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One of the advantages of working closely with my friend and builder, Eric Barton (Biltmore Homes), on my own home renovation is the chance to literally get my hands on all the materials we’re using, and to discuss material techniques and strategies as we go. It’s not the textbook approach where the builder reads the plans and specs and installs exactly what the architect said; it’s the architect and builder looking at the crawlspace ceiling, scratching our heads, and asking, “how can we do this without spray foam?” That sort of thing.
During the August 25th Green Built Home Tour, I described the moment I had when we removed the gas line from our house as part of this project. I no longer had a pipe coming into the house with a gas that could catch on fire, kill me with carbon monoxide, and poison my family every time I cooked. Having it gone was surprisingly visceral. I’m getting the same with the materials.
What really struck me over the weekend while I was painting trim and installing foundation insulation was the emotional connection to material. When you cut wood trim, you get sawdust. Don’t breathe it in, but it has a nice wood smell; cut cement fiber board trim, and you should be afraid—you should fear the silicates that you really shouldn’t breathe in. Cutting wood fiberboard insulation, you make compost; it’s totally different from cutting EPS (Styrofoam), with horrible white plastic pellets littering the jobsite, impossible to contain. The list goes on and on, but the upshot is that we can and should build durable, beautiful buildings from non-toxic materials. Some are harder to get than others, but aside from current supply chain issues, they’re getting more available as the design and construction industry demand them. So keep demanding!
Another recent experience we had on a project was an attic spray foam job that continued to smell days after installation. If the spray doesn’t cure properly due to the mix or the temperature, the uncured or still curing material can smell bad and contain some toxicity. Also, according to an experienced foam installer I know, apparently supply chain issues in the chemical manufacturing of the foam components has resulted in some bad batches.
It seems that from the late 19th century to now, we have created and deployed so many toxic materials—lead, asbestos, PFAS, vinyl, benzene and other various petroleum by-products, coal ash with its heavy metals, microplastics… while right in front of us we have wood, cellulose, stone, adhesives without added formaldehyde, solar and wind power, and so on. Check out our resource document for products, documents, websites, and more.
A guiding quote by Frank Lloyd Wright: “Study Nature, love Nature, stay close to Nature. It will never fail you.” We don’t always have all the information we need on every material we get our hands on, but I will always be looking for those feel-good materials as close to Nature as possible.
I decided to take the leap and decarbonize my 1919 frame bungalow. This was born out of several things: first, we were at the end of service life on the gas water heater, within 5 years of service life on the furnace/AC (inefficient gas, poorly installed), and the soffits and fascias had begun to fall off the house—the squirrels were having a heyday. My walls still didn’t have retrofit insulation, and my enclosed back porch was poorly enclosed in the ‘40’s, with some band-aid level solutions I had installed to make it tolerable. Plus, the house featured an original basement, which is to say, a cracked slab that didn’t keep moisture, radon, or critters out, and no insulation down there. In other words, about 60% of my interior was nasty and uncomfortable, and the rest needed help, too. The driving motivation was a combination of a sense of stewardship and adventure—doing the right thing by my building (which would make for a more durable and much healthier and comfortable living environment), and experiencing first-hand technologies like the heat pump water heater, mini-split heat pumps, induction cooking, and good ventilation with energy recovery. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’m fortunate to be able to finance this given historically low interest rates. This project will teach me a lot, allow me to teach others, and beyond the enjoyment of it for many years, I think it will pay off in the long run. I began with the question, “could I make my house a Passive House?” The answer was yes, but it meant having to replace my roof (which was insulated in 2010, when I had no grand plans and little money), and having to pull out my existing windows (replaced in 2004, when I hadn’t heard of Passive House or triple glazing, and “airtight” was a term nautical designers, not architects used). So, while it was possible, I didn’t think it made sense to spend a lot of money throwing away serviceable items. My next question was, well, if I can’t make all the PH metrics, can I make the PH Source Energy limit? In other words, could I cut down my total overall energy usage to Passive House levels, even if space conditioning energy is a bit high? In doing so I would employ all the PH strategies at my disposal: minimizing thermal bridges, insulating, making the house airtight, using an ERV for ventilation, and using efficient lighting and appliances, plus some solar PV. The answer was yes, it’s totally doable! In fact, I could approach annual Net Zero by adding some more solar.
