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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Banish These Details From Your Plans

Some features and methods are so difficult to implement that designers might want to avoid them entirely

Image 1 of 4
The second-floor joists of a Garrison building are cantilevered. Although some architects like the look of the soffits created by these cantilevered joists, a Garrison overhang is difficult to insulate and air seal.
The second-floor joists of a Garrison building are cantilevered. Although some architects like the look of the soffits created by these cantilevered joists, a Garrison overhang is difficult to insulate and air seal. Nice window — but it doesn't belong in the shower.
Image Credit: Window in the shower: Juhan Sonin
Dante's ninth circle of hell is reserved for the lighting fixture geniuses who invented the recessed can light. Just say no. Designers and builders have chosen risky professions, but that doesn't mean that they have to go looking for trouble. Some details are so scary that you have to learn how to run in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

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.

The unfortunate twist to this category of difficult methods is an apparent paradox: though hard to do well, these methods are actually fairly easy to implement if you are willing to do a sloppy job. (That’s why many of the methods are common.) The methods are only difficult for builders who want to build a tight, high-performance home.

My list is deliberately provocative. Some readers will respond, “I’ve used many of the methods on your list, and I always do a good job.” To which I will answer, “That’s great. But most builders aren’t as conscientious as you are.”

I’m addressing this article to architects and designers. Since these methods are hard to implement well, it’s best to leave them off your plans and specifications. Use other methods.

Martin’s ‘possible but not easy’ list

Look your client in the eye and just say no. It may take a little practice, but you can do it.

Crawl spaces. Most crawl spaces are damp, leaky, poorly insulated, and rarely visited. Creating a dry crawl space is possible, but it’s rare for a builder to get all the necessary details right.

Basements can be damp, too — but at least they are easier to access. (Easy-to-access spaces are more likely to be frequently visited, and frequently visited spaces are less likely to have problems that go unnoticed for years.)

Slab foundations have drawbacks — but nowhere near as many pitfalls as crawl spaces.

For more information on this issue, see Building an Unvented Crawl Space.

Dormers. Occasionally, an architect will design a dormer for a vented unconditioned attic, in hopes of creating a roof that looks lively and exciting from the curb. (Needless to say, this is nuts. It’s the kind of detail you would see on a Hollywood set.)

In most cases, however, dormers are specified when the space under the roof is conditioned space. The components of this type of dormer are part of the home’s thermal envelope, and it’s hard to get the details right. The thermal envelope has to be continuous. That means that you need to have insulation that follows the roof slope; when you pop a dormer, you need to make sure that all of the barriers — the air barrier, the water management barrier, and the insulation barrier — are uninterrupted, and that the barriers on the dormer cheeks are continuous with these barriers on the main roof.

Let’s face it — the air barrier ends up like Swiss cheese. Moreover, the framing used for dormer cheeks and dormer rafters is never thick enough for an adequate insulation layer, and the roofer’s step flashing details at the base of the dormer cheeks are often faulty.

So — don’t do dormers.

Bay windows. Bay windows are almost as difficult to detail well as dormers. In most homes, this type of bump-out is an energy nose-bleed.

If you insist on building a bay window, make sure that you have developed good details to limit air leakage and to provide a thick layer of insulation.

Garrison overhangs. The second floor of a Garrison-style home has a greater area than the first floor. This magic is made possible by cantilevering the floor joists a foot or more, creating an exterior soffit.

You can guess what’s coming: I don’t like Garrison overhangs. These bump-outs are hard to seal, so they usually leak abundant quantities of air.

Windows in showers. You want a window in your shower, don’t you? Maybe you live in the country. You don’t have neighbors, and you enjoy the little frisson of excitement you feel when you shower in front of your window. Or maybe you just want to look at the trees or enjoy the natural light.

Can you install a window in a shower in a way that keeps water out of your wall? Sure. With enough copper flashing, butyl gaskets, and peel-and-stick tape, you can do almost anything. Do most window installers get these details right? No.

Fiberglass batt insulation. Yes, it’s possible to install fiberglass batt insulation in such a way that it achieves the R-value advertised on the package — but it doesn’t happen often. If you care about the thermal performance of the building you are designing, it’s best to specify a different type of insulation.

To learn more about this issue, see Installing Fiberglass Right and Should Batt Insulation Be Outlawed?

Recessed can lights in insulated ceilings. Many builders have tried and failed to make recessed can lights airtight, using a combination of caulk, spray foam, and site-built covers. They’ve also tried to heap enough insulation on top of the fixture to meet minimum code requirements, only to be stymied by insufficient clearance to the roof sheathing or difficulties keeping the mounded-up insulation in place.

Fortunately, most designers who focus on energy efficiency have sworn off recessed cans. The biggest remaining problem is that designers are weak; they need to develop a backbone to better resist homeowners who plead for recessed lighting.

For more information on this issue, see Recessed Can Lights and Ban the Can.

Brick veneer. Brick cladding is durable, low-maintenance, and attractive. Traditionally, however, bricks were not intended as a facing for structural wood framing. The idea of marrying masonry cladding to structural wood framing is a relatively recent development, and it is fraught with problems.

How many ways are there to screw up brick veneer? Lots. The builder can use the wrong wall sheathing; the builder can install the water-resistive barrier (WRB) with reverse laps; the mason can forget the weep holes at the bottom of the wall; the mason can fail to install durable flashing near the weep holes; the weep holes can end up below grade after landscaping work is completed; the mason can fail to install proper flashing and weep holes above a bay window; and the mason can clog up the drainage space behind the bricks with gobs of mortar.

Is there a good way for the architect and builder to make sure that all of these details are done right? Not really — not without a webcam.

Including brick veneer on this list is something of a stretch, I know — and I’m going to get pushback on this issue, especially from builders in Texas and Georgia. But designers and builders who specify brick veneer need to be aware of the pitfalls of this cladding, and need to have a plan for supervising the work carefully.

Adhered manufactured stone cladding. Adhered manufactured stone cladding over OSB sheathing is probably the riskiest cladding option for a wood-framed building. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of homes with this type of cladding have had serious problems with moisture intrusion and rot, dragging the homeowners, builders, designers, and their insurance companies into protracted construction-defect negotiations.

If a designer and builder can come up with details that include a ventilated rainscreen gap between the cladding and the OSB, along with bulletproof flashing details, this cladding option might work. If you want to go that route, you have a stronger stomach than I do.

For more information on this issue, see All About Wall Rot.

Ground-source heat pumps. There are two hurdles that need to be crossed if you want a residential ground-source heat pump (GSHP) that performs well: system design and equipment installation. Both are difficult. Energy experts have learned that both steps are often muffed.

For more information, see Air-Source or Ground-Source Heat Pump? and Are Affordable Ground-Source Heat Pumps On the Horizon?

Ducts. Most ducts are undersized. Most duct seams are leaky. Many ducts are convoluted and are located outside of a home’s thermal envelope. To overcome a duct system’s static pressure, furnace fans and ventilation equipment must expend a significant amount of energy.

If you are designing a home, one solution to these problems is to choose systems (for example, ductless minisplits or Lunos ventilation fans) that don’t require ducts.

If you decide to install equipment that requires ducts, make sure that:

  • The duct system is designed according to standard engineering principles;
  • The ducts are installed as shown by the system designer;
  • Duct seams are sealed with mastic or high-quality tape to make them as airtight as possible;
  • All ducts are located inside the home’s conditioned envelope.

For more information on this topic, see:

Can all of these features be avoided?

It’s perfectly possible to build a house that has none of the features on this list. Such a house will be easier to build and will be more likely to perform well than a house that includes several of these features.

If you are an architect who wants to include some of the features on this list, my opinions are unlikely to dissuade you. Just make sure that you provide your builders with plenty of detail drawings. And it might be a good idea to stop by the job site frequently to make sure that everything is going according to plan.

What did I forget?

If you think I’ve left off a few important items from this list, feel free to set me straight in the comments section below. After all, adding to the list is fun.

So far, the suggested additions to the list include:

  • Beams or joists that penetrate the thermal envelope.
  • Stucco.
  • Obscenely complicated rooflines and ceiling height variations.
  • Roofs with stingy overhangs.
  • Chimneys.
  • Cathedral ceilings.
  • SIPs.
  • Skylights.
  • Glass that extends to the floor.
  • Sliding doors.
  • Decks over living spaces.
  • Flat roofs.

