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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One body’s efficiency may be another body’s inefficiency.

When we have a motor or other piece of equipment that can get very hot, it will often be designed in such a manner as to promote heat dissipation. Whether it is the fins on a Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine or the fins on an air compressor (pictured below), the principle is the same.

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The more we can increase the surface area that is being heated the easier it will be to move that heat to the surrounding air. If we push the lawnmower really fast around the yard we can assist in the cooling by increasing the air flow. Of course all that running around would then make us wish we had fins to dissipate our own overheating.  In like manner, if we want to improve the ability of something to heat the air–as in a baseboard heater–if we put lots of fins on the heater we can make the hot surfaces come in contact with more air and thus improve the efficiency of the heater in terms of how long it will take to heat up the room.

Some buildings unintentionally utilize this principle. While there are lots of worse buildings than the one in the following picture, it does make one wonder what is being accomplished by the way it is designed.

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It is those dang unintended consequences again!

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Does your house need “bypass surgery?”

Many do.

Air bypass into the roof structure (attic) is one of the biggest challenges to the home’s roof structure–from the “inside” that is. Everyone is aware of the damage that can occur from failed roof coverings and roof flashings, but most are not aware of air by-pass issues. Certainly most home owners are not aware enough.

When we heat our homes, the warm air takes on moisture due to the simple fact that warm air can hold more water (as vapor) than cooler air can. As an example the cooler you keep your home the more condensation will form on your windows. When you warm the house up, the condensation magically disappears. This of course assumes there is not so much moisture being produced that no amount of warming can hold all the moisture–we call this rain.

Any place this warm moist air can find a way into the roof structure we call “air bypasses.” Think of them as paths of moisture vapor transfer–a moisture vapor transfer system. Obviously this is a waste of heat and is a huge problem in itself in terms of energy efficiency, but this air movement can also result in ice dams and other problems in the roof or attic structure. The movement of water vapor with this air is problematic because it can result in wood decay rot in the roof structure as well as mold growth in the attic.

For the most part, stopping the air movement will stop the vapor movement. In really cold climates it is a good idea to have a vapor barrier on the insulated ceilings to prevent moisture vapor from migrating to the cold roof surfaces by means of temperature/pressure differentials–vapor drive. But this could be the subject of another post.

Back to bypass surgery.

Where do these bypasses occur (and this is by no means a complete list)?

1. Improperly sealed (gasketed) attic accesses.

2. Openings around plumbing pipes, electrical wires and HVAC ductwork.

3. Inadequately sealed skylights.

4. The spaces or chases around chimneys and b-vents.

5. Ceiling electrical junction boxes.

6. Can-lights–especially when the lights are turned on.

7. Kitchen, dryer and bathroom exhaust fans–even if the units have dampers.

Think of each one of these paths of air movement as little exhaust vents–with no damper–essentially working 24/7–in an attempt to destroy your roof structure and empty your wallet.

Stopping all means of air movement is critical to solving a lot of the attic’s health problems–and can result in avoiding surgery altogether. A little preventative medicine goes a long way.

Some types of insulation, like cellulose fiber, are more forgiving of some of these bypasses because they essentially do a very good job of stopping air movement. If you have any type of fiberglass insulation you can pretty much include everything on the list as a functional air bypass.

I came across a great example of can-light bypass the other day. Granted, this is considerably more egregious than most can-lights but it is a perfect example to illustrate what we have been talking about so far.

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First of all, note the location. These two can-lights above the tub are in a location that likely requires sealed covers (and certainly would require fixtures rated for a damp location if not a wet location). So, besides the air bypass issue these would be considered wrong regardless. Of course the exposed bulbs being CFL’s adds another interesting dimension to the installation.

These can-lights are installed in what might be considered the area of highest moisture vapor in the home. It is a good thing there is a vent fan right there between them to help with the moisture. Too bad the fan vents directly into the attic!

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Here is a picture of one of the can-lights as seen from inside the attic.

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Can you see all those round holes in the fixture? The circled hole, and others in the fixture, are what make this thing a bathroom vent as much as a light fixture.

This next picture is what the fixture looks like if you were a mouse in the attic and the lights were turned off.

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Can you see the cute curls of the CFL through the holes? The mouse can.

So what kinds of “obvious” air bypasses do you have into your attic?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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