The design process for a high performance home in the forests of Southern Vermont
At a recent open house I answered lots of questions, was generally sociable, I smiled, people liked my cookies and loved the house. I was exhausted. What really has been rolling around in my head over the past week and a half since the open house whas when somebody said this: "Now I understand what the difference between an architect designed house and a regular house is"
I have been thinking lately about what I do and what my strengths as an architect are. And I realize that what I do and what I can do are not necessarily the same things. What I do is useful to many people. What I can do is only for a very select few and they don’t come along all that often. Architecture is, or can be, art. It’s that aspect of it that few people are aware of even though it seems so clear to me. Architecture, even at the mundane level of the design of someone’s kitchen in a modest house can tickle and play with one’s emotions and spirit in surprising ways. I seek out those little moments. I slip them in when nobody is noticing. A trick of the light here, a surprising and happy alignment there. Few people care about such things or at least think they don’t. Many people, many past clients, many builders have difficulty viewing architecture, at least residential architecture with a small “a” as anything other than a commodity or a problem to solve or a product to sell or purchase. This is often brought home to me when I put such things in the design and they get X’d out because I failed to convey their importance. Small but capital “A” stuff. And often these things are not important. To most people.
We are starting a new Bluetime Collaborative project here in the Brattleboro area. This will be a High Performance house that will provide the chosen team including myself and the builder the opportunity to refine the integrated process that goes with building a HPH. We don’t know yet if this project will be built toward any certification such as Passive House or Efficiency Vermont’s High Performance Home program. That question will be addressed early on in the design process. I reworked my contract quite a bit to set up and guide the process better than a standard contract does. This includes fleshing out the design process, what to expect and when, expected meetings along with the purpose and goals of those meetings and finally, guidance with selecting the right contractor for the job at the start of the project – meaning at the start of design.
I am fortunate to live and practice in an area with an impressively large number of excellent builders with a high level of interest and enthusiasm for building science and green building and training in Passive House and high performance building. I have been finding that I can’t or rather, shouldn't, as an architect, design and detail a HPH without the full partnership of the people who will be doing the actual building. I can’t draw up a set of plans and send them out to bid. There are many conversations to have during the design process with the builder and a high level of builder competency and knowledge is required.
The process of designing and building a High Performance Home requires a level of integration between architect and builder that is uncommon. In the past I have followed a more traditional approach, working with the client to develop a design then taking it to one or more builders to price and build. This is the normal way things are done and many builders and architects prefer this approach. I have decided however that to provide the level of service and quality of product that I want to be known for, a truly integrated and refined process where the builder is retained at the very beginning, provides expertise, guidance, cost-benefit analysis + research support from the very beginning of design is necessary. And I provide similar through construction.
The result can be much more time and resource efficient process, a more refined and well designed project, and overall, a higher level of control and accountability for the builder, the architect and most importantly, the client.
For this project, I introduced my clients to three such general contracting firms and helped them interview all three. The first meeting was with Josh and Gero of Mindel and Morse Builders – a firm that have worked a lot with. I was a carpenter with them in the late nineties after architecture school. The second meeting was almost immediately after that with Scott and Gabe of Mathes/Hulme. I had done the Brattleboro Tiny house with them several years ago when they were just getting started on their own and we have been looking for a project to do together ever since. Later in the day we met with Chad of Vermont Natural Homes (who built the Greenfield house) at his own straw bale home complete with an amazing spread of hors de vors (thanks Carly!) Wish I had gotten a pic of that.
All three firms are super-professional and very supportive of each other. There is an impressive culture of support among many local builders locally with a monthly building science group that supports continuing education and discussion. Firms often help each other out with manpower and expertise. This project can provide an excellent case study and learning opportunity for the local building community.
Over the next week, the clients were further wined and dined by the builders with house tours and the clients were starting to realize not only that they were in good hands but that they had a really difficult decision to make in choosing which builder to hire.
So now that I have put some serious pressure on myself (and the builder) to do an awesome job, I will reveal that the clients have chosen Mathes/Hulme who are now busy writing up a pre-construction agreement which will be a further definition of their role in the process that I introduced in my own proposal. I haven’t had a conversation with the clients yet about what tipped the scales toward Mathes Hulme. I tried to remain very neutral during the interviews which was rather easy as I was just pleased with the opportunity to work with any of the firms.