The above bullet list includes the most defensible suggestions posted below by readers of this article. Although I have cataloged the suggestions as a public service, I am not ready to defend all of them. To learn more about the reasons why these items were proposed for inclusion on the list, read the comments below.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “How Balanced Ventilation Systems Become Exhaust-Only.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

83 Comments

  1. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Malcolm and Dan
    Malcolm and Dan,
    Thanks for your comments and additions.

    "Beams or joists that penetrate the thermal envelope" definitely belong on the list. (I recently included a rant about this type of penetration in an article for Fine Homebuilding, "Second-Story Balconies." In that article, I wrote, "For years, some designers have created second-floor balconies by cantilevering floor joists (or a floor slab) through the thermal envelope of the building. However, there are two serious problems that are associated with following this practice: thermal bridging and moisture management.")

    One of my favorite "penetrating beam" photos is one I took of a concrete beam at Harvard University. (Perhaps the architect was a Harvard alum?)

    [Click to photo to enlarge it.]

    .

  2. Malcolm Taylor | | #1

    One on, one Off?
    I'd add structural elements that penetrate the building envelope. Beams and joists that create thermal bridges and are also difficult to flash. Cantilevered decks being one particularly poor detail.

    In return I'd like to make the case for crawlspaces. While slabs may be a preferred default method, there are many sloping sites where they aren't feasible, demanding too much fill, very tall foundation walls or compromises to the floor plans. Basements are often finished living space or at least regarded by their unsuspecting owners as providing dry storage - both bad ideas below grade. A crawlspace, detailed as part of the conditioned envelope, doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. Unlike a slab or basement, a house with a crawlspace provides access to the services, is easy to renovate or add to, and suffers little damage if the space is compromised by floods originating either inside or out. Like attics they do suffer from being largely unseen and thus neglected by the builder, but that isn't an inherent fault of theirs. Built with care I don't think we should write them off yet.

  3. Dan Kolbert | | #2

    Second on cantilever
    Monster beams in general are a problem - often taking up space where insulation should go.

    And while not perhaps in the same category, be careful that improved window performance doesn't lead you to keep putting bigger ones in. As my colleague Wes Riley says, the best window is still a lousy wall.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Malcolm and Dan
    Malcolm and Dan,
    Thanks for your comments and additions.

    "Beams or joists that penetrate the thermal envelope" definitely belong on the list. (I recently included a rant about this type of penetration in an article for Fine Homebuilding, "Second-Story Balconies." In that article, I wrote, "For years, some designers have created second-floor balconies by cantilevering floor joists (or a floor slab) through the thermal envelope of the building. However, there are two serious problems that are associated with following this practice: thermal bridging and moisture management.")

    One of my favorite "penetrating beam" photos is one I took of a concrete beam at Harvard University. (Perhaps the architect was a Harvard alum?)

    [Click to photo to enlarge it.]

    .

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Another suggested addition
    Allan Edwards has already started a thread on the JLC website, linking to this article. Allan suggests that stucco belongs on the list.

    When I was drafting the article, I considered including stucco -- after all, I listed all the reasons why stucco is risky in my 2010 article, To Install Stucco Right, Include an Air Gap -- but then I decided to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the stucco-lovers from from California.

    I thought, "I've already written about stucco. Maybe it's time to alienate readers from Texas. I'll write about brick veneer instead."

  6. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #6

    Crawl spaces don't belong?
    Malcolm,
    You make a good point about crawl spaces on sloped lots; thanks for pointing that out.

  7. User avater
    Carl Seville | | #7

    Good list
    Martin - I pretty much agree with all your points, however it is going to be a long, slow haul to get architects and homeowners to give up those obscenely complicated rooflines and ceiling height variations. The last house I built a while back (over which I had very little design control) had 35 different roof planes and almost as many individual exterior wall sections. Lots of people are resorting to spray foam insulation to make these crenellated boxes sort of perform, but it really gets back to planning for high performance from the beginning instead of trying to layer it on after the design. I do not hold out much hope that there will be significant change in the industry in this regard, at least not until energy prices skyrocket, which, given the political climate isn't very likely. We will just have to keep chipping away at the problem, piece by piece. I do suppose the slow pace of change does provide us with some job security at least.

  8. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #8

    Response to Carl Seville
    Carl,
    I've added "Obscenely complicated rooflines and ceiling height variations" to my new bullet list at the bottom of the blog. Thanks.

  9. Malcolm Taylor | | #9

    Carl
    Spare a thought for the designers at your local truss plant. My salesman went on a rant on this topic the last time we talked. Packages with not one common truss. dead valleys, individual trusses that end up looking like silhouettes of dinosaurs - they look back to the past with a fair amount of nostalgia.

  10. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Carl and Malcolm
    I agree with both of you. For more ranting on the topic, see Martin’s Ten Rules of Roof Design.

    The photo of the old Garrison at the top of the page is instructive. The cantilevered joists may be problematic, but the old designers got the roof details right.

  11. Peter L | | #11

    Not all Concrete Beams and Cantilvered Decks Are Bad
    Building Science has caught up with the concrete cantilevered decks. I just finished designing a home that was thermally broken by utilizing Schock Isokorb Thermal Breaks on the 2nd floor balconies:
    http://www.schock-us.com/en_us/solutions/isokorb--189

    So concrete slabs that transition from the exterior to the interior and carry loads can be thermally broken by utilizing Isokorbs. Martin, you can put an asterisk * next to the concrete balcony because there are now ways to fix the thermal bridging problem. Isokorbs have been used in Europe for 20 years and they work.

    So that concrete beam in your photo can be thermally broken & insulated but of course it would have to be done during the construction and not after the concrete has cured. There are no deep energy retrofits for that detail.

  12. Debra Glauz | | #12

    wood rot
    For long term durability, structural elements made of wood that are integral to the engineering of the home should be completely protected by overhangs and not subject to constant wetting or dew. Wood placed beyond the protection of an overhang should be considered sacrificial and replacement should be expected and will be part of the maintenance of the home.
    This probably will not make the list but flat roofs with no overhangs are much riskier than simple sloped roofs with large overhangs.
    Hey, you’re hurtin my feelings. I’m from California. Take stucco off the list. Stucco is here to stay. Stucco doesn’t burn. Done correctly stucco is less problematic than wood siding in the area where I live. There comes a point when new methods must be taught. Builders and their employee’s often have the skill but they haven’t been taught and are often not aware of the latest and best methods of their trades.

    Poke To bad we don't have an arbitrary metric that will slow designers, architects and homeowners from designing homes with those obscenely complicated rooflines and ceiling height variations.

  13. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Peter L
    Peter,
    I agree that the Schöck Isokorb system is a good way to thermally isolate a concrete balcony from an interior slab.

    But I disagree with your terminology. You wrote, "Not all concrete beams and cantilevered decks are bad." But if you build a balcony with the Schöck Isokorb, you (fortunately) don't have a cantilevered balcony; what you have is an interior concrete deck which is attached to the Schöck Isokorb hardware, along with a separate exterior concrete balcony which is attached to the opposite side of the Schöck Isokorb hardware.

    Fortunately, these are two separate pieces of concrete -- so nothing is cantilevered. (See the illustration below; click on the image to enlarge it.)

    .

  14. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #14

    Response to Debra Glauz
    Debra,
    Thanks for your comments. I have added "Roofs with stingy overhangs" to the bullet list at the bottom of the blog.

    Concerning your stucco comments -- "Hey, you’re hurtin' my feelings. I’m from California. Take stucco off the list" -- I will note in my defense that stucco was not on my original list; it was suggested by Allan Edwards.

    As I noted in Comment #4, "I decided to be sensitive to the feelings of all of the stucco-lovers from from California."

  15. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #15

    Not all fiberglass batts hit their labeled R, even if perfect.
    Low density R19s are only R18 when compressed to 5.5", as in a 2x6 wall assembly.

    Low density R22s are only R19 when compressed to 5.5" in a 2x6 wall assembly.

    And this is straight off the manufacturers' compression charts:

    http://www.nachi.org/forum/attachments/f18/60610d1354245933-compressed-insulation-r-values-compressed-fiberglass.jpg (Owens-Corning's chart.)

    High density R21s can hit their labeled performance, which means the outperform the R22 labeled batt by 10%, despite the lower number.

