This article was originally published in the March/April 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1999

field notes

Building Science Professor Puts Theory into Practice

By Allen Zimmerman

Allen Zimmerman is an associate professor at the Ohio State University, Wooster Campus, where he teaches courses in engineering technology and technical physics.

The deck on the south side of the building overlooks a private, forested lot.
The garage doors on the north side of the structure afford easy access from the street.
The sliding door, which opens to the deck, has low-e glazing and inert gas between the panes.
The conditioned garage space provides a comfortable location for washing clothes.
Figure 1. This apartment floor plan made the most use of the 576 ft2 living space.
On a small lot in Maine, I finally had the opportunity to put into practice the principles and concepts that I have taught for 18 years. I am a faculty member at The Ohio State University, Wooster Campus, which offers an associate degree program in construction technology. One of the required courses I teach is plumbing, heating, and ventilation. In addition to covering the principles of--and practices applied to--the mechanical systems in houses, I make sure that the students in the course learn how to build energy-efficient and healthy homes.

Several years ago, my wife and I purchased a small lot in a town in Maine on which we plan to build a retirement home. We were not ready to build an entire house that would be vacant for several months of the year, but we wanted to have somewhere to stay during our vacations. Our solution to this dilemma was to build a garage with an apartment above it. Sometime in the future, we will build a main house on the lot.

Beginning with Efficiency Our goal was to build a garage/apartment that was comfortable, safe, durable, low-maintenance, energy-efficient, affordable, and appropriate for the future house. All of these criteria were considered when trade-offs and decisions were made about size, design, materials, and equipment.

First, we decided on the style, design, and location of the house that we eventually plan to build. We used this information and the lot characteristics to govern the planning of the garage/apartment. We selected a simple and functional design that permitted a straightforward approach to material selection and energy-efficient construction.

The building was oriented so that the garage doors and the half of the gable roof with a 12:12 pitch face north toward the street. A full shed dormer and deck on the back side provide living space, southern exposure, and privacy. With this design and orientation, all apartment windows could be located in the south, east, and west walls to take advantage of solar gain and cross ventilation.

A standard 24 ft x 24 ft two-car garage proved large enough to accommodate an upstairs apartment of sufficient size. In order to gain some additional headroom under the cape ceiling in the front side of the building, the 12:12 sloped rafters were mounted on a 1-ft wall at the eave. This construction technique also raised the ridge one foot and thereby increased the slope of the shed dormer roof from 4:12 to 5:12. For reasons having to do with security, energy efficiency, and cost, the garage does not have windows.

A Study in Spatial Engineering My wife and I sketched and analyzed a number of potential floor plans, with an eye to making the most efficient use of the 576 ft2 of living space. The layout shown in Figure 1 was the result. The design provides for a living room with several windows, a sliding door opening to the deck, a U-shaped kitchen with regular-sized cabinets and appliances, a window over the kitchen sink, a bathroom with a window, two small bedrooms for privacy and guest accommodations, and adequate storage space in the kitchen cabinets, closets, and built-in drawers. Insulation Lessons Take Shape During the early stages of planning, we realized that it would be desirable to insulate, finish, and heat the garage. A conditioned garage space would provide an appropriate location for the water heater and washing machine, an attractive entrance into the apartment, and a pleasant work area for crafts and projects. It would also have many car-related advantages. This choice influenced the decisions we made regarding insulation materials and techniques.

A frost-protected shallow monolithic slab serves as the building foundation. The slab rests on top of 2 inches of expanded polystyrene foam board, with an R-value of 10, and below that lies several inches of well-drained compacted gravel fill. The foam board extends up the outside of the foundation wall and has a fiberglass-reinforced cement coating where it is exposed. The site is graded to direct all surface water flow well away from the building. We had a diversion ditch dug about 20 feet away from the building that diverts ground water at the level of the gravel fill.

