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STEPS TO BUILDING AN ENERGY EFFICIENT HOME

There is one thing that EVERY homeowner has in common:  we all want lower utility bills.  If you are in the planning stages of a new home, GOOD NEWS – you can achieve this goal easily and with little/no extra costs (that’s right – some of these savings are completely 100% FREE)!  This may seem like a complex problem involving various building assemblies, professional energy modelers, accountants to determine net present values, ROI vs. payback, etc., but there are some simple steps that can be taken to increase the efficiency of your future home.

You can scroll down to view a more detailed list of items to consider during the planning/design stage of your home, but for now I would like to compress them into a broad, 3-point list (in order of importance):

1)     Design your home (including its orientation) to minimize energy requirements and maximize free energy.  Reduce the building footprint by eliminating any wasted space where necessary (eg, re-configure hallway space, etc).  Orient the home to maximize passive solar gain in winter, while avoiding the same in summer (ie, south facing windows should be designed with awnings/overhangs to absorb the lower winter sun, while shading the higher summer sun).  Designing a home with some of these details in mind is FREE – take advantage of this knowledge!  It is wise to align yourself with designers/suppliers/builders/trades that have experience building energy efficient homes early in the design stage and ask each for input prior to putting pencil to paper.

2)     Make sure the building envelope is well-insulated and air-tight.  Special care should be taken to eliminate thermal bridging (floor joists, headers, studs, etc).  Using methods/material that contribute to an air-tight building envelope ensures you are not passively losing the air you have paid to heat!  FYI - NUDURA’s design (continuous insulation on both sides of a monolithic concrete core) results in a building that is inherently air-tight (take care to properly detail openings/service penetrations) and has a high level of insulation with little/no thermal bridging. The addition of the thermal mass properties of the concrete core inside an ICF wall have shown to further increase the performance beyond that of a low mass wall.

NUDURA walls have shown to maintain a stable interior temp during exterior heating/cooling

NUDURA walls have shown to maintain a stable interior temp during exterior heating/cooling

3)     Use of “green” energy technologies.  The previous 2 points are aimed at REDUCING your energy needs as much as possible.  The remaining needs can be met by use of solar, wind, LED lighting, Energy Star appliances, etc.  It is always in your best financial interest to eliminate the energy requirements FIRST and then worry about energy generation SECOND.

For the more comprehensive list, I am going to defer to the expertise of an absolute legend within the green building industry, the late Dr. Rob Dumont.

The following is information taken from an article by Dr. Dumont in the September 2013 edition of Solplan Review.  If you are not familiar with the work of Dr. Dumont, he was a superstar in the world of energy efficient building and design.  His work on the Saskatchewan Conservation House, the Factor 9 Home, and his own personal residence in Saskatoon, SK (which was the best insulated house in the world!) among others contributed to the creation of the Passivhaus and R2000 building standards.  An awards banquet is held in his honor each year in Saskatoon (https://www.emtfsask.ca/awardsdinner2018.html) to recognize individuals who continue to work in advancing these interests.

Saskatchewan Conservation House, Regina, SK (1977)

Saskatchewan Conservation House, Regina, SK (1977)

So here is the checklist to follow (in order of importance):

1)     Don’t scrimp on design.  Be sure to hire a competent designer that can work to incorporate the following details.  Remember, you get what you pay for!

2)     Choose land with good solar access.  Preference should be given to a lot that can accommodate a large amount of south facing exposure.  Be mindful of obstructions, such as large trees or buildings that can limit passive solar gain.

3)     Choose a roughly rectangular shape.  This will maximize the interior volume of conditioned space vs. the exterior wall surface area.  If possible, the long sides of the home should run east-west to maximize south exposure/solar gain.

4)     Design for flexibility.  Think of future needs, such as basement entry, separate suite, etc.

5)     Detached garage is preferable.  This was not included for energy efficiency, but rather safety, as Dr. Dumont expresses concerns regarding carbon monoxide poisoning from vehicles running in attached garages.  Consider including a 220 volt outlet in the garage for charging an electric vehicle as they become more commonplace.

6)     Choose a contractor with experience in building energy efficient homes.  Also, choose the contractor at the design stage and ask for input regarding building details/design.  Input from sub-trades & suppliers in their area of specialization can also be helpful (ounce of prevention….as they say!).