    This is a significant flaw in the labeling & testing regulations IMHO, since some batt products can, and others simply can't meet the labeled performance, even when installed perfectly per manufacturer's instructions in the framing for which they were designed. R22s would rightly be labeled R19, and R19s labeled R18. Given that R19s & R13s are the most widely used wall insulation products in the US, labeling at it's true performance seems reasonable, even if many installers screw it up and undercut performance even further.

    Of course if you just lose the batts you lose the problem, eh? :-)

  16. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Dana,
    I understand your point. But there is, I think, a historical explanation for the oddities you note.

    You wrote that some fiberglass batts "simply can't meet the labeled performance, even when installed perfectly per manufacturer's instructions in the framing for which they were designed." Here's the key: the manufacturers will note in their defense that the batts you highlight were designed for attics, not wall cavities -- and therefore are intended to be installed at their labelled thickness.

    I know it's hard to believe, but I remember the day when walls were insulated with 3.5-inch batts and attic floors were insulated with 6-inch batts. (Yes, I grew up with rotary-dial phones and a black-and-white TV.)

    Those 6-inch batts were never intended to be crammed into 5.5-inch-deep stud cavities (say the manufacturers in their defense).

    Yes, times have changed. Our building codes no longer allow R-19 batts to use used as ceiling insulation (unless, of course, you install multiple layers of batts).

    I agree with you that it's time for the labels on insulation packages to reflect how these batts are actually used.

  17. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #17

    That's too sheer a fig leaf ( response to Martin)
    ...so sheer that they're as good as nekkid on that one. Read the packaging on kraft-faced R19s:

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41ogGJxnyML.jpg

    http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41c3ZdMb5YL.jpg

    http://www.rona.ca/images/54835005a_L.jpg

    http://www.homehardware.ca/products/300/27174741.jpg

    Seems the font for "2 x 6 WALLS" is a bit bigger than "floors" on the R19 Owens-Corning, the only listed assembly on the J-M or Owens-Corning R22, and first listed application on the Certainteed R19 bag.

    That's a labeling problem.

    R19 batts still cuts in for state codes built on IRC 2006, even in places as cold as Minnesota, but they are really only R18.

  18. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    Dana,
    Even though my little history lesson was accurate, I have to admit that those labels are misleading.

    (And, it should go without saying, I was never defending the fiberglass manufacturers...)

  19. Peter L | | #19

    Martin
    Funny you should bring that up. I was just talking to Schock and my engineer and even though the Isokorb is attached to both sides of the "cantilevered" balcony, it still is technically cantilevered and engineers & Schock views it as so. One can thermally break a SUPPORTED concrete balcony and an UNSUPPORTED/CANTILEVERED balcony and Schock can provide Isokorbs for both applications.

    In addition, Schock can thermally break an exposed concrete beam with their Isokorbs. So it's not just balconies but beams and concrete joists and columns.

    Maybe we are splitting hairs but technically with the Isokorb it is still a cantilevered balcony since the slab is "free floating" with no support from underneath. The loads are transferred through the Isokorb to the interior slab. Even without the Isokorb, the loads are transferred the same way. The Isokorb is the high-tech product that will transfer the loads while thermally breaking the slabs.

  20. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #20

    Response to Peter L
    Peter,
    Thanks for the explanation. Perhaps I would put it this way: the load is cantilevered, but the concrete slab is not cantilevered. But, as you said, this discussion is an attempt to split hairs.

    The most important point is that if you use the Schöck Isokorb product, you don't have a slab penetrating the thermal envelope -- and that's good.

  21. Peter L | | #21

    Martin
    When I requested to utilize the Schock Isokorb on my design the US engineers had no clue what I was talking about. They never knew that such a product existed. The German engineers knew it very well but the US engineers were thrown for a loop. Amazing product and it allows cool looking designs without affecting thermal efficiency.

    I guess that is why in Germany you can buy triple pane windows at the big box store while here in the USA the big box stores would think you are crazy if you asked for triple pane windows. We are behind the curve, that is for sure. Europe gets the cool energy stuff before we see it here. Don't get me started on why Europe has dozens of heat pump dryers available while we are still struggling to get one by 2014.

  22. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #22

    As an owner of neglected rental homes
    EIFS, vinyl siding, all chimneys, T-111, cathedral ceilings.
    SIPs don't have high enough R value anymore.

  23. Malcolm Taylor | | #23

    Debra

    Stucco almost completely disappeared here in the PNW after the widespread building envelope failures we had - as our climate isn't as amenable to using it as yours is. There was a real gap as builders looked for something comparable to use, but recently Hardi panels with metal trim strips are becoming the material of choice. They have most of the attributes of stucco, minus the cracks, but do have to be re-painted. I can't say I miss the old style stucco with its sharp aggregate. My shoulder still has scars from sliding along a wall returning home late one night.

  24. Terry Grube | | #24

    Exterior Masonry Chimney's
    I would add masonry chimney's installed on exterior walls.

  25. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #25

    Response to Kevin Dickson (Comment #21)
    Kevin,
    Just to be sure that everyone understands this list: it's a "possible but not easy list."

    It's not a "I hate these materials" list.

    EIFS? I happen to think that EIFS is the best system for insulating an old building with multi-wythe brick walls.

    Vinyl siding? It may look ugly to some, but it performs better than almost any other siding -- because it is naturally well drained and ventilated.

    All chimneys? This suggestion will end up on the list, I think. (I wrote a blog in 2009 called Farewell to the Chimney?) Once chimneys are on the list, however, you have to be ready to hear complaints from people with wood stoves.

    T-111? Like your suggestion to include vinyl siding on the list, I think this belongs on the ugly list, not on the "possible but not easy" list. Panel siding is fairly easy to detail well.

    Cathedral ceilings? Sure. I'll put them on the list.

    SIPs? You'll get an argument, but I'll put SIPs on the list, too -- because of the difficulties inherent in sealing the seams, and because of the susceptibility of the outer OSB facing to rot unless there is a venitlated air gap on the exterior.

  26. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #26

    Response to Terry Grube (Comment #23)
    Terry,
    When it comes to chimneys, Kevin Dickson beat you to it -- and his suggestion was even more categorical than yours.

    For more information on chimney placement, see All About Wood Stoves.

  27. Peter L | | #27

    SIPs
    Ironic that cathedral ceilings and SIPs were just put on the list since cathedral ceilings can be properly done if you utilize SIPs. The comment about SIPs that, "because of the difficulties inherent in sealing the seams, and because of the susceptibility of the outer OSB facing to rot unless there is a ventilated air gap on the exterior." The problem I have with the comment that sealing the seams is an "inherent difficulty" is that it's simply not true if you know what you are doing. Any seam if not sealed correctly poses a problem and that includes wall seams, window seams, door seams, etc. If sealing seams was a reason for banishing then everything would be banished.

    As far as the OSB rot goes. Creating roof gap vents is a solution to the potential of SIP roof rot. Other remedies exist and like anything else, it's all climate dependent. Living in the desert SW vs Juneau Alaska are worlds apart in regards to how one would approach the details. Stucco is everywhere in the desert SW and performs quite flawlessly, not to mention it is fireproof. To banish stucco in the southwest makes no sense.

    I agree that certain building conditions are bad for each and every climate but banishing things like stucco, SIPs and cathedral ceilings (which can be done properly with SIPs), is just "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" type of approach. Building codes are regional dependent. What works in the desert might not work in the Pacific Northwest but that doesn't mean we should just discard it because it is not universal.

    I believe roof SIPs do work when like anything else, they are done properly. An 8" urethane panel has a R-50 value and it can resolve a host of problems associated with stick frame roof trusses. One can lay a SIP over the wall and create a 24" overhang. With roof trusses you create complex transitions and issues with air sealing, insulating, thermal bridging, venting, etc. One can have a SIP roof done in 3-4 days on a home while it would take weeks to install trusses, sheath the roof, insulate the roof, build soffits, etc. A cathedral ceiling done with a SIP is a match made in building heaven.

  28. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #28

    Response to Peter L
    Peter,
    Thanks for your votes.

    I'm maintaining the list, not necessarily endorsing it.

  29. Malcolm Taylor | | #29

    Peter
    Wouldn't the distinction between the problems of sealing SIPs seams and others be that air leaks in SIPs cause an inordinate amount of damage that compromises both the building envelope and the structure of the building?

  30. Peter L | | #30

    Malcolm
    Air leakage is bad on all fronts, both in structures (SIPs, wood frame) and of course in terms of energy loss. SIPs are a great technology and offer a lot of advantages over stick frame roof trusses. As with any product it has some drawbacks and that drawback is if you don't properly seal the joints, you can experience problems.

