Mark your Calendars for October 18th, 2016 for our next
Our 6th, by invitation only, BOG session will be held at a new location, details to follow! This fall, we’re adding a twist, along with three focused-but-short technical presentations on high performance building topics we’re going to try something new. Carpenter and Architect Daniel Hall will moderate an expert panel who will attempt to answer “How much more should it cost to build a green renovation?” Our four panelist will be architects Terrell Wong with Christine Lolley and sustainable builders Christopher Phillips and Steve Dennison who will share their insights on the value of sustainable building.
Our exciting line-up of speakers this fall are:
Certified Passive House Consultant Graham Fisher will give a talk on his recently completed near-Passive House located in lovely Creemore Ontario. This un-encumbered, fresh looking high performance build has some assembly details that offer builders insights in how to simplify high performance envelope assemblies.
CPHC and builder Ed Marion will share 3 years of energy consumption data for his carbon-free heated home in Oakville Ontario. Learn how little energy a well-designed and constructed house needs to stay superlatively comfortable.
BlueGreen Group was instrumental in getting both Passive House energy modeling software into the newly revised SB-12. Shervin Akhavi, will introduce WUFI Passive – a 2nd generation energy simulation tool – that will arm the designer with detailed data on drying potential (hygrothermal modeling), comfort analysis (mapping indoor cold spots) and energy savings. A truly revolutionary tool for designers to optimise building design.
And a BIG Thank You to our fall 2016 event sponsors!
Hear and see what professionals in the GTA are saying about this event:
Unless you’re building clones, assume every house, like a human, is different. “The modern use of averages was pioneered by a Belgian mathematician and astronomer named Adolphe Quetelet.” starts the amazing architect podcast by 99% Invisible on the topic of averages. Host Roman Mars starts by saying “Throughout your education, you’ve been given standardized test and been graded by how well you performed compared to the average…building codes, insurance rates, Dow Jones all these are based on averages” and now you want to design a custom building to fit the average building code?
Is it good design practice to assume a unique house has an “average” energy consumption based on floor area? An “average” air leakage rate? Can we use tables to accurately predict energy consumption in buildings? Does the “average” become more variable with age? No, No and No!
The podcast delves into the notion of why designing to averages doesn’t work;
The high death rate in the Air Force was a mystery for many years, but… the military finally realized that the cockpit itself was to blame, that it didn’t actually fit most pilots… [A] young Harvard graduate named Gilbert S. Daniels… realized that none of the pilots he measured was average on all ten dimensions. Not a single one. When he looked at just three dimensions, less than five percent were average. Daniels realized that by designing something for an average pilot, it was literally designed to fit nobody.
Here’s the rub, the Ontario Building Code, most architects, designers and some engineers still use tables to figure components of a house out. A custom, high performance home, deserves a custom energy simulation and a bit of testing; after all, testing and tuning should be part of any high performance house, or car for that matter.
As Avery Trufelman chimes in “We know you’re not average, you’re really special.” And we agree, you are special and your custom home or building deserves a custom energy simulation and custom 3rd party physical testing to tune it an ensure the “high performance” part of the custom home is ready for occupancy. The cost of energy simulation and air tightness testing is so miniscule these days that it makes no sense to take chances for built infrastructure that may last a hundred years.
Is this your idea of comfort? Designed for the “average” person using tables? Is this the kind of comfort or performance you want from your new or renovated home? For the record, it’s 2016; we have tools for optimising efficiency, comfort and performance in the design stage and we can test in the building phase to ensure quality and performance.
If you’re a builder or designer, you should watch this series of videos by Fine Home Building. FHB suggests in the video, “A high-performance house requires a talented team that understands what it takes to design and build a better-than-code home.” Hear what builders in the North East of the USA have to say about building better than code. Significantly better.
Hear from tradesmen who talk about climate change and are focused on Value Engineering, Advanced Framing and Passive House. Ontario builders have much to learn from the North East where energy prices are not as cheap as here in Ontario.
