Musings of an Energy Nerd

A Canadian Editor Questions Passivhaus Dogma

Posted on August 1, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Today's brief blog — a departure from my usual practice of writing in-depth articles — was inspired by a recent editorial by Richard Kadulski, the editor of a Canadian newsletter called Solplan Review.

What Should I Do With My Old Windows?

Posted on July 25, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

If you’re trying to lower your energy bills, you have probably plugged many of your home’s air leaks and have added insulation to your attic floor. Now you may be wondering, “What should we do about our old windows?”

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. Sometimes it makes sense to leave old windows exactly the way they are. Sometimes it makes sense to repair the windows’ weatherstripping and add storm windows. And sometimes it makes sense to replace old windows with new energy-efficient windows.

The 2012 Code Encourages Risky Wall Strategies

Posted on July 18, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Builders who follow the prescriptive requirements of the 2012 International Residential Code (IRCInternational Residential Code. The one- and two-family dwelling model building code copyrighted by the International Code Council. The IRC is meant to be a stand-alone code compatible with the three national building codes—the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National code, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) code and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) code.) in Climate Zone 6, 7, or 8 are required to install a minimum of “20+5 or 13+10” wall insulation. What does this mean? According to an explanatory footnote in the code, the “First value is cavity insulation, [and the] second is continuous insulation or insulated siding, so ‘13+5’ means R-13 cavity insulation plus R-5 continuous insulation or insulated siding.”

Every House Needs Roof Overhangs

Posted on July 11, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Many residential designers pay too little attention to roof overhangs. Roof overhangs have several important functions: they can protect exterior doors, windows, and siding from rain; they can shade windows when solar heat gainIncrease in the amount of heat in a space, including heat transferred from outside (in the form of solar radiation) and heat generated within by people, lights, mechanical systems, and other sources. See heat loss. is undesirable; and they can help keep basements and crawl spaces dry. A house with improper overhangs can overheat in the summer, can suffer from water entry problems at windows and doors, and can have premature siding rot.

The most common design error is to make roof overhangs too stingy. It’s also possible (although much rarer) for roof overhangs to be too wide.

South-Facing Skylights: Threat or Menace?

Posted on July 10, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

There are two kinds of sunrooms: those that have sloped glazingWhen referring to windows or doors, the transparent or translucent layer that transmits light. High-performance glazing may include multiple layers of glass or plastic, low-e coatings, and low-conductivity gas fill. and those that have only vertical glazing. Sunrooms with sloped (or in some cases, curved) glazing are more common (and, of course, more uncomfortable). In order to make sure that these rooms are sunny, they are often located on the south side of the house.

Polyethylene Under Concrete Slabs

Posted on July 4, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

What goes under the concrete in a slab-on-grade home? In the old days, not much — just dirt. Eventually, contractors discovered that it made sense to include a 4-inch-thick layer of crushed stone under the concrete. The crushed stone provides a capillaryForces that lift water or pull it through porous materials, such as concrete. The tendency of a material to wick water due to the surface tension of the water molecules. break that reduces the amount of moisture flowing upward from the damp soil to the permeable concrete.

Since the crushed stone layer provides a fairly uniform substrate, it also may also reduce the chance that a concrete slab will be poorly supported by random pockets of soft, easily compressible soil.

Banish These Details From Your Plans

Posted on June 27, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Is it possible to disassemble old shipping pallets and glue the pieces of lumber together to make furniture? Of course it’s possible; some woodworkers have used this method to make beautiful tables and chairs. There’s a fly in the ointment, however: while it’s possible, it’s not very easy.

Many commonly used construction methods, design details, and materials fall into a category I would call “possible but not easy.” I decided to create a list of items that fall into this category.

How Balanced Ventilation Systems Become Exhaust-Only

Posted on June 20, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Unlike the homes of our great-grandparents, the homes of most Americans are served by an array of automatic appliances and systems.

When our great-grandparents returned home after a three-day absence, they would need to haul a bucket of water from the spring and light a fire in the kitchen stove before they could brew tea. Today’s homes, of course, have electricity for lighting, a furnace for warmth, an air conditioner for cooling, a water heater for showers, and internet access for Googling.

Universal Design

Posted on June 13, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Why are most interior doorways only 30 inches wide? Why are so many doorknobs hard to grip? And why do so many homes have a long stairway between the front door and the bedrooms?

Two typical answers to these questions would be, “because that’s the way we’ve always built houses” and “because these houses meet code.” (Those two reasons happen to be pretty weak, by the way.)

Vermont House Uses Only Half a Cord of Firewood

Posted on June 6, 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

When my friend Laura Murphy mentioned that her neighbors in Ripton, Vermont, Chris and Zoe Pike, stayed warm last winter by burning just half a cord of firewood, I was intrigued. So I tracked down the Pikes to learn a few more details about their house.

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