Indictment of the Green Movement (The Sequel)

Several years ago I wrote a post called, “A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement.”
In that post I detailed a method of building super-insulated houses that did not cost any more than conventional 2×4 houses. A question that came up in comments on that article boiled down to, “That sounds great, but how are they doing now, some 30 to 40 years later.”

I had no adequate answer to the question, so I made it my mission to get back and check on some of them. Fortunately some of them were still occupied by, or at least owned by, the people I originally designed and built them for. I made the trip to the Oswego/Syracuse NY area this past summer and had a blast reconnecting with my clients and visiting the homes.

It is not without a certain amount of trepidation that one takes a step into the past like this.

The very first house I ever designed and built was this house in Oswego NY.  Being just before the Bi-Centennial Year, it even had the Armstrong flooring with the printed date on it.

The first, 1975, 2x6 construction

The first, 1975, 2×6 construction

It was the only house I built on a concrete foundation—concrete block actually. All the houses that would follow, were built on wood foundations.  It has some early passive solar ideas built into it but was a far cry from where the houses would be 10 years later.

Some of the angst over these homes revolved around them being built on wood foundations. While all the homes appeared to be doing fine, the least of their problems were the wood foundations.

Of all of the houses I designed and built, I think my favorite is the octagon house I originally designed for myself but built for my clients in 1983. But before I discuss that house, I will post some pictures of the houses that came before that. There were others besides these, but these are the ones I visited, or at least drove by to take some pictures.

The next two were done in 1976/77. I truly had no life back then as I would work on my client’s house from 4 in the morning until about noon and then go home and work on my own house until it was too dark to see.

1976/77, 2x8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.

1976/77, 2×8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.


1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.


1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction

In 1978, came the duplex that was entered in the 1979 New York State Energy Research & Development Administration (NYSERDA) competition and was one of the winners published in 1979 NYSERDA Passive Solar Design Awards.

1978, Duplex, 2x8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

1978, Duplex, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.



1980?, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters. (The addition with the inadequate overhang at the back of the house came later, as did the wrap around deck.)

And now the real stuff starts.

1983 begins the use of 2×10 truss type studs for wall framing. The first of these was in 1983, in Skaneateles, NY—the octagon house.


1983, 2×10 truss studs, with interior insulating shutters

This made the walls R-42+, with R-50+ in the attic—all blown cellulose fiber insulation. There were insulated shutters for the windows.

Before visiting this home, I figured that for sure the shutters would be long gone. But nope, like most of the interior, it looked like the day I left it 33 years ago.


The custom cabinets, built on site, also looked like the day I left.


This house was constructed over a crawl space, and even though it has totally inadequate ventilation by today’s standards, moisture levels in woodwork throughout the space were well below 10%. A double 6 mil vapor barrier under 4 inches of concrete and a small dehumidifier can be credited with these moisture levels. Interestingly, this house is in a high radon area, and levels tested well below 4pCi/L. This result is consistent with all properly installed wood foundation systems that naturally resist radon infiltration to the home.


At the time I built this house there was an idea that felt paper was not really necessary under shingles. All my building career I had the good fortune of having clients that were as big of risk takers as I was and were willing to try out new ideas. After 32 years the roof needed replacement (not bad for a standard 3-tab shingle roof) and the owners were kind enough to share pictures taken of the roof replacement. Here is a picture of one of the segments with just the roof sheathing showing.


My immediate reaction was, “VERY nice job replacing the sheathing!” His reply was, “No—that is YOUR sheathing!” I couldn’t believe it. It looked like the day I installed it 32 years earlier. Note that even along the edge, there has clearly been no ice-damming or signs of moisture at all. As you can see in this next picture, there is ample opportunity for ice damns with the normal snow fall in the area.


By modern standards the attic space would be considered “under-ventilated” yet the attic looked as pristine as the day I left it. This is a testament to 14 inches of blown cellulose fiber insulation, vapor barriers painted on walls and ceilings, raised heel trusses, and adequate air sealing.


The attic as pristine as the day I left it

The next house was done somewhere around 1985, and I was only able to do a drive-by of this house.

1985 or so, 2x10 truss studs

1985 or so, 2×10 truss studs

The last house I built in the area was 1988.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the night with my good friends and clients on this visit.

1988, 2x10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

1988, 2×10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

With this house I learned that even I am capable of inadequate installation of cellulose fiber, as some settlement was noted with infrared camera.


The purple area at the ceiling to the right of the stove pipe is an area of settlement.

While I still am sure it is possible to install cellulose fiber so it does not settle, I am now equally sure it can be installed such that it does settle. When you have walls that essentially have no boundaries—as with truss type studs, it is difficult to get the necessary compaction consistently throughout the wall cavity.


