Monday, March 16, 2015

From the Field: finishes, p. 1

Now that rough mechanicals are in and the air barrier system has been successfully tested, finishes are going in.These will get a lot more exciting pretty soon as tile, wood trim and accents, cabinetry and countertops, etc. get installed, but that will be next.

This stage of construction is where a lot of toxicity can enter a project, but we and Evolutionary Home Builders (contractor) are vigilant about keeping interiors healthy. Adhesives, caulks, primers and paints, and floor finish have been selected to minimize toxicity: low VOC is not enough: we look for zero VOC, non-toxic, GreenGaurd Certified products, and of course no added urea formaldehyde. At the end of construction we hire a third party to test the air for aldehydes and VOCs, so we are especially motivated to keep it clean. It makes such a difference--this jobsite has never had that awful toxic "new car" smell you get on so many construction sites. We're very grateful for the vigilance EHB brings to the project.
upper landing

upper hall looking east to master

ground, polished, and stained concrete floor

reclaimed hickory flooring going in...

...and hickory finished with Rubio Monocoat natural

panels on north side

10" exposure LP SmartSide smooth siding

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From the filed: more insulation and airtightness!

In Passive architecture, you really don't want your buildings to suck. Technically, you want them to lose less than:
   0.6 air changes per hour when depressurized to 50 Pascals of pressure for the "old" Passive House Standard;
   or .05cfm of air per square foot of exterior envelope area when pressurized to 50 Pascal in the soon-to-be adapted PHIUS standard.
Jason LaFleur of EcoAchievers, a PHIUS+ and LEED-H trained rater did a preliminary blower door test today along with his laptop and Tectite sofware, wirelessly connected to the blower door assembly. Cool tools for sure.
the red door of truth

plotting readings
As you can see on the screen, the device sends a scattering of points which it plots on a curve. We were a little surprised that our first reading was over 0.6ACH50 so we did a walk around the house with his thermal imaging camera to look for leaks.

IR image: "cold" temp is about 66F, 35F outside

We didn't find any at the windows, but found a big one where the ERV exhaust penetration was taped off. Once we taped it off, we tested again and got a much better reading:
129cfm, or .46ACH50
At 129cfm/0.46ACH50, we're comfortably under the threshold! So big congrats to the team at Evolutionary Home Builders. This reading is likely to get better after drywall goes in, but it's not something to count on. One of the lessons of Passive building is to have a single dedicated air barrier system that you can see, test, and repair as needed. Additional layers can help, but first test that system.
living room, facing entry and TV built-in
The house is feeling, aside from warm, much more spatially solid with the insulation (that's blown-in fiberglass, Knauf JetStream, recycled. no formaldehyde). And the late afternoon winter light was very soft in the master bedroom: 

One more shot, looking from front sitting room out to the fireplace--can't wait to see the Elmwood Reclaimed wood mantle, the wood ceiling of the screen porch, and a fire in the grate...

Drywall, cabinetry, doors, siding...exciting month coming up. See you back here soon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

From the Field: insulation and windows

Here's an update for the Oak Park home in construction--it's been a busy time with roofing, insulation, overhangs, exterior insulation, weather barrier, and windows. First thing after the air barrier (Prosoco, the pink stuff painted on the outside of the plywood) was to frame the overhangs, so they could get a roof on.
west (front) facade

6x6 cedar brackets
Then the polyisocyanurate exterior insulation went up:
working to the corner; there are two layers of polyiso and it's important to stagger the seams

wrapped up tight--polyiso flushes out with window bucks
The roof went on, and the polyiso was wrapped with a Delta weather resistive barrier:
roof is on, wrapped up in stylish black WRB with Prosoco-red trim, and we have a front slab

street facade--someday that plywood will be a real front door
The light and space at the stair is nice to be in:
interior of south facade above stair with Garrett and Rudy from the office

from stair to front bedroom--light!
And no Passive blog would be complete without some photos of the windows going in. These are Zola Thermo uPVC, an incredible value for Passive House performance. They're tilt-tun (open in) windows with jamb clips for fixing:
sill prepared for install--note how air barrier membrane runs to the interior of window plane

jamb clips screwed to framing; next a backer rod and sealant will make the openings airtight
That's it for this install--next will show rough mechanicals.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

