Better Buildings conference 2019 - The path forward - file under musings
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
Last month I toured the R.W. Kern center at Hampshire College with a bunch of Green building Geeks and fans as part of a NESEA pro tour. This building is being certified under the Living Building Challenge or LBC label. Pretty much the highest certification a building could achieve. Way beyond LEED. The architecture firm was Bruner Cott.
Side note: I met Simeon Bruner at Ashfield Stone without knowing who he was. (I don’t pay much attention to the goings on in my own industry) He told me his firm did Mass MOCA and I nearly fainted. Now Bruner/Cott is on my top list of firms that I follow and would like to work for. Except for the part where I rooted in Vermont and became a fuddy duddy.
The group also toured the Hitchcock Center architected by DesignLab architects and also built by Wright Builders. This building is also being built towards LBC certification. I can’t wait to see the finished product
NOVA NEXT ran an article about LBC and the Kern Center. The comments on the facebook are interesting and revealing. Education about green building is slower to trickle down than technology. We need gold standard buildings like this to learn from. Lessons learned go toward Hampshire college's goal of a net zero campus which then then are vetted and applied to the larger community. It also provides a learning tool for the current and next generation of thinkers who will apply those lessons elsewhere. Green building nowadays emphasizes durability and simplicity of systems in addition to energy use. This building will outlast most new buildings being constructed today and cost much less to own and operate. And attract the best and brightest students to the college. It's a win on so many fronts.
Here are a few photos I took during the tour plus a short video about the Hitchcock Environmental Center
The folks over at 475 High Performance Building Supply wrote a very nice article about the Greenfield house last week. foursevenfive.com provides building materials and expertise to many high performance home builders and architects.This plan will be the next stock plan available in the VSH - Vermont Simple House series. I'm working on bringing it to a high level of detail now.
Here are some decent shots of the Greenfield House project which is nearly complete and not a full-on Passive house but did meet the Mass Tier 3 rating requirements. There will be minor things to do over the next year. I will continue to photograph this house over time to improve my photography skills so stay tuned for more. This project was a collaboration with myself, Vermont Architect Robert Swinburne, sometimes known as Bluetime Collaborative and Vermont Natural Homes and Helm Construction Solutions working for VNH Details: The house has 16" thick walls with an empty service cavity so that's not all insulation, Klearwall windows + a Menk storefront window, custom fabricated steel stairs with live edge cherry treads, local maple floors, Vermont slate tile in the upstairs bath and mudroom, stone countertops from Ashfield stone - (the stone is quarried locally and represents the underlying bedrock in this region) - accurately detailed and proportioned roof trim (to make the house look super classy) a bold front porch made from Vermont white cedar, black three tab shingles ( I HATE architectural shingles). We achieved an airtightness level of .066 - Mike Duclos of DEAP Energy Group did the testing and Mass Tier III certification. Fresh air is supplied by two pair of Lunos through the wall air exchange units from 475 High Performance Building Supply The overall footprint is 700 s.f. with 600 s.f. per floor on the inside. Visitors report that it feels much larger.
The overall design is intended to be super classy and appeal to both traditionalists and modernists without being overtly stylistically categorizable. I wanted to show that a modern, superinsulated (almost Passive House certifiable) house doesn't have to look super modern or look like it was designed by an person who only cared about the numbers like so many super high performance houses do. I think we pulled that one off.
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.
Here are some progress photos on a current project which should interest those interested in building science. The AH project is under construction fairly close to my own home so I can get over there frequently. This will be a fairly modern house with large windows, double stud cellulose filled walls, a high level of air sealing and an amazing three season porch using the Kent Webster's (the builder) most excellent system of removable panels. The most interesting thing in these photos for many readers will be the use of board sheathing. Local builders are returning to this method as it provides a vapor open layer in a location within the wall where a barrier to moisture (plywood, OSB) can cause problems in a heavily insulated wall. Plus it's local wood. plus it's more fun - carpenters don't get to cut many actual 1x boards anymore. The exterior will be sealed up with Mento to prevent air movement through the wall - an excellent combination with the board sheathing.
