Thursday, June 14, 2018

Construction - Interior Framing, Air Sealing and More

The temporary protection for the shell of the building, as described in detail in a prior postgave me the opportunity to proceed with the interior partitioning before the roof was in place.  I was able to get almost all of it done when it was too inclement to work outside -- cold during the winter months and wet during the spring -- and before having finally to postpone inside work in favor of the dirt work and landscaping described in the several posts preceding this one. 

(The original pictures below can be enlarged merely by clicking on them but, unfortunately, the downloaded pictures are not enlargeable.)
T-wall with door opening.  Single 2 x 4
header (blue); blocking to support T-wall
(red); carefully fitted OSB behind T-wall
stud for gluing drywall for a tight air seal.

Interior Partitions
While the exterior walls are anything but typical, the interior walls are more conventional.  What makes them somewhat different is the use of as much advanced framing as possible and building most of them in place in order to fit the slope of the cathedral ceilings more accurately. Advanced framing, as opposed to traditional framing saves material (and its embodied energy) without compromising structural integrity. I was able to use it to support T-walls with horizontal blocking and single 2 x 4s for headers above doors in non-bearing walls.  Anticipating the need for more rigidity to carry heavy 36" solid oak doors, I did however stay with tradition by using jack studs at door openings.  Even at that, the open floor design with its fewer doors required only 12 additional door-height 2 x 4s for the jacks.

Exterior Partitions
By contrast, the truss-built exterior walls required twice as much lumber as traditional 2 x 4 walls but I can easily live with it since all of the lumber was recycled and the energy savings from the thick
walls will soon compensate for any higher inputs.  In retrospect, I would probably have used the advanced framing technique of metal plating to join single top plates rather than using overlapping double top plates, particularly since there are two courses or tandem 2 x 6 double top plates on top of walls that were already so wide as to stand unsupported when raised.  Using half as many top plates not only would have saved lumber but would have made the wall marginally more energy efficient by removing half of the potential for thermal bridging through the top plates.  I say, "marginally" because the tandem top plates will be separated by 4 1/2" of insulation as a thermal break.

Advanced framing for outside corners in 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 exterior walls have just two studs instead of the traditional four (see drawings). The abbreviated design not only saves material but also accomodates more insulation in the corner. 
Our truss walls carry the latter concept 
A single 2 x 4 in an outside corner; also notice the
rough window units to the left before being covered
 over with sheathing and boxed in as described below
to a new level -- there is only one stud in the corner and the cavity for the insulation continues around the corner totally uninterrupted.

Wall-Roof Interface
Without raised heels, the rafters would be resting directly
 on the double top plates; the heels raise the rafters out
 of the way so the insulation can be piled higher
The nearby photo shows raised heel trusses for a conventional ceiling whereby the rafters are a good distance above the top plates in order to provide space for insulation that is only slightly shallower near the exterior sheathing than at the drywall side of the wall.  Raised heels that rest on the inside top plates are especially beneficial for our cathedral ceilings.  The arrangement means that the space for the insulation is at least the same thickness on top of the wall as it is throughout the entire truss bay.  Another advantage is that the wall sheathing continues upward onto the trusses to help brace and anchor them. 
View from within a truss bay.  Raised heels (red) resting
 on double top plates (blue);  blocking to support the
junction between wall and roof sheathing (yellow);  
"L" shaped blocking (between the heels) for gluing the
 wall and ceiling drywall for optimal air sealing

The top cords for our roof trusses did not extend past the plane of the wall and therefore did not help form the soffet (overhang) as shown in the photo above for a traditional roof.  A previous post on the ventilated cathedral ceiling describes how the junction between the wall sheathing and the roof sheathing was blocked on the inside and taped on the outside for maximum  air sealing, then a "mini-attic" or "cool roof" was built on top of the first layer of sheathing,  In the process, the rafters for the secondary roof extended outward to form a soffet with a 2' overhang.

