Archive for the ‘Construction Journal’ Category

Introducing IntelliStructures Blog

Dear All,

Since the Arlington Passivhaus is now at an end.  We will be moving our new content to a new blog for IntelliStructures Inc.

If you enjoyed what we wrote about here, please visit us here for discussions on Passivhaus, high performance enclosures, SIPs structures and more.

Thanks for reading!


We are keeping it!

Okay, I admit getting emotionally attached to a house is not a great thing for a builder.  Let me just lay out other perfectly logical reasons for keeping it.


Looking at this home from an investment perspective, we should keep it.  Columbia Pike is undergoing some very serious changes as we speak.  We talked about some of this in a previous post  Changes are already underway, the Columbia Pike Documentary Project has been doing a great job documenting the changes along the corridor for years.  We think that recent developments will really add to the value of properties in the area.

During the early hours of July 24, after a marathon of a board meeting, the Arlington County Board approved two very important initiatives.  First, the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Area Plan and second, the County accepted a modern fixed-rail street car as the preferred mode of public transportation through the Pike Transit Initiative  Revitalization of the area has been underway for quite some time and there are already several large scale mixed-use developments along the pike.  However, without an adequate public transportation system and a good plan designed for transit-oriented growth, I feared that the Pike was just going to be a congested road with expensive stores on the two sides.  With these two initiatives in place, the future of Columbia Pike is bright.  The Neighborhood plan would allow for higher-density development along the corridor while the street car system will give this corridor an opportunity to enjoy “smart growth” development, creating walkable mixed-use neighborhoods.  I think that is very smart and have faith in what is to come on the corridor.

The Arlington Passivhaus benefits by being only four blocks away from the pike, giving whoever lives here the connectivity to all the good things a mixed-used community has to offer while still enjoy the single family home, the 2-car garage, the garden and the immediate neighborhood.

More to Learn

In the past two years,  we learned so much from designing and building of this home.  It’s really only been operational for a little more than a month.  There is still a lot to learn about this house as an operating home.  I think anyone who has built or lived in a PH can tell you, it just behaves so differently from a typical home.  I believe there are plenty of things to improve upon for our next project but we need more information.  Short of moving in ourselves, leasing it out to a family of four is the next best thing for us to know how the home functions.  We’ll also be able to visit our baby from time to time.

We officially took the home off the market on Friday and signed a leasing contract with a very nice family of four.

Signing off for now…

Here’s a video that takes the project from the beginning to end, a sort of birthing story of this brand new home that we hope will be here for a long long time.


On Market!

With a slightly heavy heart, we are here to announce that the Arlington Passivhaus is on the market.  The blog will continue because we are still going to be testing and monitoring this home’s performance while the home is on the market and will continue to report our findings.

We will also continue to hold tours for anyone who is interested in learning about the Passivhaus and how to actually build one.

This is not the “end of an era” but we want to drop a quick “Thank You” to all our readers, advisors, advocates, neighbors, friends, family, the Arlington County, the Passiv House community and everyone who had a role in making this project possible for their support up to now.  We will continue to need it as we move forward.

Here’s our virtual tour slide show

See here for the full listing

Here’s D.C. Curbed’s article on our house

Oh! Almost forgot.  OPEN HOUSE this Saturday (6/16) 1-4pm

4616 8th Street S., Arlington VA 22204

Sneak Preview

The landscaping is almost complete.  We are almost done inside too.  Eric and I are seriously having mixed feelings.  We are relieved that this home is built but at the same time, we are getting really attached to it….  Well, it’s almost time to let it go.  We plan to put it on the market next week and have our official Open House on Saturday June 16th from 1-4pm, so if you are in the area, be sure to stop by.

Here’s a sneak preview and some highlights of our landscaping.

Front View

Front view 2

Our extensive landscaping, carefully designed and installed by Scott Brinitzer and his team really help accentuate the modern design of the home.  The trees soften the hard/straight lines of house while the hardscape reinforces the orientation of the different parts of the building.  Using little bamboo plants and sedums as ground cover, he created connections with the extensive interior use of bamboo and the sedums on the green roof.  Scott’s design also incorporates a very smart storm water management technique by guiding excess storm water through various parts of the yard and allows the soil to soak up storm water along the way.  By slowing water down and absorbing it as much as possible, this yard significantly reduces storm water runoff.

