remodel

Go Green With Your Kitchen

We are thrilled to have another guest post by Matt Lee at AlluraGo Green With Your KitchenGreen building design continues to grow in popularity as more options become available to homeowners. With sustainability and lower energy costs on the lists of most people when it comes to their homes today, more companies are beginning to offer significantly more choices in green materials than ever before. Since the kitchen is one of the most frequently updated rooms in the home, as well as well one of the areas that gets the most use, it also makes sense for homeowners too look here for ways to incorporate green designs and materials into their homes. These green design options will help you achieve the kitchen design you want with the sustainable benefits you need.Bamboo Veneer CabinetsKitchen cabinets make up a large percentage of the space in the kitchen, both from a design standpoint and a practical one. So, it makes sense to start here when considering sustainable design options for the kitchen. While most cabinets are built of plywood, which is a more sustainable material than MDF or particleboard, you can take your green design to the next level by using bamboo veneer for your cabinet faces. While often treated like a hardwood, bamboo is actually a fast-growing species of grass. While it takes hardwoods an approximate 70 years of growth before harvest, bamboo can be harvested in as little as five years, which makes the product much more sustainable.Newer bamboo veneers and bamboo lumbers are available with a variety of colors and appearances. This can let you get the look that you want for the kitchen, while making an eco-conscious and sustainable choice at the same time.Reclaimed Stone FlooringWhile hardwood floors sure look good in your living area they have traditionally not been installed in kitchens due to moisture concerns. Natural stone floor is a great alternative for this area of the house. Stone flooring has a look and texture that’s hard to reproduce in any other material, and it’s durable enough to hold up to years of foot traffic in the kitchen. Best of all, stone floors can complement any style of kitchen from Country to Contemporary, letting you match your own personal aesthetic.Standard stone flooring isn’t eco-friendly, however, which can lead some people to try avoiding it. A good alternative, though, is reclaimed stone flooring. Reclaimed stone floors are actual tiles taken from centuries old farmhouses in France. The stone has a natural patina and a history that makes it a natural focal point for the room. Best of all, because this material already exists, no new manufacturing processes went into producing it. So, it’s better for the environment than using a new stone floor.Energy Saving AppliancesYou probably use the appliances in your kitchen more than any other in the house. Your refrigerator runs all day long, while the oven, stove, and dishwasher are often on standby until you need them, quietly using energy throughout the day and night.Newer, Energy Star rated appliances consume less energy when they’re in use, and when they’re merely standing by. This reduction in energy can save you as much as 13% on your energy bill compared to non-Energy Star rated appliances, according to EnergyStar.gov. While this may not seem like a lot each month, over time it can add up to a big savings, both for you and for the environments.Water Saving FaucetsAppliances aren’t the only way you can save energy and go green in the kitchen at the same time. Water saving faucets are also available that can save you thousands of gallons of water every year. Options range from low-flow faucets, which use fewer than 2 gallons of water per minute – compared to older faucets which used nearly twice as much – as well as faucets that use a toe-touch activator. You can operate the faucet even when your hands are full or dirty, so it doesn’t need to be left running as long, saving you water and money every time you use it.LED Light FixturesYour kitchen uses a lot of light. Chances are you not only have ambient, or overhead lighting, but also task lighting beneath your cabinetry and accent lighting, such as pendants above your island, peninsula, or table. All this light translates into a lot of energy use, since many kitchens get used early in the morning and late in the evening – two times of day when energy use is at its highest.LED light fixtures enable you to illuminate your kitchen, while using less energy than standard incandescent bulbs. LED light also comes in a wider range of light colors and choices than fluorescents do, letting you have the warm yellow or bright white light of your choice.Create a Greener KitchenWith the amount of use the kitchen gets, it makes sense to start here when making greener choices for the rest of the home. Whether you’re having a minor kitchen update or a full-scale remodeling project, there are many ways you can incorporate sustainable decisions into the room. Go green with your kitchen to reap all the benefits eco-friendly design can bring.