I will be meeting this week with Gabe Hulme and Mel Baiser of Helm Construction Solutions, a construction management firm that both Mathes/Hulme and Vermont Natural Homes use. We will discuss first steps, who will be doing what and when – process and scheduling. We will discuss how communications will be handled (we might give Slack a try) and generally mapping out the next few months. I have been sketching - schemes, sections, details etc to start that conversation with the builder before I refine it a bit and present to the client.
Last week I received these photos of a project I helped out with last year. When I say helped out it really means just that. As an architect, I do very little imposing on clients. I nudge, hint, suggest, recommend, advise but in the end it is their project and their money and people hire me for different reasons. Sometimes it doesn’t go as smoothly as this which ended up being a pretty sweet project and people make some really awful decisions. (you don’t see those projects in my portfolio but all architects have them) These clients live a few hours away in another part of Vermont. I visited them last spring and I’ll make sure to visit again.
Of all the projects I do, most projects involve some level of client involvement during construction – not just during the design phase. It may be as little as purchasing fixtures and lights and doing some painting but often I design for clients who will be doing the contracting and much of the building themselves. This is Vermont after all. It’s how we roll up here. In this case the young couple had family with timber framing experience, they had survived the house building process as kids and they were ripe for some professional assistance with floor plans, aesthetics and some good solid building science. The result is one of my favorite combinations – good building science, natural building and classical New England detailing and form. And enthusiasm.
Specifics:This is a timber frame cut from wood harvested on site. The frame is wrapped with a neat double stud detail that puts the intello air barrier in a nicely protected location. Braces are set so that sheetrock can slip nicely behind them saving much labor fussing. Much of the framing lumber also came from the site. Interior finishes are plaster which saved them money on taping and finishing the sheetrock as they were able to do it themselves. Future provisions were made for a mudroom and porches. This house may even end up being net zero. The overall footprint is 22’ x 34’ which seems to be a common size for my work in recent years. I can do a lot with that footprint. Enjoy.
This project represents a "limited services" project. My role is to assist where needed but I don't do full architectural services. My usual role involves lots of help with plans, advice with the building science and buildability aspects of things and helping the clients to keep things as simple as possible. I spend much time as a sounding board. Drawings are fairly minimal and often involves sketchup models and sketches in lieu of construction drawings. I do minimal structural and framing plans, no electrical plans, no interior elevations, minimal specs and schedules etc. We really focus on the core elements of the house. Costs for this level of service range between 2 and 5 % of construction cost if you want to look at it that way. I've done a lot of these projects over the years and I've been involved with some really great clients.
The Main Team for the Greenfield house put together a short video about the house and the process of build an home with an integrated team which is pretty much necessary to do a high performance home. This video briefly explains a bit about what that means. The key players are Chad of Vermont Natural Homes, Mel of Helm Construction Solutions and myself, Bob Swinburne of Robert Swinburne Architect, LLC and Bluetime Collaborative, which represents the bringing together of key players in a collaborative team which is how I like best to work. Grady Smith of Grayson Digital did the filming and video production
Here are a few other videos that I have been featured in. The first features the Fern House and has been viewed over 28k times by now. The second is called "Living Small - Tiny House Documentary and has been viewed over 50k times
I have a lot of photos from the Greenfield project. I am spending a fair amount of time on site working out details with the builder. I strongly feel that this is the way it should be. Things never translate perfectly from paper to built form no matter how much detail and specificity I put into a set of construction documents and on this project, I am spending much time on site figuring things out and detailing to a higher level. I think Chad, the builder, appreciates this process and I'm finding that it hearkens back to my pre-architect design build days. I hope to do more projects with this level of involvement in the future. I really think that this is "the way to go" here are lots of photos. Note the local wood use: Cherry stair treads with "live" edge, local maple flooring downstairs and pine upstairs, Vermont slate, and a wall sheathed with weathered pine off my own land.
