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Posts Tagged ‘Insulation’

Infrared image showing heat loss in a home.

Infrared image showing heat loss in a home.


“Earlier this year, my colleagues Ace McArleton of New Frameworks Natural Building, Ben Graham of Natural Design/Build, and I conducted extensive blower-door testing, infrared thermography, and a series of moisture tests (probe, pin, and scan) on seven different buildings we had built in part or whole over the past seven years in Vermont and New York. We have just published the findings of this research in a report, Final Report for Energy Performance of Straw Bale Buildings Research Program. This research was conducted in support of a book by Ace McArleton and myself, The Natural Building Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction, to be released by Chelsea Green Publishing in the spring of 2012.

You can read and download the complete report at this address: http://www.newframeworks.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Research-Paper-2011_Final_Complete.pdf

We welcome any feedback you may have about the report, and encourage you to distribute the report to colleagues, media outlets, or others you may feel would benefit from or take interest in this work. Keep up the good work, and have a safe and happy new year.”
Warmly, Jacob Deva Racusin
New Frameworks Natural Building, LLC

I’m glad to see their report because testing is so important in order to design and build better buildings in the future. While this report is on straw bale buildings, many of the same principles apply to earthbag and other building methods. The information is particularly relevant to those who are going to build in cold, humid climates such as the northeastern United States. $30 spent on a book filled with practical tips like in this report could easily save homeowners many hundreds of dollars. Here are a few excerpts.

“We frequently, but not exclusively, use lime as both interior and exterior finishes because of its durability.

– The primary locations of air leakage were in roof assemblies. Of these, significant or repeated bypasses included:
1) around chimneys and plumbing vent stacks
2) around blocking between rafters on the exterior
3) where tongue-and-groove ceiling/clerestory wall paneling extends through the envelope to the exterior as soffit material
4) at framing transitions where air barriers (such as air-tight drywall or gaskets) were either non-existent or inadequately detailed

– Windows and doors were also consistently leaky. These leaks occurred:
1) between the plaster edge and the window framing/trim, particularly on older buildings with less-thorough air fin detailing
2) between the rough opening (R.O.) and the window sash where foam sealants were inadequately installed
3) within the window units themselves, especially in salvaged windows but also in new windows
The most significant and widespread thermal bypasses occured in situations that could have been avoided or easily fixed, rather than systemic failures of the design.

Design is critical: A thorough and comprehensive design process is essential to ensure a building’s overall thermal performance. Results for nearly every project clearly show that non-straw bale components of the envelope were most responsible for thermal bypasses in the buildings.

Convection leads to moisture: There is a direct correlation of convective losses and increased moisture concentration, particularly in the upper half of the structure, as evidenced repeatedly by elevated moisture content in exterior readings taken in air bypass cracks in plastered straw bale walls.”

Related:
Energy-efficiency Upgrades by Owen Geiger

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Installing window quilts is one of the simplest, easiest ways to save on energy costs. It’s right up there with caulking, weather stripping and adding extra roof insulation in terms of rapid payback. Window quilts would probably pay for themselves in just one or two seasons. With something so simple and obvious you’d think more people would use them, especially those in cold climates. You save energy and improve comfort by greatly reducing drafts. As pointed out in the video, window quilts are especially practical in passive solar homes that have more windows than typical homes.

I’m not promoting any particular brand. It’s the concept that’s important. You could even make your own window quilts. Fabric stores sometimes sell window quilt material. A client of mine is thinking of sewing quilts with recycled ground styrofoam, foam peanut packaging or bubble wrap insulation, possibly with Velcro around the edges. Use rot resistant fabric for durability and make sure the edges are sealed. Use a design that’s easy to put in place so you don’t grow weary of installing the quilts every day.

Simply adhering plastic film or bubble wrap might be more practical for some. Here’s an experiment from BuilditSolar.com (great site) that shows how bubble wrap on windows can reduce heat loss by about 45%.

Window Quilt.com

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Wool insulation is available as wool rope or batts.

Wool insulation is available as wool rope or batts.


1. Safe Choice – Wool insulation is a natural resource that is environmentally friendly.

2. Flame Resistant Wool is naturally flame resistant and complies with the Australian Standards for flame resistance. When tested they found the following results:

Wool Insulation Advantage
On a Scale of 0 to 10 with 0 being the best.

Ignitability 0
Heat Evolved 0
Spread of Flame 0
Smoke Developed 1

3. Superior Insulator – Research funded by the Wool Research Development Corporation has shown that wool is a better thermal insulator than other fibers under typical weather conditions because of its ability to absorb and desorb moisture from the air. It can help keep a building cool in summer and warm in winter.

When outside temperatures increase the wool is heated and releases moisture which has a cooling affect on the fiber and the building. This may reduce temperatures by up to 7E °C.

When outside temperatures decrease the wool absorbs moisture which can increase peak temperatures by as much as 4E °C.

4. Natural Sound Block – Wool insulation absorbs sound and therefore reduces noise levels considerably.

5. Healthy Alternative – Wool is non-carcinogenic (see reports in the OSHA website on carcinogenic mineral fibers) and does not cause irritation of the skin, eyes or
respiratory tract. It can be installed without the use of gloves or protective coating.

6. Repels Pests – The additive used to make our wool fire resistant and to repel vermin and insects is Boron, a naturally occurring element found in the earth.

