It’s back to the basics with this one, folks.
Back in 2013, we were asked to do a presentation at NESEA for the “Fundementals” track — something similar to our “Sprout Follies” podcast. We put together a PowerPoint presentation, and did our best to deal with the fact that our cocktails would be coffee.
It was well received, so we thought it would be a good idea to share a condensed version of that presentation as a podcast here at GBA.
Most “Top 10” lists have only ten items. Ours has fifteen! We tackle 1 through 7 in this podcast. Be sure to tune in soon for Part 2 (Things 8 through 15).
Without further ado, I give you our fifteen “Top 10” things not to blow on your next project.
1. Don’t Be an Air Hole. Minimizing air leakage is the cheapest, and easiest way to effectively make your project more energy efficient.
2. Raise Your Glass. A toast, to understanding the numbers on that window label and making the right window choice for your project.
3. Don’t Cross That Bridge. With careful detailing thermal bridging can be easily and greatly reduced.
4. Belt, Suspenders, and Clean Underwear. We’re talking about redundancy, and having back up for when envelope details fail.
5. Don’t Wait to Integrate. Get your team together and involved at the beginning.
6. Do Your Modeling Before the Runway. There’s a good time and a bad time to do your energy modeling. Do it early when you can easily react to the information you receive.
7. Bigger isn’t Better. No “toe-dipping” here! Half measures that don’t allow you to shrink your mechanicals will keep the owner from feeling the payback.
Be sure to check out Part Two, where we cover Things 8 though 15.
Thanks for tuning in. Cheers!
Chris: Hey everybody, welcome to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast once again. I’m Chris Briley.
Phil: And I’m Phil Kaplan. Hello, Chris!
Chris: Hey Phil! How are you doing?
Phil: I am really happy at the moment.
Chris: Why? Is that the cocktail?
Phil: It’s a little bit the cocktail, and it’s a little bit that it’s summer. It’s finally here. Man! It’s taken a long time.
Chris: It has, for us. It’s been one heck of a winter.
Phil: Yeah, it’s brutal! Even through June, it’s been in the 50s during the day.
Chris: I know.
Phil: What the what?
Chris: What the what? I’ve been out sailing; working on my tan. [Much laughter.]
Phil: You’ve got a long way to go, my friend. Keep working! You’ve gotten a little sun there.
Chris: Not enough. I’ve actually tried to not stay out in the sun too much, because I’m fair and I burn and it’ll grow cancer on my face if I… No, I don’t know.
Phil: The Kaplans are a long line of olive-skinned men.
Chris: Yeah? Dark complected. Tall, dark, and handsome-ish?
Phil: Short, dark, and happy. How about that?
Chris: That’s awesome. Happy is the best. Who gives a [BEEP] about this? I just got BEEPED by Sheila! Wow! Thank you, Sheila, for BEEPING me.
Phil: She’s quiet in the background, but we still rely on her.
Chris: Oh yeah! Otherwise, this wouldn’t happen. Because, you and I never find enough time to get together. We could stammer on and on about what we do, but you guys want to hear about architecture.
Phil: You know what I’d like to hear first about?
Chris: This cocktail? Sweet!
[The guys jaw about this episode’s cocktail.]
Chris: Cheers, Phil. Here we go; let’s do this podcast.
Phil: What are we doing today, Chris?
Chris: I’ll tell you what: Don’t be an air-hole, Phil.
Phil: [He laughs.] I never would.
Chris: So, here’s the deal: Phil and I, in 2013, we were on the “Fundamentals” track at NESEA, for the Building Energy conference.
Phil: And, for those of you who don’t know NESEA – because it is a regional thing – it’s the North East Sustainable Energy Association. It’s a group, and we meet for a conference in Boston every year: it’s a Building Energy conference. And we just started one in New York a few years ago – BENYC – which has been really wonderful.
Chris: I’ll tell you what, these are the smartest people I’ve had… You know, I go to those things and I feel like a student again. It’s a fantastic mix of feelings where I feel like I’m both a teacher and a student simultaneously the whole time (and man, that feels great!). It’s humbling and inspiring all at the same time. And you walk away from that going, “Wow, we’re on the right track. We’re doing the right thing. I’m not alone. These are great people.”