I spent part of Sunday painting at the Greenfield project with the builder Chad of Vermont Natural Homes. The all white primer that drywallers left us with was rather intense in the bright winter sun. The main bedroom upstairs which faces south was almost too bright to tolerate. It was good to spend much of the day there on a sunny day to better understand the light and to see how things will photograph when all is said and done. The color we used is a light blueish gray and it really had a soothing effect on the main room. I hope it will feel warm at night under artificial light as well. I am a bit concerned about this room as it had so much going on in terms of different materials on different surfaces. It was nice to spend the day talking with Chad about design and business and such. I don’t often get to interact on that level with the builders. There is a lot going on in this house that will help me learn and get better as an architect and help Chad get better as a builder. Plus the part where it is shaping up to be stunningly beautiful.
We tried a different construction method for this project than plain old double stud walls. There is potential in this method – (see previous post) but I don’t think we gained as much as we hoped in terms of air tightness and ease of construction. There are some Passive House builders using this method to hit ridiculously low cost per square foot numbers and it has numerous other advantages. I look forward to improving the detailing next time around. Double stud construction (used on the Ames Hill Project shown below) is the local standard here in Southeastern Vermont. The cost/benefit ratio is very high and local “green” builders are very familiar with it and prefer to build this way. Some local builders are also starting to advocate using locally milled boards as sheathing rather than OSB and plywood as well. I asked around (sent out a formal questionnaire even) and most think the cost difference is negligible.
We also had issues with the trusses on the Greenfield project. Maybe we just had bad luck but it seems that whenever I’ve tried to specify trusses to save money, they come through just imperfect enough to cause problems that need to be solved in the field.
I detailed lots of things both interior and exterior in such a way that they can be filled in later but don’t interfere with occupancy permit and impression of completeness. The sheetrock around the deep set windows for instance, costs more on the drywaller’s bill but when they leave, the window is essentially trimmed out. Done. We can add a sill later. Perhaps even just laying some slate tiles on the window sill. I have found that using wood trim on deep windows looks too...heavy and complicated. There are more cool and experimental things happening at this project as well which I will detail in a later blog post as they happen.
The stairs aren't in yet so I did some quick and dirty photoshopping:
On most (all?) projects there is a level of design that is in the earlier, preconstruction drawings and models that I find really hard to convey to builders and clients and thus gets edited out of the final constructed project. Things that often look unnecessary on paper and I sound silly trying to explain but, the older and more experienced I get, the more I understand how important these things are. Once in a while I have a client who trusts me enough to let me do what I do to a greater extent. I suspect I have been luckier than most architects in that regard. I am so often trying to use space, light (and dark), flow, texture, detail, color etc. to shape and affect emotion and state of mind for my clients and I hope that long after I’m gone that will be a big and recognized part of my legacy.
This project and the Ames Hill Project have been opportunities to work with - and see how to work with - a full-on construction management firm – Helm Construction Solutions. This is part of trying to reach a higher level of service as an architect (it’s a hard thing to do as a sole proprietor) as well as re-write how projects happen locally. I have lots of cost and pricing information gathered on my own over the years that I can use for rough estimating purposes but what Helm does involves knowing the cost of things much more accurately earlier in the process. I have found few builders who can really do this well. It tends to be a level of service one would expect of a larger firm with a dedicated staff (back at the office) for this aspect of construction. It’s very much about managing expectations, communications, process, accountability and smoothing the tumultuous process of building as much as possible.
I filled out some of the Bluetime Collaborative section of my website finally – check it out from the top menu.
I'm trying out something new: a smaller scale simplified plan with all major reference information on the front cover so the contractor has one place to find all sections, details and locate windows and doors.
The floor plan gets broken into three 1/2" scale sheets later in the set. I learned that from looking at a set of very complete drawings from a big-time NY firm that a contractor friend was building from. 1/4" per foot drawings are more traditional but 1/2" scale (twice as big) is very relevant to modern high efficiency buildings where framing is much more relevant to windows and doors as well as being easier to understand air sealing details. There are also places where I need to show actual framing in plan.
I also try to get relevant section details on the same sheets as the overall sections where possible. I learned this from my days as a carpenter as well as through feedback from builders over the years.