5 Home Improvement Trends to Watch Out for In 2017

Article by Matt Lee with Allura USAWith every new year comes a whole host of new trends for the home improvement industry. Aimed at making your home even better than before, it pays to see what trends are emerging in the coming months so that you can capitalize on them right away. Already trends predictions for 2017 are beginning to pop up, with a big focus on sustainability and style that is sure to carry you well into the next decade. These 5 home improvement trends are the ones to watch as the new year draws closer.Insulate, Insulate, InsulateFor the last year, insulation has topped Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value report with a whopping 110% ROI, and trend predictions for 2017 are pointing to more of the same. Nearly all homes are under insulated, which means that the money you spend to heat and cool your home is likely flying right out the door.In particular, the areas to insulate include your attic, your walls, and beneath your roof deck. Since many people are also taking the time to have new architectural asphalt shingles put on their homes, this makes a great time to insulate the roof deck. Doing so will not only make your home more comfortable, it will also protect your investment by helping to maintain your new shingles and extend their lifespan.Modern Home ExteriorsThe exterior of your home plays a huge role in how it’s perceived, which in turn impacts its value. Known as curb appeal, this first look at your home can really make or break how it comes across to others.For that reason, a lot of people are putting a bigger emphasis on exterior home designs, remodeling the exteriors give them a fresh new look that will have maximum viewing impact. To that end, the Mid-Century Modern home exterior is the one to watch these days. Colors, windows, porches, and landscaping are all taking their cues from this architectural style with very interesting and appealing results. Mid-Century Modern architecture doesn’t mesh with every home style, but for cottages, bungalows, ranches, and gambrels, adding a few modern touches to the exterior façade can really help elevate your home’s style, and value.Energy Efficient Smart HomesIn addition to insulating, many homeowners are also looking at their homes from an energy standpoint, and making improvements that are both smart and sustainable. This means looking for ways to improve your home’s energy efficiency, while also making your home more comfortable and more convenient for you.Things like programmable, smart thermostats that can adjust to whether you’re at home or not, and which give you remote use through your smartphone help you keep energy bills down. Smart light fixtures, which can sense when you’ve left a room and turn themselves off can also make a big impact on your energy bill. Best of all, these kinds of features help take some of the care and worry off your shoulders, so your home is more comfortable, while also being more efficient.New NeutralsFor the last several years, the neutral color to watch has been gray, with numerous shades popping up everywhere from interiors to exteriors. There’s been a recent, subtle shift back toward warmer finishes, however, with Sherwin Williams announcing their Color of the Year for 2017 to be Poised Taupe. Taupe balances perfectly between gray and beige, so it’s a versatile neutral that will work with nearly any color scheme, having a lot more mass appeal than either of these other two colors.Look for taupe to start appearing for walls, siding, countertops, furniture, and other areas of the home very soon. Already manufacturers of flooring and counters have begun to find materials and colors that will work well with this new neutral, making it a sure hit for the future.Cork FlooringFor a while, it looked as though concrete flooring was going to sweep the industry, but its day has passed as homeowners begin to look for a more resilient flooring choice. Cork, which is made from the bark of the cork tree, is a sustainable, natural flooring material that also happens to feel great underfoot.Cork floors have undergone a huge change in recent years, now available in several different sizes, colors, and patterns, so you can customize your flooring to match your décor. Cork is eco-friendly, natural water and bacteria resistant, and can help insulate while it covers your floors, walls, or even ceilings. Look for cork to become one of the it flooring choices for 2017 and beyond.Update Your Home in StyleMost of the trend predictions for 2017 and beyond focus on sustainability, energy efficiency, and livability for the home. Materials that are eco-friendly and easy to care for top most people’s lists, as well as materials and designs that are versatile and low-maintenance enough to fit a busy lifestyle. Check out these 5 trends for the coming year to help improve your home in style.

