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Most ‘Houses That Breathe’ Aren’t Very Comfortable

Instead of expecting fresh air to come through your leaky walls, give your house a set of lungs

Posted on Oct 22 2013 by Robert Swinburne

Recently I heard another comment from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an e-mail, and then decided to write a blog instead.

What we are doing nowadays in the world of high-performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed — including the majority of superinsulated and passive solar homes built in the 1970s and 1980s in the Northeast — and applying those lessons to building a durable house.

Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone, and many of those that remain are piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (Usually, I like simple, but not in this case.)

For the past few decades, most builders in the Northeast have been living in a vacuum, while builders in northern European and Canada paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again, and we are taking a seat at the table.

A house has to breathe? Really?

I have lived in houses that breathe my whole life. It sucks.

Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to prevent freezing to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable, whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills.

Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my “house that breathes.” I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the wood stove going.

Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.

We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to, but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this, but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago, despite all the failures.

A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn. And If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says, “People breathe air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?” If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs — in other words, provide it with a mechanical ventilation system.

There are a range of options for doing this, from exhaust-only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap, but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on heat-recovery ventilation(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. (HRV) system. These are also fairly simple and effective, although significantly more expensive. But they have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information, just type “HRV” or “house ventilation” into the search box on Green Building Advisor, and start reading.

Robert Swinburne is a part-time architect and full-time homemaker living on 49 acres with his wife and two young children in Halifax, Vermont. He was a carpenter for several years after architecture school and is now a licensed architect and passive houseA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. designer with over 100 completed projects in the Northeast. Bob maintains a blog (primarily for therapeutic reasons) under the moniker “Vermont Architect.”

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Oct 23, 2013 5:25 PM ET

Open-Cell Foam
by Matthew O'Leary

I recently completed a remodel that I completely spray-foamed with an open-cell product. I asked my insulator if an HRV system would be necessary afterwards. He claimed that this open-cell foam does allow the house to "breathe!"

Oct 23, 2013 6:04 PM ET

Response to Matthew O'Leary
by Martin Holladay

I've noticed that people who use the "walls have to breathe" vocabulary often confuse vapor permeability with air leaks -- one more reason why the analogy with respiration is misleading and confusing.

Oct 23, 2013 9:11 PM ET

Articles like this completely miss the point
by Zenon Tymosko

This basis for bashing the idea of "breathable" is typically based on this kind of concept: "People breathe air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be different?"

I invite you to encapsulate every square inch of your skin with foam, or with 6 mil poly, or with any other kind of impermeable plastic. And then see how comfortable you feel. Assume that the foam doesn't interrupt your breathing through your lungs.

Skin is airtight, but vapor permeable. Skin "breathes". Most modern-day proponents of "breathable" are also seeking an airtight house, but one that "breathes" by virtue of some (carefully designed and placed) vapor permeability. They are not proposing to build a leaky barn that feeds big oil.

I wish writers of articles like this would actually entertain an intelligent discussion of permeability and the wisdom of building materials OTHER than foam or other totally impermeable plastics. Rather than perpetuating the notion that the best solution for building envelopes is the generous use of foam (from Big Oil, surprise, surprise).

At the very least, they should carefully define what it is they are bashing, by explaining exactly what they think "breathable" means.

Oct 24, 2013 5:14 AM ET

Response to Zenon Tymosko
by Martin Holladay

You accuse Robert Swinburne of "missing the point" and advise him that he should "explain exactly what he thinks 'breathable' means."

I'm sorry, Zenon, but I think that you are missing Robert's point. His point is that "breathable" is not a technical term, and it means different things to different people -- which is why the word is meaningless and should never be used. That's why it drives Robert crazy to hear people say that "walls have to breathe."

Here at GBA, we try to use words that have agreed-upon meanings. If we are talking about vapor permeance, we say, "this material needs to have a high vapor permeance" rather than "this material needs to breathe." If we are talking about air leakage, we say, "this wall has a high rate of air leakage" rather than "this wall breathes."

If anyone doubts that people who talk about walls "breathing" are confused as to whether they are talking about vapor permeance or air leakage, just read Matthew O'Leary's anecdote, recounted in Comment #1.

Finally, you are correct that encapsulating a human being with plastic would kill the human being. But a house is not a human being, which is why the "breathing" analogy fails. A wall doesn't have to breathe. Occupants have to breathe -- so they need a well-designed mechanical ventilation system that brings in fresh outdoor air. A wall needs to be able to dry out in both directions from the layer with the lowest vapor permeability. That's it. The entire wall has no need to be vapor-permeable -- because the wall isn't alive.

Oct 24, 2013 9:13 AM ET

Edited Oct 24, 2013 9:32 AM ET.

Don't just bash it, explain it.
by Zenon Tymosko

It wasn't me who insisted on the human analogy, it was Jesse Thompson and Robert Swinburne. Of course a wall isn't alive.

This article does absolutely nothing to help homeowners deal with people who use the word "breathable", like in the comment #1 about the open cell foam.

Instead, it makes fun of and ridicules the word "breathable". And by extension, it makes fun of and denigrates people who use the word. Which isn't helpful. It does nothing to enhance or further anyone's understanding of building science around vapor/gas permeability and/or the ability of an assembly to dry out and/or regulate humidity.

A much better article would explain what to do when one hears these words being used. Rather than suggesting that anyone who wants "breathable" components is asking to build a leaky barn.

The entire wall may have no "need" to be vapor/gas permeable, but perhaps it is a desirable characteristic. There are building materials and methods that have survived for centuries with low mold or other air quality risks. Like natural hydraulic lime plasters. Modern energy efficient design doesn't automatically have to mean the opposite of "breathable" or vapor/gas permeable. But this article would make readers run away from designers or contractors who use the word "breathable". Again, without offering any explanation or advancement of knowledge in this area. Except of course to suggest that one can mechanically ventilate.

Oct 24, 2013 9:48 AM ET

Response to Zenon Tymosko
by Martin Holladay

You ask of GBA, "Don't just bash it. Explain it."

Fortunately, we've been doing that for years. If you or any other GBA reader is interested in reading articles on vapor permeance and air leakage, I suggest the following articles:

Vapor Retarders and Vapor Barriers

Do I Need a Vapor Retarder?

GBA Product Guide: Vapor Retarders

Vapor Barriers Redux

Forget Vapor Diffusion — Stop the Air Leaks!

When Sunshine Drives Moisture Into Walls

Joseph Lstiburek: Air Barrier or Vapor Barrier?

I don't think that pointing out the problems with the word "breathable" amounts to denigration. GBA encourages builders and designers to learn more about building science, and we also encourage the entire construction community to use accurate vocabulary. I think it's fair to say that the effort is worth it, and there are signs of progress.

Fortunately, use of the word "breathable" is in decline -- and that is to be celebrated.

Oct 24, 2013 11:33 AM ET

Don't think of it as an article.
by Robert Swinburne

My bog entry was originally written in reaction to yet another builder who railed against the idea of building a tight house. He actually did want air movement through the building envelope to keep the house from getting “stuffy” I suspect he even stuffs fiberglass around windows after installation. I am fairly certain that he has no idea what the difference between a vapor barrier and an air barrier is. “Vapor diffusion” is not in his vocabulary. As an architect I get to work with folks like this on a regular basis. I try to avoid getting technical in my own blogging, instead focusing on the issues I face as a rural New England architect. I leave the more technical aspects of what I do behind the scenes and recommend green Building Advisor as a great resource for anyone interested in building science. There is much information here for anyone interested in such things and I saw no need to cover the subject of "allowing a house to breathe" again. Unfortunately, a lot of people in the building industry are not interested.

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