7)     Choose windows with great care.  South facing walls should have windows with an area of about 8% of the floor area of the house.  Use overhangs, awnings, etc. to ensure shading of these windows in the summer (when sun is higher) but allow solar gain in winter (when sun is lower).  Limit the windows facing north/east/west as these do not contribute to space heating.  Consideration should be made regarding style of windows to maximize insulation value and minimize air leakage (ie, hinged style is better than sliding windows).

8)     Place inexpensive thermal mass in the home.  A simple (and free) option is to place scrap gypsum board in the hollow wall cavities on interior stud walls.  Thermal mass is needed to absorb the passive solar heat that was gained during the day and retain/emit that free heat at night.

9)     Insulation levels.  Given our cold prairie climate, it is no surprise that insulation is money well spent.  When Dr. Dumont built his house in Saskatoon, it included R-80 attic insulation, R-60 for above and below grade walls, and R-35 below the basement floor.  Reducing/eliminating thermal bridging is imperative to achieving a well-insulated home.

Dumont Residence, Saskatoon, SK (1992)

Dumont Residence, Saskatoon, SK (1992)

10)  Air tightness and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery.  Be sure to design the building to be air tight at all openings/connections.  When inefficient passive air movement is eliminated you must introduce mechanical ventilation to control humidity and stale air.  Do so with a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) that has low electrical consumption.

11)  Water Efficiency.  Domestic Hot Water is usually the second largest load in a home next to space heating.  This can be reduced with low flow faucets, Energy Star appliances, drain water heat exchangers, high efficiency water heaters, and locating the water heater near kitchens/bathrooms.

12)  High Efficiency Lighting.  Light emitting diode (LED) lamps are money well spent!

13)  Energy Star Appliances can reduce both power and water consumption.

14)  Renewable energy sources.  Even if you don’t plan on installing solar panels at time of building, consider making your home “solar-ready” for future installation.  This can be as simple as a conduit from basement to attic to run a future wire.  A quick call to a local solar company (we have some great one’s around Saskatchewan!) will help to determine what preparations should be made.

15)  Safety.  Smoke & carbon monoxide detectors are now mandated by code.

16)  Durability.  Build with proper materials/methods for your climate.  A home is designed to perform as a SYSTEM.  This system is negatively affected if a key component is not performing as expected or if it wears out prematurely.

17)  Reduce phantom loads.  An electrical switch can be installed to cut power to outlets controlling the TV, cable box, etc.  These devices will continue to draw power even when turned off.

There you have it!  Remember the 90/10 Rule when building:  “90% of the results come from 10% of the effort.”  This means that the remaining 10% of results are only achieved by proper planning and great care in each of the details of your home.  Feel free to contact a Prairie ICF representative as you begin planning your new home.  We would be happy to discuss some of the aforementioned information.  We also offer NO CHARGE design assistance!  By working with your designer we can adjust the wall dimensions to optimally suit NUDURA’s products, thereby reducing waste and construction time.

Don’t forget that effective January 1, 2019, Saskatchewan has adopted an Energy Code for homes (Section 9.36).  Not sure what this means for you?  Our previous BLOG covers this topic.

Keep these things in mind when you begin your planning.  Happy building!

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ICF’s and the Upcoming Saskatchewan Energy Code

There is a significant change coming to the National Building Code of Canada (NBC).  Specifically Section 9.36 of the 2015 edition of the NBC, known as the “Energy Efficiency” section of the Building Code or simply the “Energy Code” .  This will change the requirements when building a new home to include specified levels of efficiency needed to satisfy the Code.  Prior to this section’s adoption, the only requirement was that a home must be able to maintain a constant temperature in winter (eg, 22⁰C in living spaces, 18⁰C in unfinished basements, 15⁰C in heated crawl spaces).  In other words, a hard working furnace can make up for minimal insulation (and all for the cost of….well, a high heating cost….).

Enter the Energy Code for homes, which has been implemented in other provinces for several years, but will officially be adopted in Saskatchewan on January 1, 2019.  What does this mean for the average builder/homeowner?  Simply put, it will ensure that new homes will be built with a level of insulation that ensures occupant comfort and reduced heating costs. 

There are 3 paths to compliance under Section 9.36:

COMPLIANCE METHOD

This is the most straight-forward approach to meeting the requirement of the Energy Code.  The National Building Code clearly lists minimum requirements for insulation levels (FYI - the amount of insulation is often measured in RSI or R-value where the higher number equals more insulation), as well as HVAC (heating, ventilation & air conditioning) and water heating requirements.  We will focus briefly on the insulation requirements (since this is our focus & area of expertise at Prairie ICF).  The table below lists the requirements of 9.36 for various building assemblies (you can also download a copy of this table for future reference HERE).