Before & After - The Timber Frame Home

Thanks for checking back in over the last couple of weeks to see the sneak peaks of this recently completed remodel! I told you last week that I would let you in on my favorite part of this whole renovation this last Friday in March!  Well here it is: Insulation!!! I know, you were expecting something beautiful, fun, classy and wonderful.  Don't be disappointed, this is absolutely our favorite part of this whole project.  Of course we get excited about the beautiful things that we created here, but what we are most proud of, is that quiet comfort that is now found within this home.  One of the reasons this homeowner reached out to us, was because of our specialty in energy efficient design.  They loved their timber frame home, which already faces south, but there were challenges that just didn't work for their family.  Functionality of space, the need to put wood in the wood stove, the questionable railing on the second floor and a particularly energetic 7 year old...the list goes on.  But what they really wanted to know was, where are we losing energy? If we're going to do this renovation project, can we do some of these things to help improve the efficiency at the same time? And the answer of course is "We'd love for you to do that, let us show you how"  Because this house is a timber frame, it had board ceilings. Although they are beautiful, the let the air leak right through the boards. And I'd love to say, that due to the age of the home, they had fiberglass insulation behind the boards, but the sad fact is, we still build this way today, and that's just not okay.  So here, we took down the boards and salvaged them for the homeowner. Then we dense packed the rafter cavities with cellulose to improve the insulation and greatly cut down on air infiltration. We went back and forth but finally decided that sheet rocking the ceiling in the main space would brighten up the living area, so the boards were salvaged for a later project. (Replacing all the trim with flat stock casing, maybe a new bar in the sunroom, or if the 7 year old wins, a new ninja warrior course, oh the possibilities!!!). Now when you step into this home it is quiet. If they want to run the wood stove, they do, but they don't have to.  The sun pours in the south windows and keeps the interior of the house warm all day long. Sometimes it's the simple things that you can't see that make a space truly wonderful.

Why You Should Super Insulate Your Home

What does it mean to build a super insulated home? I often get asked what my recommendation for insulation is. Both the type of insulation to use, and how much. But let me ask you a different question. What are you really looking for in your home? Comfort? Savings? Seriously I've never asked a group full of people if they'd like to spend less on utilities and had them say no! Maybe you're ready for retirement and you want to be able to shut it down for the winter and go south. Wouldn't it be great not to worry about frozen pipes or high heating costs when you're not there? But maybe you're the person who has to have beautiful granite countertops? Let me ask you, do you want to build a brand new dream home with all the interior bells and whistles and then sit around with three sweatshirts because it’s drafty or cold? If you answered, "Yes. I don't care how much it costs i'll just turn the heat up" then you should probably stop reading now. For us, we'd rather do the "hard to change" things right the first time, and come back and add the bells and whistles when we aren't using as much to operate our homes.There are so many components that go into a super insulated home. Simple things that have no cost like orienting your house the right direction. Or taking the time to think about where windows are positioned and how they are positioned. Our favorite thing to do isn't to spend thousands of dollars on windows, but to pick the right ones in the right locations, and minimize them everywhere else. These two things make a huge impact on the quality of the space within the home.  If you've met me, you know I always say "Every house has an ugly side, let's make it the North side". Building a super insulated home may not be about the flashy and attractive things that people see when they walk into your house. Instead, it's about comfort. Super insulated homes are designed for the people inside. There are three things that affect our comfort levels: Temperature, Air Movement, and Humidity. Super insulated homes reduce air infiltration, heat loss, and control the interior moisture. They are specifically designed more maximum comfort. Reducing the unhappiness of the occupant significantly reduces the use of energy in the home. So let us tell you a little bit more about the “less beautiful” parts of your home that actually make your space so much more attractive.Tip number 1: Improving the insulation in your home is the hardest thing to do after it's built, and let's be honest, you'll never do it. So don't skimp on this part. Don't let this be the first thing you ask your builder to compromise on. If your budget is tight, let us tell you what things to do later that are super easy to replace or add. So let me give you my thoughts on insulation:

  1. All of my builders know not to utter the word “fiberglass insulation” in my presence unless we are talking about how to insulate a bedroom or bathroom for sound transmission. Fiberglass is cheap and cheerful and always installed by the guy who gets paid the least on the crew. It’s rarely installed correctly and it’s even more rarely installed in a vacuum (ie completely air tight cavity). Fiberglass insulation works by trapping air pockets in between all the fibers, however, building is rarely 100% air tight, so when air moves though the fiberglass fibers it eliminates the pockets of air and makes the fiberglass insulation more of a filter and less of an insulator. We’ve all seen dirty fiberglass, and that’s why.
  2. Cellulose, we love cellulose and use it almost exclusively in our projects. A properly dense packed wall will move and shift with the building as it drys out after construction. Dense packed cellulose insulation retards air infiltration making the house tighter and the insulation more effective. And it’s fire resistant.  Yes, it can hold 130% of it’s weight in water if it gets wet. Although it’s not possible to make a completely air-tight structure, we are in the practice of making water tight structures, so we worry very little about moisture getting into our wall cavities. Does it mean it never happens, no, but we’ve had so few problems with it we would not hesitate to recommend it.
  3. Spray foam is probably the 3rd most popular insulation choice. Like all of the insulations it has good and bad properties. It air seals very well and can make extremely tight buildings. But it’s also a solid insulation, so when the building settles and dries out over the first couple of years, it can crack and pull away from the structure. It’s also pretty nasty, most foams are made of plastic and the agent that is used to make it liquid to install, cure, and dry is often toxic requiring specific equipment to install it and mandatory building evacuation for 24 hours or more.  It’s not flame resistant and has to be covered by a 15 minute thermal barrier or sheetrock which can add expense and only gives you time to get out of the building.  Once it starts burning it gives off toxic fumes that are extremely dangerous.