The exterior walls of the structure are 2 x 6 construction with unfaced fiberglass insulation in the cavities. The siding contractor who was selected for the building project typically installs 1 inch of R-5 extruded polystyrene foam under the vinyl siding. Although this amount of insulation was adequate for the garage walls, a higher R-value was needed for the apartment walls. Therefore, 1 inch of polyisocyanurate foil-faced foam board was installed on the inside of the exterior apartment walls. I calculated the composite R-value for the entire wall, including structural members, to be 29 for the apartment walls and 22 for the garage. The apartment floor was insulated with unfaced fiberglass batts with an R-value of 30.

About three-quarters of the ceiling area is 8 feet high with an attic space above. This portion of the ceiling was insulated to R-49 with 16 inches of fiberglass in the form of two layers of batts laid perpendicular to each other. It was not possible to get 16 inches of insulation in the attic space next to the wall where the rafters and ceiling joists rest on the top plate. Therefore, sections of 2-inch-thick foam board were cut to size and placed under the fiberglass batts in the attic along this wall to increase the minimum R-value at the top plate to 38.

The remainder of the ceiling is a cape style, with the ceiling components attached to the 2 x 10 roof rafters. This portion of the ceiling was insulated to R-30 by installing unfaced fiberglass batts in the cavities so that the vent channels maintain an air space and attaching 1-inch polyisocyanurate foil-faced foam board to the rafter faces.

Perfecting Air Sealing Techniques All the insulation in the world won't keep a house comfortable by itself. For true comfort, what's needed is a continuous air/vapor barrier and a tightly sealed structure to prevent movement of air and moisture vapor between the inside and outside of the structure. During rough framing, caulk and foam sealants were applied as appropriate to all subfloor seams, at all sill and rim joist joints and seams, under the exterior bottom plates, around all penetrations through the floor and the top plates, around all rough openings, and at any other openings and wood-to-wood junctions in the rough framing subject to air leakage. Proper air sealing materials and techniques, combined with a high quality exterior door at the bottom of the enclosed stairway, were also used to make sure that exhaust fumes from the garage would not infiltrate into the apartment.

The foil-faced insulation board serves as the major component of the air/vapor barrier system for the exterior walls of the apartment and the cape ceiling. Cross-laminated polyethylene sheeting serves as the major component of the air/vapor barrier system for the rest of the ceiling and the exterior walls of the garage. Caulk, tape, and expandable foam were used as appropriate to seal the rigid insulation board and poly film to structural components; to cover and seal seams in the materials; to seal holes inside the electrical boxes; and to seal around electrical, plumbing, and other penetrations through the foam board or poly film.

Air leakage was also an important consideration in the selection of the windows and doors. High-quality casement windows and exterior doors with low air filtration rates were specified. The windows and sliding door contain low-e glazing and inert gas between the panes. They have an overall R-value of 3.2. The garage doors have a double-track system that ensures a tight seal. The exterior doors and garage doors are metal with foam insulation and have R values of 10 and 14, respectively.

Heating Systems Made Easy While we knew that the high degree of insulation and air sealing we specified for our garage/apartment would make the building quieter, more comfortable, and more durable, we had another reason for making this specification. We wanted to lower the design heating load to a point where a central heating system would not be necessary. Eliminating a central heating system would not only reduce the cost of the heating system, but would also save space, eliminate problems associated with duct leakage, and make it easy to heat the apartment separately from the garage.

The design heating loads were calculated to be less than 2.5 kW for the apartment and 2.2 kW for the garage at a design temperature of 70°F. The annual heating loads for the apartment, if occupied, and to keep the garage above freezing were estimated to be about 2,500 kWh and 700 kWh, respectively.

Given these small design and annual heating loads and the fact that natural gas is not available in the area, the advantages of electric baseboard heat--space savings, zone control, simplicity, and low installation costs--made it the obvious choice for our heating needs not met by the apartment's solar and intrinsic heat gain. Combined with an energy-efficient electric water heater, electric heat also eliminates any health and safety concerns associated with combustion appliances.