Check out these visualizations of our energy modeling:
Here are the strategies I employed to get there:
Exterior walls: these are leaky and poorly insulated, and were also covered with asbestos siding. I hired a remediation crew to remove the asbestos; next we will strip off the old siding and expose the original sheathing. We will drill holes in the sheathing so we can pump cellulose into the walls, and then we’ll cover the sheathing with a diffusion-open (meaning it lets moisture “breathe” to the outside) peel-and-stick air barrier membrane, sealed at all penetrations, sealed to the foundation, and sealed as best we can to the roof. We’ll then cover that with a diffusion-open wood fiberboard insulation layer, creating a thermal break at all studs. The fiberboard is essentially a negative-carbon product, having absorbed carbon while it grows, and being repurposed from waste product. Over the fiberboard go furring strips and new siding. This is more than a face lift—it’s like major reconstructive surgery!
Basement: an 850s.f. conundrum. Over the years, whenever I would come up with ideas to expand the house up or out, I always came back to “yeah, but I would have to deal with that basement.” Dirty, cold, wet, and leaking radon (just enough to be concerned), it’s a lesson in why capillary breaks and waterproof insulation are needed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that insulating the basement plus good HVAC would mean I would have 850sf that I could actually enjoy for art studio, guests, music, laundry, etc. It would mean tearing out the old slab and putting in new windows, but it would really change the way I look at about 40% of the house. Also, replacing the three old wood structural columns with new ones (on stand-off bases) means I don’t have to worry about those degrading by wicking up moisture from the ground. For the windows, I decided to go with Marvin fiberglass double pane; while triple pane is my choice for comfort and energy, especially on larger windows, these are small units in less-used rooms, and I thought it made sense to save over a thousand bucks here.
HVAC and water heating: with a much-improved thermal envelope, I have the opportunity to have a much smaller, energy efficient heating and cooling system; and by replacing the old gas water heater with a heat pump electric type, I will have eliminated most the gas use (cooking and dryer only remaining)—almost there to all-electric! For space conditioning, this meant mini-split heat pumps, of course, like we use on most our Passive House and low-energy projects, since they’re very energy efficient. I wanted the system to function properly, so planned to replace the ductwork so it would be properly sized and well-installed (airtight). I chose a conditioning ERV (the CERV2 from Build Equinox) so that I would have demand-controlled ventilation, good airflow, great filtration, and a modest amount of conditioning when I’m ventilating. The water heater is Rheem Proterra 50-gallon heat pump unit I picked up at Home Depot. It will cool the air in the house in heat pump mode; I don’t see this being a winter comfort problem since it’s in the basement, and the conditioning system will offset the losses—but it will be good to live with it and get first-hand experience.
Appliances and PV: the last remaining items were the range (switching from gas to induction) and dryer (switching from gas to a heat pump condensing dryer). I decided to commit to these with the rest of the project so I could eliminate my gas line. I already have 12 solar panels on the house (kind of jumped the gun, but got them the last year that the Federal tax credit was 30%, before it got reduced) and plan to add some more to offset my increased electricity use (even though everything will be very efficient, I’m using electricity for heating, water heating, cooking, and dryer now, so overall electricity use will go up as gas goes to zero).
Other problem areas: common to a lot of older renovated houses, my front and back porches were enclosed long ago, and were not properly insulated. To fix that, I’m reframing the back porch walls and installing triple-glazed (Alpen) windows; on both, I’m insulating the floors with a few inches of closed cell spray foam for airtightness and condensation control, topped by loose fill insulation (less carbon intensive)—we’re still working out the details of this in light of material availability.
