June 3, 2014

A Modern Farmhouse: Construction Update

A lot of construction happened since the last blog post and we have moved into our (mostly) finished house. It is proving to be a very comfortable home and we can hardly wait for winter to see how it performs in the cold. Okay, maybe we can wait a bit for that.

Entry
Earlier we explored the foundation system and in this post we’ll discuss the wall and roof systems. Let’s quickly review the four basic control layers to be considered in every building enclosure:

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2. Air:  Keeps conditioned air inside and unconditioned air outside.  Air also holds moisture, so air moving through the structure is a bad thing.  As the saying goes, build tight and ventilate right.

3. Vapor:  Controls the amount of vapor permeance through the structure.  It’s inevitable that some amount of moisture will get into your walls, so you need to allow them to dry-out.

4. Thermal:  AKA insulation… Slows the transfer of heat through the structure.

The wall we constructed is a ventilated rainscreen system.  A rainscreen is an exterior wall construction where the siding stands off from the weather barrier creating a capillary break allowing for drainage and evaporation.  Some of the benefits of this system include prolonged life of the siding and finish (due to temperature and moisture equalization of the material), minimizing the chance of water intrusion into the wall structure, and keeping the weather barrier dry, thereby prolonging its life.  To minimize the penetrations through the weather barrier the wall construction was sequenced in this manner:  layout studs on floor deck, fasten plywood sheathing to face of wall, place rigid foam board over plywood (only tack in place), roll out building wrap over rigid foam board (do not fasten), place 1x3 furring strips over building wrap (located over each stud), fasten furring strips tight using 4” screws.  The furring strips are what hold the building wrap and the insulation board in place. Below is a list of how the 4 control layers were handled:

Water:  The metal roofing and underlayment keeps bulk water out of the roof system.  The cedar siding is a rainscreen, keeping the bulk water out of the structure.  Behind the siding the 3/4" air gap and building wrap act as the drainage plane for any water that makes its way through.

Air:  Although great care was taken to control air intrusion at the exterior of the structure by using flashing tapes and minimizing penetrations, the primary air control layer is the gypsum board on the walls and the underside of the roof truss (see red line on diagram).  The gypsum board was sealed to the wood structure to prevent air movement from the conditioned spaces into the wall and attic cavities.  We used an EPDM gasket that was easy to install and provides an excellent life-long seal.  We also used a similar gasket at the wall sill plates to seal the inconsistencies in the wood construction between wall and floor.  All rim joists at floor to wall junctures were sealed with spray foam as this is a notorious air-leaking point.

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Wall Section Diagram

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EPDM Gasket

Vapor:  The vapor retarder employed is latex paint over 5/8” gypsum at exterior walls and the 2nd floor ceiling.  It’s inevitable that some moisture will make its way into the wall system, so allowing the structure to dry back to the inside is important.  Latex paint creates a vapor retarder, not a vapor barrier which would not allow the structure to dry.  The attic is continuously ventilated at the eaves as well as the ridge which keeps moisture from building up within the roof structure.

Thermal:  The structure of the wall is 2x6 wood studs at 24” o.c. and the cavities are filled with high density fiberglass batts (R-21).  To enhance the thermal performance the exterior walls have 2” of XPS (R-10) continuous rigid insulation board. This continuity of insulation eliminates the effects of thermal bridging at the studs, resulting in a very high performing wall system.  The attic is filled with blown-in fiberglass at an R-value of 100. The trusses were designed with a raised heal to allow for more insulation at the typical eave pinch-point.  Care was taken to seal the baffles to the structure so air from the eave vents would not move through the insulation, stripping it of its thermal performance. The continuous eave and ridge vents keep the attic from becoming super-heated in the summer and keep it cool in the winter which prevents icicles from forming.

Entry-day

Combined with the foundation systems previously discussed and the Intus Eforte ultra-high performing triple-glazed windows, the building shell of the Modern Farmhouse should prove to drastically minimize the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling, all while keeping our family very comfortable.

April 7, 2014

A Modern Farmhouse: An Introduction

The sheer variety of building systems that can be used to enclose a structure is astounding.  We’ve all come across architects or builders who believe they know the absolute best way to construct a particular building type in a particular environment, but I don’t believe such absolutes truly exist.  The appropriate design solution should be arrived at using a balance of project goals, location, efficiency, economy, skill of trades persons, budget, aesthetics, etc. Over the next few months we'll examine the building enclosure of a low-budget, low-energy-use house that my wife and I designed and are currently building for our family.