Our climate is changing and like it or not, we’re going to get more heat. This translates to milder winters and longer growing seasons or hotter, longer summers. More importantly, it means the size of our heating and cooling systems will be impacted. Take a 2012 report published by the City of Toronto for example. Mechanical designers use heating degree days and cooling degree days to size mechanical equipment in buildings. According to the report,
Values below 18°C can be used to estimate the heating requirements of buildings. The occurrence of such degree days are expected to reduce by almost a third – 31%
Values above 24°C can be used to estimate the cooling requirements of buildings. The occurrence of such degree days are expected to increase by more than five times – 560% (i.e., from 32 degree-days to 180 degree days per year)
Which gets me to my point; with the caveat that cooling loads be minimised – greater emphasis on high performance building shells in the form of high R-value, limited thermal bridging and air tight with optimised window areas that minimise solar heat gain well into the shoulder seasons – all future buildings in Southern Ontario need to have Air Conditioning systems installed in them.
If not to lower indoor temperatures (sensible heat), then at least to cut the humidity (latent heat) to safe levels in order to discourage mold growth and allow our skin to evaporate more effectively. From public and institutional buildings to social housing, they need to be cooled – install more fixed windows if you must – but with a good building envelope, ventilation system and a cooling system, we will reduce the heat stress in the city.
If you’re a designer and your client suggests they don’t want AC as part of their mechanical design – especially in a high performance building – don’t do it.
This high rise along Bloor Street West has at least 24 window air conditioners, no wonder they’re hot, with those huge windows! There’s at least 24 window units along the south side of this building. The window units are nowhere near as efficient as a central systems and are a liability when it comes to falling when removing and replacing.
It’s been several months since builder Graham Fisher finished his near Passive House in Creemore, Ontario and we had the chance to tour it a few times since, most recently to commission his Zehnder HRV. A long-time home energy auditor and now a CPHC Consultant:
Leave it to the Germans to misspell Fisher; Congrats Graham!
What’s unique about this house is that though Graham is the GC, he’s technically never built a home, but like us, has been on construction sites observing building details for years. This has led to some very interesting innovations and a unique approach to building details of which, Graham will spell out in greater detail this fall when he presents at our coveted High Performance Design meets Boots on the Ground networking event. Here’s a little taste:
With the 3M Flashing tape projecting down past the face of the foundation wall, you can see how Graham detailed this outside corner continuing from our last blog post.
With the air barrier up, this is a great time to test the house for air leakage before the windows are in to see if the project is on target or not.
The bales of straw give it a real pastoral look… In time for Halloween.
As the low hanging sun in February spreads itself across the room’s slab, we were recharging our vitamin D stores.
Simple clean lines, this house was well executed and a pleasure to be in.
The south facing back wall bathing in sunlight. You can see the shadow projecting from the eaves really optimises the winter solar heat gain. Even the east and west walls have an eaves protecting them from the elements on the gable walls.
Ready for the solar panels with the second meter socket, the two Air Source Heat Pumps were installed on the garage wall to reduce noise and were also high off the ground to keep the snow off them if used to pump heat on select winter days.
The window supplied by Pinwheel Builds had a built in metal drain pan. Durable and robust detailing!
The upper wall mounted, sleek looking electric resistance heating panel was a great way to direct the heat at the occupant when needed. These low load houses tend to have small radiating areas.
This little guy was pretty aggressive around the compost bin and wouldn’t’ let me move till I took his picture.
For the record, the Zehnder HRV is an absolute pleasure to balance if installed right!
Growing up in a large family on a rural Ontario farm, I had many occasions to go to the family doctor’s office. In the doctor’s office, I found myself thumbing through dog-eared copies of Architectural Digest, the equivalent of porn for architects, the 1% and perversely, the 99% as the locals were obviously feasting their eyes on it too. 40 years on, and in the throes the 2030 Challenge (less than 14 years to go!), one would think that as a society we’ve moved on to more pressing matters. Specifically, that schools of architecture and trade schools would be teaching students about fully integrated sustainable design, but no, house-porn is alive and well.