Here's the nitty gritty. When someone asks me for my recommendation on insulation I recommend the following:  R-40 in the walls and R-60 in the ceiling. In cold climate building we also add 2”-6” of rigid foam below the slab. To get a little more complicated, I also try to minimize something we call thermal bridging.  Essentially, thermal bridging is a path from the interior to the exterior of the home with little to no insulation.  If you think of a standard wall construction, you have studs with insulation in between the studs.  The thermal bridge happens at the studs. Wood has an R-value of 1 per inch.  Everywhere you have a stud in a typical wall it has an R-value of 5.5 in a 2x6 construction. In between each stud you have insulation with an R-value of 19.  So the stud at 5.5 is the poorest performing section of your wall and a direct path for cold to transfer from outside to inside.And lastly, but most importantly, super insulated homes aim to be as air tight as possible. Every seam, crack, gap, or location where two materials meet is sealed with foam or caulking.  It’s a common misconception that buildings need to breath.  People need to breath, buildings don’t.  Does that mean you don’t need fresh air? Absolutely not!!! What it means is that we control how much and where that air comes from.  Instead of travelling through your dusty insulation and your dirty basement, we introduce that fresh air directly from outside. In addition to being able to control where the air comes from, it's equally as important to control how much air comes in. Most people probably remember from high school science that hot air rises. Well when that air rises and exits through your attic you have to heat the air that comes in to replace it. So the draftier your house is, the more it costs to keep it warm. And if you remember from a couple paragraphs ago, our comfort levels are directly affected by air movement.Yes, I'm asking you to spend more during construction to put in better insulation and air seal everything you possibly can. But if I could prove it would pay for itself in a very short amount of time, would you be interested in knowing how long?We hope you’ll visit again to learn more about insulation, windows, geo thermal and air source heat pumps, zero energy, and lots of other cool building related topics over the next couple of months.  Reach out to us and let us know your questions, we are always happy to answer any questions you might have, and several other people reading this blog may have the same exact question, so you’re doing them a favor by reaching out!Until next time, have a warm and comfortable life!

Before & After - Master Bedroom and Closets In A Timber Frame Remodel

Thanks for checking back in with the updates on this beautiful timber frame home remodel we recently did! Last week I mentioned that the bathroom dormer "grew" during the design phase.  While talking with our clients we try to listen to all of their concerns. One concern this homeowner had was storage.  They had plenty of space, but it was cut up funny and they had this odd room adjacent to their bedroom that was collecting things that didn't seem to have a home. Because the wall between the bathroom and this room fell right in line with the timber frame we were able to expand the dormer another six feet and provide a walk in closet for this homeowner.  Adding another six feet to the dormer centered it on the rear elevation and allowed us to bring light into the closet. We also replaces a series of dressers in their bedroom with this custom built dresser. It takes up the unusable eave space and takes advantage of super deep drawers for storage. A big shout out to East Shore Builders for making this homeowners dreams a reality!
Just like last week, stay tuned to next week's last addition (and probably my favorite part of this whole remodel)!

Before & After - Taking the 1/2 bath to a Full Bath

During a recent remodeling project at a 3 bedroom/ 1 1/2 bath timber frame home, we took the first floor 1/2 bath and transformed it into a full bath with some creative reworking of the space. This allowed the homeowners to use the new full bath while the upstairs bathroom was gutted and put back together. The clean and classy tile selection by the homeowner makes this bathroom feel larger then it really is. And the builder was able to re-purpose some leftover timbers from the original build that were just hanging out in the basement waiting to be used. You can see them here in the shelves above the toilet, and if you stay tuned, you'll see them again in the new upstairs bathroom sink vanity that was custom made just for this home. Take a look at these before and after photos and let us know what you think!
Stay tuned for more updates on this timber frame remodel and to see the phenomenal main bathroom renovation complete with built-ins, sliding barn doors, amazing tiled shower, and so much more!

