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Farmhouse Style Meets Passive House

Climate Zone 4A: Steeles Tavern, VA

Sep 21 2012 By Daniel Ernst | 16 comments

General Specs and Team

Location: Climate Zone 4A: Steeles Tavern, VA
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 3.5
Living Space : 2676 sqf
Cost (USD/sq. ft.): $85/sqf

(Note: Reported cost of $85/square foot does not include most of the labor costs.)

Designer: Promethean Homes (Daniel Ernst), with help from John Brooks

Builder: Promethean Homes (Daniel Ernst)

Energy Consultant: Think Little (John Semmelhack)

Insulation Contractor: Southland Insulators (Ivan Sandau)


Foundation: Sealed, insulated, and conditioned crawl space (CMUConcrete masonry unit. Precast concrete block used to build walls. CMUs have hollow cores that can be filled with concrete onsite for additional reinforcement. The use of stronger, more lightweight types of concrete such as autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) is becoming increasingly popular in CMU manufacture. walls parged with surface-bonding cement)

Rat slab insulation: Horizontal layer of insulation under the slab: two staggered layers of Thermafiber VersaBoard 80 (2” thick mineral wool rigid board insulation) totaling R-16

Foundation wall insulation: Two staggered layers of Dow Thermax 2” thick polyisocyanurate with thermal ignition barrier (R-26)

Foundation air barrierBuilding assembly components that work as a system to restrict air flow through the building envelope. Air barriers may or may not act as a vapor barrier. The air barrier can be on the exterior, the interior of the assembly, or both.: 6 mil Dura Skrim and surface-bonding cement

Wall frame: Double-stud wallConstruction system in which two layers of studs are used to provide a thicker-than-normal wall system so that a lot of insulation can be installed; the two walls are often separated by several inches to reduce thermal bridging through the studs and to provide additional space for insulation. construction; outer load-bearing 2x6 walls, framed 24" O.C.; interior 2x4 walls (non-structural) framed 24” O.C.

Wall sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. : Exterior rated 5/8” plywood

Wall insulation: Dense-packed GreenFiber 765LD all-borateBoron-containing chemical that provides fire resistance to materials such as cellulose insulation and provides decay and termite resistance to wood products. Borate is derived from the mineral borax and is benign, compared with most other wood treatments. cellulose (R-40)

Wall air barrier: Plywood sealed with Sto StoGuard (Gold Coat)

Siding: James Hardie HardiePlank pre-painted cement board siding, installed over rainscreenConstruction detail appropriate for all but the driest climates to prevent moisture entry and to extend the life of siding and sheathing materials; most commonly produced by installing thin strapping to hold the siding away from the sheathing by a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch. (3/4” thick furring strip) - Stables Construction Co.

Exterior trim: MiraTEC composite board trim

Windows: Accurate Dorwin ADC Series; triple pane, orientation-specific 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.; combination of fixed and casement windows (R-5)

Roof / ceiling: Ventilated attic space, 2x (sawn lumber) joist and rafter construction

Roof sheathing: Exterior-rated 3/4” plywood

Ceiling insulation: Fiberglass batts, loose fill cellulose (R-70)

Ceiling air barrier: Plywood sealed with StoGuard

Roofing: Follansbee TCSII (terne coated stainless steel), Senger’s Roofing


PHPP Specific Space Heat Demand: 4.71 kBTU1,000 Btus (ft2/yr)

Blower-Door TestTest used to determine a home’s airtightness: a powerful fan is mounted in an exterior door opening and used to pressurize or depressurize the house. By measuring the force needed to maintain a certain pressure difference, a measure of the home’s airtightness can be determined. Operating the blower door also exaggerates air leakage and permits a weatherization contractor to find and seal those leakage areas. Results: 0.39 achACH stands for Air Changes per Hour. This is a metric of house air tightness. ACH is often expressed as ACH50, which is the air changes per hour when the house is depressurized to -50 pascals during a blower door test. The term ACHn or NACH refers to "natural" air changes per hour, meaning the rate of air leakage without blower door pressurization or depressurization. While many in the building science community detest this term and its use (because there is no such thing as "normal" or "natural" air leakage; that changes all the time with weather and other conditions), ACHn or NACH is used by many in the residential HVAC industry for their system sizing calculations. @ 50 Pa (average of pressurization and depressurizationSituation that occurs within a house when the indoor air pressure is lower than that outdoors. Exhaust fans, including bath and kitchen fans, or a clothes dryer can cause depressurization, and it may in turn cause back drafting as well as increased levels of radon within the home. multi-point tests)

Estimated Site Energy Use: 8,320 kWh/yr

Actual Energy Use: July 2012: 674 kWh; August 2012: 661 kWh

Heating/Cooling: (2) Mitsibishi MSZFE09NA / MUZFE09NA Mr. Slim ductless minisplit heat pumps, 9,000 BTU capacity, 10 HSPF, 26 SEER(SEER) The efficiency of central air conditioners is rated by the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio. The higher the SEER rating of a unit, the more energy efficient it is. The SEER rating is Btu of cooling output during a typical hot season divided by the total electric energy in watt-hours to run the unit. For residential air conditioners, the federal minimum is 13 SEER. For an Energy Star unit, 14 SEER. Manufacturers sell 18-20 SEER units, but they are expensive.