The underlying reason citizens from progressive nations care about building energy performance is because of climate change. The call to action is urgent. The good news; we have the technology and materials to build or renovate to near passive levels of energy efficiency now. The bad news; the design and building sectors have a ton of inertia. Especially when it comes to measured building energy performance and as the old saying goes, if your can’t measure it you can’t improve it.
Enter the 2016 Canadian Green Building Awards
The status quo won’t do and for this reason, I was particularly upset with the normally excellent SABMag’s summer 2016 edition which awarded top honours to a new home (with old walls) that was pretty average (I’ve offered to test it for free). The magazine itself purports to be “Dedicated to High-Performance building” and the prize was a Canada-wide, Green Building Award.
There are many competitions and awards for green buildings and it happens too often that winners have more curb appeal than performance so without wanting to pillory here’s an example; the GRANGE TRIPLE DOUBLE - Toronto, Ontario:
Who wouldn’t want to live in this house? It’s beautiful, but is it a national winner of a competition that rewards “high performance building”? No. Not one KPI was quoted in the whole article.
1. Without substantiation, the jury comments “Passive and active design strategies combine to achieve a high standard of building performance.” What are the passive and active “strategies” and what “standard” of building performance were followed?
2. Aside from being vague, the sentence “The 297 sq. m. above-grade house with a full insulated concrete form [ICF] basement is designed for passive cooling and ventilation.” makes the assertion that passive cooling and ventilation are meaningful in high performance buildings in this climate zone. For the record, skylights are beautiful but not efficient. The article says “Rising towards the corner of the lot, the stepped section reaches the maximum height of 12m permitted by the zoning, and culminates in a double-height space with an operable skylight that promotes strong displacement ventilation.” It’s possible that under the right conditions the misnomered “displacement ventilation” occurs, but is a dangerous assertion at best and misleading at worst. They have mechanical ventilation system(s) (HRV likely extended installation and quite likely a few exhaust fans and range hood) probably have an AC; none of which are passive and both are necessary. A frank discussion about the redundant ventilation strategies and what the incremental cost are for building this feature demand justification.
What force is driving the big red arrow in what season? Wind? Stack effect?How many days a year is this system used? Maybe this could work well in other climates, but not reliably in Toronto. Maybe they’re confusing ancient Persian technology of the qanat cooling using water and a tower?
3. The article says “The high-efficiency heating system … 94% AFUE natural gas forced air furnace…” For the record, 96.6%AFUE was considered “high efficiency furnace” in the late 1990′s and has been surpassed in 2013 by furnaces that have 98.7AFUE? 94% AFUE should be considered “builder grade” and nothing to brag about in 2016. No mention if the furnace air handler has an ECM.
4. “The … heating system… was designed to provide individual unit control and allows the different sections of the house to be shut down when not in use. ” Unless the house is super insulated with amazing windows, orphaning a room from normal occupancy conditions could lead to condensation and eventually mould. There have been no documented energy savings ever reported from this concept. I have visited homes where this was tried and witnessed the results first hand.
5. Compare this house to another winner “OUR HOUSE – Toronto, ON” which actually quotes Key Performance Indicators (KPI) on energy improvement including air tightness results. This is the kind of content Green Awards need to be judged on, with energy consumption stats and benchmarks.
We need architects and builders to bring up their energy efficiency game and if their feet are not held to the fire by good building science and true measured performance, we’re stuck behind the OBC bus’ slowly lurching efficiency every code-cycle.
By all means, the above example isn’t meant to single out one particular house, but to draw attention to the fact that humans can easily get seduced by pedigree-less projects and conflating notional ideas that are climate or culturally specific that may not necessarily apply to the location of the building. Going forward, building scientist need to insert and assert their skills and value to the building and designing communities. Certainly building scientist need to insert themselves on juries that select projects to more thorough critique on submissions to gauge the actual level of energy performance and sustainability. Architects judging other architects’ projects is like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.
When spray foam goes bad, it’s hard not to feel a bit sick. Sick because this high performance insulation has a big carbon footprint and proper installation is key to it’s performance so when it’s not installed correctly, it can get expensive for the the client, contractor and the planet.