5 Reasons Why We Think You Should Stop Putting Your Projects Out To Bid!

Kitchen & Bath Renovation-06-6Call us crazy, but putting projects out to bid is our least favorite thing to do, and here is why.

Bids are never apples to apples

When you put a project out to bid, the architect has to provide a lot more information to ensure that all the contractors are bidding the same thing, which they never are. We know from experience, if you ask 6 contractors how to build something, all 6 will have a different way of doing it. Taking the lowest bid can sometimes mean that your going to get an inferior product or maybe a subcontractor whose attention to detail isn't quite where you'd expect it to be for the money you are spending. When the contractor isn't intimately involved in the project they don't know what your expectations are. I once asked a client's rep if the client was a Volvo or a Ferrari, because it makes a difference in the level of detail and the quality of what you provide. You may also be ruling out the best contractor for your project based on price alone. In the long run, the more expensive contractor may have been better able to meet your needs and may have lost of job because they were not willing to compromise the integrity of what they do to win a job.

You spend more money with your architect on things that could potentially be spared

As I mentioned above, the amount of information that needs to be provided during the bid process can sometimes be significantly more than what would be needed if you were working with a contractor that the architect has already worked with. Having a contractor who has been involved in the process from the beginning and knows that you want a specific type of wide plank hardwood flooring will help get accurate pricing.  Often times a contractor will leave an allowance for things like light fixtures, flooring, plumbing fixtures etc. These allowances are based on either their experience, or whatever is the easiest and cheapest thing available to keep their bids low and be awarded a project. That doesn't mean that you will select these products, and in the end, you may be over the budget you had agreed to because this contractor didn't know you wanted all LED fixtures, or that special faucet from Waterworks.  As the architect, we will try to pack as much as possible into the design drawings and specifications to catch all of these variables, but it's simply not the same as the builder getting to know you during the process so they know what to bring to the table to meet your specific budget and requirements. Of course we want to be involved in your project from beginning to end, and we will help you with all of your choices and selections, but adding unnecessary time to a drawing set to get accurate bids is sometimes a waste of our time and your money.

The lowest bid rarely nets you the best project

We've worked on several projects where contracts have to be awarded to the lowest bidder, and it's always a challenge. When the client doesn't know, like, or trust the contractor, there is always second guessing through the entire project and it can become a very adversarial relationship. You will be spending several days a week, for several months of the year, with this contractor who is building on renovating your dream home. Knowing that your personalities will click can be worth a few extra dollars! Having the peace of mind that the contractor will pay his subs on time and won't take your deposit and skip town is huge. Knowing that the contractor understands your objectives and can easily bring cost effective value engineering to the project without losing sight of your final vision is crucial. But the reality is, building a home is a very complicated process and you want a contractor by your side who is going to listen to you, handle the details, and be kind and respectful through out the project.

Building a team gets you a better end result

We know we aren't perfect, and training to be an architect often requires you to work as part of a team. We love the integrated design process, both between ourselves in the open design studio, and with the contractor, client, and specialty trades. Building net-zero homes is a team effort and we think you get a much better project when the entire team pulls together the project from the beginning.  As I mentioned above, no two builders are going to build something the same way so why put a wrench in the system.  Sit down with the contractor and go through how they would build it, what ways they can bring cost savings to the project, and how to meet your objectives in the best possible way.  Planning for things like, where the solar lines are going to run from the roof to the utility room, can make or break a project. Making those decisions made during the design phase helps create a truly cohesive project. Having a different set of eyes on the plans as they come together, in our opinion, always creates a better solution.  Architects are trained to get the most out of your space and your budget. We think in three dimension as the plans are going together.  But we also love to work closely with our builders because they know how they are going to put together what we are asking for, and they are always up on current market fluctuations in pricing and schedule, so they have a thumb on the pricing throughout the project and can make cost effective recommendations that help keep the project on time and on budget.

