Choosing a super-insulated wall system

After deciding on the mechanical system of the house we needed to choose what type of wall system we were going to use. As I’ve learned, for an Eco-house, there’s more than one way to skin a cat! (who came up with that saying?!) Again, it was a matter of weighing the advantages of each and ensuring that our contractor felt comfortable with whatever system we decided on.

Passivhaus tends to utilize a double-wall system, although there is no set way to do this, as long as you meet the Passivhaus criteria.

Examples of Passivhaus wall systems.

This method is nothing new, there are many houses from the 1970s that utilized a system of a 2×6 wall at 16″ on centre (o/c) and offset with a 2×4 wall 16″ o/c for an interior wall. Nonetheless, biggest concerns in ensuring an exceptional envelope of a Passivhaus or any other super-insulated home is: thermal bridging and airtightness (and to a lesser degree the overall R-value).

Thermal bridging is basically an easy pathway for heat to flow out of your home. In a conventional single 2×6 wall, this happens every 16″ as the 2×6 piece of wood is connecting the inside to the outside with out a “thermal break”.  This is why a R19 insulation in a 2×6 house actually has a lot less R-value.

Airtightness is how leaky is your house? While thermal bridging can be limited by proper construction design. Airtightness can really only be ensured while on-site building the house. Airtightness is tested with a blower door test and is rated based on “air changes per hour a 50 pascals of pressure.” As previously mentioned, Passivhaus standard is 0.6 ACH. The Canadian R2000 is 1.5 ACH.

 R-value is of course also important, but less so than reducing thermal bridging and ensuring excellent airtightness. This is because R-value is a rating of the “effectiveness of insulating materials.” You could have an R50 house, but if it is leaky and has thermal bridging it will not function like a “true” R50 house.

In the last 10 years, there have been numerous high-performance, high-tech wall systems that have been developed such as Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF – concrete poured into thick pieces of foam) and Structured Insulated Panels (SIPs – OSB laminated to the inside and outside of a big piece of foam), both of which eliminate thermal bridging altogether by not utilizing timber at all.

ICF
SIPs

Passivhaus’ use a variety of options, though many that I’ve read about use some form  of double-walled systems often with SIPs on the outside and 2×4 timber framing on the inside. An 8″ thick SIPs panel is about R33 on it’s own so add that to the R11 of a 2×4 wall and you get a well-insulated house with minimal thermal bridging.

We had already decided that we would be best served, given our rural location and 55km distance from town, to pay our contractor to be at the site working – instead of driving back and forth with lumber. As such, we wanted to utilize a company that could provide either a prefabricated wall systems (which could be erected very quickly on site) or a “kit” (all of the wood cut to size to be put together like a model). Because we have a large shop on site, the materials can be all shipped at once and stored inside. Also, this significantly reduces onsite waste and chance of error.

One of the companies we looked at was Pacific Homes out of Victoria BC, who our builder has worked with on previous projects. This company produces a “Smart Wall” system – a prefabricated timber wall that eliminates thermal bridging and significantly increases R-value. A standard 2×6 wall is R19. The 2×6 Smart Wall is R31.

We compiled a list of “attributes” for each option that we felt were most important in our decision-making process:

– R-value

– Airtightness

– Ease of construction

– Construction labour time

– Material waste

– Total cost (time/money/energy)

Options for walls were as follows:

1.  Pacific Homes 2×6 Smart Wall with 4″ of rigid foam (EPS) on the outside. 

This option was appealing due to it’s low cost and simplicity. However that simplicity quickly got tossed as we are quite certain that we want to use cedar siding on the house. Trying to secure cedar siding to foam is not possible without significant strapping and labour to ensure everything is kept in place. This would work for stucco, but it would not be ideal for us. R-value of about R45. Airtightness might be less than other options given that this is really a single-wall system.

2. Pacific Homes 2×6 Smart Wall with offset 2×4 standard wall at 16″ o/c.

This is a simple option as well. The outer wall would be prefabricated  and shipped. Given the prefabrication, the house could be framed with roof, windows and doors installed in 2 weeks (same as option #1). The internal framing could be done after and standard cellulose batts used inside. The good thing about this over the first is that the plumbing and electrical would not pass through the 2×6 outer wall therefore eliminating potential air leakage. The cost of this one was quoted at about $5000 more than option #1 due to the extra 2x4s and insulation batts. R-value for this was R41.

3. 14″ thick ICF

ICF uses styrofoam forms with concrete poured into it. It’s appealing for a few reasons: no thermal bridging, super strong walls (disaster protection), has a good R-value (R48) and is naturally airtight (expect in the corners and around openings which of course need to be sealed like any other system). It’s a bit controversial though and quite a bit more costly in terms of time, money and energy. It is a labour intensive project and we simply did not think it would be worth it in our case.

4. 8″ SIPs with 2×4 standard wall at 24″ o/c

SIPs are touted as an energy conscientious option that can be installed extremely quickly. A 2000 sq.ft house can be erected in two days. SIPs uses two sheets of OSB laminated to a slab of EPS foam. It is very strong and does not require further framing. The R-value of an 8″ wall is R33 so combined with a 2×4 wall at 24″ o/c you get R44. I thought this would be a pretty excellent option. SIPs are only marginally more expensive then a standard wall system (and when you factor in the reduced labour cost, it is negligible) and are quite a bit less than ICF. Unfortunately, SIPs have been found to have some pretty serious problems with moisture build-up, airtightness problems, and early decay. None of those sounded good to me. Sorry SIPs, not for us.

5. 16″ Deep Wall System

One of the engineers on our team had worked with a group from Edmonton AB who utilized a “Deep Wall System.” I had never heard about this, but was intrigued.

Deep Wall System – Mill Creek Net Zero House, Edmonton AB

Essentially this uses a 2×4 wall 16″ o/c on the outside and 2×4 wall 24″ o/c on the inside. A 3/8″ thick piece of OSB is cut 16″ inch wide for the header and footer. The 2x4s are spaced and secured to the headers and footers with a 3/8″ OSB sheet on the outer wall. Essentially you make a box with a mesh on the inside. The 16″ cavity is filled with blown in high density cellulose. This gives an incredible R-value of R56! As if that’s not impressive enough, the material cost of building is about the same as a standard 2×6 wall (not including cost of extra labour time for framing mind you). The airtightness on the Riverdale NetZero house was 0.59 ACH and the Mill Creek NetZero house was 0.36 ACH. Amazing. As I later found out, the energy guru and one of the creators of the Saskatchewan Conservation House  (the house that inspired Wolfgang Feist and led to the German Passivhaus Institut), Rob Dumont, developed and used this exact method on his house in Saskatoon SK.  He built his house in 1992 and at the time was considered to be the most well-insulated house in the world (the airtightness was also an incredible 0.47 ACH). Why didn’t they just tell us that in the first place!? There would have been no decision-making necessary. We would have just done what he did.  We will still have a company cut all of the lumber to size and ship as a package. Although this system will take a bit more time to complete (due to framing labour) the advantages of this wall system for us far exceeded the other options.

I’m super excited for our super-insulated and locally developed wall system.

-K

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