Ventilation: UltimateAir DX200 Energy Recovery Ventilator

Well pump: Gould Constant Pressure system (variable frequency drive)

Domestic hot water: AirGenerate AirTap ATI66 heat-pump water heaterAn appliance that uses an air-source heat pump to heat domestic hot water. Most heat-pump water heaters include an insulated tank equipped with an electric resistance element to provide backup heat whenever hot water demand exceeds the capacity of the heat pump. Since heat-pump water heaters extract heat from the air, they lower the temperature and humidity of the room in which they are installed.

Appliances: Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. rated appliances (where applicable), 24” compact clothes washer and condensing dryer, induction range

Lighting: Philips AmbientLED (Edison base LED), tube fluorescent

Water Efficiency

• Low-flow plumbing fixtures
• Toto Vespin II 1.28 gpfGallons per flush. Measurement of water use in toilets. Since 1992, toilets sold in the United States have been restricted to 1.6 gpf or less. The standard for high-efficiency toilets (HETs) is 1.28 gpf. toilets
• Manablok water distribution manifold and PEXCross-linked polyethylene. Specialized type of polyethylene plastic that is strengthened by chemical bonds formed in addition to the usual bonds in the polymerization process. PEX is used primarily as tubing for hot- and cold-water distribution and radiant-floor heating. piping

Indoor Air Quality

• Low- and no-VOCVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production. paints
• Solid wood and tile flooring
Balanced ventilationMechanical ventilation system in which separate, balanced fans exhaust stale indoor air and bring in fresh outdoor air in equal amounts; often includes heat recovery or heat and moisture recovery (see heat-recovery ventilator and energy-recovery ventilator). system provides fresh air to living spaces and bedrooms

Green Materials and Resource Efficiency

Regionally sourced Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) used for framing, sheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. , furring strips, decking, and ceiling boards. Materials were certified through various agencies:
• Maple flooring sourced from Appalachian region, certified by AHMI
• Follansbee TSCII (terne coated stainless steel) roofing is designed for 100+ year lifespan, eliminating painting, replacement, recycling, and waste associated with reroofing

Modeled after the vernacular architecture of a Shenandoah Valley farmhouse, this multi-generational house was designed and built to meet the Passivhaus standard. I call it the Passive Bauernhaus.

By Daniel Ernst
When my family made the decision to move to Virginia, we agreed that somehow, some way, we would find a home that could comfortably accommodate seven people, across three generations. On a working farm. On a budget. Winding our way through an economic downturn, it made sense to consolidate our resources, minimize our family footprint, and maximize our efficiency.

Although we looked for months for a possible house renovation project, the dollars and cents of the market pushed us toward purchasing a site for new construction.

Lessons Learned

We speak a different language
The fact remains that many in the residential construction industry (suppliers included), are not familiar with high-performance homes or techniques. Surround yourself with those that are knowledgeable.

Find your suppliers months in advance
Although I knew that certain supplies and vendors would be difficult to find, this proved one of the more frustrating aspects of construction. Just because you know about a product doesn’t necessarily mean you can source that product. Thinking about using foamglas or mineral wool insulation? Plan ahead.

Sealed crawl spaces need fast dry-in times
Due to my extended construction schedule, and a very rainy September 2011, mold developed on some of the crawl space framing. Resolved? Yes! Fun? No!

Orientation-specific 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. can be problematic
There are a lot of chances to make a mistake during manufacturing and installation. In my case, the glazing manufacturer's labels (from PPG) did not match the window manufacturer's labels (from Accurate Dorwin).

Preparing open-web joists for dense-pack cellulose is tedious
Vertical blocking in-line with the interior stud wall would have saved a lot of time.

Little things can hold you up
Most floor registers are unsuitable for balancing an ERV(ERV). The part of a balanced ventilation system that captures water vapor and heat from one airstream to condition another. In cold climates, water vapor captured from the outgoing airstream by ERVs can humidify incoming air. In hot-humid climates, ERVs can help maintain (but not reduce) the interior relative humidity as outside air is conditioned by the ERV./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. : they have multi-angled fins and foot operated dials that cannot be locked into place. Lockable registers are special order, have long lead times, and are expensive.