    A properly sealed SIP is 100% sound and will last a lifetime. Sealing a SIP is not rocket science either. Here is what the industry has concluded:
    * Use a T&G Joint SIP
    * Flexible rubber gaskets are installed at each T&G Joint
    * The interior/bottom side of the roof SIP is sealed with peel & stick tape like SIGA or similar

    Following the above will ensure a completely air sealed SIP and provide a worry free SIP roof. You have a triple layer of protection. So it's beyond "belt & suspenders", it's "belt, suspenders, and a second belt"

  31. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #31

    easy to assemble...work well
    T1-11 easy and new homes can look great with it in a wooded setting. Price is right... Dual function... I love it.

    Vinyl... Same but great in the burbs.

  32. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #32

    Possible But Not Easy
    It's possible to use painted T-111 siding but not easy to keep it looking good. It stays looking much better with well-maintained stain (see below).

    It's not easy to keep vinyl siding looking good for more than 15 years. Buyers are told "you never have to paint again" but the truth is they are much better off with painted siding in the long run.

    It's not easy to keep EIFS looking good for more than 20 years. It's not that hard to repair though.

    12" roof SIPs are R48. That doesn't meet the IRC 2012 requirement, and future requirements may be higher. Detailed right (which IS easy), they are the best way to do low slope roofs, cathedral ceilings, and generous overhangs. R60 SIPs (when available) should get them off this list.

  33. Peter L | | #33

    Kevin,
    An 8.25" urethane SIP is rated at R-50 and it meets the 2012 IRC requirements in Zones 1-8. I know this and verified this through my building department and I am located in Zone 4. Now Zones 5-8 would benefit from a higher roof R-Value but a 8.25" urethane SIP will pass 2012 code.

    With that being said, even though it passes code, I will bump my R-Value by adding 3" of Roxul Batts on the underside of my ceiling SIP. This will bring the R-Value to around R-60 and add a fire protection layer to the underside, along with the sheet rock that will go beneath it.

    My design has cathedral/vaulted ceilings in some areas and 24" overhangs. My pitch is 5:12 and I can have the entire SIP roof installed in 4-5 days. Doing it as a stick frame would prove much more difficult and time consuming. Not to mention I would have to vent the soffits/overhangs and vent the roof, which is a BAD idea in wildfire country. A gable, soffit, attic vent in pine country is an invitation for flying embers and for your house to burn down. 90% of wildfire houses that are burned to the ground are caused by embers landing inside the attic via vents. Nothing GREEN about having your house burn to the ground.

  34. John Brooks | | #34

    90% caused by embers entering thru attic vents??
    Peter L wrote:"90% of wildfire houses that are burned to the ground are caused by embers landing inside the attic via vents"

    That's a "fantastic" statistic ... do you have a source?

  35. Peter L | | #35

    John
    No fantasies here. I live in wildfire country and I've personally been up close to last years fire that claimed the life of 19 firefighters. Embers can travel over 2 miles in the air from the source of the fire. Also a fact and not a fantastic stat.

    Embers are the #1 leading cause of home loss during a wildfire, More houses burn due to flying embers than any other cause. Even the 1/8’’ mesh screening for vents will allow embers in and laboratory studies proves this. IBHS has tested this and verified it. Vented attics and soffits in a wildfire puts you at a high risk for having your home burn to the ground in wildfire country, even when defensible space is being employed.

    http://www.californiachaparral.org/bprotectingyourhome.html
    http://firesafemendocino.org/hard-facts-about-how-homes-burn/
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21829160.100-fanning-the-flames-house-burns-in-wildfire-simulation.html#.U7BwZrFa92o
    http://firesafesanmateo.org/resources/homeowner-resources/how-homes-ignite/wildfire-embers
    https://www.disastersafety.org/blog/reduce-your-risk-from-wildfire-embers/

  36. John Brooks | | #36

    source of the 90% claim
    Hi Peter, I don't doubt the danger of embers....
    I am surprised by the "90%" via attic vents claim....
    I browsed the links you posted and could not find the "90%" statistic

  37. Kim Shanahan | | #37

    What about skylights?
    If windows make lousy wall then skylights make even worse ceilings. Natural light? Great for GBA writers working out of their homes who don't want to turn on bathroom lights to pee, or retiring baby boomers wandering around the house looking for a project to keep themselves occupied. But when half of the year we get up in the dark and go to work and then get home in the dark after work, who are they serving? Especially since during those dark months the energy is flowing out of those R-1 bubbles faster than we can produce it. I used to love skylights. I used to love bell-bottoms jeans also. No more. Great for commercial works spaces and offices where natural light is supposed to enhance productivity, but not in homes. Turn on the motion-sensing
    full-spectrum LED powered by your PV panels.

  38. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #38

    Response to Kim Shanahan
    Kim,
    I have added skylights to the list. Thanks.

  39. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #39

    Response to Peter L (Comment #29)
    Peter,
    You wrote, "Here is what the [SIP] industry has concluded: Use a T&G joint SIP; flexible rubber gaskets are installed at each T&G joint; the interior/bottom side of the roof SIP is sealed with peel & stick tape like SIGA or similar."

    The method you describe is a good one, but I am not aware of a single SIP company in the U.S. that recommends such an approach. Instead of using EPDM or rubber gaskets, they all still recommend that seams be sealed with canned spray foam. For example, see:

    Insulspan Installation Guide: "All gaps between wall and roof panels may be filled with approved Insulspan two-part polyurethane foam sealant before siding and roofing."

    Timberline Panel Installation Guide: "The Timberline Panel Company prescribes the Drill and Fill method to seal the seams between wall and roof panels where routed foaming channels occur."

  40. Peter L | | #40

    Martin,
    That is true that there is no general consensus in the SIP industry for these details but SIP companies like ThermoCore are ahead of the curve and they recommend the above recommendation of T&G, gaskets and tape. As with any newer green building material, R&D involves time and the GBA forum has been a tremendous help in this realm. I learned that air infiltration in the panel joints is what causes the SIP rot issue as based on what Joe concluded from his Alaskan SIP rot study. Here are some details showing the T&G and gaskets:
    http://www.thermocore.com/technical-resources.php

    These 3 techniques to sealing a SIP roof would solve 95% of all the SIP roof issues but sadly the industry is slow to change. SIPA for some reason is slow to change and like building codes, they drag their feet for years before any changes are made.

  41. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #41

    Reponse to Peter L
    Peter,
    I'm glad that at least one SIP company has moved away from using spray foam for sealing seams. The Thermocore installation instruction describe their gaskets as "foam gaskets," so it doesn't sound like it's EPDM. Still, it sounds like a step in the right direction.

    But clearly, the SIP industry as a whole isn't on board with this idea yet.

  42. Eric Habegger | | #42

    Recessed Can Lights
    Martin, I agree that recessed can lights don't have a very good history with air tightness. But, I think you may be throwing the baby out with the bath water. The more recent LED downlights are one piece construction that may eliminate many of the problems that used to exist. The old fluorescent and incandescent bulbs required a separate ceiling (not sealing) ring and there was really no good way to air seal between that ring and the box above the ceiling. You were forced to seal from the attic around the whole box.

    I don't think that is necessarily the case with the newer Crees. There may be other manufacturers by now also copying that construction. These are built with the ring as part of the bulb assembly. It seems to me that one only needs to put a weather stripping gasket on the ring now. Also a dab of silicone on the small tangs that poke through holes on lense to hold it on wouldn't hurt.

    I haven't tried it myself yet but I have plans in the works to do just that. I think the success or failure just depends on developing the proper technique more than anything else. This is no different than air sealing door or windows, in fact it would be much simpler. You do have to remember to not install even these lights less than about 3 feet from any perimeter wall to allow sufficient insulation over the top of the box in the attic. I've included a picture.

  43. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #43

    Response to Eric Habegger
    Eric,
    If you insist on using recessed can lights, those units are probably the type to choose. (I do wonder, however, whether those radiator fins -- clearly intended to dissipate excess heat -- play nice with insulation.)

    There are still many pitfalls for the unwary: some installers won't caulk around the trim, so the installation won't be airtight. Some installers won't heed your warning about installing them in locations where there is plenty of room for enough insulation above the units. Some of the units will end up being little "hot spots" in the insulated roof assembly, leading to ice dams.

