Thermal bridging and Air sealing – simplified

By | bad ideas, education, good ideas, Passive House, working with a builder | One Comment

Just a quickie about thermal bridging and air sealing. I can explain it in way fewer words and terms and scientific-ness than what you find when you go looking for information on the web. Thermal bridging is when there is too much stuff that is not insulation in a section of exterior wall. This includes most traditionally framed houses. Especially near outside corners and around windows. In the cold of winter, the inside room surface of these areas stay much cooler than the surrounding room temperature and condensation occurs, then mold.

Improper air sealing is when your builder tells you your house needs to breathe and he’s not talking about an air exchange system. Improper air sealing allows air to enter your house through tiny pathways through and near these moldy areas. The mold spores are then breathed in by your children.

Get it?

Observations from Rachelle (my co-#1 fan)

By | bad ideas, ego, mutterings, working with a builder, working with an architect | No Comments

Bob has been asking me for some time to write a guest blog entry and since he has happily been to busy of late to write much himself, I thought this was a good time to finally make good on my promise to do so.

Last year, I had a visit with an old friend who had recently moved back to the area. I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was the first time I’d seen her new house since it was just a partially-erected timber frame. It was lovely to see my friend after such a long gap, and also fodder for pondering and a blog entry.

The house was nice—open, tasteful, bright and spacious (huge by our standards) and it fulfilled their goal of functioning as somewhat of a community gathering place as well as a home. For example, they were holding a weekly meditation group in a specially designed meditation/yoga area. But I couldn’t help thinking that if Bob had designed it, it could have met their needs so much more simply, elegantly and with much less square footage.

Of course I said nothing (how can you say something like that and what would be the point?) as I had said nothing during their design process. It seems rather self-serving to say to a friend who’s designing their own dream house, “you know, you should really consider hiring my husband.”

But what I learned next makes me question whether that was really the best approach. When somebody builds a house, you expect them to be excited, even jubilant with the result. Instead, my friend told me that she felt like she had PTSD. There wasn’t a single corner of the house she could look at without dredging up the stressful arguments with contractors over that bit of construction. She wished she could be rid of the house, but they were sunk in it for so much more than market value, that wasn’t an option.

The biggest mistake they had made was to get sweet-talked by the GC into inadequate planning and problem-solving. One thing Bob stresses to all his clients is how much easier it is and how much cheaper it is to work out problems on paper. My friend believed her charismatic contractor that they could figure it all out as they went. What she figured out is that it’s very expensive to pay for an entire crew to stand around and wait while hasty compromises are made.

I could go on, but you get the point. My friend’s unfortunate house-building experience is a classic example of why it pays to pay for someone good to be on your side. Of course, that’s no guarantee of satisfaction either, I suppose. I’m thinking of some clients who fired Bob a few years back after he showed them a rendering of what the addition floor plan they loved would look like in elevation. Not at all what they’d expected. You’d think they might have been appreciative to discover that after a few hours of design time rather than mid-construction. No accounting for people. It’s now once again been a while since I caught up with that friend. I hope she’s come to peace with her process by now, and that she’s enjoying her home. And if another friend embarks on the process of building a home? I wonder if I’ll serve them by being self-serving. I’ll probably just give them some generic advice about working all the kinks out that they can on paper, and leave it at that. After all, my friends all know I’m married to an architect.

If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

By | bad ideas, education, mutterings, Passive House, super insulated, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

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.

Grumpy architect time

By | bad ideas, good ideas, mutterings | 3 Comments

From the facebook page 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.
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?

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz

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bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764 72 Cotton Mill Hill Brattleboro, Vermont 05301