Daniel Ernst

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Image Credits:

  1. Daniel Ernst

FSC-Certified Wood Framing Lumber

green-building-curmudgeonheader image

How to Cheat* at LEED for Homes

The road to green certification is paved with low-hanging fruit. This cheat sheet with 22 shortcuts will get you to LEED certification without a lot of trouble.

Posted on May 24 2011 by Carl Seville

The subject of many of my talks, as well as a chapter in the upcoming green building textbook I am co-authoring is the concept of “Green From the Start.”

I realize this isn’t all that original, but it is critically important and is always worth repeating, at least until everyone understands and actually does it – then I suppose we can all shut up and go home.

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Interior Walls and Floor Framing

Interior Walls and Floor Framing Affect a Home's Livability

Tab 0

Energy savings and comfort come with smart design

Partition walls affect how much light reaches the interior of a house, and this has a direct bearing on electrical consumption. Because interior walls intersect with outside walls, how the attach is important.

Floor design can make duct runs more efficient and easier to install.

See below for:

Tab 1

Steel studs are lighter than wood, and no drilling is required

Among material choices, light-gauge steel framing is worth considering as a substitute for 2x dimensional lumber in non-load-bearing partition walls. Steel is lighter than wood, comes with prepunched holes for plumbing and wiring, and is consistently straight. Steel studs contain recycled content, and they can be recycled or reused. As long as they are not used on exterior walls, steel studs have some real advantages.

Tab 2

Place morning rooms on the east side, utility rooms on the north

Floor plans that make the most of natural light (a strategy called “daylighting”) reduce reliance on electricity and thus reduce household operating costs. Thoughtful floor plans also can shorten duct and plumbing runs, lowering construction and operating costs. An interior that has a lot of natural light makes for a pleasant and healthy environment.

  • Plan room locations around the site’s sun exposure, and frame accordingly. For example, rooms frequently used during morning hours, such as the kitchen or a breakfast nook, should face east or southeast. Major living areas that face south can take advantage of the sun's heat output in winter to reduce lighting and heating bills.
  • Align skylights over stairwells to introduce natural light deep into the house.
  • Minimize the length of duct and plumbing runs to lower construction and operating costs. When bathrooms are stacked over one another, for instance, instead of being located at opposite ends of the house, hot water doesn’t have to travel as far. Shorter duct runs offer the same advantage.
  • Tab 3

    How floors are framed has a significant affect on HVAC systems and comfort

    Interior framing should not compromise the integrity of either the thermal barrier or the air barrierBuilding assembly components that work as a system to restrict air flow through the building envelope. Air barriers may or may not act as a vapor barrier. The air barrier can be on the exterior, the interior of the assembly, or both..

  • Use drywall clipsMetal or plastic stops that are attached to framing at inside corners. The clips replace framing, thus leaving more room for insulation. Because such a corner floats (acting as a stop, the clip allows the first sheet of drywall to be trapped by the second, perpendicularly installed sheet), cracking of the drywall joint is less common. instead of solid 2x corners to allow more insulation in exterior walls and to avoid popped screws and cracks in the finished walls.
  • Sloppy or incomplete work at the framing stage can degrade air and thermal barriers, making a house less comfortable and harder to heat and cool. Unless thermal and air barriers are continuous and aligned (in immediate contact with each other), unintentional air currents make thermal insulation much less effective. Typical trouble spots include rim joists, duct and pipe chases, attic kneewalls, soffits, and walls behind tubs and stairs. Once interior finishes go up, it’s too late. Solutions to some of these problems are outlined in the "Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. Thermal Bypass Inspection Checklist Guide."
  • Air barriers and vapor barriers applied to the ceiling before interior partitions are tipped into place are more effective than those placed after the fact.
  • How floors are framed can have a significant impact on the overall efficiency of HVAC equipment and, thus, the cost of keeping a house comfortable. Installation costs also are affected.