Phil: And it is the thing that, Chris, you and I have learned so much from, that we use in our podcasts every time we come on here. So here we are, we were asked to do a Green Architects’ Lounge version of one of our shows for the Building Energy conference, which was flattering and it was kind of fun.
Chris: Right. And it’s been long enough that we thought, “Now we can put it on the air to share with you guys.” Basically, it was fundamental. So we’re talking about basic things.
Phil: So today, Chris, we’re going to get back to basics. And we’re going to talk to people about our fifteen “Top 10” things not to do.
Chris: Right. Don’t blow these things when you’re doing your project, guys. This is fundamental stuff. So don’t be an air-hole. So, let’s do this, Phil.
Phil: All right. So, one of the questions we had was, “Sprout follies? What’s a sprout folly?” We had talked about this a while back, when we’d had Martin Holladay on.
Chris: Oh, yeah. They said to us, “Hey, can you do a Sprout Follies for us?” And we said, “Heck, yeah.” So: a sprout. I’ll tell you what a sprout is. A sprout is someone who’s new to this green stuff.
Phil: A green newbie.
Chris: Which we all have been. You and I were sprouts once, but look at us now – big towering trees!
Phil: [Laughs.] I’m still breaking a limb every now and then. I don’t know what that’s about.
Chris: Well, it’s growing old, that’s what it is. That’s 40s. Welcome to the 40s there, buddy!
Basically, when you’re a sprout, what you want to be, is… You don’t want to look like, or talk like, or act like a sprout because you come off being like a sophomore. You’re walking around like you know everything but, in fact, everyone else is saying, “This guy barely knows anything; he thinks he does.” You don’t want to be that guy.
Phil: No, you don’t. So our goal is to say, “All right, here is a number of really basic mistakes that sprouts need to look out for.”
Chris: Right. Don’t be dumb. So, everyone out there has got a green brochure. Everyone out there is a green person.
Phil: Everybody’s website says now, “Oh yeah, we also do green.” Most of them don’t integrate it into their work. They don’t say, “We do this in everything.”
Chris: “Oh, you want to do a green house? We can do a green house.”
Phil: “We could do that also.”
Chris: “Yeah, yeah, sure. What do you want to do? Yeah, yeah. We can do that. Absolutely.” You also see products – water bottles. (“We use less plastic, so we’re green.” Jerks!) Or diapers. Or even… (What was the slide that we had? It had some big Hummer-thing.)
Phil: Right, yeah. Citco could be green. Oh yeah, we’re local.
Chris: Local! Sure you are, sure you are!
Phil: And then, you’ve got the website that has the green tab. They have a tab here that says they do green.
Chris: So they must be green.
Phil: Yeah, right.
Chris: We want to make sure our architect is green, so luckily they have that. You hear all the time, things like…
I’ll tell you what, guys, we’re going to attach our slide show. Phil, do you want to share our slide show with these guys?
Phil: Yeah, we should absolutely do that.
Chris: Yeah. So if you see our slideshow, I think we had mustaches. Were we wearing Martin’s mustache? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I’m totally remembering now. (We’re pulling it up while we’re talking). Oh, yeah. Yeah. We made a fictitious architectural firm.
Phil: “Washet and Spongem.”
Chris: That’s right. And curiously, they had a very familiar mustache – both those guys – and they said dumb things like, “Our houses breathe naturally.” And, what else, Phil?
Phil: “We’re green experts. We use the LEEDS system.”
Chris: That’s right. They used the ‘s’ – LEEDS. Yeah, I still hear that out there. We all know it’s LEED without the S, but whatever. “And we use efficient systems like geothermal and radiant slabs.” Yeah, you’re cutting-edge, buddy.
Phil: “We use SIPs panels!”
Chris: Oh, that’s your biggest pet peeve, isn’t it?
Phil: Because the P stands for panels.
Chris: So why do you say SIP panels? It’s like saying Structural Insulated Panel Panels. My brother has the same problem with ATM machines: Automated Teller Machine Machines. Yeah, but you get the point, people. Basically, you want to just use your head. You want to be smart about things.
You want to do this? Let’s do this.
Phil: All right. Top 10 things not to blow. Number One, Chris: don’t be an air-hole.