    So I still don't like them.

  44. Eric Habegger | | #44

    I meant cans, not boxes, in previous comment
    Martin, being from California I don't worry about ice dams. But the lights I chose only consume about 7 watts. That's not much. It seems to me that we're quibbling here. As long as you still install them in cans rated for insulation contact, as they are meant to be installed, and if you install them correctly with at least a foot of insulation over the top of the can ... then no problem. In my first comment I meant cans when I said boxes, so that may be a source of confusion.

    I think with new technologies comes new procedures for installing it. It can be disconcerting when an old taboo becomes something conditional. Sooo, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this.

  45. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #45

    Response to Carl Seville (Comment #6)
    Carl (and Malcolm Taylor),
    This photo of a beautiful roof was just posted on Twitter by Chris Laumer-Giddens.

    If I were the engineer at the truss company who took the order for this monstrosity, I might just announce my retirement.

    .

  46. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #46

    Is the alphabet long enough
    Is the alphabet long enough to name all the different truss sections?
    Go USA
    Aj

  47. Billy Ware | | #47

    Air Ducts? and Plumbing??
    If you are going to include air ducts as a detail that can be left out of a house, then you might want to consider indoor plumbing as well, at least on the supply side. It is often fraught with problems and leaks and can cause major, major issues when not installed correctly. You could argue that most plumbing systems are installed with at least a few potential problems. Most do not leak immediately, but there will be leaks in the future.

    My real argument is that the quality of the installation is critical on both of these and few of the other items listed above. This goes for most everything, but in the case of no ducts, we typically have to tell the owners that they have to leave doors open to get proper ventilation and comfort in a house. This typically is just not acceptable considering the amount of money they would be ponying up for a mini-split kind of system and I am a fan of mini-splits.

    Thank you for putting the article together, it is a good reminder about the challenges we face everyday.

  48. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #48

    Response to Billy Ware
    Billy,
    You wrote, "If you are going to include air ducts as a detail that can be left out of a house, then you might want to consider indoor plumbing as well, at least on the supply side. It is often fraught with problems and leaks and can cause major, major issues when not installed correctly."

    Your comparison between ducts and plumbing pipes is interesting. In fact, almost all new homes have leak-free plumbing systems, while almost all new homes have leaky ducts. If the average HVAC installer could achieve what plumbers routinely achieve -- leak-free systems that are tested under pressure for 24 hours -- we could all sing "Hallelujah" and retire.

  49. Nick Grant | | #49

    I expected more on windows!
    Great list and discussion

    Glass to floor (except for doors) is on my black list and makes me really popular with Architects in design meetings! Extra summer gain and winter heat loss without the benefit of daylight. Requires more overhang to achieve summer shading and that can cut out daylight. More difficult to install thermal bridge free. No wiggle room for aligning with floor finishes. Lost opportunity for a window seat or storage. Needs to be toughened or laminated glass. Gets splashed with dirt etc . . .

    Double, folding and sliding doors all leaky and or expensive and hard to adjust and maintain draft free.

    Re cantilevers, yes there are clever products that reduce the thermal bridge but it is still difficult and expensive and hard to detail to keep water out.

    Also I heard of a (skilled) contractor who mixed the connectors up on site and used one designed for shear not bending on a cantilever balcony. When the props were removed the balcony fell off. Luckily no one hurt.

    Agree cathedral ceilings can be be more expensive but they can be good value where wall or ridge height is limited and they feature in most projects I work on although I try to avoid SIPS!

  50. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #50

    Response to Nick Grant
    Nick,
    Thanks for your suggestions. I will add "glass that extends to the floor" and "sliding doors" to the list.

    In response to the disappointment expressed in your title -- "I expected more on windows!" -- I suggest that you read my article, Study Shows That Expensive Windows Yield Meager Energy Returns.

  51. Carl Mezoff | | #51

    What is a cantilever?
    To beat a dead horse (comment #12) a little more, in my experience a cantilever is generally defined by where the support is provided, and not by the particular hardware used to make the cantilever sturdy. If a beam or deck or even the garrison overhang you show in your lead photo is supported along only one edge, it is generally considered to be a "cantilevered element," irrespective of the makeup of the element, or whether in passing over the point of support there is a change in material.

    But your list of troubled details wonderful food for thought! Thanks!

  52. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #52

    Response to Carl Mezoff
    Carl,
    According to an online dictionary:

    "can·ti·le·ver, noun.
    1. Any rigid structural member projecting from a vertical support, especially one in which the projection is great in relation to the depth, so that the upper part is in tension and the lower part in compression.
    2. Building Trades, Civil Engineering. Any rigid construction extending horizontally well beyond its vertical support, used as a structural element of a bridge (cantilever bridge), building foundation, etc."

  53. Derek Roff | | #53

    Another vote against recessed can lights
    Most discussions that I see on recessed can lights follow the argument points that have shown up so far in this thread. GBA has sometimes addressed what I see as a more fundamental and systematic design flaw- they produce lousy light. Recessed can lights are very unflattering to humans who stand under them. They tend to produce glaring visual hot spots on the ceiling, if the have a wide light spread, and useless light spots on the floor, if they use a tighter light angle. There may be a happy medium in a given room, but I seldom encounter it.

    People can like what they like, of course, and they don't need a reason. Yet I'm willing to speculate that a majority of future homeowners have never looked carefully and critically at the light coming from recessed can lights, as they move around a room like the one their designer is contemplating for them. Few have ever made side by side comparisons of different lighting types in a residential space. How many designers have? Instead, most of us are used to looking at very carefully crafted photos of rooms with can lights (and no people) in high-end magazines, designed to make those lights look good. And we have seen similar lights in large commercial spaces. We have gotten the idea that recessed can lights are the best, or only, or the most attractive lighting option in high end homes, and many potential home owners think no further than that.

    For me, other lighting types are more attractive, more effective, and more efficient. Therefore, I have ruled out recessed can lights even before I get to the question of how hard they are to install properly.

  54. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #54

    Response to Derek Roff
    Derek,
    I couldn't agree more. For more ranting on this topic, see Martin’s 10 Rules of Lighting.

  55. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #55

    kitchens with recessed lights
    All but two kitchens I have built have recessed lights along with cabinet lights.

    We all here are very happy campers. These kitchens have second floor over them so there is no air leak issue.

    I visit at a kitchen that has one light hanging over a table. The kitchen is a dungeon at night. Post pics of great kitchens that don't use recessed lights. I'll use the ideas next project.

  56. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #56

    Response to AJ Builder
    AJ,
    You wrote, "Post pics of great kitchens that don't use recessed lights."

    Here are the keys to good kitchen lighting:

    1. Create ambient lighting by illuminating the ceiling. This is best done by installing cove lighting above the wall cabinets.

    2. Include undercabinet lighting beneath the wall cabinets.

    3. Include pendants to light the countertops that aren't illuminated by undercabinet lighting.

    I am posting two photos to accommodate your request.

    .

  57. Malcolm Taylor | | #57

    Functional and flattering lighting
    Both aspects need thinking about. As martin's illustrations show it's fairly easy to provide good ambient and task lighting without cans.
    All the research I've seen shows, and I'm sure portrait photographers can confirm this, that we look better when lit from the side, not from directly above.

  58. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #58

    kitchens with recessed lights
    I have designed and built a kitchen like Martin posted. The cost of the cans installed $500. The cost of all the rest shown $3500.

  59. Edward Shannon | | #59

    Are you for real?!?
    Mr. Halladay! I read your article on designing simple roofs...avoiding valleys, coplex forms, etc.... and i asked myself: "Is this guy serious?" Do you really think a world monotonous, boxy houses will be sustainable?

    And now I see you are writing to architects to avoid cantilevers, bay windows and dormers... things that make houses pleasant to live in and look at.. Oh Please, Mr. Halladay! Sustainability begins with building homes and buildings that are "lovable" . Simply put, people take care of lovable buildings. They often out last their occupants. Ugly, high performing buildings (envisioned by artless engineers, such as yourself) will not prove to be sustainable.

    Thanks for trying to enlighten architects as to how to design homes. But, I'm afraid i know of NO architects that would agree with your premise. Can you envision the Garrison House without the cantilevers? I can, and can assure you it becomes a boring box! - Not lovable (even if it performs better)

    Stick to your green gizmo's, Mr. Halladay, and leave design and aesthetics - which DO matter!- to those who are qualified to do it!