My use of eastern hemlock as a siding material has been generating interest. Hemlock is a common wood in Vermont but doesn’t get used a lot except in barns and outbuildings and sometimes for timber frames. My summer job during high school involved working in a small sawmill. We sometimes cut hemlock and I found the wood beautiful, but heavy. One summer, we cut some hemlock for a bridge. Fast forward um… lots of years and I ordered a bunch of hemlock for framing and decking when I built my barn. I learned a bit about how to work with hemlock, how it ages and weathers and I started thinking about how I could use it in my own work. I try to source materials as locally as possible and design within local builder's abilities and interests - which is easy to do here where builders get together monthly to discuss building science related issues
In rural New England, buildings are often sided with pine siding in a vertical shiplap form – and often unfinished. It tends to develop a black mold that is relatively harmless but can be ugly. I found that hemlock is more resistant to this mold. It’s also harder and more rot resistant. It is nowhere near as rot resistant as cedar, a more common siding material however.
It occurred to me that I could use narrow hemlock boards from local mills to create a very elegant (I hoped) rainscreen siding detail. It would use local and relatively inexpensive materials, it wouldn’t need paint or stain, installation could be simpler and faster if I got the details right, and if I installed it horizontally, the lowest courses could easily be replaced if the siding degraded due to splashback and snow banks. The damaged siding would not present a disposal concern – just toss it in the bushes and it becomes habitat for red backed salamanders. I was lucky to have a client with a taste for modernism allow me to try my ideas out on his home. The results were rather spectacular and gave me a sense of the potential. Now I am doing my second project with hemlock siding. The builders for this project (Webster Construction of Marlboro, Vermont) are quite familiar with good building science and modern products and methods. They saw the potential and were happy to give it a try plus they were able to improve my detailing in several ways which I can then incorporate into drawings and specifications for the next time around.
The hemlock turns silvery gray within a year. The narrow boards create a woven, fabric-like aesthetic.
The hemlock is installed "green" with deck screws. This siding is all 1x3 so gaps will be quite small as the wood dries. Fiberglass bugscreen is installed directly behind the siding. strapping can be regular 1x3 strapping although coravent makes an excellent product for this purpose and should at least be used on any strapping set horizontally such as over and under windows.
This is the corner trim detail the builder came up with and I really like. One side runs long and is cut after installation. The other side is held back for a crisp reveal - very architecty! Of note: the deck is white oak (local) and the post is European Larch which is from a harvest of a Vermont tree farm. European larch is used in Europe as a durable siding material that needs no treatment.
detailing around windows is super simple. On the first house I used metal panels (installed by the roofer) to accentuate the windows and wrap corners. Here it is about as simple as it gets.
Today's post is about windows. Specifically installing high end windows. Most American architects and builders don't have to read this or worry about this. Nothing to see here... move along. For those of us working on a higher level, however, windows and window installation are hot topics. I have to tailor the construction documents according to the windows chosen. This is a fair amount of work I didn't have to do in the past. The actual installation is now on my plate as something I need to be on site for as the architect. I was on-site last week at the Greenfield project and took some photos. Chad (the builder - Vermont Natural Homes) and I had much fun working out the installation details for the Klearwall windows chosen for this project. Our goal is to simplify the installation details to the greatest extent possible, minimize the possibility of water infiltration and create a system that can easily be monitored over the years for durability. We use tapes and weather barriers from foursevenfive.com to accomplish this. Calk has no place on the exterior of a modern high performance home (that is SO nineties) Our trim detail (subject for a future blog post) is designed so that we could easily remove the casing around the exterior of the window to inspect the taped joints. We start with a fairly traditional clapboard at the window opening to provide a bit of pitch. ys
Then we use Extoseal to provide a sill pan. IF any of you have ever used Bituthene for the is purpose, I feel for you. I really do. But don't ever do it again. There is a better way.
The next trick is to use Tescon Profil to tape over that annoying joint at the junction between the sill and the window frame. after several tries we came up with an excellent and easily teachable/repeatable solution. This all gets hidden with trim so we prioritize "good" over "neat"
The up and around part is relatively easy. We inset the window in the opening to make it so. This allows up to uncouple the head flashing from the window flashing in a simplified manner. The head flashing detail will be covered in a later blog post (along with the trim)
Bob, in response to your invitation to comment on the passive house you are designing for us, here are some thoughts. I see this first of all as an opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The chance to show off the kind of technology and design choices that--were they widely adopted--could significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels feels not just like an opportunity to showcase your talents as an architect but to participate in a necessary new way of thinking about housing. That you are, coincidentally, our son-in-law certainly plays a role in our enthusiasm, but it goes so far beyond providing for immediate family and grandchildren. It goes to realizing the models that are going to keep the earth inhabitable for everyone's grandchildren.