Chris: Don’t be an air-hole. Are we going to make T-shirts?
Phil: I think we should.
Chris: That’s our favorite, by the way.
Phil: If you want a T-shirt, let us know and I think we’re going to do a Café-Press thing.
Chris: Yeah, we’ll figure it out. We’ll come up with a great graphic. It’ll be awesome. The best that you and I can come up with in fifteen minutes of our time. It’ll be great. Yeah. Don’t be an air-hole.
Phil: Airtightness, in our buildings, is really the most important thing that we can do. It’s the lowest hanging fruit.
Chris: It is the lowest hanging… I think we’ve said that many times. Typically, with your average house, 25% of its heat loss is through air gaps in the envelope. Honestly, that’s cheap. It’s just being tenacious with your air gun and your caulking and your sealing during construction. But also, from a design standpoint (architecturally) it’s also being very observant about your details.
Phil: Yeah. And in your details – which Chris and I are both doing in our firms – include a line of air barrier and vapor barrier in the drawings in a different color. Why do drawings have to be black and white anymore?
Chris: Well, because the color is more expensive to print. [He laughs.] I had a set of drawings for a veterinary clinic that – you could not look at the mechanicals without it being in color – and boy, did that make for an expensive set of drawings! But anyway, moving on.
Phil: But it really helped the process, I bet.
Chris: Well, it did. I mean – it wasn’t pertaining to this – it was all about ductwork. But for this, we’re talking about having an air barrier which I usually show in blue, and a vapor barrier which is in red.
Let’s take a moment and talk about those two things because, probably, if you’re on Greenbuildingadvisor.com, you’ve heard this to death, but: there’s a real difference between a vapor barrier and an air barrier.
Air barrier: you’re trying to block air intrusion from the outside. You’re trying to basically seal your house off from an air-pressure standpoint.
Vapor barrier: you’re trying to seal your house off from a vapor standpoint – vapor being a gas, or a water molecule in a gas form. And, basically, you’ve got vapor pressure on the inside of the house. If it’s warm on the inside and cold on the outside, it’s going to move from hot to cold and you want to keep that moisture out of your wall assembly.
In most cases, you have a vapor barrier on the warm side of the wall, and you’ve got an air barrier on the cool side of the wall. And where you get in trouble, Phil, is where those assemblies – and I’m thinking about where your joists are resting on the wall (basically, where different systems are coming together) – that little line is where the barrier can get lost and that ends up being where air comes in and out.
So, if you trace it, and you say, “Aha! We need a continuous bead of caulk here. We need a continuous gasket along this line and we’re going to use our sheetrock as the vapor barrier. Then you have to be thoughtful about that, diligent, and make sure that the building crew knows that too.
Phil: Well said. And we’ve got some nice graphics to accompany this.
Chris: Yeah. In the slide I’ve got an example of something you do too, right?
Phil: Yeah. All right: Number Two! Raise your glass.
Chris: That’s right. Cheers, buddy!
Phil: So, we should be paying very close attention to the windows and the performance numbers on those windows. Most people who are listening to this don’t take that for granted. There are numbers that you should pay attention to closely and understand specifically what they mean. Solar heat gain coefficient, U-factor, and Visible Transmittance are the three that we usually speak of very often.
Chris: Yeah. Very often. For us, being in a cold climate, the solar heat gain coefficient is a big deal. Because, if we’re trying to do a Passivhaus, for example – or even a passive solar house – you need that heat gain. And so you need to know that, on the south side, you want that heat to come in.
Boy, I wish we could go back in time and redo our windows podcast. In fact, we will redo it. Because, back then, European windows were very, very new. I remember I’d mentioned Bonneville as one of the products used in one of my projects. I’d never use them again!
Phil: And they don’t exist, so you can’t.
Chris: No, they do exist! They got bought out by another company, so they do exist. But they don’t warranty certain products.
Phil: Oh I know, Chris, because I have them in my house.
Chris: Oh, that’s right! I forgot – you have them in your house! And how are they doing?
Phil: They’re doing fine, although a few need repairs and it’s not so easy to come by the parts.