9.36 Compliance-page.jpg

A few important notes:

·      Different RSI/R-values are listed for different components of building envelope (eg, foundation walls vs. above grade walls vs. basement floors, etc.).

·      Higher levels of insulation sometimes required for a home without a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) installed.  Given the inherent air-tightness provided by an ICF wall it is recommended to install an HRV/ERV to ensure adequate ventilation.

·      R-values listed refer to WHOLE WALL R-VALUES(!).  This is possibly the biggest shift in thinking when compared to previous applications of the Code.  For instance, when you insulate a 2x6 wall with fiberglass batt insulation it is commonly referred to as an R20 wall, since the insulation purchased would be listed as R20 on the bag (although once it is compressed into a 5.5” stud space its effective insulation drops to R19).  However, each stud is a weak spot (AKA “thermal bridge”) in the insulation (wood insulates at approx. R1.2 per inch thickness).  Therefore, a typical 2x6 (“R20”) wall with studs at 16” o/c (meaning wood is about 23% of the exterior wall assembly) has a whole wall R-value of only R13.4!

·      Since NUDURA forms have continuous insulation on both sides of the concrete core, there is NO thermal bridging.  This makes for an easy calculation.  The complete wall R-value of NUDURA’s forms is R-23.59 (RSI 4.158).  This exceeds the requirements for below grade and above grade walls with or without HRV in our local climate zone (Zone 7A).

·      Prairie ICF has various options to meet the listed requirements for insulation below a basement slab (NUDURA Floor Technology, HYDROFOAM) and ceiling assemblies (NUDURA Ceiling Technology) to complete a well-insulated building envelope.

TRADE-OFF METHOD

There are cases where prescriptive whole-wall insulation levels cannot be met.  For instance, a framed tall-wall that necessitates a close stud-spacing that increases thermal bridging to a point that minimal insulation levels are impossible.  In this case, Code allows for reduced insulation in this area of the wall to be offset by increased insulation (above code minimum) in another area, essentially allowing the two areas to average the required insulation levels.

A second (simpler) option would be to build with NUDURA, which can easily provide the structural strength for tall walls, as well as the insulation needed, but I digress….

MODELLING METHOD

The third option is to contract a “Competent Person” to perform an energy analysis/model of the home showing it will meet/exceed the performance that would be achieved by a home built to minimum code standards.  For purposes of the Code “Competent Person” is defined as someone who is familiar and fluent with building design under Section 9.36.

 

As you can see, Section 9.36 will result in a significant change to the Saskatchewan building industry.  This is a change Prairie ICF has been anticipating and researching for several years, so if you have any questions please feel free to CONTACT US.  Luckily, NUDURA’s products are able to exceed the prescriptive requirements of the Energy Code with no need to invest additional time/money into Trade-offs and/or energy modelling services!

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Training/Certification

There are several key aspects of construction with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) that appeal to both owners and builders:  speed of installation, insulating quality, strength, sound reduction, fire resistance, ease of install, etc.  Homeowners (or those who own commercial buildings, hotels, condos, etc.) most often choose ICF for energy savings (although the sound reduction provided by full-ICF homes is the #1 comment we hear from homeowners – but that is a topic for another blog entry).  Builders, on the other hand, prefer these products for speed/ease of installation.   Being able to accomplish multiple building steps (ie, forming, structure, insulation, vapor/air barrier, etc) with a single product reduces construction time and eliminates a couple sub-trades.  Although building with ICF appears easy, you have to know what you are doing when you work with concrete.  A wood wall can be ripped down/moved/reframed the next day if something is not right, but you can’t say the same for a reinforced concrete wall.  When you look at an ICF system installation is simply stack some blocks, install some rebar, and fill with concrete, right?  Not so fast!  When building with ICF, it’s easy to put up and it’s easy to screw up!

Obviously, proper training/technical support is key when undertaking your first ICF project.  Be sure to check with suppliers/manufacturers for references, ask about their past experience, training/on-site support that is available (and if there is a cost associated with on-site support).  Don’t be shy about asking for this information – reputable companies will not have trouble getting you this info, will be glad to do so, and certainly won’t be offended by the question.  FYI - this advice can apply to most sub-trades/suppliers during the construction process. 

Currently, there is no universal ICF installer certification.  Major manufacturers have their own version of a certification process for their particular product.  Keep in mind that some of these are certainly more in-depth than others.  Rather than singling out individual products that have sub-par training/certification programs (IMHO), I will outline the process that NUDURA currently employs.

