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