Panorama of site during excavation.

IMG_2105

The very first CMUs are laid on the site for the Modern Farmhouse.

The design intent of this project was to create a simple, right-sized modern farmhouse.  One that is beautifully integrated into its site, filled with natural daylight, healthy, comfortable, and uses half the energy of a comparable code-built house….all while sticking to a tight budget.  To achieve these goals we had to find a cost effective high performing enclosure system, supplemented by paying careful attention to site orientation and maintaining a compact 2-story form.  Decisions were not just based on researching system performance (thank you, www.buildingscience.com ), but also became about choosing systems that our subcontractors would be familiar with.  Because we are general contracting the project ourselves and cannot be on site with the subcontractors at all times, a lot of thought was put into choosing the right foundation, wall and roof systems that subs could work with, had construction tolerance, and would still perform. Let’s start with a brief overview of the four basic control layers to be considered in every building enclosure:

1. Water:  Keep bulk-water out of the structure.

2. Air:  Keep conditioned air inside and unconditioned air outside.  Air also holds moisture, so air moving through the structure is a bad thing.  As the saying goes, build tight and ventilate right.

3. Vapor:  Control the amount of vapor permeance through the structure.  It’s inevitable that some amount of moisture will get into your walls, so you need to allow them to dry-out.

4. Thermal:  AKA insulation… Slow the transfer of heat through the structure.

Slab-On-Grade Detail

A building needs to be constructed from the foundation up, so that’s where we’ll start. We chose a fairly typical basement structure for Northeast Ohio:  12” CMU on concrete spread footings.  What’s different is the type, location and amount of insulation used.  To reduce thermal bridging from the earth through the concrete slab and CMU wall, a continuous layer of rigid insulation board was used and the insulation value of the whole system was then increased by adding a 2x4 wall with high density fiberglass insulation. The wall performs on par thermally with insulated concrete forms (a high-performing wall system Bialosky +Partners has used in the past), but is less costly to construct.

Foundation Section of Taylor Residence

Below is a list of how the 4 control layers were handled:

1. Water:  The CMU walls were damp proofed and a drainage board placed over top.  Together with gravel backfill and foundation drainage that daylights on site the basement should be dry for a lifetime (did I really just say that?).

2. Air:  The air control layer is at the interior side of the CMU.  Extruded polystyrene (XPS) insulation board was attached with mastic and all joints were sealed to create this layer.  High Density closed cell spray foam was installed to seal the first floor system to the XPS.  The floor to wall juncture is a notorious air-leaker, so spray foam is a perfect product to seal this area up tight.

3. Vapor:  Polyethylene plastic was placed between XPS and concrete slab, and sealed to the CMU wall. This keeps vapor occurring in the ground from driving through the floor slab into the house. Vapor permeable latex paint over 5/8” gypsum board was used as the vapor retarder at the walls.  It’s inevitable that some moisture will make its way into the wall system, so allowing the wall to dry back to the inside is important.  That’s why we used a vapor retarder, not a vapor barrier which would not allow the wall to dry.

4. Thermal:  The XPS board used as an air barrier pulls double duty.  2” XPS (R-10) was used on the walls, and 2” XPS was placed under the entire concrete slab.  This continuity of insulation also reduces thermal bridging at the foundation wall and slab.  A wall of 2x4 wood studs at 24” o.c. with high density fiberglass batts (R-15) is used to supplement the XPS insulation.  5/8” gypsum board not only finishes the wall system, but is required to meet flame and smoke spread requirements per the building code (XPS foam is not allowed to remain uncovered within an occupiable area). Overall this foundation system is well insulated, didn’t require any special training for the subs, was easy to build, and was inexpensive.  I think it was the appropriate choice for this particular project. Next time we’ll examine the house’s wall, floor and roof systems.

March 14, 2014

Meet Jacob Stollfuss

Jacob Stollfuss is welcomed to Bialosky + Partners' Cleveland office Jacob Stollfuss, a native of the sunswept Montana landscapes, grew up surrounded by a family who had a deep love for collecting and restoring classic automobiles. He fondly remembers his Montana home, which tallied more square footage in garage space than living space. With his father, who moonlighted as a drag-strip announcer, Jacob led an adventurous childhood at the races, witnessing and learning the trade of mechanics of the cars that surrounded him. Through cars, and discovering the fine sciences behind them, Jacob’s interest in understanding how things work blossomed. A career in architecture naturally followed.

