Sunday, 29 December 2013

Popsicle Stick House!

If only it was this easy!  A student builds a wonderful design from nothing but Popsicle sticks.

Building Popsicle Mansion Time Lapse HD

The interesting part is that he took the same amount of time to build the 1/24 scale model as I am budgeting for my build - 18 months

Should I be nervous?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

FPInnovations - Guide for Designing Energy-Efficient Building Enclosures

Whether you are designing single or multi-family dwellings, this Wood-Frame Multi-Unit Residential design guide  from FPInnovations is packed with valuable design information and the relevant science behind each design.

Sponsored in part by the Homeowner Protection Office and prepared by RDH Building Engineering, the 244 Page guide contains information on building energy efficient assemblies in various configurations including split insulation, double stud, mass timber, and wood frame infill.

While I chose to not build to any of these specific assemblies in my dwelling, my design still relies on the fundamental principles expressed and recommended in this guide.  I have also had the privilege of attending many of the lead author's (Graham Finch - RDH) building science courses and seminars over the last 3 years.  His knowledge and ability to disseminate the information in an understandable manner has helped me immensely in my ability to absorb and understand the key building science principles discussed throughout this guide, including the importance of assemblies that can perspire, as well as the importance and impact of reducing thermal bridging.

Whether building a code minimum house or going to the other extreme and building a Passive House, this guide has got something for you and should be part of your reference library.

I give it two thumps up!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Corn Based Ethanol - Why?

Like the author of an article I just reviewed, I too question the logic of creating 'fuel' from food crops.  Why would we create an industry that takes food out of our mouths while at the same time most likely consumes more energy than it produces.

Alex Wilson of wrote in his article 'Ethanol Under Fire'

"Depending on whose study you believe, it either takes a little more or a little less energy to produce corn-based ethanol than that end-product contains. That EROI ratio ranges from 0.8:1 to 1.5:1, depending on the study."  "Any time the EROI is less than 1:1, it takes more energy to produce the fuel than the fuel contains. Even giving the ethanol industry the benefit of the doubt by assuming the actual EROI is 1.5:1, that means to produce a gallon of the fuel takes two-thirds of a gallon (equivalent) of fuel — diesel for tractors and combines on the farm, natural gas to produce nitrogen fertilizer, natural gas and electricity at the ethanol plant, and energy to ship that fuel around the country." "By comparison, the ethanol produced from sugar cane in Brazil has an EROI closer to 8:1 — for every gallon (equivalent) invested you get about eight gallons back out.
No matter whose numbers you believe, from an energy standpoint turning corn into ethanol to fuel our cars makes little sense."

Giving the politicians the benefit of the doubt (I know - extremely generous), they want to do the right thing! 

But we have to start focusing our resources and research in more intelligent ways, at least for the immediate future while we deal with the emergency on hand - Global Warming.  How much public funds has been misdirected and abused by research and subsidies on schema that will never result in a significant reduction in the burning of fuels that cause global warming (look at the hydrogen fuel cell as another great example)?  At this critical time, we need to concentrate on options that at least on paper have a significant chance of a healthy EROI. 

How much time have we lost going down these dead-end roads.  After all, time is of the essence if we have any chance of effecting the outcome!

Monday, 9 December 2013

It's All About The Air Barrier!

Building Science Corporation has just released their report (available here ) that confirms that if you give insulation a chance by air sealing the assembly, all insulation will perform the same from a thermal transfer stand point.

The report highlights the increasing level of importance attributed to getting the details right as you increase the performance of an assembly by adding more insulation. Loosing 10% of your nominal value when you have a R15 assembly is a lot less critical than when you have a R50 assembly.

In order to complete this study, BSC had to design and build a hot box that significantly improved upon past designs.  

Key improvements include the ability to: 
  • test higher R value enclosure assemblies (which have lower heat fluxes),
  • expose enclosure wall samples to realistic temperature differences while maintaining the interior temperature at normal room temperatures, and
  • measure the impact of imposed airflow at a given pressure difference across the specimen in both directions
This new and improved hot box was able to measure and confirm the effects of thermal bridging, the performance of insulation at various temperature gradients (for instance some polyisocyanurate insulations used in the TM Research Project exhibited a sharp increase in thermal conductivity - and decrease in Rvalue/in. - as temperatures approach and go below freezing), and the effects of air movement through part or all of the assemblies.