Putting a project out to bid could blow your schedule out the window

Although the last of our 5 recommendations, it is in no means the least important.  The last couple projects I have put out to bid have all had the same problem. The client has finished with design and they are excited about the project only to find out that all the contractors that we have approached to bid on their project are out 3, 6, or 12 months.  Securing a contractor so you can start your project when you're ready to get started can be critical. When you put a project out to bid you are at the mercy of the contractors schedule.  When you bring a contractor in, early in the design process, they will add you to their schedule and be prepared to start your project at the agreed upon time.  Getting everything together in time for construction then becomes something the team works very hard to make happen.  If you put a project out to bid, even if you land the contractor you know you want to work with, you may need to wait several months to get started. So when you start a project, be clear about your timeframe. If you're building on the lake or ocean, sometimes the towns have rules about when you can do construction, and it may not be during the time of year that is best to build.  If you're not already on your contractors schedule, that could mean you have to wait a whole year to build.  In Maine, depending on the time of year, roads get posted which do not allow construction vehicles to travel to a site for many weeks. Timing is crucial and holding a contractor to a bid for more than 90 days is unlikely.  The fluctuation in the product market can be huge. Between the end of December 2015 and the end of January 2016 one of our window manufacturers increased their pricing twice.So our recommendation is to stop putting your project out to bid! Select a contractor that you know you can work with.  Tell them your budget, bring them in on the team, and let them plan for working with you and provide value engineering to your project to keep it on time and on budget!

Your House is a System

BlogHouseAsSystemI think it’s time for me to introduce my readers to one of the most important concepts of building eco friendly homes.  House as a System.What do I mean when I say your house is a system?  It is a combination of inter-dependent parts that make up a whole building.  As an energy professional and an architect, that means, if I chose to change one part, I am affecting other parts of the system.  This may be in a good way, or it may be in a harmful way.  With the emergence of building tight homes, we also need to be aware of what we are trapping inside that previously exited though drafty or leaky areas in the home.  I was going to write “older homes”, but my experience as an energy auditor has taught me that it has little to do with the age of the home.  There are just as many leaky, drafty, inefficient new homes as there are older homes.It is extremely important today to understand the impacts of building more efficient homes.  This rule applies to architects, builders, and energy professionals.  The chemicals found in our building materials can be very harmful to your health.  Many products are made with formaldehyde or high volatile organic compounds (VOC’s).  Maine also has high levels of radon due to the rocky ledge that makes up our soils.  By building tighter homes, we must be sure we are not trapping harmful gases or compounds within the home.Building tighter homes isn’t just about air sealing with caulks and spray foams. Adding dense packed cellulose to your walls increases the insulation value of your home, but it also reduces the air infiltration.  When we reduce the air infiltration we can cause our atmospherically drafting heating appliance to blow exhaust fumes back into the home instead of out through the chimney.  We can trap moisture within the home, propagating mold growth and moisture damage. Many building professionals believe that houses needed to breath and that is simply untrue.   Houses do not need to breath, the occupants do.  And we need to be sure that the air our homeowners are breathing is both healthy and adequate.Houses that breathe draw in outdoor air from anywhere there is a hole or crack in the building structure.  This often times means that air is coming in from your basement.  When you think about the principle that hot air rises, you can imagine the cool air being drawn in from your basement and leaking the heated air out through your attic. Now if you think about your basement, you may be thinking about a dirt floor, all the chemicals you store there, or your heating system.  All that air that is being drawn in through your basement is introducing those chemicals into your living space.   We have a tendency to think of our basements as outside of our living space, but they are very much connected to every other part of your home.  Although the things you store there may be out of sight, out of mind, they are definitely not out of the air you breath.Before the emergence of energy efficient and airtight building, homes were able to dry out due to the air movement through the structure and the lack of insulation in the walls.  The homes would dry during the wet seasons of the spring and fall, however, these same homes would become very difficult and expensive to heat during the winter.  The energy community knew they needed to button up the homes, but at the time, they did not know that they needed to provide mechanical ventilation for healthy indoor air quality and they created several sick buildings.Now we talk about passive house building where there are less then 15 quarter-size gaps, cracks, or holes in a building structure and the sun heats the home virtually eliminating the need for a heating system.  These inter-dependent parts create a very efficient design.  In passive house standards, it extremely important to provide mechanical ventilation to the space. Providing fresh outdoor air to the occupants of the home eliminates harmful byproducts from the construction materials and excess moisture from cooking, breathing, and showering. Because the home itself has very little air infiltration, mechanical ventilation is often provided by a heat recovery ventilator or energy recovery ventilator. This allows the system to provide fresh air directly to the locations of the home that need it, like the bedroom, where you spend most of your time while you are at home.  Providing air directly to the locations where it is needed instead of drawing it in from wherever there are cracks in the foundation allows for the system to perform with precise calculations and reduces any loss associated with providing healthy indoor air quality.The increased levels of insulation from the code minimum help to keep heat within the building envelope.  Large south-facing windows can take advantage of the sun and heat the home through heating thermal mass, often a concrete floor.  All parts of that system have to work precisely together to make the house as efficient as possible.  If a new homeowner came in and decided to throw a carpet over the concrete floor they would reverse the effects of the solar heating system and require a larger heating system to be installed.  Tighter homes often do not have large gas cook stoves with 300 to 600 CFM ventilation hoods because there is simply not enough air infiltration to provide adequate supply to the ventilation system.  Without that adequate air it causes the ventilation system to “suck” on the house and will quickly burn out the motor in the fan.These are just a few examples of how the components of your home work as a system. So as you are building your home and thinking about making something that is more efficient, make sure you consider hiring a professional who can provide you with the information you need to save money, but also provide you with a safe and comfortable home.  It may sound daunting to build an energy efficient home, but the comfort level it can provide you and the energy it can save you is well worth the added considerations during the design or renovation process.

