I, but well worth it.

BSC (Building Science Corporation): Perfect Wall (pdf)

BSC: Hygrothermal Analysis of Exterior Rockwool Insulation (pdf)

BSC: Moisture Management for High R-Value Walls (pdf)

BSC: Cladding Attachment Over Thick Exterior Insulating Sheathing (pdf)

GBA: Mineral Wool Over Exterior Sheathing

Passivhaus Trust (UK): how-to-build-a-passivhaus-rules-of-thumb (pdf)

Also worth considering:

GBA: The Pretty Good House

GBA: Passive House Certification: Looking Under the Hood