    Edward J. Shannon, ArCH - an architect who believes in the principles of "Original Green"

  60. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #60

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    Q. "Are you for real?"

    A. Yes.

    Q. "Is this guy serious?"

    A. Yes.

    Q. "Can you envision the Garrison House without the cantilevers?"

    A. Yes.

    Now that I have answered your questions, perhaps you can answer a couple of mine. Here is the first: "Have you every spent three days on a ladder repairing air barrier defects on a Garrison house, by dismantling the soffits, inserting a rectangle of rigid material above the first-floor top plates at each joist bay, air sealing the perimeter of each rectangle, carefully insulating the overhang, and then rebuilding the soffit?"

    If the answer is yes, then bravo -- you know what I'm talking about. If the answer is no, then I have a follow-up question for all designers (perhaps including you): Did you even know that this type of air-sealed blocking was necessary for Garrisons?

    One more question: "Have you ever worked as a weatherization contractor, repairing air barrier defects?" Again, if the answer is yes, I say, "Bravo."

    My article anticipated objections from designers like you, which is why I wrote: "If you are an architect who wants to include some of the features on this list, my opinions are unlikely to dissuade you. Just make sure that you provide your builders with plenty of detail drawings. And it might be a good idea to stop by the job site frequently to make sure that everything is going according to plan."

    I just hope that architects like you who draw the details necessary for an air-sealed Garrison really understand the necessary details, and really follow up by visiting the job site when the blocking needs to be installed.

    Finally, let me express a desire to see an unlikely change to the curriculum at U.S. architecture schools: graduates should be required to work for one year on a weatherization crew after completing their classroom education before they are allowed to practice architecture. It's unlikely to happen, I know -- but I can dream, can't I?

  61. Edward Shannon | | #61

    For real?
    Martin....Oy!

    Well, you didn't answer my question: "Do you really think a world of monotonous, boxy houses will be sustainable?" that's where I think you are heading with this!

    But before we get into a tassle over this. I will say that I am an architect, not a builder. Nor, do I try to be a builder. I have respect for most builders and hope that collaboratively our work can produce something that is inspiring and sustainable. In order for this to happen, there needs to be mutual respect.

    So, no as an architect, I haven't spent time in the scenarios you described. My job is to design buildings that are: a) inspiring, if not pleasant, b) livable (function) c) structurally and thermally sound. Many builders seem to think the first two criteria are optional - or that they are not as high a priority. This leads many builders to think they can design just as good as any architect! (it happens rarely and is the exception, not the norm) Again, I am an architect. I work hard to produce balanced buildings. I don't claim to be a builder. I hope to learn from builders who appreciate what I bring to the table.

    But, as I tried to point out I my earlier post, when buildings are not lovable, people do not take care of them. Advising architects to "banish" some of the delightful architectural elements that make buildings lovable/sustainable is simplistic at best. It solves nothing. Moreover, you have not provided any creative solutions. I think I can learn a lot from you with your expertise in building envelopes, but simply eliminating character because it does not perform as well is an artless solution and is contrary to making the world a better place - which is what sustainability is about, in essence.

    Yes, architects would benefit greatly from working construction. I think it would also be beneficial for carpenters (and other trades persons) to spend a year in upper level university design studios. Then builders would appreciate design, and more importantly, the design process.

    Let's learn from each other!

  62. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #62

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    I think we agree on many points.

    1. I agree that to be sustainable, a building must be well designed, so that the owners love the building enough to maintain it.

    2. I agree that to be well designed, a building must function well and be beautiful.

    3. I agree that many architects aren't going to take the advice in my article. As I wrote in my last comment, I anticipated this resistance from architects, and suggested steps that need to be taken when architects include the features on my list.

    4. I agree that builders have a lot to learn from architects, just as architects have a lot to learn from builders, and that it's a good idea for everyone at the job site to be open to learning.

    This last statement deserves elaboration, since it sets up a false impression of an equal power dynamic. The fact is, architects need to understand building trades thoroughly enough to draw details. To be able to achieve this expertise, they get a graduate degree and, at least in theory, earn more than builders. There is no comparable requirement for builders to be thoroughly versed in design issues, although many are. These facts put a special onus on architects. They are the ones who draw the details -- so the details better be right.

    GBA focuses on residential building. As I'm sure you know, the majority of new U.S. home aren't designed by architects. The fact is, there is no correlation between design success and the credentials of the designer. I have seen ugly and graceless homes designed by architects. I have also seen ugly and graceless homes designed by builders.

    The corollary is also true: I have seen beautiful and graceful homes designed by architects, and I have also seen beautiful and graceful homes designed by builders.

    Finally, it's worth addressing your point that sustainable buildings need to last a long time, and therefore need to be inspiring and beautiful. You're right. But many buildings have been demolished before their time for a different reason: because they didn't have a good air barrier. Perhaps the most famous example is Werner Otto Hall, a museum built by Harvard University in 1991. The multi-million dollar building was demolished in 2008 because the architect forgot to include an air barrier.

    Here's what I wrote in a 2008 article published in Energy Design Update, "Plagued by saturated walls and persistent condensation problems, a multi-million-dollar Harvard University museum, Werner Otto Hall, is scheduled for demolition only 17 years after the building opened. The museum’s HVAC system was designed to pressurize the building, in spite of the fact that the interior relative humidity was kept at 50% year round. During the winter, moist interior air was driven into the building’s walls, leading to extensive condensation. Explained architectural consultant Jim Collins, 'You’ve got an engine pumping moist air into the wall.' Charles Gwathmey, the building’s architect, counters that the wall design was 'just fine.' Gwathmey blames condensation problems on the builders, speculating that they failed to install an airtight vapor barrier. According to the Boston Globe, 'There were times when the walls were soaked through. … Harvard sued the architect and the contractor in 1996. As usual in such legal matters, neither side will talk for the record, but word on the street is that the parties split the cost of repairs -- repairs that proved, in the end, not to make any difference.' The building now awaits the wrecking ball."

  63. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #63

    Get feedback from other perspectives in design reviews
    As someone who has worked as a designer in a variety of settings, and as a builder, I believe Edward Shannon and Martin both have made important points. Architects can produce designs that are unnecessarily complex, or inadvertently increase building, utility and maintenance costs, due to lack of understanding of how to specify what is easier or cheaper to build and maintain. Builders can cut corners and fail to comply with plans, or use simplistic, common designs to minimize labor and materials costs (to control their own costs), as well as increase future utility and maintenance costs (for which they do not pay). Maybe architects need to listen more to builders during design reviews. Maybe builders need to get feedback from architects, sustainability pros and maintenance companies when they submit plans for permits. There are design tradeoffs that often sacrifice little for great benefit from other perspectives. Most people do not know how to conduct effective, professional reviews to benefit from feedback before proceeding to building a product with significant defects. Problems often do not appear until years later when the architect and builder have disappeared from the project, and the owner or occupant pays the price. Unless sued, architects and builders learn little about their mistakes. Another broken feedback loop.

  64. Edward Shannon | | #64

    who designs the air barrier?
    Martin - I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on a few items. (i.e. architect salaries verses builders) But one thing you said struck me....

    You mentioned the majority of homes are not designed by architects (sad, but true) But then you mention it is architects" that need to get the details right. In the case of unregulated residential design - where in most jurisdictions the building type is thought to be so simple that it need not be sealed by a licensed design professional - who is really responsible for this detail? Unlicensed designers (the builders spouse working off the kitchen table) ? Why not the builder? Should a good builder know enough about construction to properly install an air barrier (without detailed drawings) ?

    At a recent local code seminar I attended, the building officials said, unless the drawings are stamped by a licensed architect, the owner is ultimately responsible for the plans and construction! That's right! Who do you feel should be responsible and why?

  65. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #65

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    I've built several types of buildings.

    I have built two architect-designed homes.

    I have built other homes designed by me (the builder).

    When I am the designer of the homes being built, of course I am responsible for the details.

    Whenever I built an architect-designed building, however, the architect supplied the plans, the specifications, and the details. I was supposed to follow the details as drawn by the architect, whether I thought they made sense or not.

    Of course, when the details (in my professional judgment) didn't make sense, I had a conference with the owner and architect. These meetings were always non-confrontational, and we always came up with a good solution that was agreeable to everyone.

    However, if I had chosen to follow the architect's detail, and the detail had failed, it would, of course, have been the architect's responsibility.

