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Architects Talking About Air Barriers

Two Maine architects discuss several ways to create a good air barrier

Posted on Feb 22 2010 by Christopher Briley

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With cocktails in their hands, architects Chris Briley and Phil Kaplan discuss green building and design issues in a casual, pithy format

Join the guys for a drink as Chris and Phil look at air barriers — one of “The Big Three” topics (along with insulation and windows) of green construction.

Sit back, relax, and be “edutained” — while you work, drive, exercise or do whatever you do while you podcatch.

This week, Chris and Phil discuss:

  • Two ways to install an air barrier: on the outside, using the Huber Zip system; or on the inside, using the Airtight Drywall Approach.
  • Why you might want to use both systems to build a house with both an interior and an exterior air barrier.
  • How to “plan for failure” by providing a way for damp walls to dry out.
  • How to install exterior foam insulation according to an Alaskan system called REMOTE (the Residential Exterior Membrane Outside Insulation Technique).
  • To design your wall assembly, you not only need to “be the water drop” — you also need to “be the water vapor.”
  • Why you should test your home for airtightness with a blower door.
  • How to convert cfm50 to ach50 — and why.
  • Why you should aim for no more than 1 ach50.
  • Why these Maine architects prefer an HRV(HRV). Balanced ventilation system in which most of the heat from outgoing exhaust air is transferred to incoming fresh air via an air-to-air heat exchanger; a similar device, an energy-recovery ventilator, also transfers water vapor. HRVs recover 50% to 80% of the heat in exhausted air. In hot climates, the function is reversed so that the cooler inside air reduces the temperature of the incoming hot air. to an exhaust-only ventilationMechanical ventilation system in which one or more fans are used to exhaust air from a house and make-up air is supplied passively. Exhaust-only ventilation creates slight depressurization of the home; its impact on vented gas appliances should be considered. system.

Chris Briley is the principal architect at the Green Design Studio in Yarmouth, Maine, where he practices “architecture for life.” He is a LEED accredited professional and specializes in energy efficient, environmentally friendly design, focusing mostly on residential architecture. His accomplishments include the first LEED Gold certified home in New England, helping to found the Maine Chapter of the USGBCUnited States Green Building Council (USGBC). Organization devoted to promoting and certifying green buildings. USGBC created the LEED rating systems., and most recently, receiving a LEED Platinum rating for a spec home in Portland.

Phil Kaplan is an award-winning and oft-published architect whose Portland, Maine, firm, Kaplan Thompson Architects — with the motto “Beautiful, Sustainable, Attainable” — is committed to designing only vibrant, healthy, and low-energy buildings. He also serves as Professor at UMA's School of Architecture. His firm's recent accomplishments include the LEED for HomesLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED for Homes is the residential green building program from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). While this program is primarily designed for and applicable to new home projects, major gut rehabs can qualify. Innovative Project Award for 2009 as well as three LEED Platinum homes.

About the "Green Architects' Lounge" series
Imagine going to a green building forum, putting on your name tag, sitting in a large class room, getting your fair dose of PowerPoint, and taking notes. This Podcast is nothing like that. This is like going to a cocktail lounge afterward with a couple of green architects who then talk about the forum you all just attended.

Join Chris Briley and Phil Kaplan as they discuss green building topics while sharing cocktail recipes, music preferences, and their professional experiences. This podcast is for those seeking “edutainment” while they work, exercise, travel, or sketch the beginnings of their next great project.


Because Green Building Advisor doesn't like to publish information that we haven't tested, my wife and I decided to field test Chris and Phil's concoction. I was surprised at how easy it was to float the heavy cream over the liquor, and how much it did in fact look like a stout beer. My wife thinks the Simple Charm "is warm and dreamy. I could sip(SIP) Building panel usually made of oriented strand board (OSB) skins surrounding a core of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam insulation. SIPs can be erected very quickly with a crane to create an energy-efficient, sturdy home. this all night."


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Feb 22, 2010 1:26 PM ET

I like It
by John Brooks

Chris & Phil,
I like your Show.

I like the car analogy.....
Do car windows install with peel and stick or gaskets?

Feb 22, 2010 2:59 PM ET

by Christopher Briley

Ha! Thanks John.

Feb 23, 2010 1:48 PM ET

Good information
by Michael Maines

At the beginning of each episode, Chris and Phil not only present a cocktail recipe, but they talk a little about the history of the beverage, describe why it tastes good, why some people might not like it, and what they might do differently next time.

At the end of each show they play a different song by bands you may or may not have heard of--fun, intelligent music with a strong beat and complex, layered rythms.