If you look only at spray foam as a commodity, you’re sadly mistaken. Comparing spray insulation to the board foam one buys at the big box store which is produced in a highly controlled factory, to exacting, repeatable standards and is tested for quality before it leaves the factory. Whereas spray foam is manufactured on the job site; so we’re banking on the person pulling the spray foam gun trigger knowing some foam chemistry and building science; a rare combination. Made rarer still if we expect that person to lay a lot of foam down quickly, cleanly and uniformly.
The first rule with spray foam is “Hire the installer spraying the foam, not the company or the foam brand.” By this I mean, the installer’s brain is the most valuable asset in selecting who will do the job, all else is secondary. I was reminded of this a few weeks back when I visited a job site with terribly applied spray foam. The job site had bit of everything in it: fire hazards created by the spray foam, charred foam, air leakage through the newly installed spray foam and missing foam. All in a day’s work!
Laying it on too thick
Now that you’ve selected the right installer puling the trigger, know that spray foam can’t be installed too thick, or it ruins the foam. As a rule of thumb, most 2 pound or medium density spray foam should be installed no more than 2″ thick layers – often called a “pass” or “lift” – at one time. It should cool, then another layer or lift of 2″ can be added on top etc…
The chemical reaction of the two liquid components making spray foam is a very rapid, exothermic (heat producing) reaction and good foam has to be cooled quickly or it cracks and “chars”. If it’s too thick, the insulative properties of the spray foam means that it traps the reaction’s heat in the newly sprayed foam. In the video below (sorry I was a bit shell shocked and wasn’t talking properly unlike Mike Cerqua of CallRich Eco Services) you can see the foam’s defects without digging much:
This core taken from beneath the button pulled off in the video above shows the cellular structure o the cured foam. The foam was over 6″ thick in one pass, where the manufacturer recommends no more than 2″ in one pass. Signs that the foam is not good include colour. density and cell size/uniformity. Here the foam is beige in the middle of the core and smelly (see below). The elongated cells and cracks in the foam suggest the foam was applied too thick. It’s difficult to get an accurate foam density when the cell structure is so open because the water fills the voids on the sides, even still this sample didn’t meet the manufacturer’s specifications for density.
The colour change from the base (greenish) to the top which is more yellow/verging on toffee shows an inconsistency in the foam. The large fissures and cells, some over an inch long, 1/4″ in diameter mean the foam is out of the manufacturer’s specification for acceptable spray foam. Even after 2 weeks of curing, this spray foam plug smelled very strong when compared to the sample below.
This spray foam core sample had a uniform cell structure (small bubbles) and was consistent in colour throughout.
Clear the work area
Preparing the substrate is equally important. We want the spray foam to be applied in even coat(s) onto a solid, clean and uniform substrate that foam will stick to. Experienced sprayers who know the behavior of the product they are spraying well can repeatedly get the foam to cure in a nice even coat. Note to self, with each layer or “lift” of spray foam applied, the defects get amplified resulting in a bumpier finish.
A brilliant spray foam application, keep this sprayer’s name in your Rolodex and never let him/her go! Clean, even application of medium density spray foam. 10/10!
Blisters or voids happen for many reasons including electrical wires, plumbing pipes, framing creating “shadows” in the foam, poor access in a tight space or just spraying over a messy area.
Settle those wires! Get an electrician to tame the wires. Strap them down to the wood framing. Much like a flashlight spraying light in the dark night, wires, pipes and framing will cause “shadows” in the foam as it’s projected out the gun. These “shadows” cause defects in the spray foam that can cause blisters that connect the living space to the attic.
This is wasted foam, time and carelessness. The sprayer sprayed on bits of fiberglass bats, wires and clumped up 6 mil poly; it’s a mess and riddled with holes.
The red marker indicated places where we found air leakage passing through the newly installed spray foam. This is not good.
In the video below, we see an air leak in the transition between the attic floor where wires and wood framing made for a tight space to lay down the first coat of spray foam. For the record, the conditioned living space was being depressurised with a blower door while the following short videos were taken in the attic of a home being remediated for ice damming.
