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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Are you NUTS? Why would I want to vent my crawl space in the winter?

I have been around and around with clients enough to know that there are many people that seem to think that venting crawl spaces in the winter is a bad idea–especially in the wet NW where outdoor winter humidity can be close to 100% for much of the time.

floodedcrawl3Why would anyone in their right mind want to draw all that wet air into the crawl space?  Sounds like a problem waiting to happen, doesn’t it?

To get to the answer however, we have to actually look at the science of humidity and how important to our homes (as well as to our answering the question) that we understand that humidity has a critical relationship with “temperature.”

The truth, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, is that we can actually “lower” the moisture in a wet crawl space by bringing in this 100% moist air.

Some of you will be absolutely certain that I am celebrating WA State’s new Mary Jane law–but I assure you that, not only do I not inhale, but that I am not smoking anything funny at all.

Again the key is “temperature.”

Air at 40 degrees F cannot hold as much moisture as 100 degree F air.

Because of this simple fact, 40 degree air will reach saturation (100% humidity) much quicker.  So now let’s drag that 40 degree, 100% humidity air into the crawl space that is 50 degrees at 75% humidity.  Not only can it easily handle the moisture coming in, as the air is warmed to 50 degrees its humidity drops and results in the 75% air dropping to less than 75%.  There are a lot of factors, such as air flow, and how much the air flow will reduce crawl space temperature that will effect just how much the humidity will be lowered, but the point remains that the crawl space humidity, overall, will be lowered–not increased.

When you do not control crawl space moisture, bad things can happen

When you do not control crawl space moisture, bad things can happen

So now let’s keep the crawl space temperature at 50 degrees and drop the humidity to a more normal 50%.  The ability of that 50 degree air to absorb moisture in the colder air improves even more.

Interestingly enough, very few crawl spaces ever drop much below 50 degrees except perhaps near the perimeter where the cold of Mother Nature occasionally “takes-out” an outside faucet–at least in the mild Northwest.  Your Mother Nature may treat you differently where you live–it is wise to pay attention to Mother Nature and understand her idiosyncrasies in your area.

Generally speaking, wood moisture content (as measured by a moisture meter) tends to be slightly higher in summer than in winter when outside air is at higher temperature and at lower humidity and then the reverse happens.  75 degree air at 50% humidity will work to raise the humidity of the air in a crawl space with 50% humidity at 60 degrees.  The cooler air in the summer cannot hold as much moisture as the warmer outdoor air and the crawl space air reaches saturation quicker resulting in higher crawl space humidity and thus raising moisture levels in the woodwork.

But before it can become a problem, the seasons change and moisture levels naturally start to go the other way.

Different climate zones are affected by these same principles in different ways–that is why they are called “different climate zones.”  It is important for the builder to understand the climate the home is built in to understand how to allow for these principles to work in ways that don’t destroy the house or provide an environment conducive to wood destroying organisms and mold.

In the South, where humidity can be high year round, and temperatures are near saturation year round, venting crawl spaces at all is especially problematic.

Of course all of this is relative only to “vented” crawl spaces.  Since we have millions of homes with crawl spaces (and more are built every day) any conversation I might have about how they should not be allowed does nothing to deal with the ones that we do have already.

It is more important to understand how to maintain good humidity levels in crawl spaces so that problems do not arise.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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A case of better late than never!

A case of, “Let’s embarrass the home inspector!”

Some stories are worth telling even if it does have to come at one’s own expense.

Years ago, we remodeled our kitchen.  In the process, the range was relocated to the other side of the kitchen.  This meant that the old vent pipe from the range hood had to be abandoned.  The pipe was disconnected at the ceiling in a space above the stairs behind where the hood used to be.



I stuffed the pipe with insulation (or at least I would like to assume I did) figuring that the pipe and roof cap would get removed when the roof was replaced.

At some point I noticed there was a lot of dust collecting around the edges of the cabinet door to this space above the stairs.


I knew what the dust meant and more or less ignored it figuring the vent was still functioning a bit–air moving through the insulation.

In the context of the recent window replacement project, I had some work to do on the roof and decided that I would get rid of the old vent cap and pipe in the process.


When I pulled off the roof cap and looked down the pipe I was surprised to see—nothing!  No insulation in the pipe.  This pipe had been acting like a chimney since the kitchen was remodeled.   Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!

It is by-passes like this that can amount to higher energy costs and work against the huge amounts of insulation that had been added to the attic space.  It is really no different than leaving the damper open on your fireplace.  The dust in the screen of the old cap is testament to how it has been cleaning the air as I attempted to heat up all outdoors.


You too can look for the signs of these types of air by-passes, and eliminate them to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of your home.  Here is a partial list of indicators.  Look for dust and discoloration like that in the picture above, around:entryway doors, windows, fireplace screens, attic access hatches, crawl space hatches, ceiling light fixtures, light switches, receptacles, along baseboards, along the run of stairs, around the edges of floor registers, skylights, or anywhere else where air sealing has not been complete.

I guess it is a case of better late than never.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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