Why Fiberglass Insulation Sucks!

SprayfoamRoofWhile I was teaching the last couple of days, several issues came up and one of them was fiberglass insulation.  I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I hate fiberglass insulation and very rarely use it, but that’s not really fair or true.  Used in the right context, fiberglass insulation can be just fine. However, I find all too often that fiberglass is used in the wrong way.  It really is not great as wall or attic insulation and it’s often found in basement ceilings where it’s installed up side down.  So I thought it would be good to discuss when and where to use fiberglass insulation, and why it doesn’t work in all locations.First, fiberglass insulation works by trapping the air in between the fiberglass fibers. So fiberglass insulation is really only effective when there is absolutely no air movement where it is installed.  Air movement through the insulation removes those trapped pockets of air and essentially makes it a filter. And no matter how tight you build a building, you are still going to have air leakage in some areas. That’s why; when you pull it out of the box sill in your basement it looks black.  That’s just the air infiltration from the box sill being filtered through your insulation and making it useless, since it is no longer trapping air pockets within its web of fibers.The box sill or band joist, is often one of the leakiest locations in a home, and therefore one of the worst places to install fiberglass insulation.  Fiberglass insulation rarely works well in the wall cavity because your siding breathes and tongue and grove wall surfaces are not airtight.  Wall cavities can also be open to the box sill below.  If you follow the principle that hot air rises, then that air is always going to be traveling up through your wall cavities, taking warm air with it, and cooling off the sheetrock on the inside.  It also performs poorly in the attic due to wind washing.  Wind washing is the effect that happens when the air enters your attic through your soffit venting and blows through the insulation.  Contractors install proper vents to try to direct the air above the insulation.  But I have been in many homes that have improperly sized or installed proper vents, or none at all.  Not installing the proper vents and insulation dam causes the wind to be pulled through the fiberglass insulation, again releasing the trapped air molecules in the fiberglass and making the insulation less effective.If you have a heating system, plumbing, or laundry in your basement then the insulation does not belong in your basement ceiling.  People argue with me all the time that they do that just to make the floors warmer; well that’s not a good enough reason.  You’ll be thanking me when you don’t have frozen pipes and the excess heat from your boiler can rise to the floors above.  If you have any of the things I mentioned in your basement then the thermal boundary of your space is the wall.  If you have rubble stone or granite the best wall insulation is spray foam.  If you have smooth concrete then the best insulation is rigid insulation.  If you live in Maine the rigid insulation needs to be Thermax insulation approved by the Maine State Fire Marshal’s office for use without covering.  Otherwise, you have to cover your rigid insulation with a 15 minute thermal barrier – which is 1/2” Sheetrock or ¾” OSB.  You are also required to cover your spray foam insulation with a thermal barrier that any spray foam installer can spray on as part of the insulation process.But I digress, we were talking about fiberglass, and why it seems to always be installed in the wrong place or the wrong way.  The Kraft paper side of the fiberglass always needs to be to the warm side of the structure.  So in Maine, it needs to face to the inside.  Fiberglass is only as good as it is installed.  The Kraft paper should be face stapled to the studs, not side stapled which compresses the insulation.  The fiberglass insulation should be cut and fit around electrical wiring so that it is not compressed behind the wire.  And it needs to fit fully into the cavity, touching both sides of the studs, as well as, the top and bottom.  All too often insulation is installed by the lowest paid guy on the job site.  It’s one of the most critical pieces to get right, but it’s nasty work and therefore done by the new guy.  In basements, the Kraft paper side needs to be up against the warm floor above, not stapled to the floor joists below– I know this is easier to install, but it’s putting the vapor barrier on the wrong side.  And in the North East we strap our ceilings, which makes fiberglass insulation the worst type of insulation to use in your attic.  The ¾” strapping leaves a ¾” gap between the ceiling sheetrock and the insulation above allowing air to carry the heat away from the sheetrock without the protection of the insulation.  That moving air also reduces the effectiveness of the insulation above.  So make sure that your insulation is in full contact with your sheetrock ceiling.  The proper way to solve this problem without adding a lot of extra expense is to pick up your fiberglass insulation, blow in 3 inches of cellulose, cut the vapor barrier on your existing fiberglass insulation and lay it back down on top of the cellulose.  If you need more insulation to meet the code minimum, blow an additional couple of inches of cellulose over the top of your fiberglass insulation to make a fiberglass sandwich.  The density of the cellulose minimizes the airflow through the insulation and makes the fiberglass more effective.Where would I use fiberglass?  Well it makes a great sound barrier, so I would use it around the master bedroom and around bathrooms to reduce noise levels.  I would also use fiberglass insulation in conjunction with rigid insulation in basements if you were going to finish a basement, because it does not hold water, and basements can be moist.  It has its place, in a completely sealed envelope it can add a lot of r-value to a system, but it needs to be installed correctly and in the right location. 

