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Vapor Permeability

Vapor Permeability

To tape or not to tape?  Because the installation method of our windows was not typical in this part of the world, we did run into some differing opinions on how to best seal the window assembly. The big issue here is to avoid trapping moisture – whether coming from rain infiltration, diffusion from building materials, or air leakage – inside the wall assembly. Standard windows with flanged frames are typically taped and/or caulked from the outside, generally allowing moisture buildup in the gap between wall and window to escape toward the inside. However, for inset windows such as ours that are not attached to the exterior surface, it was recommended that we place the primary air seal (silicone or tape) on the interior side of the window frame. This is to pressure moderate the cavity, and to prevent warm, moist interior air from getting into that gap where it would condense as it cools.  The bigger point of contention regarding the assembly, however, was what to do on the outside of the window frame. Do we seal the exterior perimeter with tape?

RDH Group, our local building science experts who have given us much invaluable advice on our foundation, wall, and roof assemblies, weighed in on this issue.  Their concern with installing seals on both sides of the frame was that this would create an un-drained pocket between the window and the surround, a condition they typically discourage.  A seal on the outboard side of the window, in addition to the interior seal, would create the potential danger that if the outside seal fails, water may become trapped between the two seals.

They felt that our interior seal plus spray foam already gave us two air seals and a thermal barrier around the window, and recommended that the exterior side be protected solely by the cladding or other “shedding” surface, allowing the cavity to weep out excess moisture. And If any seal was applied to the exterior, at least the seal at the sill of the window should remain open to drain any water that might get into the space.

Window installation spray foamed but not sealed from the exterior

Our window installers from Internorm had a slightly different approach.  Rather than using non-permeable tape or silicone for the interior edge of the window frame, they provided us with a vapor-permeable fabric tape, to be used along with spray foam, as I described in an earlier blog entry.  Trusting in their expertise in high-performance building materials, and understanding that vapor permeability is almost always a good thing in a wall assembly, we accepted this change. They then urged us to also seal the entire outside edge of the frame with vapor permeable tape.  This provides weather protection from the outside but allows moisture to escape out of the cavity in either direction. Since we felt that the window manufacturer’s recommendations were thoroughly tested and well established, we followed their advice as closely as possible.  As a part of our Passive House certification, we are closely following the airtightness of our envelope.  This issue also had an effect on our decision as the additional layer of tape gave us an extra air-tight layer.

vapor-permeable airtight seal on the interior side of the window frame

Finding a vapor-permeable tape to seal up our window installation from the outside was not easy.  Unfortunately, even though the use of vapor barriers is becoming more controversial in modern construction as the importance of vapor-open construction is becoming better understood, there are still not many products on the market that have both good vapor permeance AND good adhesion.  Typically, the best adhesives are either SBS or butyl based, neither of which is vapor permeable.  Most vapor-permeable adhesives use something similar to certain 3M tapes, which are not good in external conditions.  Our Austrian window manufacturers pointed us to several products which were not able to find in the US (Illbruck/Tremco Duo Membrane HD, and Würth Dichtband Aussen). RDH ended up pointing us to a vapor-permeable air barrier membrane manufactured by Henry called Blueskin Breather which we ended up using along with their corresponding primer to make sure we got good adhesion.

Blower Door Test

Blower Door Test

October 4th, 2010 by Bjorn Nelson

Last week our efforts in taping, sealing, and detailing an airtight building envelope paid off when we conducted our first airtightness test and received a  very encouraging result.  Our friends at Hammer and Hand, green builders who also do home performance testing, helped us out by conducting a blower door test of our building. Our result was 0.45 air changes/hour at 50 pascals!

A blower door test is a diagnostic tool that measures the airtightness of a building by depressurizing the house.   This depressurization exaggerates the home’s air leaks, making the leaks easier to measure and locate. A calibrated fan is placed into a door opening, which is then temporarily sealed around the fan, and the fan is used to blow air out of the building to create a pressure differential.  Pressure sensing instruments then measure the airflow (in cubic feet per minute) needed to create a 50-pascal pressure change.  By factoring in the interior volume of the building, we can then determine the amount of the building’s air that gets displaced per hour at this pressure (air changes per hour at 50 pascals pressure – ACH50).

Blower door installed at our kitchen patio our test result of 153 cfm at 50 pascals

We conducted the blower door test at this early stage to determine if we are on the right track for meeting the Passive House Standard of 0.6 ACH50 and in order to have the opportunity to easily find and seal leaks with tape or mastic while the framing is still exposed.  We were able to check around wall seams and window perimeters and could actually feel the air seeping through in some areas while the house was depressurized.  Our official blower door test, which we will conduct at the end of construction, may differ somewhat, but last week’s test gives us a good sense of where we will be at.  Between now and then, we will have to produce a few new penetrations through our outer walls for the ventilation system and our mini-split heat pump, we will seal and gasket them carefully, we will add tape to the outside of the window perimeter, and the interior drywall will provide an additional layer of airtightness as well.

Sam from Hammer&Hand using a handheld steam-producing device to look for air movement around a window perimeter

looking for leaks

as a basis of comparison, here are some air changes per hour at 50 pascals:

0.45 – Shift House (preliminary)
0.60 – a requirement for Passive House Certification
1.50 – voluntary standard for Canadian R-2000 green building program
2.50 – routinely achieved in new homes in Minnesota
3.00 – Concordia House (LEED Platinum house built by ROOT)
3.90 – the median for new homes in Wisconsin (2002 study)
5.40 – energy star rated manufactured homes
7.00 – 2009 International Residential Code requirement
n/a   – LEED for homes has no specific air-tightness restrictions

David Keefe, the manager of training services for Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, recently wrote in an article on blower-door testing, “Houses with less than 5 or 6 ach50 are considered tight, and those over 20 are quite leaky.”  Many older U.S. homes are so leaky that a third to a half of the home’s heat loss comes from air leaks.

The Exterior Gets a Facelift

The Exterior Gets a Facelift

Originally, as you can see in earlier renderings, the exterior was designed to be clad in white stucco with some highlights of dark-stained wood siding. We felt that this high contrast between the two materials, and the smooth continuous surface created by the stucco, would accentuate the reading of the shift – of the building sheared in half and offset to reveal the balconies. Additionally, we felt that the monolithic look of stucco seemed appropriate cladding to represent our thick 14″ walls, and we were drawn to the material since its use would have been a nod to the predominant building practices of our home countries (Germany for me, Serbia for VJ and Milos).

However, as the design evolved, we began to lean more toward cladding the building only in cedar siding.  We felt that the simplicity of cladding both the house and garage in only one material would benefit the design, that as a renewable northwest material, natural cedar would be more responsive to the surrounding buildings, and that it would be more expressive of the green building practices we are incorporating. Additionally, since we have 4 inches of EPS foam (see details) between the siding and our structure, we realized that it would be exceedingly challenging to adequately attach an assembly of materials as heavy as stucco to the side of the building.

So here is our revamped look, using horizontal 4″ tongue and groove cedar siding with two semi-transparent stains.  What do you think?