    So if an architect provides a detail for window installation, the architect absolutely has to understand where the air barrier is and where the water-managment details are. That's why architects have to understand building trades. They draw the details.

    In the real world, however, they are human. We all know that. But they are supposed to be the masters of design.

    And yes, I believe that every builder should know about air barriers. One of my roles here at GBA is to help make sure it happens.

    I can assure you that Werner Otto Hall at Harvard had an architect. The builder wasn't winging it. But when I interviewed the architect for my news story, it was clear to me that the architect didn't know the difference between an air barrier and a polyethylene vapor barrier.

  66. Edward Shannon | | #66

    Respose to Martin
    Martin, You did not understand my question. It has nothing to do with large institutional buildings, such as Otto Hall. We are talking about residential construction. You stated that "the majority of new U.S. home aren't designed by architects. The fact is, there is no correlation between design success and the credentials of the designer"

    I might interpret that as: "We don't need no stinkin' licensed architects" Or, more politely, it is nice to have an architect, but not necessary.

    So, if this is the case - the majority of US homes being designed by unlicensed/non-credentialed designers - whom are you going to hold to this standard? The 19 year old CAD draftsperson at the lumberyard? The contractor's wife who spent $89.00 on a CAD software, so she now thinks she is a design professional?

    If credentials and licensure really don't matter, who is responsible? How does it get enforced? Why can't the builder be responsible in these instances (where there is no licensed architect)?

    The advent of cheap CAD programs has made many people think that if they can draw it, they can design it. (kind of like thinking one can write a good novel or technical manual because they can type) so, there are now many people dabbling in home design, self proclaiming themselves as design professionals because they know CAD. How do you hold a non-licensed designer accountable for these details?

  67. User avater
    Robert Opaluch | | #67

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Most jurisdictions have building inspectors and follow a specific year's building codes, and can enforce those codes or refuse to grant a certificate of occupancy. But codes can be outdated and not contain details for some best practices, like air sealing details. Certainly building codes wouldn't mention specific highly-rated products, but an architect could.

    An owner can sue the builder if the builder doesn't fix obvious problems. Most problems and design details probably go unnoticed, unfortunately. Homeowners don't know enough to specify or care about those details. Architects and builders should.

    I would guess that most builders typically use house wrap but don't seal all the seams around windows very well. Builders who are conscientious and knowledgeable about best practices for air barriers are probably rare, unfortunately. Do you believe most architects aren' knowledgeable in these areas also? If so, how can we improve the situation besides writing articles on this topic, and discussing them?

    I never heard of a lumberyard doing design or CAD work to design a home, but they sell books with house designs, and more detailed plans can be ordered. If a homeowner designed their own home using consumer home design software, the design details at the level of an air barrier wouldn't show up on the drawings.

    Do you as an architect feel its your responsibility to specify those air barrier, moisture barrier or even insulation details, or do you expect builders to know them and do a good job in all areas? Or a homeowner to know enough to demand an energy-efficient home? I would trust someone like Martin to know the latest best practices and to follow them, but certainly wouldn't expect most builders to be as up-to-date or as concerned about maximizing energy performance. More concerned about schedule and cost. That's part of the reason that this country spends far too much on fossil fuels to heat and cool buildings. The builder doesn't get any part of future utility bill savings, but it costs them to do the details correctly with better materials. Specific builders rarely get cited for excellence or mediocre attention to these issues.

    If architects design a single-family home near the average home price range, or even high-end homes, would they deliver specifications and construction details for air barriers, for example? Do you feel that you and other architects could do this well? Or who if not the architect? Just curious, not accusatory. Personally I would suggest that builders and building inspectors are the right ones to implement these details, they have to know how to build and verify the details. The architect is not present during construction and at inspection time. But I'd also expect architects to know those air sealing and other details, so they can avoid the types of problematic architectural details that Martin cites in this article, or show in the building plans and specifications how to overcome the problems likely to occur with these architectural details. If you insist these architectural features are worthwhile elements in an aesthetically pleasing building, and Martin notes the likely problems that result, it seems architects would have some responsibility to specify construction details to minimize those likely problems. Agree, or how do you believe these problems could best be avoided? Thanks in advance for your perspective as an architect.

  68. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #68

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    Q. "Why can't the builder be responsible in these instances (where there is no licensed architect)?"

    A. He or she can, which is exactly what I wrote.

    I wrote, "When I am the designer of the homes being built, of course I am responsible for the details."

    I never wrote, "We don't need no stinkin' licensed architects." I simply stated a fact: most new U.S. homes do not have an architect. This fact is based on existing law (architects aren't required for new home construction) and on economic realities (most home buyers don't want to pay architects' fees). I never stated an opinion about whether these circumstances are desirable or not.

  69. Malcolm Taylor | | #69

    Edward
    It's easy on a site like this, devoted to energy efficient building techniques, to become a bit preoccupied with the building envelope and push other less concrete design issues to the background. So I do take your point.
    But at the same time as an architect I recognize that over time we all develop a vocabulary of forms. That process is as much exclusionary as inclusive. Here in the PNW I don't generally include forms that have originated in other climates or are specific to other cultures. So no Tuscan grape trellises or terra-cotta roofs for me thanks.
    Similarly there are a number of building techniques that I exclude as being just too risky in this climate. Decks over living spaces and flat roofs come to mind. Rather than limiting my choices I find this provides a sound basis for what I do want to include and it helps give me a basis, beyond simple preference, from which to come up with a vocabulary suited to and unique to where I build.
    Perhaps this is where Martin's list could be modified. Perhaps the blanket injunctions against certain techniques need to be looked at through the lens of each climate before being rejected. Even so, I can't find much that has been posted so far I could disagree with.

  70. Edward Shannon | | #70

    Response to Robert and (again) Martin
    Robert - Although I now live in Des Moines , Iowa, I I have spent most of my career in the Chicago area. The North Shore suburbs of Chicago have some of the most sophisticated zoning and plan review in the country. Even at that, the plan checkers are not going to check for things like air barrier details. In the same way the do not check structural calcs, (tho some require them) This is not their job. As such, virtually all of the Chicago suburbs now require licensed architects stamped drawings for a building permit on single family homes and additions. This is beginning to trend in most urban areas.

    Here in Central Iowa, most of the privately owned lumber yards off home design services. They provide this at a dramatically reduced cost, if not free - the home owner buys the materials from them, They have a disclaimer on their drawings that the drawings are for design use only, and the lumber yard is not responsible for structural and building performance issues. Yet, these buildings get permitted. And as I mentioned at a recent seminar (with City of Des Moines and 8 suburbs hosted by a lumberyard's designer) they indicated that unless there is an architect's stamp, the home owner is ultimately responsible - NOT the municipality or the hack that drew the plans.

    Martin, I never said that you WROTE "We Don't need no stinkin' architects" I said your statement: "The fact is, there is no correlation between design success and the credentials of the designer. " could be interpreted that way. But, the reality is, nobody (builder/amateur designer) is responsible for the details you speak of, if the drawings are not sealed by a licensed architect! And, your comment that homeowners do not want to pay architect fees (nor do home builders) yet you write that the architect should be making frequent site visits is contradictory too! I would love to make more site visits, but rarely am I paid adequately to do so.

    My point is, you seem to want to call architects to a higher standard, yet point out that an architect's credentials do not matter - thus advocating that anyone can (or should) design homes! You can't have it both ways, Martin! I am hoping I am just misunderstanding you - that you do value architects, as I do value your technical expertise. Again, let's learn from each other.

  71. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #71

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    You wrote, "The reality is, nobody (builder/amateur designer) is responsible for the details you speak of, if the drawings are not sealed by a licensed architect!"

    You are wrong. If I am the designer of a house I build, and a detail fails, I -- the builder -- will get a callback. Moreover, if the flaw is serious, I can be sued and held responsible. These facts make building a risky business with a high degree of liability. "Liability" is simply another word for responsibility.

    Architects, too, have a high degree of liability. Design and building are both risky professions, and it's amazing and perhaps stupid of us (you and me) that either of us would want to join such risky professions.

    If you, as an architect, choose to design a house with brick veneer or Garrison overhangs, you have chosen a risky feature. If you are unable to visit the work site to check how things are going, you need to sit down with the owner and builder and come up with a plan for supervision. Otherwise, you may end up being the person hauled into court (in spite of the fact that the AIA contract includes language that tries to prevent that unfortunate fact).