Jacob owns two classic cars, here is his 1950 Studabaker

Jacob owns two classic cars, here is his 1950 Studabaker

Jacob also has this white 1960 Triumph, seen here on a perfect summer day.

Jacob also has this white 1960 Triumph, seen here on a perfect summer day.

He studied at Tulane University (MArch ‘99) in New Orleans, where both the college and city itself prioritize preservation and understanding the history of place. This resonated with Jacob, and has carried through his practice. And we should mention that in his young career, he is the unsung hero (at least we think so) behind the new Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). Recruited by Rafael Vinoly Architects in 2003, Jacob packed his bags for New York to begin work on CMA as a Project Architect. For Jacob, the project became an encyclopedia of building systems and details. Having worked on a range of unique and challenging systems- from innovative high-performance gutters to delicate beams of glass, Jacob learned the value of studying and revising a detail until perfection. After two years in New York, Jacob continued his work on CMA at Vinoly’s long-awaited Cleveland office to see the project to realization in 2009.

The atrium expansion at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which Jacob worked on from 2003-2009. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

It is not surprising that Jacob counts woodworking as one of his passions. His Shaker Heights home is filled with furniture he has built himself- tv stands, bookshelves, end tables, you name it. His current project is designing  and building 6 walnut dining chairs, in what he calls a modern take on the historic Chippendale style (six, allowing him, his wife, and his two boys to have a pair of guests). Jacob is working with the Thinkbox at CWRU to fabricate elegant double arched back rails for the chairs. As his favorite saying goes, “The devil is in the details”, whether it is an internationally renowned building, or a single household chair. With this sentiment, it is no wonder that Jacob is an active member of the Cleveland Chapter of the Building Enclosure Council (BEC), an interdisciplinary resource to promote responsibly (but also beautifully) designed building skins and envelopes. We asked Jacob a few extra questions in case we missed anything: Your Alternate Reality Career: At one point I considered going to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to become an automotive designer.  I still tend to look at every line and crease on a new car with a critical eye. The One Attribute Of Montana You Wish You Could Bring to Cleveland: I would start with more sunshine. True or False: Well-detailed buildings are more expensive. I hate to say this, because I am an advocate of well detailed buildings, but it is true.  A lot of buildings get built with corners cut and they still perform adequately, and an over detailed building can perform outstanding, but with diminished returns.  A well detailed building will cost a little more, but have paybacks in multiple ways – energy, comfort, durability and aesthetics. Favorite Object at the Cleveland Museum of Art:

Rodin's "The Thinker", damaged by a bombing in 1970 at CMA.

I could easily name 4 or 5 objects in the collection, but if I were to boil it down, Rodin’s Thinker on the south terrace would win out.  Being one of only a handful cast under the supervision of Rodin himself makes it intriguing enough, but to me it’s the bombing of the statue, the political commentary it implies, the conservation issues in its wake, the irony of its origins as Dante atop the Gates of Hell… and in the end, The Thinker still just pensively presides over it all. Your Ideal Dinner With One Architect or Designer: Raymond Loewy.  We would eat steak frites at the Cloud Club atop the Chrysler Building while drinking Rob Roy’s and talking about THE FUTURE.

January 16, 2014

BPA Goes to Greenbuild 2013

Philadelphia Greenbuild Once a year, for about a week, all eyes in green building culture turn towards a single focus - it’s been San Francisco, it’s been Toronto, Chicago, Phoenix, and Boston.  Every year it is a new city for Greenbuild, the world’s largest conference and exposition dedicated to the green building industry.  This year, its 20th year running, it was Philadelphia.  I had the pleasure of representing Bialosky + Partners Architects at Greenbuild 2013 this past November.  The international convention and expo hosted approximately 30,000 attendees from 90 different countries and touted speakers as varied and prestigious as Rich Ferizzi, President & CEO of the USGBC; Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia; Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise; and the keynote address was given by former Secretary of State and former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Greenbuild 2013 Philadelphia Convention Entry Greenbuild is more than just a world-class convention.  It is also a networking smorgasbord and showcase of all things sustainable.  This year the expo hall was packed with over 800 exhibitors of sustainable products and services.  Huge multinational corporations displayed their full suite of green products right next to small startup companies rolling-out their newest gadget or software to a captive, and captivated, audience. Greenbuild 2013 Convention Multiple parallel tracks of educational sessions provided a plethora of learning opportunities.  Lectures ranged from changes in the newest version of ASHRAE 90.1 to low energy lighting strategies, and from net-zero design to insights on the commissioning of existing buildings.  Some of the most highly anticipated and well attended sessions dealt with LEED v4, which was officially introduced at Greenbuild 2013.  It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Throughout the entire convention, a simple but powerful idea kept presenting itself to me… this is not an isolated, short-lived movement.  This is not a passing fashion.  This is not a fad. Greenbuild 2013 Philadelphia Convention Floor Whether the adjectives used to describe it are “earth-friendly”, or “sustainable”, or “eco”, or “green”… the fact is, the world is changing.  Greenbuild is one time a year when those people keeping track congregate and try to direct that change to be something manageable, and positive, and fun.  Another successful year… now on to 2014… this time it’s New Orleans.