A good sprayer will also appreciate the fact that spray foam won’t stick to 6 mil polyethylene. So don’t expect a durable air seal if this is your air barrier system. In the video below, we see that the spray foam stick to the ink on the poly, but no the poly. See why polyethylene should not be a substrate for spray foam:
Letting it all go to pot
Finally, the pot lights. Some pot lights are encased in a metal box that’s IC (insulation contact) rated:
and others are not:
The difference between the two is that one may be spray foamed directly, the other may cause the pot light to overheat and shoudl be considered a very serious fire hazard. Either way, if the pot light is installed through your air barrier, it’s going to leak air. The moral of this tale; if you invest in spray foam, hire a good installer and if the foam is part of the air barrier system; test it for air leakage.
Waiting for the Building Code to incrementally ratchet up efficiency every 5 year cycle is too long a wait for high performance housing. The new 2017 version of SB-12 still has a prescriptive package (A1) that merely permits a fiber insulated 2×6 stud wall cavity without air leakage testing – that’s so 1980′s! We’ve had the materials and building science know-how since the 70’s, and with the proven processes of the Passive House approach to designing and building the most efficient buildings, there’s no excuse for not building high performance homes – now.
The good news is that all homes permitted after 2016 will require a ventilation system that has heat recovery. This has been a long time coming and these balanced ventilation systems (HRVs and ERVs), it only makes sense to make the house as air tight as possible. This ensures the Heat Recovery Ventilator earns its keep; there’s no sense installing an HRV in a house with excessive air leakage. Though SB-12 does give a trade-off if the home meets a prescribed air leakage target of 2.5 Air Changes per Hour at 50 Pascals (ACH50), air leakage testing can be used as a trade-off for skimping on other parts of the building envelope. It’s a quirky trade-off that I suspect few will take up, at least that’s our hope.
SB-12 has the same air tightness (ACH) requirement than the 2012 ENERGY STAR for house labeling program. The above table is flexible in that any one of the three limits ACH, NLA or NLR will suffice.
An updated version of CSA F280 was introduced in 2015 for sizing Part 9 building’s mechanical systems. The updated standard arbitrarily defaults air leakage at 4.8 ACH50 for calculating the size of the HVAC equipment AND it reflects the impact the HRV has on heat loss. CSA F280 permits the designer to build a better house by lowering the proposed building’s air leakage rate, but the house has to tested to meet that air leakage rate. The idea here was to stop over-sizing HVAC equipment and design a house with perfectly “right sized” mechanical equipment.
How leaky is a typical new house in Ontario you ask?
We don’t know, but what we know is that we’ve tested new homes that were more than 7ACH50 which is pathetic for a new home. That’s almost twice the default air leakage rate CSA F280 assumes and could lead to discomfort issues at the very least on very hot or cold days where the HVAC system may be undersized for a more air tight house.
Ridiculous right? We agree, if you size the motor on a racing car for racing, it might win the race. Unquantified and uncontrolled air leakage in a high performance home with a “right-sized” HVAC system is like strapping a canoe on a Formula 1. Don’t do it. Just because the building code allows you to not test and energy optimise the design, doesn’t make it right. Energy optimise the design with simulations and test your homes to minimise air leakage.
So What’s Holding us Back?
The biggest hurdle to overcome is designer and builder training. Often we tend to think of large tract builders as the lowest common denominator for building quality, but ironically, a high percentage of new tract-built homes are tested for air tightness as part of the ENERGYSTAR labeling process.
We’re certainly not saying that tract-builders build the best thermal enclosures, but what’s certain is that all trades need air barrier training and it needs to start early in school. Ontarians specifically, aren’t able to divorce the 6mil poly from the air barrier and we all know that putting the air barrier outside means better odds of making those air tight goals a reality. The confusion between polyethylene vs outer breathable air barrier membranes or continuous foam insulation needs to end and it needs to be taught to architects, carpenters, designers and building officials.
Can you spot the air barrier? (Hint: it’s blue, vapour-open and is doing double duty as sheathing membrane.)
