Tar and Feather

I awoke to a relatively meager 3″ of snow on the ground this morning.  After some running around with kids and wife dropping off the car at the repair shop, I hopped in the Jeep; throwing the half bath vanity and the replacement light pharmacy sconce for the master bedroom inside before boarding.

As luck would have it Tony and my brother were freezing their asses off installing the porch columns that I would have had to help install, were I not so tardy this fine Saturday morning.  Approaching the house, after proudly parking the Jeep in front of my studio, I noticed all the breezeway columns were installed.  It appeared that the threaded bolts in the cement footers lined up fairly well with the corresponding headers running the length of the breezeway, from house to garage.  We used simple pressure treated 4×4’s for the columns or posts.  Each will be trimmed out in cedar to give the look of a 10×10 or 12×12 column.  By trimming the narrow dimension posts with large dimension “one by” cedar, we’ll be able to camouflage any inconsistencies or misalignment in the posts.

After a brief joke about letting all the hot air out of the house (the porch door was cracked open to allow hoses and cords outside) to the guys installing posts in the screen porch area, I stepped back inside; relieved that I’d missed that task.  Asking my other brother what I could do he mentioned I could work on the couple of items I’d mentioned the other day.  One was replacing the attic window panes with tempered panes.  A mis-measurement long ago lead to non-tempered panes being installed.  These would have to be fixed before we move in, otherwise the windows would need unsightly railings in front of them.  The other task was to investigate the draft mentioned by my brother.  He had experienced it coming from under the fireplace when they were installing the hardwood flooring.

Laying down some cardboard on the wood floor I got down on my belly and peered into the 8″ tall gun slit below the fireplace. Sure enough I could feel cold air.  And not just a little, actually quite a bit.  I was a fair bit alarmed because the whole premise of the house was that it was air tight and super insulated.  We had identified some problem areas when we did the blower test but the fireplace wasn’t really one of them from what I remember.  I reached into the cavity below the fireplace.  Quickly, for reference, the fireplace unit sits on a cement board and 2×4 platform about 8″ off the first floor deck.  The back of the fireplace juts out into the screen porch several inches.  You may remember, Eric and I built a 2×6 plywood box (or chase) to house everything.  The exterior of the chase has house wrap, 4″ rigid and cedar siding.  The inside has pink or blown insulation with a foil face for fire proofing. We insulated under the fireplace by installing pressure treated 2×10’s to form boxes, then we filled the boxes with 10″ of rigid insulation.  At the time I think we mentioned we should have installed the rigid horizontally, but alas we did 4″ blocks vertically.  We thought we had caulked everything up good.  apparently not, for as I stretched and dipped my hand I could feel a slight draft of cold air.

Slit near floor, below fireplace and to the left of Tony is where we had an air leak. It's about 8" which is just enough to make you think you can do productive work under there.

“Hmmmm…..okay here…..I can feel the draft here”, I think to myself.
Sure enough coming up between the seem in two of the vertically install blocks of, our friend, blue foam.  Mind you, at this point I’m belly down and up to my arm pit in fireplace goodness.  I’m clawing around at loose insulation, made from recycled newspaper, that had fallen down; grabbing handfuls and setting it aside.  I can taste the fiber like grit of insulation in my mouth.  Yummy. 
Then my hand reaches way back and the cheapo pink insulation feels cold….but not really, cause what it feels like is not cold but rather cold and wet……what the?  Slowly the fiber like dust settles enough and I gaze into the dark cave under my fireplace.  Scanning right to left I do a double take, not sure what I’m looking at.  At first I think its expanded foam shooting skyward from between the blue foam blocks.  It literally takes five to seven seconds for my brain to comprehend what I’m seeing.  In disbelief I force my hand to continue panning right to left and grip the, literally, ice-cold stalagmite protruding upward.
It’s a god damn upside down icicle in the middle of my house.
I think to myself, as a form of diversion, “which is it, stalactite or stalagmite?  Those things in caves?”
Continuing in disbelief I think to myself “Enough of this” and I break the f-er off at the base.  Damn thing is easily four or five inches long. “How does an icicle even from upside down?”  I peer in again looking for its counterpart on the “ceiling” of the fireplace slit.  Nothing there.  Getting to my feet my mind races.
The whole philosophical foundation of this house was that it would be airtight, super insulated and energy-efficient.  And looking down in my hand I’m seeing just the opposite of everything we’ve done for seven months.  Imagine you went out and laid down money for a Lamborghini. On your way home you decide to open it up a bit on the freeway only to find that you’re being passed by mid-90’s Chevy Cavaliers.  You pull over, pop the carbon fiber hatch and find the automotive equivalent of a friggin’ upside down icicle in your engine bay. (Chris, they’re call stalagmites btw).
Are you f-ing kidding me?  I’m sweating to death cause the house is so hot everywhere else, yet it is cold enough to form an icicle in the open space under the fireplace.  It’s 70 degrees inside the house yet I can see my breath under the fireplace.