September 10, 2013

Architecture, Sustainability, and Wet Chemistry: An Architect’s Story

By John Guzik & Jack Bialosky People often comment that the practice of architecture requires the use of equal parts art and science, so architects tend to be jacks-of-all-trades.  Certainly we do call upon experts and consultants for efforts that extend beyond our normal proficiency, but more than anything else we find that we need to be constant learners.  This is definitely true with the design and construction of high-efficiency, sustainable, green architecture. A case in point is a recently completed school in the Midwest.  The building was designed by Bialosky + Partners Architects to very high standards, employed a wide variety of sustainable strategies, and achieved a LEED silver certification from the USGBC.  While materials and systems used throughout the school were selected for their high performance characteristics and seemed to be functioning properly, there was a mystery developing.  Occasionally an unpleasant odor would migrate through certain portions of the building.  The locations were transient and the source was unidentifiable for quite some time.  Eventually it was determined that the odor was caused by sanitary gasses escaping from dry drain traps within the ceiling plenum.  The building’s geothermal system provides heating and cooling for the school with the help of heat pumps distributed above ceilings around the facility.  When operating in cooling mode these heat pumps generate condensate that must be conveyed away by hub drains attached to the plumbing sanitary lines.  The drains had the code-required trap primers to maintain an air-tight seal, but investigation revealed that an exceptionally high percentage of the trap primers had failed due to mineral deposition.  Lab testing indicated that unexpected quantities of copper, zinc, and lead precipitate on the primer valves were making them stop functioning.  This meant that when sufficient condensate water evaporated from any of the hub drain traps, sanitary gasses would escape and circulate through the return air plenum and into the mechanical units conditioning the building’s occupied spaces. The question was why the water was depositing such levels of particulates on the valves, especially in a newly opened green school.  Parts of the mystery began falling into place once it was understood that the residue on the trap primers was actually metal being dissolved from inside the water supply pipes.  Further testing showed that the water within the building’s pipes was significantly more acidic than the water being provided to the school by the public utility.  The pH of water provided by municipalities around northeast Ohio tends to fall between 7 to 7.6 due to the presence of naturally occurring limestone in Lake Erie but somehow the water in the schools lines was closer to pH of 6.1 and was actually corroding the copper pipes and brass fittings. A water chemist was engaged to help explain the situation and propose a resolution.  Ultimately a water softening and treatment system was installed to address the corrosion issues and alternate trap seals were installed on the hub drains to supplement the trap primers.  Regularly scheduled testing will confirm that the corrective actions are working as intended.  The actual reason for the water acidity in this instance appears to be a fairly frequently encountered, but little-known, case of standing water inherently decreasing in pH over time.  The use of low-flow fixtures and water saving technologies in this building resulted in significantly less water use than a building of comparable size and occupancy, but may have actually contributed to the problems being experienced.  Schools tend to have very intermittent water use.  Users may call for fairly high volumes at certain times of day, but from dusk to dawn, all weekend and holidays, and most of the summer, there is very little water use.  Couple that with new technologies intended to reduce use and virtually eliminate waste of this precious resource, and the water in those pipes can sit unused for long stretches of time.  It appears that this very scenario resulted in the mysterious series of events in this new LEED certified building. In this case, it was perhaps lucky that a specific alignment of circumstances resulted in the mysterious odor that alerted the project team to the greater issue of high water acidity before significant damage was done to building systems.  Undoubtedly similar low pH water conditions are eating away at water pipes in many buildings today – perhaps due in part to the well-intentioned use of water saving technologies.  Damage to piping, fittings, equipment, and general water quality will likely go unresolved until architects, engineers, building owners, and managers are more aware of the potential issue. Architecture is a wide-ranging and fascinating field and we learn more every day.  In addition to the practice of art and science, sometimes an architect is called upon to play the roles of chemistry student and detective as well.