Blocking for Air Sealing
The junction between the wall drywall and the ceiling drywall throughout the house is backed up by blocking so that the edges of the drywall can be glued or at least caulked (presently I can't decide which is best) to give a better air seal than is typically possible with conventional construction.  Also, as shown in the top photo, OSB blocking behind the T-wall studs makes sure that the vertical edges of the drywall on the exterior walls are also
Example of "L" shaped blocking
that was cut from a 2 x 4
(depicted by the green arrow in
 the photo above and the left
red arrow below)
 sealable.  The goal for air sealing is to have the edges of all drywall lining the envelope of the building backed up so they are not only positively fastened with screws but are either glued or caulked as well.

Window and Door "Framing"
I am using this section to describe the unique construction of the window openings in the walls.  But, since the windows will be deeply recessed, I am also veering away from construction long enough to discuss the role of the recessed window design in enhancing thermal performance. 

The "framing" for the doors and windows in the thick exterior walls was a time-consuming challenge.  (The quotes around framing acknowledge 
that the process was more about using OSB to create a box within the wall to house a window or door than using dimension lumber to "frame" the opening in a typical fashion.)

As covered in a prior post, the dimension lumber part of the framing the for windows was done in jigs many months ahead of time then the pre-built units were set into the walls as they were raised.  Each pre-made window unit had horizontal supports under the window, spanning the width of the 
Continuation of air seal blocking around the corner of the
ceiling (red arrows); wall trusses (yellow); roof trusses
(blue); tandem double top plates (green)
wall, that positioned the window 3 1/4" closer to the inside surface of the wall than to the outside surface.  The outside sheathing and the inside drywall plus the decorative framing around the window on both the sides of the wall will make the total wall thickness around the window about 18".

With the window offset 3 1/4" towards the inside, the jam on the outside of the window will be about 8' wide plus another 1 1/2" for the frame.  Consequently, the surface of the glass will be recessed by almost 10" from exterior plane of the wall which, from an energy standpoint, has two advantages .  

First, the shadow box effect will block the summer sun in the early morning and in the late afternoon when it is low enough to shine under the overhang above the windows.  This configuration will be especially advantageous in September and early October when the sun's trajectory moves sufficiently southward to shine under the overhang a little longer each day. Blocking sunshine at this time of year is a plus because it is not yet needed for passive solar heating and could make the temperature in the house uncomfortable.  
Boxing in the second floor clerestory window openings. 
The raw pre-built window units are in the foreground and
 the boxed-in units appear in the distance.  The mullion for
 the partially boxed middle pair of windows has been 
insulated with EPS around the two horizontal 2 x 4s that 
support the sides of the windows 

Wind Washing
Another advantage to the shadow box configuration for the windows is that it ameliorates "wind washing". In one of its iterations, the term describes the movement of heat through window glass in cold weather.  The story goes like this.  Heat seeks cold so it conducts through the glass.  The conducted heat 
Windows installed with nailing flanges are nearly flush
with the plane of the wall
warms the air next to the glass such that the heated air lingers on the surface of the glass and slows the transfer of more heat through the glass.  The ability of the warm air to linger and "insulate" the glass depends on wind action.  On windy days, the heated layer lingers less.  The faster it "washes" away, the faster heat is lost through the glass.  New construction windows with nailing flanges have the thermal advantage of excellent air sealing between the rough opening and the installed window but are more susceptible to wind washing because the plane of the glass is virtually flush with the plane of the wall.  O
ur shadow box windows will not only reduce wind washing per se but, by facing south, will also be in better position to shield the glass from the north and west winter winds.

Mullion Insulation 
In most instances, our windows are to be paired but, instead of ordering the mullions between the windows factory-installed by Pella, I requested individual windows so they would be easier to handle while working alone.  Doing so meant that a mullion the width of a 2 x 4 had to be built into the window units initially.  Then, when boxing in the window openings, I added 3 horizontal 2 x 4s to the mullions for secure fastening of the sides of the windows.  As shown in the photo above, this arrangement created compartments in the mullion that would be inaccessible when the rest of the wall was insulated with rice hulls that I filled with rigid Styrofoam board.  As a result, the mullions should be warmer than would have been the case with factory mullions.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Construction - The Next-to-Last Major Section of the Insulation/Watershed Umbrella

For once Mother Nature cooperated despite it is the rainy season.  With help from a few volunteers we were just able to carry the installation of the umbrella behind the house near enough to completion that a pair of spring rains did not affect it.  A few days later, we completed it and moved on to final backfilling, grading and planting.  (Reminder:  clicking on any picture enlarges it for better viewing.)