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 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.
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.
A House for Slow LivingThe original concept came to me in a dream (yes – I dream architecturally) I think the dream may have been generated by this image which has been on my bulletin board fora few years: The original sketch was called “a house for food”
The core concept was centered around the growing, preparation and consumption of food which lends itself to the idea of gatherings of family and friends and leads to the notion of how to live in a close relationship to the local environment. From my own experience I drew upon the old fashioned ideas of hunkering down by the fire on a cold winter evening, opening the house up to the sounds, smells and breezes of a summer day, “putting food by” and making routine preparations for winter in the Autumn, starting seedlings on a windowsill in the spring, caring for children or elders. Also, how can we appreciate the beauty of the winter landscape and light without feeling overcome by it. This is a common issue in the Northeast. Where do you sit to watch a thunderstorm rolling in or to watch the snow fall? Music! – not just acoustics but around here, everybody is also a musician. How does that fit into our daily lives? Much inspiration is to be found in images and stories depicting rural life from previous times in Europe and America. I am drawn to the imagery of hard working English country houses where the real life of the house centers between the kitchen and the door stoop leading directly to the working yard and gardens. Think: Peter Rabbit in Mr. McGregor’s Garden by Beatrix Potter with a potting shed, cold frames and lots of cabbages. I am fascinated by early New England farms and town dwellings and how lives were played out in them. Not the big events but the little, day to day, season to season routines. Light and fresh air are celebrated and sought after and even, perhaps, taken for granted in an age before television and telephones. Materials are worn but durable, practical and show their age and history and that is where their beauty lies.
The Building Science aspect of design and detailing that we are all so immersed in lately addresses the idea of being able to lock the door and walk away for a month in the winter and not worry about much of anything. The neighbor has the key and will water the plants. Building Science addresses being what we are calling “net zero” so you are not storing and burning fossil fuel on site and paying for it as well. Building Science addresses the notion of simplicity – who needs a heating system that could go on the fritz and bust your pipes and freeze all your house plants so when your neighbor comes over to water the house plants, he finds an awful mess and has to call you in some recently devastated country where you are doing relief work. Building Science allows you to return in March to a house filled with fresh air and no mildew. (building science can’t help with what you left in the fridge) Building Science can free you from many previously taken for granted maintenance issues and expenses such as painting and periodic repair, maintenance and replacement of the mechanical parts of the house because now you have fewer and simpler systems.
How then, to marry my heady and romantic thoughts with the physics of modern building science? How do I pack all of this sensuality and feeling into a house that celebrates the process of living this chosen life rather than reminding one of the potentially inherent drudgery? Since these ideas are very personal to me, it isn’t very difficult to make a series of design moves and decisions that bring me pretty close. I have been moving in this direction for much of my life. I am often “pretty close” but getting to that higher level is tricky and elusive. I’m not there yet with this design but it’s still early….
In this design, I'm trying to balance small and simple with a richness of space that goes far beyond light and shadow, a good floor plan and simplicity of form and add my own interpretation of what it can mean to live in Vermont and lead a life integrated with the climate and culture of the place. I'm drawing heavily on history and my own sense of aesthetics as well as all my cumulative observations and experience.
Dang! Maybe I should tear down my own house and build something like this!
Note: this blog entry was published on Green Building Advisor on March 31, 2014 I have been asked about my Passive House consultant training by other architects enough times that I though I'd write up a quick synopsis, one year later.