This was living under my fireplace inside my super tight insulated house. Trust me, the irony that it looks like a certain body part in my hand was not lost on me in the least. Very apropos all things considered. Basically the energy efficiency gods having a laugh at my expense.

As best I can tell, the air infiltrated our 2×10 box through a uncaulked seam.  The narrowness of the seam accelerated the super cold air.  As soon as that cold air hit the warmth of the house it condensed on contact and created a micro climate under the fireplace.  The insulation got damp and the area where the air penetration was built up this kick butt stalactite or stalagmite or whatever the heck it’s called.  I spent easily the next twenty minutes trying to figure out a fix.  Looking outside I could see there could be some improvement sealing out there but it’d have to wait til spring or summer.  Just too tight and cold to crawl under the deck today.

Fuzzy pic but you can see how tight it is under the fireplace. Just tall enough though to think you can be productive. Just short enough to eliminate any success at doing anything worthwhile.

I decided I’d cover the whole surface of the blue board with a cocktail of expanding and non-expanding foam.  On top of that I’d place a cement board panel.  I’d then caulk all the seams.  Running up to Terry Lumber I picked up the two types of spray foam.  I started with the non-expanding type, spraying the perimeter and dumping the rest of the can as best I could on top.  The close quarters made 80% of this work a guessing game.  Next I used most of a can of expanding foam, jamming the nozzle down into the cavity where the icicle was.  I had previously beat the base of the icicle to break up the ice as best I could.  The conditions were not optimal, temperature wise, according to the can but I couldn’t wait til July in Cleveland to do the job.  Once all the foam was down I squished my cement board panel down into the foam.  Securing the panel with screws or even a nail was impossible….believe me I tried.  So I held the panel in place with some cut 2×4’s, applying pressure between the panel and the fireplace “ceiling” above (the platform for the fireplace).  I then caulked all the seams I could see, including some that probably made no difference.  Into other voids I saw, I sprayed expanding foam to seal everything up real tight.  I then tossed the loose cellulose insulation back into the chase bays in the areas that the pink insulation was lacking.  The pink insulation was still a tad wet but I fluffed it up and it should dry out now.
Throughout the process I essentially rolled around in spray foam, caulk and cellulose insulation.  My hands looked like I made love to an unwilling bird.  Pulling the dried caulk from my fingers tested my hand’s ability to retain skin to flesh.  I’m pretty sure I inhaled enough chemicals and insulation to obliterate any hope of not dying of cancer. I basically, figuratively….slightly literally, tarred and feathered myself over the course of an hour.
It was not a text-book operation by any scope of the imagination, but I will say, our little cavity under the fireplace did start to warm up after a while.  And I couldn’t feel any direct cold air anymore.  After that was done we started to skin the fireplace with 1/2″ OSB.  Upon that will go chicken wire and our masonry stone.
Elsewhere in the house Eric is continuing to work on trimming out the doors.  The three panel doors look really nice in person.  Tony and I trimmed out the top of the master closet with 1/4″ luan plywood and some left over 1x scrap we had lying around. The coming week should include kitchen cabinets and baseboards starting to go in. 
‘Til next time, stay warm. 

Trimming closet top in 1/4" plywood


Using left over 1x2 rips to trim top of closet


Trimming out the interior of the porch door


Pantry pocket door with trim.


If you're doing this at home, start with the top piece then do the sides. Our casing is about 3.5" wide. Base board will be about 5" tall.


Field Trip

Photo of KSU students and I during their tour. Of note, you can see the hole in the studio wall for the drywall to be offloaded into the house. It was sealed up later that day.

We had some very special guests stop out at the job site today.  We (I) welcomed Joe Ferut’s architecture class from Kent State University.  Joe is our architect and a professor at the school.  We had nine of his fourth year students visit.  It was fairly cold out there today but fortunately the season’s first snow fall gave way to partly sunny skies by ten o’clock. 

The insulation crew was hard at work when I showed up.  The second floor had been insulated the previous day and today the first floor was being wrapped up.  We’re using a spray cellulose insulation made from recycled newspapers.  This process creates a lot of dust and left over insulation bits, but everything is swept up back into the hopper and sprayed back onto the walls.  A large truck pumps the material to and from the house.  Inside technicians spray the insulation between each of our 2×6 framed bays.  They then take a board and drag it along the studs, removing the excess insulation which is collected and returned to the truck.

We talked to the students about the architect – client process, our project and some of the exterior features.  We then walked inside and toured the house.  Much was mentioned regarding the energy-efficient tactics we employed as well as some of the products we used such as the Serious windows and the Quadrafire pellet fireplace.  The students seemed to like climbing up into the loft and admiring the view and space.  apparently I now know, the loft can hold eleven people at least.  Party!