Chris: Yeah, those guys suck! I’m sorry. Bonneville – whatever. Don’t use those guys. If they have a problem, they can call me and I’ll tell them why. You know they’ll say, “Oh, but we’re not the same window company.” Yeah well, you’re the same name. And if you’re dumb enough to buy that same name… I’m sorry. It’s the booze talking.
Phil: [He laughs.] You were burned.
Chris: I was burned! My client was burned, that’s the thing. So I’m mad about it. There’s nothing worse.
Phil: You’re right. Solar heat gain coefficient essentially goes from 0.0 to 1.0. We look for above a 0.5 if you’re trying to get a high solar heat gain coefficient, because you’re trying to bring in that heat and trying to offset your heating loads. You know, sometimes you don’t want to do that.
Chris: Right. So, if we were in Florida, we would want a low solar heat gain coefficient.
Phil: Right, we’d want to stop that.
Chris: And I’ll tell you what: when you get to 0.6 or higher, you’re in fading-furniture territory again, guys. You’re back almost to single-pane glass. I mean, that’s impressive. That takes some glass technology of coatings that are used – what, platinum? I don’t know.
Phil: And you’ve got to be careful with some of those, too, because you have to deal with overheating.
Chris: Right. And they’re not cheap, so you use them effectively where you can.
Phil: This is not a windows podcast. We’ll go into it more, but look at your numbers. Also, know there are different kinds of glass. Cardinal makes a whole plethora of different glasses. I don’t know if plethora is the right word. It’s probably a handful.
Chris: Handful of glass. And not too long ago, the same window was being sold in Florida as it was in Maine. And that was very frustrating to the likes of you and I, but they’re getting smarter. So, if you don’t want to be a sprout, pay attention to your glass. A window is not just a window.
Phil: And I will end it with this, Chris: if you are still on the edge about whether or not to specify triple glazing – if you are still afraid to say that to your clients (it’s like it gets caught in your throat because you think they’re going to get mad at you because it’s going to be expensive) – just be bold about it. Say, “Listen, if you want to save money, why don’t we go to single glazing?”
Chris: Yeah, you’ve said that before. Yeah, that’s a really good point.
Phil: Yeah. Just do it because it makes sense.
Chris: Yeah. And hey, energy models help anyway. We’ll get to that.
Phil: We’ll get to that too.
Chris: Number Three.
Phil: Don’t cross that bridge when you come to it.
Chris: That’s right. We’re talking about thermal bridging, of course, here. If you imagine 20% of your wall is probably structural stuff holding up other stuff – 20% of it is wood studs – that’s 20% of your wall that is not insulation. And if you have that connected to your sheathing and connected to your sheetrock and the inside, boy, that is 20% of your wall that is working against you as a thermal bridge.
It’s more than just your wall; it’s also your floor joists, your sheathing, all of that jazz. So, come up with some details – and you don’t need to take it from us directly – there’s strapping on the outside, or there’s strapping on the inside. There’s wrapping the whole building in a continuous exterior insulation.
Phil: Where I find that a lot of rookies make mistakes have to do around the windows and the rim joists. It’s easy to do a little wall section and say, “Hey look, I did it! I’ve got double studs” or “I’ve got rigid insulation on the outside.” But then they blow it.
Chris: Yeah, they stick a window in it.
Phil: That’s where you need to be careful and pay attention to it. Look at your details; look at all your joints. Because, from here on out, every house that you do, you’re going to be looking at those details.
Chris: In our slide show, we’ve got a couple of photos that I think I took on the way down to the NESEA conference, of snow melting on the outside. You can actually see the rafters.
Phil: Yeah, I like to call it “lines of failure at 24-inches-on-center.”
Chris: Beautiful, Phil. Did you come up with that?
Phil: I did.
Chris: You’re the man!
Phil: Every now and then I score one, Chris.
Chris: That’s good. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
Phil: [He laughs.] What have you got for Number Four, Chris?
Chris: Number Four: Belts, suspenders, and clean underwear.
Chris: And redundancy. That’s right. And basically, by that, I was always taught: your building will fail. It will fail just like you’re going to die, Phil. I’m sorry.
Phil: I’m a little sad. I try not to think about it.
Chris: You’re going to die; I’m going to die. Every building you’ve ever made is going to crumble and be dust later. So, deal with it. The whole planet is going to be consumed in a big ball of fire. Our sun is going to expand. Don’t worry – you’ve got 50 million years or whatever.