An interesting outcome of the air leakage measurements:

"Air leakage always increases the total heat flow through the building enclosure. However, air interacts with the materials in an assembly as it travels through. This interaction changes the temperature field in the assembly and through an assembly. The Thermal Metric wall test results provide strong evidence of the interaction between conductive and convective heat flows. This interaction results in heat exchange between the air and the materials inside the wall assembly and the total measured heat flow will be less than predicted by the commonly used discrete air leakage model"

Also of interest was the observation that "All of the reference test wall assemblies were subjected to significant temperature differences: up to 50°C or 90°F in the winter tests and up to 40°C or 72°F in the summer tests. Natural convective looping was not noted in any of the wall assemblies."

One of the most important confirmations for me was that "All wall assemblies experienced a loss in thermal performance due to air movement through the assembly. This is true for all of the assemblies tested regardless of the type of insulation material used (e.g. cellulose, fiberglass, ocSPF, ccSPF, XPS)".  With the failure of an effective air barrier that I typically see on spray foam jobs, this research helps to confirm that without an effective AB, even the might spray foam has diminishing thermal resistance. The report also confirmed "spray foam insulation only seal areas where the spray foam is installed; significant leakage paths often remain at wood to wood connections"  This confirms my conviction that spray foam is highly over rated.  If it does not guarantee an air tight assembly (see 3.6.4 on pg 102 of the report to see air barrier failures that occurred even in these lab conditions), why use it when there are cheaper products of lower environmental impact available?  I see attempting to use insulation as an air barrier as being just as foolish as attempting to use a poly vapour barrier to double as an air barrier.  Both products are hard pressed to represent an effective and durable air barrier.

Finally, it was interesting to note that they were able to measure the various resistance to air flow that different insulation represent. In 1.1 the report confirms that wet sprayed cellulose has more resistance to air movement over various fibreglass bat products.  It is too bad that they did not test mineral wool as it would be interesting to see how it compares to WPC.  Maybe next time!

Friday, 29 November 2013

Variance Required!

Well, it is probably time for an update on the project.  I know it has been some time since I provided specifics on the project itself. On the whole, things have gone quite well.

The work that Heather and Nathan have been doing at Tacoma Engineers has been first rate, and we are nearing the end of this challenging design. I have been so happy with my selection and waiting until I found the right match for this project.  Much of the difficulty lies in my inexperience with structural design and building design in general, and the fact that I am both designing and drawing up my own house plans for the first time.  I have taken blueprint reading and design courses in the past, but there was still SO much I did not know. Tacoma has been great at coaxing a more professional looking drawing package out of me (which I will post soon).

I also appreciate the patience shown by Tacoma as I aim for a dwelling with limited thermal bridging.  Turns out limiting thermal bridging and structural requirements do not play well with one another and this has been trying for all involved.  What has been a pleasant surprise is that my ‘gut-thumb-in-the-air’ engineering has been very close to acceptable.  I personally designed most of the floor truss and beam layout and Tacoma has only needed to size the beams that I proposed.  There have been a few extra beams required in the design, but nothing significant.

Contrary to the demands of the first engineer I hired in March, I actually do have a predominately 2x4 house structure (my taller gable walls had to be converted to 2x6 as did some interior bearing walls).  This was important to reduce cost (a 2x4 is about 60% of the cost of a 2x6), reduce the embodied energy of the dwelling by building in less overall material, and most importantly - would allow me to utilize the salvaged 2x4’s from the house we will tear down.  The used studs will not be tall enough for full height wall studs in the new structure (I have taller ceilings – 9ft first floor and 8.5 for the second floor), but they will probably meet 100% of the need for less than stud height lengths used as jacks, cripples, and general blocking.  This will significantly reduce my costs and divert a very large volume of materials away from the landfill.  The drawbacks with 2x4 framing is that you require 16” O.C. (may have needed some of this even with 2x6 construction based on loads), and a 2x4 stud has a lot less resistance to wind loading and therefore you require a larger volume of king studs around openings.  I am currently working with Tacoma to reduce this (possibly with the use of stronger – engineered wood posts).

Drawing up both the architectural as well as structural plans (Thank-you Tacoma for allowing me to do the structural plans and save some additional costs) has been a monumental task I was prepared for on some levels but not fully expecting.  Not counting the deign work done over the previous 2-3 years, I have put over a 1000 hours into the design, 3D model and 2D Drawings since July of this year.  I have basically been working 15+ hours a day, 7 days a week, for the last three months. Things finally settled down this last weekend when I drafted the final structural drawing for Tacoma and now only need to process drawing mark-ups and revisions.