You can follow the progress on Instagram where we upload images from the project. Also, Tom presented this project on the Green Built Home Tour session on “How to Prioritize Sustainability Upgrades for an All-Electric Home” and you can watch that video here.
Following up on the last post introducing the idea of decarbonizing existing buildings, this post features a flow chart that illustrates decision points and issues for decarbonizing homes in a cold climate. There is plenty of complexity in any building project, arguably more so in renovations; so this isn’t a how-to guide so much as a view into our thought process about the different facets of a project like this. We expect this to change as technology advances and we complete more projects of this type.
Please feel free to download our Decarbonization Resources with links to our recommended websites, products, and organizations:
Given our focus as a firm, and how many deep energy retrofit projects we’re doing, we thought it would make sense to give a little explanation, to let people know what’s going on in our heads and in these buildings.
What’s it all about? These buildings have a plan to stop using fossil fuels—to get to zero carbon. Since we’re in a cold climate, it begins with simple but thorough conservation through insulation and air sealing. Decarbonization continues by using electricity to efficiently power the entire house, using heat pumps for HVAC, water heating and the dryer, and induction for cooking. Can’t decarb if you’re using fossil fuels, so the gas line comes out! Solar PV on the roof then allows us to offset most or all of the annual site energy use. As the electrical grid is increasingly fed by wind and solar, coal and gas generation can be retired, but only if buildings are very energy efficient!
A great benefit of this process is that the home is made more comfortable and durable, with greater indoor air quality for a healthier environment. It’s not cheap or simple, but much of it can be planned to occur with the end of service life of various components such as exterior finish, windows, and mechanical equipment.
The following blog posts will explore a decision flow chart for the decarbonization process. Stay tuned!
In the US most of our buildings are not optimized for indoor air quality, energy efficiency, or today’s living patterns. As our building stock ages, and as appliances and HVAC systems, windows, and finish surfaces reach the end of their service lives, we face an opportunity to radically upgrade: we can refashion our buildings toward a positive vision of the future.
Since the 1970s, researchers and the DOE have studied building science* to determine climate-specific recommendations for levels of airtightness and insulation, ventilation and conditioning systems, and efficient appliances. Following these best practices leads to more durable, comfortable, energy efficient environments with far greater air quality than is typical. These to me are the goals of all building, whether new or retrofit, and they can all be done while upgrading appearance and function. Even without going to extremes, houses in most of the US, including our Chicago climate, can achieve 75-100% energy use reduction while weaning off fossil fuels. All the technology and know-how we need is available right now.
To give a sense of the scale of the issue, consider the Chicago region: since we’re a cold climate, nearly half of residential energy use goes to heating. According to 2010 Chicago data, residences collectively use about 24 trillion kWh annually; if these used a sustainable 3,500kWh per person annually, that would be reduced to about 6 trillion—a factor of 4 reduction, while leaving fossil fuels behind. Most of the energy that goes to an older home, typically a leaky and poorly insulated building, is wasted; but with good retrofits, we can get there. I will demonstrate how in my 1919 house I achieved an 84% energy reduction in five steps, which also meant a 75% reduction in my required furnace (which becomes heat pump) capacity.
So what are the roadblocks? The first, as I see it, is lack of vision: it’s easy to remain entrenched in our old, fossil-fuel age, poorly ventilated mindset, and therefore extend our low level of performance. It takes some analysis and experimentation to get beyond that. In TBDA’s remodel and retrofit work we often chart a path to low- or zero-energy use for clients, with the understanding it doesn’t all have to be done at once; but the near-term steps shouldn’t hinder the long-term goal. You have to see down that path ahead, and knowing how each step is contributing to your big goal keeps the motivation high!
Another problematic-at-scale roadblock is the use of real estate for short-term profit. A flipper or developer doesn’t have incentive to do more than code minimum since they won’t get the financial or health benefits of a higher performing building. A production builder may lock in an inefficient thermal envelope and mechanical system for 25 to 50 years—and we only have 10 to get in front of catastrophic climate change. This will probably require demand, and either financial incentives, stricter regulations, or both.