7. Recyclable – Our wool may be used for other environmentally friendly applications at the end of its useful life.

8. Wool is also a very efficient absorber of indoor air pollutants. Research has shown that it can absorb and permanently retain high levels of formaldehyde, emitted from some common building materials and furniture and nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide, which are normal by-products of combustion processes (eg, gas stoves and heaters).

Source: Good Shepherd Wool.com

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Hart house in Colorado made with scoria-filled earthbags

Hart house in Colorado made with scoria-filled earthbags


There are lots of options for building insulated earthbag houses. At this time, scoria and pumice are my favorite. These materials are fireproof, rot proof, easy to work with, don’t attract pests, lightweight, etc. Kelly Hart pioneered the use of scoria bags in his dome home and carriage house in Colorado, and in my opinion this method deserves much more attention.

My Instructable above describes numerous ways for building insulated earthbag homes, and we keep learning more good options:
Foam glass gravel
Expanded clay granules
Foamy geopolymer with perlite
Lightweight geopolymer
Perlite Roundhouses
Rice Hull Earthbag House (make sure to keep the rice hulls dry or they will rot)
Solar Pit House (uses recycled polystyrene)

Good examples of insulated earthbag houses:
Half Moon Earthbag Earthship
Northern New Mexico House
Earthbag Scoria Casita

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Vertical Wall Bags (click to enlarge)

Vertical Wall Bags (click to enlarge)


Just when you thought you’d seen it all, here’s a new way to insulate basement walls with foam glass by Misapor. More on this topic at my Geopolymer House Blog. (The same material can be used to make lightweight insulating plaster, concrete, etc.)

“Until now, Misapor has mostly been known for providing horizontal insulation. Now as Wall Bags, the foam glass gravel provides insulation for vertical structures such as [basement] walls. These are an ideal solution for a comfortable, energy-optimised structure and for avoiding thermal bridges.

These fabric bags filled with Misapor foam glass gravel surround [basement] walls to provide thermal insulation. As you would expect from Misapor, they are very easy to handle. The Wall Bags are simply positioned against the walls, and these ready-made sacks are then filled. This process allows economical and time-saving renovation in existing [basements]… the closed-cell product does not absorb water and therefore remains a constant weight.

Source: Misapor (with English version)
Image source and direct link to wall bag information: Misapor Wall Bags
A huge thank you to Konstantin for tipping me off on this!

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Lightweight, insulating geopolymer is ideal for many applications.

Lightweight, insulating geopolymer is ideal for many applications.


As reported in a previous blog post just recently, low cost raschel mesh tube material is now available. (Thanks again to Patti Stouter for tracking this down.) Affordable mesh tubing means hyperadobe is now a more realistic option for many earthbaggers. A growing number of people think hyperadobe is the fastest, easiest earthbag method currently available. It all goes back to Fernando Soneghet Pacheco, the original developer of hyperadobe, who improved the superadobe technique because after having done a course he realized that there were a few problems. The hyperadobe is superior because mesh bags or tubes are narrower, so less soil is needed and it’s cheaper. You can also save money with doors and window bucks (rough frames) as they don’t need to be so wide. The soil dries much faster. The mesh material increases stability and in some cases can eliminate the need for barbed wire. In addition, plaster bonds more readily to the mesh.

The real purpose of this blog post is to point out how lightweight fill materials such as scoria and pumice can be used in the hyperadobe system to create superinsulated buildings in harsh climates. Options include loose scoria and pumice with no binder (requires some additional reinforcing), and scoria, pumice, recycled polystyrene, perlite or vermiculite bonded with clay. Although it hasn’t been done yet, I believe stiff mixes of pumicecrete, perlite geopolymer cement, cellular lightweight geopolymer concrete, hempcrete and other similar materials could be used. This idea ties in with my blog posts about Lightweight, Insulating Geopolymer Earthbags. The main addition here is the suggestion of using mesh bags and tubes to improve the system. Please let us know if you experiment with some of these materials.

We’ve already reported on hyperadobe in detail, but here are a few links for new readers:
Hyperadobe Update
Open Weave Fabric: Ideal Working Properties
Hyperadobe Continued
Mesh Bags Versus Poly Bags: Differences in Working Properties
Mesh Bag Details
More Hyperadobe Videos
Hyperadobe Update from Brazil

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Traditional pit house at Mesa Verde

Traditional pit house at Mesa Verde


Modern Solar Pit House for extremely cold climates (click to enlarge)

Modern Solar Pit House for extremely cold climates (click to enlarge)


I’ll never forget the Native American museum exhibit of a pit house in Anchorage, Alaska. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Pit houses are so simple and yet so effective that people lived in structures like this for thousands of years with relatively minimal environmental harm. This building method and lifestyle really captures my imagination and provides many lessons for modern societies.

Earth sheltered housing is the way to go, especially in harsh, cold climates like Canada. I’m surprised more people don’t build along these lines. Why not take what’s proven to work and update the design to suit our needs? That’s exactly what I did with this design. I was looking at pit houses on the Internet and realized you could just add windows on one side and greatly improve the design. And instead of a square, make it rectangular for additional solar gain. Yesterday’s post showed the proposed Solar Pit House floorplan. Tomorrow’s post will examine the section view and structural details.

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