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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Why do I have SO MUCH condensation on my windows!?

This is a great time of year to talk about indoor moisture.

Because we keep our houses more closed up in the winter (unless you live in an area that needs a lot of air conditioning and you keep the house closed up year round) moisture can build up in the warm indoor air. Warm air can hold moisture until it reaches saturation and then it will start to give up that moisture to the cooler surfaces around the home.

Take for example this metal screw that attaches the front entryway door pull handle to the face of the  door.  The staining and moisture is because there is way too much moisture in air at the interior of the home and it is condensing on the cooler metal.  It is bad enough that water runs down and stains the door.

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While a little fogging of windows is normal during incidental “steamy moments” like when you do the dishes (does anyone besides me really do dishes by hand?).  If you have condensation on your windows to the point that it starts to run down the glass–YOU HAVE A MOISTURE PROBLEM!

Your windows certainly should NEVER look like the one in this picture–all that moisture and mold is in the living space–not between the panes of glass.

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You don’t really have to wonder if you have a moisture problem when your windows look like this–you do have a moisture problem. The next thing will be figuring out why and then doing something about it.

There can be SO many causes of excess moisture in a home that it will not be the purpose of this post to go into great detail about the many causes. This post instead will be about what you can try before you call in the big guns to figure out what has gone wrong with your home.

In the majority of cases it is not the house that is the problem at all–it is the occupants of the home and the fact they do not know how to properly operate the home. Some people’s lifestyles are more problematic than others. If you diligently do the things I suggest and the problem does not go away–then you will likely have to consider other causes that are more related to problems with the house itself.

1. Open curtains and blinds at least a little bit every day. While it may waste a little energy, you don’t want the air that gets trapped behind the curtains to give up its moisture to the cold glass. Adequate circulation of air will prevent this. Condensation is especially problematic in bedrooms that people tend to keep cooler and tend to keep curtains drawn tighter for longer periods of time. Anyone that has slept in a tent in the cold is aware of how much moisture our bodies give off when we are sleeping.

Keeping the entire interior of the home at close to the same temperature is recommended as rooms left unheated will collect the moisture out of the surrounding room’s warm air like a magnet.  Because it cannot hold the moisture, it will store it on the windows and the cold walls behind all the storage boxes in the room. For example if you have block-out blinds or Venetian type blinds–leave them raised an inch or two to allow for air flow to the glass.

Take a look at these two pictures.  Same room, same humidity and temperature levels.  The first one is the results of condensation with the blinds closed, the second one with the blinds open.

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While there is still a little bit of condensation of the glass, consistent with moisture levels being too high, leaving the blinds open prevents a worse build-up of moisture.

2. ALWAYS, run the bathroom exhaust fan for at least an hour after every shower. If you have a way of warming the bathroom into the upper 70’s for a few minutes prior to taking a shower, the warmer air will hold more of the moisture from showering and can then more easily be exhausted during and after showering. If you have condensation running down your mirror or the bathroom window after showering, you are not using your bathroom properly. And another thing–get rid of those dang water saver shower heads that atomize the water making the water easier to disperse into the air. There are other types of water saver shower heads.

3. ALWAYS, use the kitchen range hood while cooking and for a few minutes after cooking. Always use the kitchen fan when the dishwasher is running or even while you are washing dishes by hand.

4. No Grow-ops in the house—legal or otherwise. A few house plants will not cause a problem if all other things in the home, including the inhabitants, are behaving properly.

5. Make sure the laundry exhaust fan is used while doing the laundry. If you don’t have a laundry fan–consider having one added.  Modern construction would require one. Another thing about the laundry is that if the exhaust duct is restricted enough to increase drying time, more dryer moisture will find its way into the home. Making sure that the dryer is behaving properly is important in maintaining proper moisture levels in the home.

6.  Don’t hang laundry to dry indoors.

7. Make sure that all exhaust fans are functional–just because they turn on and make noise does not mean they are doing the job they are there to do. A simple test is to cover the entire grill with tissue and see if the fan uniformly holds the tissue in place. Make sure you do this test with any doors to the room closed. Doors with inadequate clearances for air to move into the room as the air is exhausted may render the fan non-functional. Improving clearances may be necessary. Another test is to put the tissue on the floor near the bottom of the closed door and then turn on the fan–the tissue should be forcefully sucked into the room away from bottom of the door.  Really tight homes may want to think about whether the whole house has adequate means of bringing fresh air into the home when exhaust fans are operated.  All of this can be further complicated by not having direct vent gas appliances.

8. If you are going to cook and bathe in your home it is imperative that you maintain an indoor air temperature above 65 degrees F. I know we all have energy consumption considerations but if you keep the home at 64 degrees (or areas of your home at 50 degrees) and save $200.00 a year in heating costs and cause $2000.00 in water damage you have not accomplished much in terms of saving money. Health costs may also be affected as keeping homes cooler may result in poor indoor air quality conditions.  This cost/benefit ratio is even worse if we are talking about keeping isolated portions of the home cooler. Just heat your home–it will reward you for it.

So, try these things–if you still have nasty looking windows like in the picture above–call a qualified home inspector or indoor environment specialist to figure out what is going on.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Dancing blind!

There are three means of heat transfer that we talk about in the context of heating our homes. While all three are likely to be involved in all heating scenarios, there is usually one that predominates.

1. Heating by radiation

2. Heating by conduction

3. Heating by convection

Everyone is familiar with that feeling one experiences standing in front of a fire or out in the sun on a cold but sunny winter day. The warmth felt on one side of your body is radiational heating.

When that radiant energy strikes a warm surface, that heat is “conducted” to other parts of the material warming the material up internally by conduction—it does the same with your body if you stand in the sun long enough. Of course if it is really cold outside it is helpful to turn around and let radiant heating do its job on the other side–while the other side cools off.

So that leaves Convective Heating–perhaps the “coolest” of all.

What does convective heating look like? Well typically it does not “look” like anything but its effects can be quite visible. It can create winds strong enough to generate electricity or be witnessed as hurricanes. It is the result of heat movement in a fluid and it can either be “forced” (as in a convection oven) or “natural” due to changes in buoyancy–as in warm air rising and cool air sinking.

At an inspection a while back I saw a good example of convection made visible. I call it the “Dance of Convection.”

The dancing blinds are the result of heat rising off the hydronic heating radiator beneath them.

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Convection plays a huge part in all of our lives from the way we heat our homes, to the way we ventilate our homes and even the weather around our homes.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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