    I am holding architects to a higher standard than builders because they have the masters degree; they stamped the plans; and they designed the house. No one forced them to do these things -- but they did.

  72. Edward Shannon | | #72

    liability of non-licensed designers.
    So, if a 20 year old graduate of a community college drafting program is hired to draw up plans for a home, he/she can be held liable in court? Believe it or not, this happens a lot. They can do what amounts to hard-line sketches (similar to the lumber yards) for a fraction of a cost that architects do (full architectural services). People think they are getting a bargain for discounted design services.

    I am confident, in this and similar instances, they would be held liable in court. Again, from a legal stand point , without regulation of professional design services the home owner is liable.

    So you, Martin are wrong!

  73. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #73

    Response to Edward Shannon
    Edward,
    You wrote, "I am confident, in this and similar instances, they [non-licensed designers] would be held liable in court."

    I agree, more or less, and that's (kind of) what I wrote. If there is a design flaw, the designer is liable.

    If an architect is the designer, the architect is liable.

    If the builder is the designer, the builder is liable.

    If a non-licensed designer is responsible, usually the builder is liable. It's not great to be a builder.

  74. Jason Hyde, Peterborough 6A | | #74

    Important details should be regulated
    If shear/racking resistance was optional, or "recommended", there would be people skipping it. Take any number of basic, vital building components or practices, and imagine if they were not mandated by your building code. Can you imagine some fly by night contractor or sketchy architect trying to skip them to save time/money? I can.

    If we want something to stick, it has to be mandated by code. Ultimately, we will get there, I think. Good details, or ideas - ones that really work, tend to stick around no matter how much opposition they might have.

    If a continuous air barrier is a good idea, it will eventually get an important place in our building codes. Eventually, building inspectors will say things like "Hey where is your air barrier?" or "Umm, this air barrier is not continuous here, and here."

    As for the aesthetics of buildings, and the role architects play, this really should not be an issue.

    If a building detail, either by it's inclusion or omission, increases risk, it is a bad detail. If it is desirable to include/omit it solely for aesthetic reasons, then the person in charge of aesthetics must find a way to manage the risk. This might mean coming up with a clever detail themselves, or communicating with the builder that such a detail must be included but may be problematic. At the minimum, they should recognize that some details are less than ideal - and by doing so, have a stake in making sure they get implemented to manage the risk.

    Architect "I know cantilevered balconies are hard to detail, especially the insulation and air sealing details, but the client really likes the look."

    Builder "Right...."

    Architect "Don't worry, I have a few ideas to make it work..."

    It might be argued that an architect should not worry about how building details get resolved. That as long as the outcome meets code and looks like the drawing, the nuts and bolts do not matter. However, increasingly those architects have to compete with the architects who do.

    cheers

  75. Malcolm Taylor | | #75

    Jason,
    I think you make a good point about building regulations. They are often dismissed as being a minimum to which we should never dip - but usually that point is only made about things the poster cares about, (generally here at GBA insulation levels) while they can still bridle at being asked to meet code in things that might impede their main interest, like a robust structure in walls. I can't speak to other jurisdictions, but if you build a "code minimum" house here in BC, you end up with a petty well built project.

  76. David Hicks | | #76

    Reply to Malcom
    Agreed. I'm getting tired of the old trope, "a code house means you can't legally build a worse house". While true, this statement is meaningless when codes and code adoption varies so widely. There are many jurisdictions in North America where a house that's built exactly to code will be a pretty darn good house. The problem isn't the building code itself, it's the outmoded adoption and the widespread lack of adequate code enforcement that allows buildings that are worse than code to be built and occupied.

  77. Edward Shannon | | #77

    My error, Martin
    I meant to write, they would NOT be held liable in court. The courts are NOT going to hold amateur designers liable for design flaws. This is why architecture is regulated - to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public! This is why the Chicago suburbs are requiring sealed drawings! This is why the Des Moines building officials said, without an architect's stamp, the owner is liable!

    I know we are beating a dead horse here. So, I guess it is time to agree to disagree, once again.

  78. Debra Glauz | | #78

    Life in the USA
    Every body with pockets can be named in a suit. I've heard stories of architect, engineer and all subs that worked on the job being named in a suit.
    My painter told me about a job with a stucco flaw which wasn't caused by bad workmanship cost my painter $7000 to settle out of court and he had nothing to with the stucco. He could have won in court but attorney fees would have cost more.

  79. Caleb Coburn | | #79

    Design Ethics
    Excellent, thought-provoking article again, Martin. I do wish this had been written about a year ago, as the new-to-us house we bought last fall (built in 1983) has about half of these listed features. The Garrison overhangs kept the 2nd-floor bathroom tile plenty cold when it was -20ºF out during any of the various polar vortices that covered up the Midwest this past winter, not to mention the bay window three feet away from my bed in our master.

    I wanted to add a comment to the discussion between Martin, et al., and Edward Shannon. For my day job, I toil as a mechanical engineer for a medical device company. I consider it my ethical duty to ensure that any design that I push out from my CAD software to get placed into a customer's hands to be designed fully in addition to be fully manufacturable in a consistent and acceptable manner. If I fail to create a design that can be manufactured properly while meeting the aesthetic requirements of our industrial designer, then that's my responsibility. As such, our industry is well regulated by the FDA and various other agencies around the world, so not only is this an ethical obligation, but it's a very real legal obligation punishable by fines and/or jail time.

    I see many corollaries between our two industries because of this. Whether it be an industrial designer or an architect, they must work hand-in-hand with engineers, builders, manufacturers, and contractors, not to mention the end customers, sales & marketing folks, and regulatory/code agencies as necessary. I'm not implying this does not happen, but in my experience, the best projects go well when it happens excessively. The worst ones are fraught with cost overruns, schedule delays, quality issues, or don't even make it to launch.

    Personally, I've learned more about design by hanging out in injection molding rooms and tool & die shops than I ever have from college, a book, trade magazines, or trial-and-error, and suspect--as Martin pointed out--that most architects and architectural designers would do well to get their hands dirty in the field.

  80. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #80

    Response to Caleb Coburn
    Caleb,
    Thanks for your comments.

    I especially appreciate two of your points:

    "If I fail to create a design that can be manufactured properly while meeting the aesthetic requirements of our industrial designer, then that's my responsibility."

    "Most architects and architectural designers would do well to get their hands dirty in the field."

  81. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #81

    Architects ... it's the details but first Garrison's
    And any raised ranch especially a Garrison should be illegal to build or design or draw or look at or drive by. Kinda harsh... But a Garrison is a bad bad bad design for all reasons. If you have designed one turn in your license.

    As to details plans need details. Take the time to draw them. If the customer can't afford full drawn plans with all the necessary details then they should be buying stock plans. If the shoe doesn't fit it doesn't fit.

    And Martin is right. Architects should intern with a builder for at least one project and be there for every nail.

  82. Jerry McIntire | | #82

    SIPs and stucco...
    ...will both be part of my new house. First, the SIPs can be easily sealed at the seams and they save so much time/perform so well (Thanks Peter for explaining the roof panel details needed). Closed-cell polyurethane foam SIPs give unparalleled R-value per inch for our small home especially, where we don't want to lose much interior floor space to thick walls. Polyurethane also has no ozone-depleting components today, and is lowering their GWP regularly. The next generation of blowing agent will bring another significant reduction. With the proper skin panels, the SIP provides the air barrier. A good rain screen is needed for SIPs as for any wood-product sheathed wall, so that's no different.
    Stucco! I love it. I was a painting contractor for many years, and I want a surface I don't have to paint or stain every 6-10 years. Color in the stucco or mineral silicate "paint" will last 50 years easily. Variety of textures. Fireproof. What's not to like? Labor to apply, but that's a one-time investment that will save plenty of labor in the future.
    Stucco and SIPs don't belong on this list of "possible but not easy [enough]."

  83. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #83

    Response to Jerry McIntire
    Jerry,
    If you use a belt-and-suspenders approach to sealing your SIP seams -- which means high-quality interior tape plus spray foam between the panels -- and if you include a ventilated rainscreen gap between the SIPs and the stucco, you should be OK. Those are excellent details.

    Unfortunately, many SIPs have been installed without interior tape, and many contractors have installed stucco over OSB without a ventilated rainscreen gap. Your details benefit from lessons we have learned from these early failures.

    Doing it the right way is possible -- it's just relatively rare. Good luck with your house.

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