Coming back to the ground now, to the very immediate house in question and the very personal responses on an aesthetic and emotional level: It's exciting to think about having a space designed to support who we are and how we like to occupy space. The openness of most of the design, combined with the privacy of spaces designated for bedroom and in-home offices for each of us, is perfect. I imagine fondly the day when, if one of us is cooking in the kitchen and the other is in the living room, we won't have to shout to each other to be heard. I look forward to having a cup of tea by the floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows. Visual access to the outside year-round is crucial to my mental health, and if I have a view of the outside space, I need far less inside space. I am inordinately pleased by the idea that we may be able to design a root cellar into this house. The idea of storing garden vegetables connects the seasons for me. (An aside: I got a ridiculous amount of pleasure in Seattle from picking kiwi fruit in October/November, and eating it in December, January, and even February.) And, of course, those floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows will be a great spot for starting plants in the winter and early spring. Did I say I love the idea of floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows?
We love wood fires, but I've got to admit that each time I build one these days and notice the ash that has to be cleaned out and the wood dust on the rug that will need to be vacuumed I realize these are tasks I will not miss. And again, as we age, and things tend to take a little more time to accomplish just because of increased physical limitations, I won't regret leaving wood and ash hauling behind. It will leave more time for reading and writing. In the cozy office spaces or by the wonderful floor-to-ceiling windows.
Then there’s air quality and noise issues. I’m given to respiratory irritations and ailments, which means that, especially during heating season, I keep a HEPA filter running in the living room and a humidifier in the bedroom. Both are noisy, but help to create a white noise effect that drowns out traffic on the street outside. I know I’m going to enjoy the quiet of a super-insulated house and the climate-controlled clean air I’ll be breathing.
As we are very near retirement age, it pleases me that we're designing this house to be one in which we can age. Thinking ahead not to the inevitability but the possibility of one or the other of us needing a wheelchair at some point, and having the first floor bathroom at the ready, means not having to worry about retrofitting in a hurry someday.
Just knowing some of the principles of Passive House design has made me so much more aware of heat and cold. I take a hot bath, and imagine the system that will capture the heat as the water cools. I open the curtains when the sun is shining, the better to capture a bit of the free solar warmth. I have begun to use the term "thermal bridging" in casual conversation.
Circling back to the overview: I like that we are able to support, with this project, not only the concept of Passive House but also the business model that you, Mel, and Chad are using. Having presided over a remodel in Seattle, I need no convincing that it's going to be worth it to have project coordination and scheduling built in to the process and the services your team is going to provide us.
I am grappling with window issues for several projects right now. Designing, choosing, pricing and detailing windows is much more complicated than it was as recently as 5 years ago. I used to simply specify window sizes and the builder would have the lumber yard price a few lines or a favorite manufacturer. This is still the way it is done my most builders and architects. Now we have many more options to consider with windows and this has radically affected the decision making process. In the past we didn’t look carefully at the solar gain (how much warmth from the sun gets in, visible light transmittance, U value (insulation) and especially installation detailing. With my own work, a primary goal has become to eliminate the traditional heat distribution system – boiler (oil, propane or natural gas) manifold (that thicket of valves and pipes and pumps in the basement) and distribution (radiant tubes in the floor, baseboard radiators etc) – in favor of the simplicity of an air source heat pump and often, a wood stove for alternate or backup heating. The heating system then becomes a heating appliance. This has not, for my practice, been a client driven goal but I figure I’m not doing my job if I don’t discuss these options. Most clients in recent years have simply expressed a desire to minimize fossil fuel consumption and have a house that they don’t have to worry about leaving for a few weeks in the winter. Windows are usually the biggest variable in being able to minimize and simplify the heating equipment for a building.
The process, which continues to evolve, begins with sizing and placing windows according to light, views, privacy and ventilation. So far, a fairly traditional approach. Some things effect the decisions such as whether the window opens inward, outward, up and down, sideways, or not at all. Smaller windows open easier and larger fixed pane windows are cheaper (per square foot) so we often mix and match for maximum effect. Exterior doors are often now part of the window package as well.