What I’m saying, Phil, is your building is going to fail. And what you want to do is make sure that it can be resilient enough to take that failure.
Phil: I feel a little angry that you’ve told me my building’s going to fail. [He laughs.]
Chris: Hey everybody, my buildings are going to fail one day. It’s just the nature of… you build your house – or you build your buildings – not to fail. And you build them to deal with a failure when they do fail.
So, what are we talking about? We’re talking about simple things like…
Phil: Simple things like getting your flashings right.
Phil: Flashing your window properly. Lapping things positively.
Chris: Right. I’ll have a head flashing and then a flashing under that at the window. The trim – the siding comes down and then – at the trim we’ve got flashing, or the window itself has flashing. So it’s like these built-up layers of redundancy that we have.
Phil: Rainscreens are part of this.
Chris: Exactly. You design a system to keep the water out and you design a system to drain the water when it does get in.
Chris: Overhangs – the simplest thing in the world. And you know what? We argue in the office – my business partner and I, because he…
Phil: He really likes the sleek look, doesn’t he?
Chris: He loves it. You get it all the time: these beautiful architectural things where it’s this gabled…
Phil: Damned architects!
Chris: You take this house form of the gable [without an overhang], with these super-clean edges… And I love it and I respect those clean edges and pure forms. And I’m like, “Yeah? And you’ve just aged the building 20 years.”
Phil: There was a reason why we put them there in the first place.
Chris: Exactly. Vernacular architecture looks the way… You’ve got to respect it, even though we (as architects) like to fight it.
Phil: That’s right.
Chris: But, that’s what it is.
Phil: “Just relax and make it look good.”
Chris: Yeah, all right.
Phil: Okay. Number Five?
Chris: Group hug!
Phil: Group hug!
Chris: Get off me, Phil. Stop hugging me!
Phil: A.K.A.: Don’t wait to integrate.
Chris: Don’t wait to integrate.
Phil: Get your group together right away. If we’re going to make great buildings, we’ve got to do them together. We have to have everyone at the table, from Day One. We’ve spoken about all of these things, Chris. But even in small projects, if you can get your client and your builder and your architect and even some of your top subs at the same time…
Chris: Exactly. Some people bring builders on at certain points, but the real point is: you’ve got to bring them in before it’s too costly to start making these changes from the inputs that they could actually give you. If you’re an architect out there thinking you know everything and the builder should do whatever you drew and just shut up and do it – you’re going to be served a big slice of humble pie one day. I’ve learned great stuff from builders – I don’t know about you, Phil.
Phil: I do. All the time, we learn great things. And if you think, “My design is going to be hurt by involving these people early on,” then you’re not a good architect.
Chris: No, you’ve got a real problem.
Phil: I’m serious. Get your damned ego out of the way and say, “I can design something beautiful with parameters.” And if you can’t, then you shouldn’t be in this profession. All right? So, do the right things first. Team up with your people.
Chris: There are cost implications; there are performance implications; there’s everything. And I love having the subs involved. Before the pour (the concrete) – especially if there’s a finished slab that’s going to be the actual floor finish – having a meeting with everyone involved in that and saying, “Look guys, seriously, no coffee on this job.” (Maybe not so strict, but…) “This slab is precious. If you mess it up… you’ve been warned!”
All right. Number Six, Phil?
Phil: Do your modeling before the runway.
Chris: Nice! Yeah. We like this slide. We put it up, and we’re like… [He whistles.] “Look at that!”
Phil: That’s a good-looking spreadsheet.
Chris: That’s right! What we’re talking about there is learning about what your house is going to do before you actually do it. Energy models are important, and they’re a great, effective tool. And usually, if you don’t do it in-house, I bet there are companies out there that can do it for you for a reasonable price. And it’s a pretty easy sell for us to convince our clients, “Hey, for maybe $1,600 ($2,000 even), you can team up with a company that will get you Energy Star certified. But, you’ll get a REM/Rate model (which will help us choose a mechanical system), you’ll get inspections midway through, and a final blower-door test (and maybe a mid-construction blower-door test).”
But basically, you have a sense of where you’re headed with your energy performance of your house. And you can play the cost-offset game, Phil.