As a metaphor, the open window conjures so much positive imagery; namely the connection with the outside world. Because most operable windows are human-sized, it’s usually a “one-on-one” intimate connection. So it’s not hard to imagine why we love the concept of open windows. The open window, however, fails miserably as a dependable ventilation device and building professionals (read “architects”) need to understand why windows can’t ventilate reliably. They certainly won’t ventilate economically as Ontario moves to tax carbon.
The draw of natural light and wind blowing through the house is powerful, but let’s not get carried away with this ancient technology. There’s a better way to ventilate; heat recovery with a dedicated distribution system. Girl Reading a [BlueGreen Group blog-post] at an Open Window,Johannes Vermeer.
Don’t get me wrong, I live in a tight neighborhood of semi-detached, century-old, Edwardian houses without Air Conditioning (I don’t recommend that either) and we rely on the centuries-old technology of “open windows.” At the very least, the open window ensures a connection with the neighbourhood and occasionally, the cooler night-time air brings in temporary relief along with a night-time sideshow. We hear intimate conversations of late-night lovers waltzing by, raccoons arguing over food scraps, and occasionally, the melodic, eerie voice of a neighbourhood chap who sings dreamy ballads as he walks. Top that all off with the morning chirps of cardinals and robins followed by a mess of starlings and your circadian rhythm stays in lock-step with the world around you.
The bad news is that often that cool air is laden with humidity and besides the animated street-life drifting in, we get dust and pollen. Lots of pollen. Pollen that could be easily filtered by a quality ERV’s pre-filter. The really bad news about open window ventilation is that it’s very inconsistent where a few rooms get over ventilated (3rd floor) and others get under ventilated (basement).
Ask any architect, and I do almost every time I give a technical talk, “How many glasses of water does a human need a day to stay healthy?” and almost universally, they respond with “8 cups of water per day!” Bravo, we have a baseline. The follow-up question however is always met with blank stares; “How many cubic feet per minute of fresh air does a human need to feel healthy?” The guesses are wild. The follow-up questions are “How long can you live without a glass of water?” followed by “How long can you live without fresh air?” So why the short-shrift on proper ventilation in architecture school?
Here’s a Pro Tip: The architect won’t be paying your monthly utility bills, so unless they’re Passive House enthusiasts, don’t rely on them for mechanical advice and stick to your guns. Repeat after me “I want a balanced ventilation system with heat recovery, that’s fully distributed.” Thankfully, in 2017, the heat recovery part will be law in Ontario under SB-12, but you still need to ask for good controls and a dedicated distribution system.
Comparison Between LP Gas Range and Induction Burner
Admittedly, this is a simple and very limited analysis, but it does offer some useful information. I wrote about induction cooking 2 years ago, the cost has since come down enough that I recently bought a single coil, counter-top unit, and after a week of use, the numbers are in.
As a long-time gas range cook, the switch to induction takes some getting used to, and it only works with pots that are magnetic. But I like that it heats fast and I can dial in the temperature fairly tightly. Of course, I didn’t trust any of the ad hype, so I got out the meters and the spreadsheet. Here are the results.
Gas range, 7,000 BTU burner: time to boil 1 quart of 60°F water was 8 minutes 30 seconds, consuming 992 BTUs of heating energy.
Induction cooker: same pot, same temperature and quantity of water, the burner draws 1,300 watts (4,436 BTUs) at the highest setting and took 5 minutes 50 seconds to boil. Total electrical consumption was 0.126 kilowatt-hour of electricity, equivalent to 430 BTUs of heating energy.
If there was a 100-percent efficient way to boil a quart of water, the energy required would be about 317 BTUs, the basis on which to calculate the efficiency of each unit.
The induction cooker is 74 percent efficient at transforming and transferring input energy to the water, and the gas range comes in at 32 percent. The induction method was 32 percent faster and consumed 57 percent less energy.
Efficiency and speed are compelling reasons to use induction cooking, but because I live off-grid, induction will be my go-to cooking method when sunshine is ample, offering an option for fossil-free cooking!