Water Control
There are two considerations for water control behind the house -- surface water and water that soaks through the soil to reach the level of the umbrella.  The former would comprise most of the water from rainfall were the grade sloped enough to encourage quick runoff.  But the fall of the final grade northward from the house will be only 2 - 3' over a distance of about 100' -- a very gradual slope that will nicely handle runoff without erosion but one that will give the runoff more time to soak into the soil.  At a distance from the house, the quicker soak time will be less consequential but, over the umbrella, it means that the surface of the umbrella will handle more water.

Hiat's Design
The umbrella in front of the house sloped much less than 
the one behind the house. The rain that soaks through the soil overlying it slowly finds its way off the umbrella and down the hill away from the house.  By contrast, the rain that will soak through the soil covering the umbrella in back of the house needed to be handled by a French drain so as to direct it down-slope around the east and west sides of the house instead of flowing northward away from the house where it might pivot and undermine the umbrella.  Therefore, the umbrella slopes more severely and has a French drain at its periphery as Hiat describes in his book, Passive Annual Heat Storage.*  The idea is get the water away from the house before it can soak into the soil beyond the umbrella and flow back under the umbrella (which was its natural tendency before the lot was excavated).

As for the composition of the umbrella, it is exactly the same as described in a prior post for the front umbrella except that it was complicated by the conduits for the AGS system sticking out of the ground.  As in previous sections of the umbrella, the extruded polystyrene foam board insulation is thicker near the house and thinner towards the periphery of the umbrella.  For the first 8' from the house, the thickness is 4" (R-20); for the next 4' the thickness is 3" (R-15) and for the last 8' it is 2" (R-10).

The umbrella is bracketed on the east and west sides by
West retaining wall underway thanks to several volunteers
substantial retaining walls made from recycled limestone foundation stones.  The east wall was installed last fall; the west wall had to be done before work on the umbrella behind the house could begin. 

In addition to the layer of insulation, there were three layers of 6 mil plastic sheeting.  Our initial experience with the first layer and the foam board over it taught us that both the sheeting and foam board slid away from the house as we worked.  So, special precautions were necessary to anchor all layers until anchored with backfill.  We used a couple of dozen of 12" galvanized spike nails driven through the foam and into the ground in
First layer of plastic and the insulation in place with layers
of sand to serve as a drainage plane in case water leaks
through the top two layers of sheet plastic
locations to hold the insulation tight against the house.  Of course, this meant poking holes in the plastic sheeting under the foam but, since it will be protected by two additional layers of plastic, the holes were a good trade-off for stable and tight insulation.  

In order to keep the two top sheets of plastic from creeping down-slope during installation, we turned their edges upwards at the wall and attached them to the bottom edge of the wall sheathing using batten boards.  Also we spread a layer of sand between the sheets so it served as a counterweight against the wind for the first sheet until the second
Recycled carpet in place; sand had not yet been added
to the edges of all of the carpets (as seen in the
background for some)
sheet could be 
installed and more sand on top of it held it down until the recycled carpet could be laid over it.  The primary reason for the sand, however, was to provide a drainage plane for any water that makes its way into the lower layers of the umbrella.  Despite all of the effort, varying amounts of space existed between the horizontal foam and the wall that we discovered after it was too late to fix.  If I were to do it over again, I would anchor the foam boards with twice as many spikes before covering them with plastic rather than after the sheeting had been attached to house then bunched up against the house to get it out of the way of anchoring the foam after the fact. The plastic prevented us from knowing for sure that the foam was tight against the wall when spiked.

Sealing the Pipe Holes
We had to cut holes through all three layers
of plastic sheeting and through the 2" thick portion of the insulation to fit around the conduits.  Those in the sheeting were invariably stretched when the plastic was lifted and slid down over the pipes, such that they did not even come close to sealing out water.  So, just before installation of the carpet, each conduit was fitted with a thermoplastic roof vent flashing for 4" pipes.  The space under each flashing was made as smooth and clean as possible so that the weight of the backfill would press the rubber-like flashing tight against the sheeting to keep out water.  The holes in the carpet were cut with a hole saw turning backwards on a cutting board that had a hole in it to accommodate the centering twist drill. 