As we were close to being finished, I contacted the District for my pre-permit review of my plans and documentation.  I was assigned an appointment time of 11:00 AM on November 27.  Heather at Tacoma stepped up yet again and even came in on Sunday to work through the mark-ups on two of the more significant drawings.  I was so grateful!  Well the meeting was two days ago, and because I really did not know what to expect, I was both encouraged and disappointed all at once.  The first few minutes went well although I could tell that the District staff were not overly impressed with the details missing from some of my architectural drawings.

But then I blurted out that I was not in compliance with the zoning bylaw and would be applying for a zoning variance.  You see, I have planned since pretty much last fall’s design iteration, that I would be applying for a variance on the requirement to make the upper floor only 75% or smaller of the size of the lower floor.  I was going to ask for permission to make my lower floor smaller than allowed to ensure I had a more compact envelope (limiting exterior wall surface limits your heat loss), to allow me to more easily comply with the new code required seismic braced wall panel rules (and the need for additional internal braced wall bands when you have the setbacks needed for a smaller upper floor), and most importantly, to allow me to design the house around our 4 magnificent 125ft+ mature cedars that hem in the south and west sides of our build lot.

At first the tone was feeling like, that would be too bad and I would be expected to take the trees down to make room for a larger first floor.  I was told that the Zoning Variance Board was particularly steadfast against any form of variances at the present time, and that my application would probably be refused.  As you can imagine, this was fairly distressing, and due to a family member’s pet emergency the night before, the 4 hours of sleep I had that night did not prepare me well for this enlightenment.  One good idea that was raised during that part of the conversation as a possible plan B, was to build a 300 sq.  ft. veranda on the back of the house which would bring me into compliance with the first floor size requirement needed to meet the ratio. This will probably be what I will do if my variance request is denied.

Then the real shocker kicked in as we continued to check the plans, my overall roof height was too high!  On the surface it looked like both my north and south upper roof ridges were too high.  As I had worked a month on these roofs to make them work with the thickness needed for structure and the insulation levels planned, and to ensure enough room for the smallest height windows Cascadia make in an operable lite for the Clerestory, this was very upsetting and for a while I just did not want to accept it.  I had met with District staff in March and thought I had a clear understanding of the bylaw rules, but obviously I did not.  Now things were looking very grim as to any chance of approval by the Zoning Variance Board.  The staff member I was meeting with brought in others into the conversation, including some from the planning department.  They discussed possible options that may be available to me.  They agreed that as far as my floor ratio violation,  my design met the intent of the bylaw (which is to promote interesting – non box architecture) even though it did not meet its technical specifics.  I also had the impression they felt the roof infraction was fairly minor in nature.  

This below PDF shows in yellow the portion of my roof assembly that is not in compliance with the bylaw.  The other hatched lines show the larger massed roof I would be allowed to build if I went to a steeper pitch.  Fortunately, when I got back home and measured, only the steeper north roof was not fully in compliance with the bylaw.

I was thoroughly deflated by this point until a suggestion was made to go for a Development Variance instead of a Zoning variance.  Development variance decisions are made by the elected Council, and the Councillors have greater leeway to grant exceptions in the light of special site conditions or design goals.  The application states "Development variance permits are normally considered where specific site characteristics or other unique circumstances do not permit strict compliance with the existing regulations."  This was sounding promising and I got the feeling that the staff felt my chances of success with this process would be pretty good with a comment from the planning staff that they would have no concerns passing the application to Council for their approval.  SO, it seemed that I was already through the first gate.  Things were looking up.

The final checks focused on the existing shed we have at the back of our property.  It is larger than allowed by the zoning bylaw and also a bit to close to two of the property lines.  In the spring, I was counselled by staff to confirm this on the plans as an existing accessory building that was not being changed in any way and that it would probably be fine. The staff went away to discuss this and when my reviewer came back, she advised that I should include this in the variance request to 'legitimize' the existence of the building and that if for some reason, I did not go for variance or my overall variance was denied, they would figure out another method to allow it to stay in place.  I have maintained it over the years and I was going to use it to build a plane with my neighbour a few years back.  I then was going to use it as a very small wood shop but now that I will be building a full sized wood shop into the basement of the new house, I will probably just use this shed as a garden shed to store my law tractor and other yard tools and garden equipment.  It used to be heated with a gas boiler, but this was recently decommissioned.