What is R-value?

I want to talk about windows, insulation, and envelop upgrades but I think the fundamentals of R-value should be discussed first. It will help in understanding how all the parts go together when one understands the importance of R-value.R-value, is the measurement of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry.  It is also the inverse of U-value.  Heat is transferred through conduction, convection and radiation. If your eyes just crossed remembering your high school science days, you’re not alone.  This is one of the basics that I teach at the beginning of my building science class, and I repeat at the beginning of my sustainable design class. Let’s discuss what they mean for you, the homeowner.For most people, R-value is often seen on bags of insulation.  It can be found for other building materials such as wood studs, drywall, siding etc, but is not often displayed on the packaging.  U-value, thermal transmittance, is usually observed on windows and doors.  If you have looked at windows, you have seen the U-value listed because it is required as part of the building industry standards. You may not have known what it meant at the time, but that little number is very important.  And contrary to everything else you have ever learned, the smaller the number, the better the window!  It is also good to know that U-value is the inverse of R-value.  For example, if a window has a U-value of 0.30, its R-value is 3.3.  It’s easier to compare the performance of building components when they are listed in the same format.  For comparison, the current IECC 2009 for the Northeast requires walls to have a minimum R-value of R-21.  So if you look at the window with an R-3.3, and then at the wall with an R-21, you’ll see that the window is a fairly poor performing part of your building envelop.  But I digress; there will be more articles all about windows in the future.R-value gives the building professional an idea the materials ability to resist heat flow. It also works in the opposite direction with the heat entering your home in the summer or primarily cooling climate locations.  Every state has a building code, and each building code has a minimum level of R-value necessary to meet the states requirements.  In some places in the country they also have additional requirements that have higher performance levels then code.  Again, this is a reason why you can’t afford not to hire an architect, and more specifically, one that knows a lot about energy efficiency.For an energy professional, R-value can translate directly into how many Btu’s your home will use.  A Btu (British Thermal Unit) is the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water one degree F.  For building professionals it is the rate at which your home loses heat through the surface (walls, windows, roof, doors) and through air changes (how drafty your home is) The higher the R-value the lower the surface transported heat loss.  The building professional will take the R-value, include the air transported heat loss, and tell you approximately how many Btu’s your homes heating system will need to produce to keep you warm this winter.From here it gets complicated.  The air transported heat loss can have an effect on how well the R-value of certain building products perform.  The tighter the house becomes the harder it is for standard atmospheric heating systems to work.  But the more efficient your home is, the less it will cost you to live in and operate.  So the next time you’re concerned about insulation, drafts, and R-value think about hiring an energy professional to help you out, because replacing your windows isn’t the best place to start.