A New York City supplier of building materials for high-performance and Passive House buildings is developing a new series of free electronic books for builders and designers. Eventually the e-books will explore nine different types of building enclosures.
The company, 475 High Performance Building Supply, is basing its “Smart Enclosure” series on the pressing need to control carbon dioxide emissions and keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in check. As 475’s chief operating officer Ken Levenson explained in a telephone call, the initiative builds on an e-book series that the company rolled out several years ago. “We’re regrouping and rebooting to version 2.0,” he said. “It’s the ‘new and improved,’ with a broader context.”
Levenson, lead author on the project, said that the material would encompass a greater number of building types than the original e-book series and eventually offer a comprehensive library for buildings and designers. “Our thought is that this is going to be kind of a mini-encyclopedic approach to building assemblies,” he said.
Guiding principles and levels of performance
The company has long advocated building assemblies that minimize both spray foam and rigid foam insulation, so its list of guiding principles won’t raise many eyebrows. It includes:
- Lower embodied carbon and greater carbon sequestration.
- Lower toxicity.
- More natural materials.
- Vapor, air, and thermal control.
- Durability of 100 years plus.
The initiative also proposes a three-tiered approach to building performance, all of them promising more energy efficiency and lower toxicity than industry standards. Four-Seven-Five calls them modified default, simplified and improved, and optimized performance.
“The Three Tiers are not precise demarcations of success,” the website explains. “Rather they indicate the direction of improvement relative to the other tiers and to the typical industry approach we describe as the Industry Standard High-Performance Default.”
For example, the section on wood-frame construction begins with a description of the “high-performance default”: spray foam cavity insulation, OSB sheathing, a weather-resistive barrier, exterior foam board and siding over a vented rain screen. Four-Seven-Five’s Tier 1 modified version substitutes wood fiber or wool cavity insulation in place of the foam, and adds a continuous layer of wood fiberboard insulation on the exterior instead of rigid foam.
Tier 2 and Tier 3 assemblies would substitute diagonal structural strapping for sheathing, add an interior service cavity, and place continuous wood fiberboard in different thicknesses over the studs. Levenson said that designers and builders could adapt and modify the assemblies to meet their specific needs.
Levenson said there is ample in-house expertise to vet the recommendations the books make. “We don’t feel like we’re out on a ledge,” he said, adding that when the project gets to straw bale or mass timber construction, the group would probably have to ask a lot more questions and seek input from others.
Helping business is part of the plan
Four-Seven-Five’s e-book series is reminiscent of the online Best Practices Manual offered by Hammer & Hand, a high-performance builder in the Pacific Northwest. It, too, is available to anyone who wants to download it. But while Hammer & Hand is a general contractor that wanted to offer field guidance to its own carpenters, the 475 project comes from a retailer of building materials, many of which are promoted in its guide.
“We’re a business,” Levenson said. “This is a vehicle to sell products. I kind of joked that this is really about elevating Gutex, which we think is a fantastic material. If every building could be built with Gutex fiberboard insulation, the world would be a better place, right?
“But the fact of the matter is that we went into this business because we were freaking out about climate change,” he continued, “and because we saw Passive House as part of that solution.” (Levenson, a registered architect, is a board member of New York Passive House and secretary of the North American Passive House Network.)
While the books will help the company get bigger by selling more products, Levenson said, it’s also aimed at spreading the word about best building practices.
“We’d be the first to say that if you want a third-party discussion, that’s not this e-book per se,” he said, “but we do think they stand on their own.”
Rolled out in stages
The series eventually will encompass nine types of enclosures: masonry retrofit, wood retrofit, 2x framing, I-joist outrigger, double-stud, mass timber, straw bale, metal frame, and concrete. For now, only the masonry retrofit section is complete, while some parts of the wood retrofit and 2x framing also have been posted.
Each section will include construction photography and a video library. Users can download free CAD files and edit them for their own use.
At the present rate, the company could post one section per month, and building out the rest of the series could come as quickly as six months. Printed versions of the same books could follow as early as January.