I left the, close to two hour, meeting yesterday feeling a bit beat up but at least optimistic.

I spent yesterday morning updating details on the drawings of concern to the staff and emailed that over to her.  I then received the Bylaw Compliance Checklist back from her late afternoon on the same day identifying the 4 items I need to get a variance for.  I spent yesterday afternoon and evening drawing up the PDF shown below and drafting a letter I will send to the neighbours, once again asking for their support.  All 8 neighbours that are adjacent to the front and back of my property will be sent an official survey by the District and asked to indicate their support or opposition to my requested variances.  I have been encouraged to contact them in advance to explain the rationale behind the variance requests and ask for as many letters of support as possible.  I will distribute my info letter to them this weekend and will aim at applying for my variance on or before Dec 13 so that I have the best chance of being able to present my case to Council at their February meeting.

I was told that staff could possibly look at starting to process my building permit application in advance of the Council approval on the assumption that it would be approved.  I was also told that I could apply for the demolition permit at any time and it was recommended I do this about 4 weeks before I wanted the services disconnected.  This was very good news that gives me a good chance of not only being able to stay on schedule, but possibly even being able to start earlier than planned.  As we plan to move out March 1, we could have the service cut anytime after that and start the dismantling of the existing structure during March instead of after the planned April 8.

Next few weeks/months will be exciting as I finish off with Tacoma and prepare the full drawing package for submission with my variance application.  I will then need to move on to the plumbing, electrical, and most important HVAC design.  These are all a separate permit process and therefore a different time requirements.  The plumbing will be the first permit application needed right after the building permit (the drains need to go under the footings) and then the electrical application would follow my  rough-in construction inspection.  Then would come the HVAC.  At this point, I do not plan to connect gas to the house which will save us connection fees, permit fees, and monthly utility connection fees.  This may change after the HVAC design, but at this point I hope to utilize an air source to water heat pump for both my space and domestic water heating needs.

Well, now you are all caught up.

Wish me well and thanks for reading!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Mountain Hermit

If I knew how much effort designing and drawing up your own house design was before I started, I would have run for the mountains and become a hermit.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Thinking Ahead Saves Money!

I was notified about 6 months ago, that the District would be replacing the water line along our street.  As I was building next year, I saw an opportunity to both relocate the curb-stop so that it would not be under the new location where I intend to run our driveway, and increase the size of line in case I decide to put in a fire suppression system.

When I first approached the District, I was quoted the standard cost of $4500 to put in a new service at the start of new construction (I suspect they make everybody replace the service right back to the main, as a service from a torn down dwelling is most likely past its designed service life).  Fortunately, reasonable heads prevailed once I pushed back a little, and the price dropped to $350, representing the material cost difference between the ¾” they planned on installing and the size I needed.  I jumped at this and went down to the hall and paid my bill.

Well over the last couple of weeks, the project has been completed. Thanks to the District crew who did a great job!

Replacing the main – work went quickly as there were very few interference's.  The next length to add will be ‘mine’.

Bringing over the main that includes my service connection.

Now that is going to move some water!  I believe this is a 1.5” line, but have to admit, I did not check the size.  It will be a surprise next spring when I dig up the curb-stop to connect my new line to.

Main installed and waiting for the second pass when they do the service hook-ups.

New Service connected and run to curb-stop. If you look closely, you will see Alfie in the background, who helped me dig the trench to tie from the new curb-spot location to the existing one.

Getting ready to back-fill the trench.
Connecting the Curb-Stop while back filling the trench is continuing just behind.  The team ran like a well choreographed ballet.  No wasted time here!

These fittings were big and needed some extra hands to tighten.  I used Alfie to pre-dig the tie-in trench and around the curb-stop so the crew did not have to worry about my water and electrical conduit.

Ready for the next day, when the crew kindly agreed to tie over to my existing service (something I originally was responsible for).
Now tied into my old service to the house (will be abandoned when the new house is built).  You can see the cut-off pipe from the old curb-stop at the top right quadrant of the photo.
New curb-stop reduced to ¾” in order to temporarily tie over to my existing service.
3/4" Tie in to old service complete and ready for back-fill.
Project generally complete after Alfie helps fill in the trench on my side of the curb stop.
Sure is nice to have your own excavator!