French Drain
The depression for the French drain at the northern periphery of the umbrella was a V-shaped ditch that drained both ways from the
Final grade for the umbrella including the ditch for the
French drain
center, i.e., it was deeper at the ends than in the middle.  The bottom layer of sheet plastic completely lined the ditch and its loose edge was pinned to the soil beyond the ditch so that water will be confined in it until it can find and escape via the drain.  
Unfortunately, the ditch undermined the last course of foam board to varying degrees.

The design of the French drain itself was similar to that described in a prior post on French drain fabrication for the drains we installed early on 10' below the floor of the house.  Luckily, I still had a roll of the geotextile material used for the original drains, one that is unique in filtering out the kind of fine
Perforated pipe laying on geotextile material and partially
embedded in sand ready for closure
silt characteristic of  the wind-blown loess here in the bluffs of the Mississippi River.  We rolled it out along the length of the ditch and laid a 4" perforated drain pipe on top of it.  We then shoveled sand alongside the pipe, pulled the edges of the fabric together, rolled them three times and clipped them together with hog rings as described in detail in a prior post. In doing so, we made sure that the pipe was tight against the ground side of the fabric and the sand loosely filled the space on either side and on top of the pipe.

Since the last course of foam board partially bridged over the ditch, it had to be supported somehow before it could be covered.  Accordingly, we filled the ditch with
French drain closed with hog rings
sand to the level necessary to support the foam's cantilevered edges, which, at the same time, improved the permeability of the medium around the fabric-covered French drain.  With the foam supported, we could extend the sheet plastic over the insulation, add the carpet and begin backfilling in earnest.  In order to be sure any water coming off the umbrella found the sand around the drain before it could be dammed or slowed down by the backfill soil, we made sure the edges of both the plastic sheeting and the recycled carpet (that forms the top layer of the umbrella) were amply covered with sand.

Unique Insulation Design
The prior to the AGS concept, insulation for earth contact homes was fastened to the concrete wall.  Hiat was the first to suggest taking it off of the wall and laying it horizontally in order to create a much bigger conditioned thermal mass for the house.  He was a purist to the extend that the roof of the house would be earth sheltered and the umbrella would be merely an outward extension of the insulation on the roof.  In our instance, the roof is conventional so the relationship of the wall insulation and the umbrella had be handled differently.

Accordingly, as detailed in a prior post, the top 30" of the concrete wall situated under the stick-built portion of the wall is insulated to an R-14.  (In time, the top 30" inside will be similarly insulated.)  The insulation in the umbrella (R-20) butts up against the wall insulation (eventually R-28) at about midway of the latter's vertical dimension, such that about half of the wall insulation lies above the umbrella and about half lies below. 

Ideally perhaps, the umbrella insulation should 
Spreading topsoil
be R-30 near the wall instead of R-20 but I accepted Hiat's word that any additional loss of heat through the umbrella next to the wall will be offset by the heat saved by extending the umbrella a full 20' out from the wall. 

 As soon as the final grading was done for the large area north of the house, topsoil was distributed and planted with grass seed as a means of controlling erosion in the short run. The original intention was to plant several dozen bare-rooted hardwood tree seedlings in the newly graded area but the subsoil under the topsoil ended up being largely hardpan (glacial till) in which trees do not grow well.  The turf grass will control erosion until it can be replaced with native prairie species that are not at all picky about soil quality.  Gradually the turf over most of the rest of the property will also be natively landscaped in the manner that Doug Tallemy crusades for in his book, Bringing Nature Home; How You Can Sustain Nature with Native Plants, which I referenced in an earlier post on native gardening.  
*  Hiat's book is out of print but a few copies are still available on online.  For an understanding of his design for the umbrella, go to my prior post that discusses it in detail.  The same post is part of the trilogy on Annualized GeoSolar conditioning that can also be accessed indirectly by clicking on the "Featured Post" in the left column above.