I use sketchup modeling for this part of design as it brings a high level of clarity at an earlier stage than any method I’ve found thus far. This is also not so traditional.
Once we have arrived at a good window configuration we need to pin down some minimum energy performance specifications. The first big decision is double glazed vs triple glazed. Double glazed windows meet energy code currently but probably won’t in a few years. Window manufacturers (in the US – in Europe they are already there) are starting to realize this and gear up to offer triple glazed window options. A largish house with small windows can probably get away with double glazed windows and meet the energy use criteria I mentioned above. I also have found that with large areas of glass, comfort becomes a big issue. It can be very unpleasant to be near a large window at night when it is zero degrees outside. Condensation issues are vastly mitigated with a triple glazed window as well. I often do some energy modeling to get a sense of what the overall heat loads of the building are. It's easy to change around the U-value to see the effect of different windows. I'm also learning how to use the sketchup plugin for the Passive House Planning Package. In my spare time. (insert smiley emoticon)
Next we look at several different options from several different window manufacturers. Unplasticized PVC (UPVC) is usually the least expensive option for any window with aluminum and fiberglass usually more expensive but offering thinner profile frames. Wood is very expensive. I’ll stay away from the PVC argument here.
With preliminary pricing in hand we – myself, the builder and the client make THE DECISION and the subset of choices that affect the price and my detailing. When these decisions are made I can put specific CAD details from the manufacturer into my drawings and create much more accurate details for how it all the windows are installed, air sealing strategies, tolerances, finish work around the windows, very specific rough opening and flashing information etc. In the past this was all fairly standard and left to the builder to figure out in the field. We don’t do it that way anymore.
This is from Mel Baiser of Baiser Construction Management. I am working with her on several projects and here is what she has to say about the Greenfield project. I have the great fortune of teaming up with Architect Bob Swinburne of Bluetime Collaborative and builder, Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes on the construction of a Passive House in Greenfield, MA. This project is incredibly exciting for a number of reasons. For a passive house certified builder (PHIUS) this is rare opportunity to be involved in the planning and construction of a home which meets the highest international building standards. As someone in my mid-thirties and the parent of a young child, I am all too aware of the climate crisis. I am also a firm believer in that bumper sticker slogan, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Having dedicated over a decade to working in construction, I am committed to every effort to push this industry towards sustainability. After all, nearly 50% of the energy consumed in the U.S. can be attributed to the initial construction and operation of our buildings. Buildings that meet the Passive House standard are the buildings of tomorrow (even though we are far behind Europe and really they should be the buildings of today.) My company’s logo is “revolutionizing the building process” and though I may be outing myself in terms of political sympathies, my intent is to bring a new level of efficiency, organization and collaboration to the construction industry. In particular, in a high performance, net zero or passive house building, effective pre-construction planning and an integrated delivery process is essential to the success of these projects. My company offers cost planning, scheduling and project management services and I feel grateful to have found like-minded architects and builders (and clients) with whom to collaborate. I often find the traditional top down, architect driven delivery method (design, bid, build) to be antiquated, inefficient and not a suitable match for high performance building. By involving the builder, cost estimator and even the client very early on in schematic design, you can save thousands of dollars, weeks in the schedule, avoid technical errors and potential interpersonal conflict down the road. Green building is really nothing more than a marketing tool until we make it financially and culturally accessible. Aside from achieving the Passive House standard (heating and cooling demand less than or equal to 4.75 KBtus per SF/Yr; Primary energy demand less than or equal to 38 KBtus per SF/Yr and an air leakage rate of .6 air changes per hour at 50 Pascal) our team is motivated to bring this project in on a relatively modest budget. An architect committed to building performance, budget, function and aesthetic; a contractor/project management collaborative leading local natural and high performance building efforts and a client who believes in the importance of healthy efficient homes and “you get what you pay for” is the absolute dream team for any project, but especially for this project.