From the Field: framing the Right-Sized Oak Park home

Framing is great fun to watch--it goes up fast, and in a few weeks you go from having drawings to being able to walk through real enclosure of space. It's like the week after Halloween to an architect: lots of eye candy! Evolutionary Home Builders has been doing their usual stellar job, and I'm going to show the timeline over the last three weeks.

First walls up, October 5. Note foundation vapor barrier to be sealed to sheathing later. Also note the advanced framing--single top plate, two stud corners...
...and insulated headers.
First sheathing, second floor deck, Oct. 16

Oct. 23: the form is visible!

Interior vistas taking shape as well.
Sheathing on, plywood window bucks going in, Oct. 28 

The sunny side of the house--bedrooms and stairwell.

Sure I'm biased, but I do love the proportion of's the really high quality dark chocolate of eye candy to me...
Since the sheathing is our air barrier, it gets coated with fluid-applied membrane (Prosoco), all the way over the window bucks. Oct. 29
Next update will include the overhangs which they're framing now, and most likely the insulation which is going on over the air barrier. Preserving a thermal-bridge-free envelope at overhangs and porch attachments is one of the big challenges when detailing the exterior, and I'll go into some detail on that next post as well.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Manifesto follow-up: three designs

So what does this new dwelling look like? Well, of course, it could take endless form; but to provide a prototypical starting point, I created a series of designs using American housing typologies. By starting with the familiar, we can appreciate both the timeless and the contemporary--you can easily see what's new because the typical expression is well-known. These prototypes were designed to be broadly applicable, with suburban Chicago in mind--for lots slightly bigger than the Chicago 25x125.

The starting point for passive design  is orientation to the sun, so there are several types here: a Bungalow which can have east or west street frontage, a Cape Cod with south frontage, and a Georgian with north. In all cases, there is emphasis on indoor-outdoor flow (porches and raised bed gardens are consistent features), interesting spatial experience inside, and great natural lighting.

 Here's the bungalow type--traditional front porch with contemporary detailing and a green roof; traditional 2 bedrooms plus bath downstairs (back bedroom could be a family room or study open to the kitchen/dining), contemporary living and dining flow; traditional under-the-eaves second floor with contemporary master bedroom, laundry, and fourth bedroom or study. The roof lifts up to the south to let sunlight in, and the stairs and kitchen capitalize on the spatial opportunity: there would be a strong connection to the sky, but shading to keep sun out in the summer. The roof is durable metal, the siding stained cedar--warm and inviting. The walls are thick--comforting and super-efficient. Although it's just over 1,800s.f., the rooms are generous and the space and flow would be great. As with all these examples, it is designed to Passive House efficiency, which means it's comfortable and affordable to run, a truly sustainable prototype.

 And here's the Passive Cape Cod, sporting similar materials to the Bungalow. This type of house was common in 50's tracts, and it was during a visit to my cousin's house in St. Louis that made me see why: it's a simple, compact form that allows a lot of variation within an efficient shell...but the 50's ones are pretty stiff and self-contained. As a south-facing font door house, this one captures the sun in a dynamic entry space, and light is borrowed from that space into the central rooms (upstairs bath and downstairs hall). Like the bungalow, it has two bedrooms down and up--though again, bedrooms could be family/den/study rooms as well, so there is flexibility of use. And at about 1,500s.f., it's incredibly efficient and affordable.

 Finally, here is a house based on a Georgian 3-bay organization grid, but loosened up with corner windows and porches. The front door and porch are low-key to the north, while the living spaces and bedrooms open up to the south, and a screened porch to the west. Like the other two, it has laundry up by the bedrooms, metal roof, borrowed light to the interior; unlike the other two, this has a cement-board panel with cedar siding exterior palette and a full height second story with a vented attic (above R-90 to 100 insulation!). It's just under 1,800s.f., and again, would have a great feeling of spaciousness and indoor-outdoor flow.