The first step to becoming a Trained NUDURA Installer is to attend a NUDURA Basic Installation Seminar.  This is a one-day course that teaches proper methods when building with NUDURA through use of PowerPoint presentations, videos, and hands-on demonstration.  At the end of the day a short exam is administered that grants attendees their NUDURA Basic Installation Certificate (assuming a passing grade is obtained – don’t stress, the test is open book and covers the basics you just learned through the day).  Upon successful completion of this course, builders must then prove competency by completing 2 NUDURA projects (in the case of full-ICF home, the basement and main floor will suffice as the 2 projects) that are inspected prior to concrete placement & signed-off by Prairie ICF.  This inspection service is normally offered by Prairie ICF at NO CHARGE!  Once both of these steps are completed, you will receive a wallet card and Registered Installer Number from NUDURA – this card/number are now required in many areas to be granted a building permit when using ICF.

Obviously NUDURA’s process is very thorough, meaning a builder that is a NUDURA Trained Installer has received the appropriate education AND shown on-site practical competence with the product.  This (along with job-references) is a great starting point when choosing an installer for your next project. 

If you are interested in attending an upcoming NUDURA Basic Installation course, please contact Prairie ICF.

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ICFs: Past, Present & Future

We continue to hear a persistent comment when people are looking into building with Insulated Concrete Forms:  “It’s that NEW way to build a basement.”  Although ICFs in our area have become an increasingly mainstream technology over the past 5-10 years, the genesis of these products goes back MUCH further than that.

Prairie ICF has been in business since 2005 (originally operating as P.R. Sustainable Homes - you can see our company history HERE).  The product we continue to distribute is NUDURA, which began operation in 2001.  ICFs, however, actually date back to the 1940s!  After the end of World War II in 1945, there was an enormous amount of rebuilding to be done.  Insulated Concrete Forms were developed as an economical and durable means to help with this rebuilding effort.  These early stay-in-place forms were made of a mixture of recycled waste wood and cement.  It took a couple decades for this to evolve to a polystyrene form (polystyrene continues to be the most common material used in today’s ICFs).  The first patent for an ICF in North America was filed by a Canadian contractor in 1966.

As with any technology, ICFs have evolved over the years – both with respect to design and quality.  Early systems allowed for construction of basic design with limited concrete thicknesses, form options, etc. to accommodate specialized designs.  NUDURA’s current line includes concrete thickness from 4” to 12” (or even thicker with unassembled panels), pre-molded 90 and 45 degree corners, T-forms that can transition between different form sizes, custom-made radius forms, One-Series to provide exposed concrete on one side, Plus-Series to increase insulation, etc, etc, etc.  With these options, today’s ICF products can accommodate virtually any commercial or residential design.  As important as an extensive product line can be, perhaps equally important is the consistency with which the product is made.  Manufacturing foam plastics, such as Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) – the material that comprises NUDURA’s forms and most ICF’s currently on the market, is not a simple process.  It takes a lot of experience and some finely tuned machinery to mould this material to a consistent quality.  Suffice to say that a weak spot in a form that is designed to hold when filled with 1000’s of pounds of concrete is less than ideal.  NUDURA, along with their manufacturing partner, Polyform Cellulaire, continue to revise/improve their product line and continually monitor the quality of product being released from their plant.  This gives builders the assurance their project will go smoothly.

Recent estimates indicate ICFs account for about 2% of the entire construction industry in North America.  In Saskatchewan we have seen an uptake in the residential market (specifically for foundations, but full-ICF homes are becoming more popular) and a slower adoption in the commercial sector.  There are certain regions in North America that are seeing enormous success with ICF in various markets.  The Kitchener-Waterloo area in Ontario is a hub of mid-to-high-rise buildings being constructed with Insulated Concrete Forms.  Similarly, certain areas of the US have had success with schools, hotels, military projects, etc. built with ICFs.

Given the success that has been realized in all construction segments with ICFs, it looks like the future is bright for ICF and Prairie ICF will continue to lead the charge in our area!     

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Welcome to our Blog!

Thanks for checking in with Prairie ICF’s brand new blog!  We are very excited to introduce this new platform to you as a means to educate, inform, and (hopefully) entertain.  Check back regularly for new postings.  We will be covering a broad range of topics as related to not only Insulated Concrete Forms, but also energy efficient construction, changes in the building industry, and developments within NUDURA and Prairie ICF.

Is there a topic you would like us to cover?  LET US KNOW! 

Cheers!

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