  • Floor system framing materials — 2x dimensional lumber versus open-web floor trusses, for instance— affect how easily the mechanical contractor can run air ducts. Ducts can be run between the webs of a floor truss, but they can’t be punched through a solid joist without compromising strength. I-joists have a more forgiving, but not unlimited, capacity for holes. Web designs in floor trusses vary; choose a web that can accommodate the maximum duct size required.
  • Framing can be adjusted to accommodate ducts. The orientation of major bearing beams, along with the depth and type of floor joists, should be set in conjunction with HVAC plans. Changing floor framing may add cost, but a configuration that doesn't work for the HVAC contractor may, in the end, cost even more.
  • Ducts that must be routed into complex bends to get under bearing beams will be less efficient than straight runs and may make it impossible to turn a basement into a finished space later.
  • Framing questions should be addressed early in the design process through a direct exchange of ideas between the architect and the HVAC contractor. By the time the HVAC contractor arrives at the job site, it’s too late to make major framing changes.
  • Tab 4

    Lumber grades, loads, joist spans, cantilevers, and fire blocking

    The 2006 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. includes provisions for wood floor framing in Section 502. Like other sections dedicated to framing, the floor framing section starts with the most general requirements like lumber grading and appropriate design loads. Maximum floor-joist spans (Table 502.3), girder and header spans (Table 502.5), maximum cantilevers (Table 502.3), and drilling and notching rules (Figure 502.8) can be found later in the section. Steel floor framing rules can be found in Section 505.

    Wood wall framing is covered in Sections 601 and 602. Figures 602.3(1) and 602.3(2) are helpful for determining where to look for specific rules regarding headers, drilling and notching, and fire blocking. Rules for steel wall framing are found in section 603, which includes material specifications, fastening schedules, and connection details.


    Houses on slab foundations often locate ductwork in an unconditioned attic. In a green home, however, all ductwork must be located inside the home's thermal envelope. If ducts will run in interior soffits, ceiling heights must be generous and beams must be located with care.

    Look for drywall with recycled content.
    An alternative to standard drywall are panels made with recycled content, including by-products derived from stack scrubbers at coal-burning power plants. As is the case when ordering concrete in which fly ashFine particulates consisting primarily of silica, alumina, and iron that are collected from flue gases during coal combustion. Flyash is employed as a substitute for some of the portland cement used in the making of concrete, producing a denser, stronger, and slower-setting material while eliminating a portion of the energy-intensive cement required. More info replaces some of the cement, specifying these products helps recycle industrial waste.


    Wall-Section Details
    Remodeling Details
    Mechanical-Systems Details
    Advanced-Framing Details


    LEEDLeadership 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. -H Up to 4 points available under MR1 (Materials & Resources) for material-efficient framing.

    NGBSNational Green Building Standard Based on the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines and passed through ANSI. This standard can be applied to both new homes, remodeling projects, and additions. Under Chapter 6, "Resource Efficiency": up to 9 points for advanced framingHouse-framing techniques in which lumber use is optimized, saving material and improving the energy performance of the building envelope. (601.2); up to 13 points for modular building dimensions (601.3); up to 14 points for detailed framing plan (601.4); up to 13 points for precut or preassembled framing components (601.5); up to 8 points for stacking floor areas (601.6).


    Think about natural light

    Walls on the inside of the house can be either load-bearing parts of the structure or partitions that simply divide the house into rooms. Where interior walls are located, and not just how they are built, has important implications for the amount of natural light that reaches into the house interior. That, in turn, affects lighting needs, 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., and all-around livability.

    Like wall framing, floor framing has an obvious structural purpose, but layout and design can also affect plumbing and duct runs in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Careful planning can reduce waste and boost efficiency.


    Open building is a flexible system

    One of the problems with conventional interior framing is that spaces inside the house are fixed, essentially forever. Moving walls as the needs of occupants change is prohibitively difficult and expensive, in large part because walls are full of pipes and wires. Tedd Benson, who heads a design/build company in New Hampshire called Bensonwood, is an advocate of a design approach that seeks to disentangle the various layers of a house so that future changes, upgrades, and repairs will be easier. This design methodology, called “open building”, would substantially change the way interior framing is undertaken and make houses much more flexible and useful. It has been slow to catch on in the U.S. residential market.


    Some rooms may need extra attention

    High noise levels inside the house can make everyone's life miserable. If some rooms will house noisy activities--a room where a band practices, for example, or where a powerful music system will be installed--steps can be taken to limit the sound that spills into the rest of the house. Noise travels by conductionMovement of heat through a material as kinetic energy is transferred from molecule to molecule; the handle of an iron skillet on the stove gets hot due to heat conduction. R-value is a measure of resistance to conductive heat flow. through solid materials or through the air, and there are a variety of steps that can help control it. Using resilient channel on walls and ceilings to isolate drywall from framing is one fairly simple step that will help. Careful air sealing is another. It might make sense to consult an architect or other specialist in situations where activities are going to be especially noisy.


    EPA Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners.:
    Thermal Bypass Checklist

    Image Credits:

    1. Justin Fink/Fine Homebuilding #197
    2. Rob Yagid/Fine Homebuilding #189
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