So that's a start on the road to the attainable, healthy, efficient house. I hope to build a lot of these.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Manifesto: the new American dwelling

The single-family home is a great American dream, one that so many of us have been fortunate to share; but as our attitudes and awareness grow and shift, so do the definitions of that dream. It's time to redefine, to clarify what we're after.  It's time to let go of the meaningless habits of over-consumption, artificiality, and toxicity that have become accepted in the past 50 years, and to embrace a new attitude toward the home in this country.  It's time for a manifesto.

The new dwelling:

Shall be just big enough. No wasteful spaces, no unnecessary basements, no duplication of function (multiple dining areas, extra bathrooms, empty "formal" living rooms, towering foyers...). A small house means more family togetherness and more outdoor space: garden, play and discovery spaces, porches. The small house encourages you to go outside. But, to quote a client of mine, privacy and quiet are part of comfort too, so the definition of "small" will vary by family.

Shall be efficient. Small is a good start in this regard, but it also must have proper window orientation and shading, a compact form, a superinsulated, airtight thermal envelope, and efficient lighting, appliances, and mechanical systems. This is not how it's been done in the US, but it's easy, actually, once you know how. It starts with a plan that flows well; storage is cleverly worked in throughout the house, and wherever possible, is moved outside the conditioned envelope; structure and cladding is considered from the outset to optimize material use. Energy modeling is done early in the design process so that the energy implications of design decisions can be understood.

Shall promote health. No more toxic materials!-- Natural materials with minimal finishes predominate. The house shall be mechanically ventilated with heat- or energy-recovery, ensuring filtered fresh air throughout and managed humidity. That's the baseline of "do no harm," but we must actually do good--see next. 

Shall promote nature-connections. No more sterile boxes that cut people off from the environment! Harmony with Nature is the foundation of health, arguably is the definition of health. Delightful use of sunlight, views to vistas, sky, and gardens enliven the interior. Enclosed outdoor spaces adjacent to the house promote indoor-outdoor flow and frequent use. Planters for vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside and out provide texture, fragrance, and food. Water is not seen as a problem to push away from the house, but an opportunity to create pools, rain gardens, even wetlands. The garden supports habitat. And the kitchen is an inspiring place to prepare good food!

Shall be durable. No more throwaway finishes! The skin should not require frequent maintenance, but should stand up to its climate, rugged and long-lasting. Structure, finishes, and especially moving parts like windows shall be strong; and the materials within reach and at eye level on the exterior should be inviting.

Shall be lovable.  This not about design dogma, a "look" or "style"--just authenticity. Some love a box, some love a gable; the new dwelling has a purpose and intrinsic character due to all the foregoing principles. As long as it meets these and resonates with its owners and surroundings, there is much room for expression and personalization--it needs to be loved.

Now go forth and build it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

River Forest Passive House final photos

At last! Eric Hausman took these in late summer, but I had to hold off making them public until some publications happened.  Dwell website, Green Builder Magazine, Tribune, Crain's, to name a's been a good run in the press.  Awards too--USGBC Emerald Award, DOE Challenge Home Innovation Award, Green Builder "Best Behind the Walls" and a few others. Thanks to Brandon Weiss and Eric Barton for helping with the good exposure! Here's how the house turned out:
Southwest view--from garage to house. Cedar and the window cladding contrasting with the 2-texture siding

South composition: solar gain as art...

View from dining room to kitchen/back entry; indirect T5 uplighting was used throughout the house for ambient

Zola windows--great looking European Passive House performance

Stair as screen between entry and living spaces; built of yellow birch by Designed Stairs

Evening shot of the front facade.
Stay tuned for some philosophizing on design, and then the next projects.  I'm very excited to be undertaking a series of smaller, more affordable Passive House designs.  We're thinking nothing short of redefining the American home...