Mel Baiser Baiser Construction Management email@example.com
I took a shot at writing down my own thoughts about the Greenfield project I’m doing for my wife’s folks. Sometimes I have so many half-baked ideas in my head that writing them down creates a jelling effect and helps me to clarify and focus my efforts. I’m planning on documenting this project to a much higher level than I have in the past, partly because we are assembling something of a dream team to get this done and partly because I am using this project to redefine how I work in order to bring my own practice to a higher level. I have encouraged the others to start writing as well and some of that will show up here on the blog as well for a more well-rounded perspective. We are currently exploring the feasibility of doing this house as a Passive house and seeking certification. I hope, as usual, to show what can be accomplished when a highly functional and customized plan is also an emotionally uplifting place to live. This projects continues my exploration into the emotional aspects of “home” and how to use architecture to augment and reinforce the emotional connection to place. Phew! What have I to gain from doing this project as a full-on Certified Passive House? So what if the winter heating bills drop from $75/month to $25/month? Is that really worth all the extra effort and expense to go through certification? We don’t know the answer to that yet. “Let me run some numbers” as the engineer or accountant would say. Passive house has cache. It attracts media. There is huge marketing potential. The clients (my in-laws) are understandably interested in that aspect of it - it relates to their son-in-law’s ability to financially support his wife and children. I want to do more of this type of work in the future and will I ever get such a good opportunity to gain exposure, attention and build a reputation that to do a very attractive and relevant project at this highest level… and market it to the greatest extent possible. I have seen that model propel other firms into the limelight so I am aware of what power and potential in inherent in this thinking. Otherwise- My own limited knowledge of Passive House indicated that this house as designed thus far could attain Passive House certification with minimal extra effort. I’m a Certified Passive House Designer – CPHD with the international credential but I have little practical experience. This project could be a great way to gain that experience. The most effort and extra money will probably be in soft costs – hiring someone with experience to do the energy modeling, advise on detailing and assist in the certification process. With this project we are also formalizing a fairly progressive project delivery process that I am realizing is crucial to creating high performance buildings. This represents the direction my own business model is headed in. I have, in the past, followed both the more traditional architect route where I work with clients to design and detail a project and we shop it out to builders. I have also worked (more often) in a more design-build model where the builder is integrated into the process from very early in the process. That has been my preferred method of project delivery but I am realizing that to provide the highest levels of service, I need to fill in some gaps. I can’t do everything and I don’t have expertise in everything so I’m bringing in people to help fill the traditional gaps. Subcontractors as well need to be on board as part of the team at a much earlier stage and need to be aware that they will be asked to perform at a very high level of professionalism. Part of my job is to make that as easy as possible for them through design and detailing. I am working on this project with Mel Baiser of Baiser Construction Management and Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes both of whom have training in passive house detailing and construction. They understand what it takes to reach that highest level of building excellence. And considerable enthusiasm to do so. We are pouring over the details as fast as I can draw them up to insure that no stone is left unturned. The process requires a high level of integration at this early stage in terms of product selection, integrated assembly, cost (and relative costs). Assumptions are challenged and vetted and everything will be put down on paper before the project is staked out on the site which is under considerable snow at the moment. We will maintain a process blog as part of Vermont Architect to provide a window into this process. Blog readers and Bluetime Collaborative facebook followers have already seen some early schematic design images of this project. Stay tuned.
From the archives - Grumpy architect time: 1.If your house is adequately insulated there should be little temperature differential between the ceiling and the floor. 2. Adequately differs from code. Remember, a house built to code is the worst house you can legally build. 3. If you choose not to build an Energy Star certified home please give your poor starving architect the $2k that you obviously have to spare. 4. Does anybody with any real knowledge of building use fiberglass batts anymore? probably not anyone who reads this. 5. Air sealing folks! do it correctly!- not 6 mil poly vapor barrier - that was the 90's We are SO over that. There are some great products and great information is available. Check out 475 supply and Green Building Advisor. 6. Why do people want to build a super-insulated house and then put a full on radiant floor heating system in? - see #3 above about where to send all that extra money. 7. Why do people want to build a new house that looks old? I think it's just a phase this country is in. I see signs that the retro-anachronistic architecture phase is fading. 8. But I do it anyway - gotta feed the family + I enjoy it. Sometimes. 9. Bright side - the science of how to build correctly is settling out in favor of simplicity. That is what draws me to the Passive house approach. 10. Why do people have SO MUCH STUFF? 11. How did it happen that I'm going to my 20th year architecture school reunion tomorrow? - footnote: this was the summer before last and it was a blast!