For me, the Passive House training was very useful for several reasons, not the least of which was the networking aspect. It is a small community with some really great conversation happening and it is fun to be a part of that. There is a lot of controversy as well, especially on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com Such as where does the law of diminishing returns kick in when it comes to insulating and how to handle latent loads (excess moisture). Plus there's the whole U.S. vs the rest of the world thing which I won't go into as I find it rather annoying, or at least boring. Secondly, It represents state of the art science on how to build good buildings with an overriding emphasis on simplicity and quality. Passive House is really all about quality and even, as I'm finding out, represents a necessary re-thinking of how to get something built. A much more collaborative approach is necessary than often happens when building even high-end projects. The process gets much less linear. I also like the idea that the Passive House approach is a valid part of the conversation, not just achieving certification and getting the plaque to hang beside the front door. I see projects being showcased that utilized the approach in a value engineering manner to get the most bang for the buck that simply don't have the budget to go all the way and attain certification and I like the general consensus that that is okay. Much of my own work had been trending in the PH direction anyway so it was good to undergo the intensive training so that I could make decisions with much more confidence and authority that comes with PH credentials. As an architect who was never very (ahem) enthusiastic about the numbers and physics of things and more into the airy-fairy poetic nature and scholarly aspect of architecture it was also helpful in terms of training my weaknesses. I call myself a Passive House designer rather than a consultant in part because If I were to attempt a full-on certified Passive House, I would want to hire someone more experienced who does this on a daily basis to do the actual numbers part and look over their shoulder through the process - at least for the first few times. There is also the notion, similar to my approach to structural engineering where I try not to design anything too complicated to engineer myself - I prefer not to design anything that would require a complicated heating/ventilating system. It does get more complicated in renovation/addition work though for sure. My approach to structural engineering has always been very intuitive and very related to my own building experience and knowledge of materials, assemblies and connections My structural engineering professor once told me that the intuition part is vital and more than half the battle. First you intuit the solution then you apply numbers and formulas to check yourself. The Passive House training augmented my intuition and gave me more confidence to apply the numbers as well as a perspective on when, where and why.
Plus it was really good for marketing.
I had another comment recently from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an email and then decided to put it hereon the blog instead. What we are doing nowadays in the world of high performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed (which includes the majority of 70's and 80's super-insulated and passive solar homes in the northeast) and applying those lessons to building a durable house nowadays. Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone and many of those that remain are simple piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (usually, I like simple but...) For the past few decades, builders in the northeast have been living in a vacuum while the northern Europeans and Canadians paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again and we are taking a seat at the table.
I have lived in houses that breath my whole life. It sucks. Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to not freeze to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills. Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my house that breathes. I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the woodstove going. Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.
We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago despite all the failures. A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn and If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says "People breath air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?" If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.
There are a range of options for doing this from exhaust only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on Heat Recovery Ventilation System or HRV. These are also fairly simple and effective although significantly more expensive but have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information just type "HRV" or "house ventilation" into the search box on Green Building Advisor and start reading.
Designing a Super-insulated wall with good drying potential and good air sealing is easy. But the Devil is in the windows. With passive house level construction we want the window to be recessed toward the middle of the opening and the middle of the adjacent insulation layer. This is about thermal bridging and heat loss. An advantage that I've found is that it can potentially simplify the flashing which is certainly a welcome idea. Window and door installation has become increasingly complex over the past decade especially with exterior foam details. (I try to stay away from that) What I'm looking at in this sketch is how flashing for siding can be decoupled from flashing for the window to a great extent. Does the siding even need flashing anymore? Depends on how you do the siding. With some Rain screen siding details, perhaps not! Windows are now coming with really nice integrated sill flashing - you specify the depth when you order. This makes for a much more integrated and seamless system which should have long term durability advantages over what we have been doing up until now. What is missing from this drawing is an exterior layer of rock wool insulation to keep the sheathing warm (not rigid foam !) A more expensive detail and this may be less important when using cellulose than fiberglass insulation but is a detail I would certainly do on my own home. The other option is to use more of a Larsen truss system similar to what Chris Corson is doing in Maine with no exterior sheathing. It is A tough sell around here to leave the insulation protected only by a weather barrier such as Mento plus. The conversation on building science is terribly interesting and seems to be resolving itself towards simplicity as we gain knowledge and experience about what works and what doesn't and develop products and materials based on our increasing knowledge base. Of course, 93% of builders and architects aren't really paying much attention.