I had to leave soon thereafter but I had an enjoyable time showing off the project.  We’re really proud of what we’re accomplishing, and more importantly energized knowing that we’re sharing info that will be beneficial to the next generation of architects.

Good pic illustrating all the insulation strategies including caulk, spray foam and blown in cellulose.

Happy corduroy day by the way (11-11-11).


Been out-of-town so I missed out on a few days at the building site.  Insulation has begun and our EnergyStar consultant has been visiting the house.  The rigid insulation is being wrapped up outside and the front porch is on as well.  While I was out they didn’t run the insulation all the way down my studio wall when they put the front porch on.  I’m contemplating removing the porch, install the rigid and then lag the north side of the porch through the foam into the studio studs.  On the other areas of the house the ledger board is against the house, my prefered method for structural reasons.  Thermally though this is a train wreck mitigated only by the fact that where the ledger board ends up vertically it’s at or below the floor joists.  We’ll over compensate inside with lots of spray foam in the joist bays atop the Superior Walls.  I can’t do that in my studio.  The issue is compounded because there are water lines that run in that studio wall where the porch meets.  Best thing may be to start over on the front porch.

The fireplace is in, just waiting on the inspection.  I’m getting some feedback on the housewrap on the outside of the chase, but need to check with the inspector, I’m not sure what the issue is.  I also need to bring out the air intake 4″ so it will project past the rigid insulation.  Finally the fireplace installer inserted some pink batt insulation in the chase areas.  We’ll pull that out and make sure it’s insulated properly.

Cost is becoming an issue so we’re cutting back where we still can.  We’ll delay the air cleaner and humidity control on the furnace.  They can be added if necessary down the road.  One nice thing about doing them now was getting the 30% tax credit on the entire geothermal system including these add ons.  But omitting them now saves some money.  We’re also omitting all the stone on the house and will install that after we move in.  Stone is planned to go on the foundation, fireplace, chase, garage and front porch area.  We picked out a really nice cultured stone product that gives a nice stacked stone effect.  No big deal waiting.  Need everything to grow back in before the house is book / magazine photo shoot ready anyway.  Inside we’re reevaluating the kitchen cabinets and may switch to laminate door fronts.  Laminate will be less authentic, but more durable and may be able to get a better match / consistency of color and visual texture vs. playing with real wood.  Countertops may switch from concrete to laminate as well.  Though there are several other materials we’ll look at.

The greenest thing is to buy durable materials that you don’t have to replace down the road. But with every plan, flexibility is the key to success.  There comes a time when various points on the quality, quantity, cost triangle have to move in or out.  We’ll omit the front hall built in for now too, that can wait until we’re moved in.  Items like the screen porch, certain light fixtures and transoms above the bedrooms will wait as well.  Other items can be upgraded down the road such as the lighting in the boys bathroom. Several fundamental items were never up for consideration such as the HVAC hybrid geothermal system, appliances, roof, siding and insulation.  We’re balancing as best we can.

Some items will have to wait til Spring regardless including exterior painting.  It’s just too late in the year to reliable paint the house on the outside.  Siding doesn’t start going on for another week.

Insulating the house takes about 5 working days.  The first few days are spent spraying expanding and non-expanding foam in the joist bays and windows respectively.  ALL wire and pipe penetrations between floors get sprayed with expanding foam.  And all the seams between framing members get caulked to stop air penetration in its tracks.  Seeing this in person is awesom, not the act but rather the result.  I’ve actually dreamt of this day and I’m downright gitty I get to see all the caulk lines in person.  This is so above and beyond what cookie cutter builders have been doing for decades (centuries).  It’s also simple and cost effective.

Here are some pics, enjoy.

Not thrilled with how much 4" rigid we'll lose out on with the ledger board mounted so high on the studio wall. may remove porch and do over. Note, porch ceiling gets OSB and 1" rigid insulation. Should be 2" rigid but lights are designed to slide down only and 1.5" inches. I may box out around lights and add another inch of insulation everywhere else. It's living space above so it's critical this area be air tight and insulated.


Spray foam, roof baffles for air flow and corrugated "blockers" for the end of each rafter bay. Note, when we switched from engineered rafters to stick built, we gained a nice thermal break between the 2x4 and 2x8 rafters as shown here. this kneewall area is our line of defense. We'll insulation and tack up insulation wrap under the 2x4's to keep everything thermally copacetic.


QuadraFire EDGE60 pellet burning fireplace. Will burn sunflower seeds, corn, sawdust or switchgrass. 4" flue pipe is easy to exhaust, though it's crooked when it exits our house.


Window insulation is non expanding foam. Expanding foam will warp your windows.


can see white caulk on all framing seams. Expanding foam in joist bays above.


unfinished fire place chase. not rigid insulation under chase. air intake for fireplace shown.


styrofoam baffles stapled to underside of roof for proper air flow to keep roof in good shape for years to come.