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Project Spotlights

The Dream Project: High Performance, Right-Sized, Thoughtfully Detailed

August 10, 2016

The new high performance house on the block fits right in, despite thick super-insulated walls, generous south-facing glazing and ductless heat recovery ventilation

If you haven’t heard of Robert Swinburne Architect or Bluetime Collaborative yet, do yourself a favor and check out his website and blog. If you have followed his career, you know that he’s a talented and thoughtful architect focusing on single family homes in the Brattleboro, VT area. He is also a Certified Passive House Consultant (CPHC).

One of Bob’s latest projects is a modest single family house in Greenfield, MA, a few miles south of the VT line. The house was designed for his in-laws, who had found a tear-down in a working class neighborhood. This “dream project” gave Bob a chance to explore architectural ideas with more design freedom than usual. The completed house deserves wide recognition for its modernist touches in traditional surroundings, an efficient and spacious interior that belies it’s small footprint – and its pursuit of high performance.

This project used the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP) to inform the design process.  It hit  a very tight 0.66 ACH50, and will use a small fraction of the energy for heating, cooling and ventilation while achieving exceptional indoor air quality.  An amazing job!

475 High Performance Building Supply played a central role in the airtight and super-insulated envelope as well as the highly efficient HRVs and triple pane skylights that made this possible. Let’s break it down.

The Team


Bob Swinburne on the beautiful front porch

Building a high performance house takes a dedicated team of professionals. Early on in the project, Bob brought on consultant and construction manager Mel Baiser of HELM Construction Solutions to implement an integrated approach. The builder was Chad Mathrani of Vermont Natural Homes out of Brattleboro, VT. Both Mel and Chad are Passive House Certified Builders. (Chad is already familiar to our blog readers for his popular video 475 On-Site: Vapor-Open Straw Bale with Vermont Natural Homes.)

In addition to supplying many of the high performance enclosure components, 475’s New England product consultant Oliver Klein provided sales and technical support – from construction detail recommendations to ventilation system consulting.

I-Joist Walls

J&D-March-26More and more high performance projects are building I-Joist walls to optimize building airtightness, vapor control and continuous insulation. These walls make it easy to get within range of Passive House while starting with conventional 2x framing. Unlike typical walls where the airtight sheathing is exposed to cold and wet, I-Joist walls provide a thick blanket of insulation that keep the airtight sheathing warm and dry at the inside of the wall, where it can deliver reliable long-term performance. The interior sheathing also acts as a vapor retarder (on the warm side, where it belongs). The key exterior element is the vapor open SOLITEX MENTO PLUS membrane, which promotes optimal outward drying while doing additional duty as weather protection, wind-tight layer and netting for the dense-pack cellulose.

To keep the above grade wall flush at the foundation, the inner 2x framed wall was pushed inward and 6″ of EPS foam was added outside the concrete. Bob’s drawings always do a nice job of showing essential control layers, with colored dashed lines that indicate the air barriers.

EXTOSEAL FINOC tape was used under the mudsill for a robust capillary break. SOLITEX was also started under the mudsill then wrapped around the sill and up the floor rim joists – a continuous airtight & waterproof layer to prep for the upcoming airtight sheathing and I-Joists.

TESCON VANA was used to tape all wall sheathing joints, and transition the interior airtight layer to the SOLITEX at the base and the INTELLO PLUS at the ceiling. Where the truss meets the framing below, a recommended detail is a strip of SOLITEX across the top plate (including at gable end walls) for perfect taped membrane connections to bypass the framing all around.

The I-Joists were screwed through to the studs, then wrapped in SOLITEX MENTO PLUS and vertically strapped. Finally, cavities were dense-packed with cellulose and the walls were clad.


High Performance Daylighting With Fakro Skylights

Great use of a Fakro skylight to wash the master bedroom wall with light and warmth at the back corner

While this house is compact, the eave walls are low so aside from the stairwell there was limited opportunity for second floor windows on the east and west facades. To bring natural light and ventilation into the upstairs intermediate spaces – but without sacrificing comfort and performance – Bob added two Fakro FTT-U6 skylights.

These are not the energy-wasting, drafty, and leaky skylights of old that don’t belong in a high performance building. The FTT-U6 is a highly energy efficient triple pane skylight designed for Passive House construction. It features a triple airseal at the FSC-pine wood frame and effective U-0.142 BTU/hr.ft2.°F (0.81 W/m2K). The U-value, SHGC and visual transmittance is on par with high performance European windows. (For those seeking certified Passive House performance, the FTT-U8 Thermo offers U-0.10 BTU/hr.ft2.°F with a Fakro insulated flashing kit). With kink-free isotherms, these skylights also prevent condensation of interior moisture.

The FTT-U6 and FTT-U8 skylights are “center pivot” units that allow for excellent cross ventilation while making them easy to maneuver.


Architect-Designed Small House

Big houses are easy to design. Small ones are not. That’s where architects like Bob Swinburne can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. This is a house that’s well more than the sum of the parts. It looks great, feels great, and performs great.



High Performance House Plans

If you love this project as much as we do, maybe your new house will bear a resemblance! Robert Swinburne Architect is putting together a stock architectural plan set for a spec house based on this project (see here for his other plans). There may be some simplification – such as double stud walls in place of the TJI walls. We look forward to collaborating with Bob to ensure the highest performance on any clones of the project.

And stay tuned for more to come on this project, including a video by the project team that will include more about the high performance enclosure details and construction.

Hungry for more on  high performance I-Joist construction?

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