Phil: Yup. Can I tell you a dirty little secret, Chris?
Chris: Oh yes!
Phil: Maybe this is not for the sprouts. Okay?
Chris: Okay. Sprouts, go do something else. We just want to talk to the real green guys.
Phil: We still do an energy model for every project. We’re not doing them as early now.
Chris: When are you doing them?
Phil: We’re doing these to double-check. Most of the time, now, it’s not affecting what we do because we’ve done enough of these that we have a really good sense of where we’re headed, to the point where the only difference it’s going to make is the size of the heat pump. That’s it. We just may have to size it a little differently. We know how much glass we need on the south. We know if it’s a different orientation, then we’re probably going to have to pay attention to it in a different way. We still do it, but if you do all these other right things, it matters a little less. How do you feel about that?
Chris: Can I tell you something?
Phil: Yes! Just between you and me.
Chris: Just you and me. [He whispers.] I’m almost the same way.
Chris: Yeah. Intuition and experience – and I say this to my clients – gets us about 95% of the way there, and the other 5% is…
Phil: …is pure bullshit. [He laughs.]
Chris: Right now I have clients who want to twist the project to face more west, because that’s where the view is. And we will be playing the game of, “As you rotate west, you’re going to lose efficiency. But how much?” With an energy model, we can answer this. We can rotate it 10 degrees – that’s going to cost you $200 per year.
Phil: Right. And you can say, “All right. So, we’re going to be worried about overheating it a little bit more now.”
Phil: We’ve got more glass to the west. Now we can know these things.
Chris: Exactly. Right. So, is your view worth $200 a year? “Yes it is.”
Phil: Oh yeah.
Chris: Then, BOOM! And so, that’s their answer. And they get it. Or, is your view worth $1,200 a year? “Hmmmm…”
Phil: Right. But you can be smart and you can go into this and answer it really intelligently.
Chris: Yup. With gut instinct and all that stuff.
Phil: Really good; and you’ll look really damned smart.
Chris: Right. And I’ll throw in for hay: the existing house that you’re doing renovations to – that energy modeling can really help, because you’re getting an energy audit of the existing structure. All right. Let’s move on, buddy. Number Seven.
Phil: Bigger is not better.
Chris: What do you mean by that, Phil?
Phil: A.K.A., toe-dipping will leave you all wet. [He laughs.] Did we over-clever ourselves?
Chris: Yeah, we did. That’s a little too much. But anyway, tell us about toe-dipping.
Phil: The toe-dipping problem is something that I’d like to believe is going on less and less these days, but I’m not 100% sure.
Chris: No, I think it does. You want to be green, so let’s put a layer of insulation on the outside. Or let’s do a solar panel or two or something like that. If you’re not actually digging into your house (in terms of what you’re doing) by performance, you can find the sweet spot – we’ve talked about it before – where you’ve increased the insulation by so much that now you can reduce the mechanical systems.
Phil: That’s right. That’s when you’re the real hero. If you don’t get to that point, if you say, “All right. I just want better windows and I want a fancier boiler that’s more efficient and I’m adding insulation.”
Chris: Yeah, and you weren’t able to…?
Phil: That was really expensive, yeah.
Chris: And if you’re not able to actually recoup that by reducing your mechanical system… you’re fired!
Phil: You’re a chump.
Chris: You’re a chump. And you just cost more money. And now you’ve made kind of a grumpy client. But if you actually do enough, if you stop toe-dipping and dive in…
Chris: Hero! You’ve just saved them money in the long run and they love you.
Phil: And it’s people who are not doing this that are really hurting the industry. It’s finally coming around. I think people are getting smarter, but this is why people say, “I want it a little green but not too green.” The problem is, if you don’t go to that next step and get to that level where you can reduce the mechanical system, it’s a problem.
Chris: All right. Number Eight.
Phil: Are we going to do a full podcast on this, Chris?
Chris: You know what? Let’s do it in parts. I’m looking at the time, and we’re at 25 – we’re into this thing. But, don’t worry folks! We’re going to post Part One and Part Two almost simultaneously, so you don’t have to wait with anticipation. So, all right. Let’s call this Part One, freshen up the drinks, and let’s get going, buddy.