Next, the question of cost: the knee-jerk reaction is that it costs substantially more to build at a higher level, but studies have countered that. True, a couple exhaust-only bath fans are cheaper than an energy recovery ventilation (ERV) system; lots of insulation costs more than little insulation in the short term. But when you look at life cycle costs and the health effects of the envelope, you may have a different value scale than the flipper or production builder. For new construction, the cost to build to a very high level of performance is, from our research and others we’ve seen, only in the 1-7% increase in initial building costs—easily justifiable by long-term energy savings and increased comfort and air quality. This small a margin is within the range of trade-offs for tile or countertop costs, or slightly reduced (better designed!) square footage. In retrofits the math can be harder, but sometimes forgiving, since you face the need to replace aging infrastructure like mechanical systems or windows.
Thus far, each retrofit we’ve seen is unique, but themes and prototypes are emerging. In our next posts, we will be showing case studies to discuss the design and goal-setting processes, building science, energy modeling, and cost issues. In particular we will attempt to outline cost challenges where they occur so that policymakers can understand where incentives will be needed to get us on track. This is our decade to make a difference.
*Retrofit energy modeling begins at 3:07 of video above
** Resources include Deep Energy Retrofit Guidance from the Building America Solutions Center, NREL’s Standard Work Specification website for home energy upgrades, Building Science Corporation’s trove of research papers, insights, and Joe Lstiburek’s wit, the Green Building Advisor website, PHIUS, Fine Homebuilding, Journal of Light Construction, and other publications.
We’re excited to share progress from our project near Bloomington, IN: we count ourselves fortunate to work with inspired owners and excellent builders. Loren Wood Builders is doing a great job on this—not only did they go get Passive House Builders Training, they are being so diligent thinking ahead about components, assemblies, and the integrity of the air barrier. Plus—they have a drone! Here are some photos of the work in progress—you can see we’re using Zip-R (2.5” insulated sheathing) as our air barrier and continuous insulation, over 2X6 studs with cellulose. The slab and foundation are insulated with EPS, and the roof will be insulated with cellulose over the Rothoblass membrane air barrier. Windows are Alpen Tyrol tilt/turn, great performance (triple-glazed) and value. There’s also a shot of the big cistern going in, which is for rainwater collection for domestic use and irrigation.
More coming soon, as the Thermory (wood) and metal siding and roofing go on!
We have participated in the Green Built Home Tour every year for almost 10 years, and we were excited to include Acorn Glade Passive House as part of the tour this year. Although we missed seeing attendees in person, the virtual tour allowed more people to attend and learn about Passive and green built homes. If you were unable to attend, we have included our portion of the tour below. Enjoy!
The shelter-in-place order meant that homes were far more continuously and intensely used than in the recent past; this makes us consider how well they’re taking care of us. Home offices sprung up in mudrooms, bedrooms, basements; many families are cooking much more; and with parks and playgrounds closed, we look to our streets and yards to provide that much-needed outdoor time and Nature connection. As an architect, three issues I’m thinking about due to these new arrangements are air quality, privacy gradients, and nature connection.
Air Quality: this report from Rocky Mountain Institute sheds light on numerous facets of indoor air quality, including racial and income disparities and impacts on children; gas cooking turns out to be a big issue, even in homes with ventilation. To drill down, here’s a good Allison Bailes article specifically on kitchen ventilation and its flaws. The RMI article makes another interesting point—while we have created standards for limiting outdoor air pollution (the Clean Air Act, for example, threatened by the Trump administration), there are no maintenance* standards for indoor air, and in general, it looks pretty bad—though studies are needed. (*By maintenance, I mean what’s actually being lived in, separate from building code and ASHRAE requirements for ventilation, which do not necessarily ensure good air quality.)