Somewhere in between, they apply the same treatment to building science topics. After trying to listen to the show in the background while doing other things, I kept missing great information and points of view that Chris and Phil (and Jesse) weave into their discussion. I'll think I know what they're going to say about a topic and they surprise me with something I hadn't heard or thought of before.

Great show guys--I can't wait to hear the next episode, and the next "six digit idea!"

Mar 12, 2010 2:14 PM ET

I love this forum
by Anonymous

Thanks for the humor - I think my students would actually remember the concept hearing it like this.

Mar 12, 2010 4:49 PM ET

This forum is very, very s.....l......o.......w
by Dirk Faegre

You will be doing yourself a big favor (if you're not a freshman in college) by skipping the first 8 minutes of this. It's pure drivel. It gets better but not much -- the corny, endless "jokes" at one another are lame. Every minute or two they allow a bit of actual knowledge about building science to leak out. But it never lasts long ... they fall back into their drinking and kidding. Me, I'd much prefer to get the real info and treat it like a professional lecture.
As to the car analogy... it doesn't work. If you turn your heater fan on high with all the doors and windows closed and then 'crack' a window a bit, you'll hear the heater fan speed up. That's because the pressure is relieved and the air can flow better. In the original VW beetles , they were airtight - slamming the doors could hurt your eardrums and sometimes the door refused to latch. We HAD to open a window to get a door fully latched. It was not a good analogy.
To Chris and Phil : Pick up the pace, show off your professional knowledge & awareness and make a special CD for the young college set. OK? Thanks.

And... as to old houses 'breathing' ... they DID need to breathe. That's because the basements were almost always damp, very damp. That moisture had to go somewhere. Modern weatherization techniques can destroy an older home IF the moisture is not remediated (and plenty have been!) Many of those "old" homes lasted just fine for a hundred years and more ... until they were tightened up. Then the problems began. Of course, if the moisture was remediated properly ... then they could then start saving heat safely.

Mar 12, 2010 4:58 PM ET

Different styles for different folks
by Martin Holladay

To Anonymous: I'm glad you enjoy the humor.

To Dick: This Web site has plenty of resources for those who like their information straight — just the facts, in print, with no drink recipes. Linger where you like, and if the podcast doesn't suit your style, move on.

Mar 12, 2010 6:16 PM ET

Critique Welcome
by Christopher Briley

Anonymous, thanks!

Dirk, I’ll take your advice. In our future episodes, we plan to cut back on the tangential banter a bit and focus more on the topic at hand. However, we’re still going to be casual and conversational, otherwise we’d just be trying to do what Joe Lstebureck and John Straube are already doing so well. (I highly recommend their podcast submissions for you.) This site is chuck full of awesome facts and serious debate. This podcast is just the lighter side of things.

As for the car analogy, I think we just wanted the listener to think of the house they fail to seal properly as a car whose windows don’t close all the way.

Speaking of analogies, Paul Newman famously dined at a well known sea food restaurant here in Maine. The restaurant owner himself went over to the table and asked if everything was to his satisfaction. Mr. Newman said that the rice was a little dry. The owner replied, “Well, if you wanted great rice you should have gone to the Japanese restaurant two doors down.”

When we post episodes about systems, I hope you try us again. Our rice will be much better by then, but we’ll still be serving sea food. …Perhaps I’ll work on my analogy skills too.

Thanks for listening.

Aug 31, 2010 12:06 AM ET

by Jim Argeropoulos

I like the idea of sealing up the shell, but I worry about the failure of the seals. How do you defend the 30-50 lifespan of caulk?
What happens when the seals fail? How do you first notice the failure and more importantly repair such a failure. These seals are deeply embedded in the structures.
Thanks for the great show!

Sep 1, 2010 9:27 AM ET

Thanks Jim
by Christopher Briley

Before we were picked up by the Green Building Advisor, Jesse (our grumpy guest for a segment called 'What's bothering Jesse") talked about that very issue. (It's in episode 2: A better Envelope around 37:40. You can find it on itunes just search for Green Architects' Lounge)

I was always taught that caulk will fail, and if you're detail depends on caulk for sealing then it's really depending on maintenance to maintain a seal. Jesse points out in his rant that zee Germans do not use spray foams and sealants the way we do here in the states for this reason. They use cellulose instead of spray foam and tapes instead of caulk or foam sealant, because eventually the spray foam will separate from the wood, etc.

The sealant that seals the wall board to the plates will not see the abuse the caulk around an exterior window, and will therefore last much, much longer. But your point is very valid, even at our best, these tight buildings will slowly develop leaks over time and loose a little of their efficiency.

So to answer your question, I don't defend it very well. All I can say is a good 30-50 years is better than a bad 30-50 years, and that we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and other sentimental expressions.

Thanks for listening and contributing, Jim

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