I’m working on detailing out a smallish house in Greenfield, MA. We probably won’t go full Passive House on this but we will look at what additional costs and detailing it would take. And if we’re close… We are doing some novel (to me) stuff for the shell of the house that, I suspect, will become more standard practice for me in years to come. Here are some “progress print” detail drawings from the plan set. My drawings tend to look a bit different than most architect's drawings due to two things: The time I spent wielding a hammer and trying to interpret my own drawings and the fact that I have worked as a sole practitioner for so long and have developed my own graphic style. I should add to that a third thing – my knowledge of building science informed best practices.
The first thing you will notice about these drawings is actually the most important thing. The red and blue dotted lines represent the weather resistant barrier and the air barrier respectively. If your drawings don’t have at least the air barrier called out in the sections, (and continuous around the thermal envelope) The drawings are incomplete. I have been getting picky in my detailing about how to make the air barrier both easy to achieve and durable. In my opinion, relying on painted sheetrock to serve as an air barrier just doesn’t cut it – certainly not for the next 100 years.
Many builders and architects in the Northeast US are still building 2x6 walls with fiberglass batts and a poly vapor barrier. That’s how I learned to do it when I was just starting out in the 90’s. I also opened up a number of walls built that way that were full of mold.
builders don’t build this way anymore. Check the Building Science Corporation website for some pictures of what can go wrong.
One part of building science is probability and statistics. I often hear builders say “I’ve always built that way and I’ve never had any problems” - that you know about. But those builders are only looking at 50 or 100 projects. Luck plays a part here. What happens when you look at thousands or even tens of thousands? You start to see some patterns emerge and you start to see the luck factor drop out of the equation. You are able to formulate some best practice standards for a number of things including durability, air quality, energy use and even catastrophic failure. I prefer to work with builders who are informed about building science and involved in the discussion.
That’s easy here in the Southeastern Vermont area home of Building Green area, home of Building Green and SEON which sponsors a well-attended monthly building science discussion group and learning circle. – If anyone wants to get something like this started in their own community, send Guy an email at the address in their website.
I owe it to my clients to help them get the best constructed project possible. That, in addition to the most functional, aesthetically appropriate, finely crafted project possible. – Oh and the budget thing too – Detailing such as represented in these drawings is also very much about budget. The goal is to bump up the levels of insulation, air tightness, r value of windows etc. so that we can eliminate the traditional boiler and heat distribution system in favor of a minisplit heat pump which is more of an appliance than a system and dramatically less expensive. (I think this link is a GBA pro only link - subscription) For those without a subscription try this alternative Ideally, it becomes a wash cost wise but with the added bonus of very low monthly heating and cooling costs. Those savings alone can represent hundreds of dollars per month.
I am working on a 1400 s.f house in Massachusetts. Given that the walls are over a foot thick, the actual square footage is quite a bit less (about 1200). The extra insulation (and cutting edge building science) allows us to forgo a heat system other than a relatively inexpensive minisplit - and monthly fuel bills. Here are a few images of what I'm up to. no fancy rendering for now, just the Sketchup model and some Vectorworks CAD drawings.
I spent a fair amount of time detailing the steel and wood stairs in Sketchup as I have found that is the only way for me to really figure out every nut and bolt and refine the design to the level that I am comfortable with before construction drawings. I like to approach the stair as sculpture with every piece exact and connections "just so". Thus I am able to design something that is quick and easy to assemble with just the right amount of "fudge space" built in.
The floor plans have shrunk and simplified from the last version becoming more functional and comfortable.
One of the projects I'm working on is an addition to and renovations of a ski home in Vermont. The main house is well built and and other than a maroon and pink bathroom and rather 80's finishes, we are not doing anything too major to it. We are locating a family room addition between the existing house and garage which will provide a much nicer kitchen and living area plus additional bunkrooms and a multi-user bath on the basement level. I'm sticking with the dark clapboard and red standing seam roof of the existing as I think it provides a nice base for some fun things to happen with color at the doors and windows. I am using big windows, wood, steel etc to create a warm, modern and relaxed space for lots of people to be in. Here is the current plan: and I put together a few videos of the sketchup model