One of the important improvements the Passive House standard makes over a typical home is the inclusion of a balanced, filtered ventilation system. A typical modern house only has exhaust for ventilation at bathroom and kitchen, and of course it only works when you turn it on (see the chart from the California IAQ study); and it doesn’t supply fresh air or filtration to bedrooms or living spaces. But a Passive House ventilation system continuously cleans the air at pollution points (baths, laundry, kitchen), and supplies filtered air to bedrooms and living spaces. These filters can be fine enough to reduce some virus-carrying droplets, as described in detail on this other fine post by Energy Vanguard. In all of our new houses and gut remodels, we design ERV systems; typically we specify MERV 13 filters, though the PHIUS standard requires MERV 8.
So what can you do now? First off, ALWAYS use your kitchen hood when you cook, and use the back burners first. Even boiling water can release CO and other toxins (not the water, the combustion byproducts), and the hood picks up fumes from the back burners better than the front ones. Open windows when you can. Get outside. Consider a finer filter for your HVAC system, but heed the advice on Energy Vanguard’s blog about potential effect on your fan (check with your service tech). Consider installing an energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Here’s the thing: less expensive ones like Panasonic’s spot ERV don’t work below 32F or so—you need to get one that can handle cold weather, like Panasonic’s Intelli-Balance, which means you’ll be into ducting; or you can get a pair or two of Lunos units, very clever retrofit devices; or you can get a unit that will connect to your house’s forced air system like the Renewaire unit (it will require new ductwork from your exhaust locations, but puts fresh air into your existing ductwork); or a stand-alone unit like the Zehnder, or, the gold standard in my opinion, the CERV from Build Equinox, a demand-controlled ventilation system with conditioning and continuous air quality monitoring.
Privacy Gradients: This may sound like architect-jargon; what I mean is that it’s good to have active areas where common activities (cooking) happen and family and friends can gather, and it’s good to have spaces where people can get away from the crowd and noise. It’s a general principle that can result in a space being called “home office” or “music room” or “library;” a good example of this is the “Away Room” or “Place of Your Own” as laid out in Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House concept. At TBDA, most of our houses, in response to client desires, have include a living-dining-kitchen area that is joined in one big rectangle, L-shape, or other joined configuration; but these houses also feature a quiet non-bedroom space that can be used as office, place for a quiet conversation (or a Zoom meeting, these days. I’m finding in my house that it’s nice to have the kids at the table close to the kitchen (in nearly continuous use!), but the attic studio is a welcome feature when my wife gets on a Zoom call with 20 fourth graders.
What can you do now? Well, if it’s relatively easy, you’ve probably figured out a solution already; maybe you were able to re-think function and see your space in a new light. If it’s not so easy, remodeling may be worth considering, especially if it can solve other problems or otherwise help you upgrade your living environment. Often it’s a matter of space planning expertise and the experience a residential architect brings to see the big picture and make the best use of space, light, and structure.
Nature Connection: This dovetails to the remodeling comment above: it may not be a quick and easy fix. A house can be designed or remodeled to make the outdoors, or a courtyard, feel very much like a part of the home, which is good for us in many ways. Biophilic design is becoming more important as we spend more time indoors—our genetics aren’t that far away from our hunter-gatherer past, so we expect those inputs from the natural world, the variable sounds, smells, air movement, textures, and natural materials and patterns, to be fully alive. Our stress levels rise when we don’t get those and instead get the sound of the refrigerator humming, cars honking, an HVAC system blasting on, the soul-deadening environment of featureless drywall painted with plastic paint.
The concept of home must continue to evolve away from boxes-with-holes to shelter-in-nature; it’s more subtle than a glass box approach, best exemplified by buildings like Fallingwater and other Wright masterpieces; and we must recognize that our neighborhood structure of car-oriented grids with rectilinear family slots leaves much to be improved upon.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself and my family taking more walks around the neighborhood and appreciating the great Spring here; granted, this is in part because we have a new dog, but it’s also because we feel the need to change our environment and can’t go to a gym, library, restaurant, museum, or theater. We’re feeling grateful for our health and for a back yard and neighborhood that are enjoyable to be in. I hope you are (safely!) enjoying good places too, and keeping in good health.