Moving from design values to actual baseboard installations proved interesting. The veteran electrician I chose to work with had never seen such a tight, well-insulated structure. As we discussed tentative heater sizes and locations, it became clear that he was very concerned about undersizing the heaters. I had to be diplomatic as I attempted to educate him about the need to downsize heaters from what he was used to. Fortunately, since electric heaters are 100% efficient and the increased cost of a one-foot longer heater is negligible, oversizing electric heaters is not the important issue that it is with gas furnaces and other heating systems. This fact made reaching a compromise not as difficult as it might have been.

For the apartment, I wanted a 5-ft heating unit installed in the living room, a 2-ft unit in the bathroom, and 2-ft units in the two bedrooms for a total capacity of 2.7 kW. I ended up with 3-ft units in the bedrooms and 3.2 kW of total capacity. To enable me to heat the garage sufficiently so that I could work there in winter, I wanted two 3-ft units and one 4-ft unit. Instead, I got 5-ft, 4-ft, and 3-ft heaters installed along the three garage walls for a total capacity of 3 kW.

I designed a simple controlled ventilation system for the apartment. A 70 CFM exhaust fan with a 0.5 sone sound rating and a 15.4-watts electrical input was installed in the bathroom to provide both spot and whole apartment ventilation. A short length of duct runs under the attic insulation and connects the fan to a vent cap mounted in a gable sidewall. Fresh air comes into the apartment through a 5 inch duct running from a vent cap mounted in a gable sidewall to a ceiling grille located in the bedroom closets. The air inlet duct runs under the attic insulation and contains a backdraft damper that opens when the fan is operating. The closet and bedroom doors are undercut to allow the incoming air to move throughout the apartment. The mixing of the air in the closets and as it moves under the doors provides some tempering.

A spring-wound timer is used to activate the fan when spot ventilation is needed in the bathroom. We can also control the fan with this switch when we want whole-apartment ventilation. The fan is wired in parallel to a dehumidistat mounted on the wall of the living room. Whenever the humidity in the apartment gets too high, the dehumidistat automatically operates the exhaust fan.

High-Quality Workmanship Knowledge, skill, and a commitment to quality are just as essential to insulation and air sealing as they are to any other aspect of building construction. Insulation voids and unsealed air leaks can badly impair the performance of the thermal envelope. The effect of these defects on the comfort, energy efficiency, and durability of the building has serious, long-term consequences, since the defects will be present for the entire useful life of the structure.

Fortunately, we were able to team up with a local remodeler/ builder who has an excellent reputation for quality and craftsmanship. Michael Bickford had the expertise to do the rough and finish carpentry, install the insulation and drywall, and do the air sealing. We felt that having one person responsible for all of these functions would help to ensure that the integrity of the thermal envelope was maintained.

We assured Michael that we would pay the added labor cost associated with the extra time, features, care, and attention to detail required for the insulating and air sealing. He estimated this added cost to be about $200.

Passing the Building Performance Test The garage/apartment was completed in May 1997. We lived in the apartment during both the 1997 and 1998 spring, summer, and fall seasons. The building was unoccupied but heated from November 1997 through March 1998. We have been very pleased with the performance of the garage/ apartment and its components, particularly the lack of hot or cold spots, drafts, noise, odors, and excessive humidity.

The period from November through March provided an indication of the thermal performance and energy efficiency of the building. During these months, the amount of electricity used for heating the apartment to 45°F and the garage to 35°F was 1,305 kWh. Although the amount of electricity used for heating the apartment when it is occupied will obviously be closer to the estimated annual heating load of 2,500 kWh, it is apparent the building is performing as expected in terms of energy efficiency.

Building a comfortable and energy-efficient apartment or house does not require far-out designs, exotic materials, or complex assembly techniques. By using building science and engineering fundamentals and adhering to the building as a system concept, we got a well-insulated, tight, and mechanically ventilated apartment that is healthy, quiet, comfortable, durable, affordable, and energy-efficient.


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