The anatomy of a truss stud wall

Newer high density installation processes would eliminate this concern and of course these spaces can easily be re-packed with minimal invasiveness. My estimate for this house was that settlement amounted to about one good sized window—and of course the wall would still have a higher R-value than any double pane window.

So while most of these houses seemed to be behaving themselves remarkably well, they still had a lot to teach me. Like any home, some need maintenance more than others. All could benefit from more modern standards and certainly could benefit from what I know now as opposed to what I knew then.

But I guess this is how progress is made. This last house, now 28 years old, had a recent blower door test of under 1 ACH50 (air changes per hour at 50 Pascals). Not too bad when compared to the cost of homes today that meet that level of tightness.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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It has been that way for 82 years—how can it be wrong?

I love the passionate and sometimes heated “discussions” revolving around whether old construction is better than new construction.  Of course if one does not define any parameters one can come to the conclusions they are looking for either way.

Inefficient older home

However, given that a better than average builder in 1800 has built an absolutely state of the art house, and a better than average builder in 2000 has built an absolutely state of the art house, there is no question but what the 2010 house is going to be superior–in probably any way you may choose to define superior.

It will be structurally sounder, it will have a better foundation, it will be far more energy efficient, it will have safer electrical systems, it will have safety glass, it will have smoke alarms, it will have frost-free hose bibs, it will have indoor plumbing, it will have double pane windows, it will be “comfortable” everywhere in the home, and snow will not build up on the window sills “indoors.”  There won’t be any asbestos products or lead paint chips for your kids to snack on.  The floors won’t squeak either.

Newer more efficient home

I realize that what most people mean is that compared to that great old mansion on the expensive side of the tracks that was built by some bootlegger baron in the early 1900’s, the tract houses on the other side of the tracks being built today are much worse.  But then we are not comparing apples and apples–we are comparing apples and lemons.  All those houses on the other side of the tracks built in the early 1900’s are long gone–because they were crap houses.  Just because all our crap houses are still around does not mean that there are no REALLY good quality ones around.  I would argue that the tract quality houses built today are even superior to the tract quality houses built in 1900–but only time will tell.

In my own home, built in 1930 (and certainly not by any bootlegger baron), which I would consider of “better-than-average” construction, but not “great,” I found a faux pas from 1930 that shows that quality control was as much an issue in 1930 as it is today.  It also shows how redundancy of building techniques can result in some mistakes being fairly forgiving.   During my recent window/siding replacement project, when I was taking the old siding off, I found where the original felt paper had been installed wrong.  It was actually lapped the wrong way, and for 82 years it has not been a problem.


Why has it not been a problem?  Because the siding had not failed yet.  As long as the siding acted to keep water off the building-paper it did not really matter which way it was lapped.  If water had been able to get behind the siding it would have been able to run behind the felt paper as well.  If this had happened there would be a problem sooner or later–especially on the “weather-side” of the home.

This is also a good example of the kind of things that no home inspector can see–unless he is replacing his own siding.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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You need to understand what you are working with.

This is a house I designed and built in 1978.  For the most part it looks the way I built it, except for the big wrap-around deck and the addition to the back of the home.

On a recent adventure to see how some of my wood foundation houses are behaving (after more than 35 years), I stopped and introduced myself to the current owners of the home.  They were very gracious and were happy to show me some issues with the home and it gave me a chance to help them with some questions they had about the home.

They had experienced some flooding of the basement space and were told they needed to install a perimeter drain around the interior of the foundation–including a sump pump.  While this is a common “remedy” for concrete foundations, it should never be necessary for a properly installed wood foundation.  Any water intrusion (that could not be accounted for by penetrations of the foundation like drain pipes etc) would almost have to be from failure of the installed drainage system.

A wood foundation sits on 12” of pea gravel with perforated drains to collect the water and drain it away to day-light.


Because the perforated perimeter drain continues out of the stone after it exits from under the slab, and slopes downward toward the termination of the drain at daylight, water typically would never be expected to reach the interior perimeter drain installed higher up in the stone.  If the day-lighted drain becomes blocked or crushed for some reason, water can fill up the stone under the concrete slab and then come up around the slab and into the basement space.

A recommendation to install an interior drain by cutting away the floor is a very expensive and unnecessary undertaking.


I can’t help but wonder what the installers of the interior system thought when they found my installed perimeter drain under the slab.  Did they use? Remove it?  The correct repair would have been to figure out why the stone was not draining and fix it.

A little research about how wood foundation systems function could have saved the home owners considerable amounts of money.

Back to the addition to the home.


Note how the roof overhang on the addition does not extend past the wall as much as my design.  See how the shorter overhang results in much more weathering of the siding?  Large overhangs on homes can serve many functions, including protecting the siding and helping to minimize solar gain in the summer time.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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