Here’s a full frontal:

Full Frontal

Here are some nice landscaping details:

Pea Gravel Path

Using trees as fencing, the boundary with the neighbor is softened.  The pea gravel walkway offers a path to slow down and truly enjoy the garden.  Plus it really gives you that Zen feel.  The steel edging around the path gives the path a very crisp feel.


Pea gravel path

Views from the top

From the Green Roof


From the Green Roof 2

It’s only been a couple of weeks but the sedums on the green roof are really thriving.

Green Roof

Green Roof 2

Here are some new interior shots


Living room

Stair Case

MBA Shower

Foyer “Genkan”

Arlington Passivhaus Art Gallery

Today, we are not featuring energy performance, mechanical systems, or building science.  Those things are what makes a house operate but they do not make it a home.  We believe a truly good home is one that stands in the intersection between art and science.  This is not a new idea, Apple’s entire product line is based on that concept. We need the science for the performance but we always need the art to evoke our imagination and feelings.

We’ve decided to feature art work that we have a strong connection to.  If you come visit our project, you will see these oil paintings done by Dr. Jesun Lin, a prominent physician and increasingly noted abstract painter living in Taiwan.  He is also our dad.

Hmm, perhaps that’s where our contemporary taste came from…

Upper Gallery

With these paintings, the space really comes alive.

“Sunshine” in the kitchen

Lower Gallery

Dad practices medicine in Changhua Taiwan, he is most well-known for his innovative surgical techniques in hypospadias repair.  His paintings have exhibited at the Salon d’Automne and Salon du Printemps in Paris, France.

We got Gold!

This past Sunday, we had the great honor to host the Arlington Green Home Choice Program’s annual awards ceremony at OUR house!  It was an awesome success.  Arlington County uses this opportunity every year to recognize the home owners, builders and the homes that voluntarily participate in the program to build and retrofit homes to a high performing level that is “healthy, comfortable, cost efficient and reduces energy and water usage and protects the environment.”  Helen, the manager of the Green Home Choice Program works tirelessly to engage builders through the entire process from design, construction to commissioning.  She certainly kept us going through the hard times with her encouragement and her frequent site visits tell us how serious she and the county are about promoting green homes.

We really like the program because of its prerequisite that the home be Energy Star qualified.  Even though Energy Star isn’t the most stringent standard out there, it is a great starting point and more importantly, it is performance based.  This also means a Green Home Choice building will perform significantly better than a conventional home.  Additionally, as Energy Star continues to tighten its standard, Green Home Choice homes will also improve in energy performance.  Modeled after the EarthCraft program, Green Home Choice uses a score card to determine other sustainability features of a home, such as water use, site design, etc.  Here’s the 72 page score sheet.  It’s also good to look for ideas in during the design process.

For this year (2011-2012), twelve homes were certified in the Arlington Green Home Choice program.  Out of which 6 received”Certified”, 3 “Silver” and 3 “Gold” awards.   This is the first year, Arlington has given out the “Gold” awards.

GHC Certified Homes

Here’s our gold!

Matt Fine and Jake (Zavos Architecture and Design), me, Jay Fisette (Arlington County Board Member), Charlie Byrd (Intellistructures), Ricardo Leon (Leon Home Improvement), Helen Reinecke-Wilt (Manager of GHC)

Special thanks to Helen Reinecke-Wilt,  Joan Kelsch for organizing this successful event.  To Jay Fisette for his support and commitment to a sustainable energy future.  Congratulations to all the other Green Home Choice participants.

Stay tuned and be sure to come visit us on June 3rd for the 10th Annual Arlington Green Home and Garden Tour.  For more information, click below.

Does Your House Breath Air or Drink Water?

Andy from Elysian Energy came out to do our final blower door test.  We knew that we had a 1 ACH 50 from John’s test at the Meetup event with 30 people walking around and playing with the windows and doors.  After taking some significant measures to air-sealing the windows and joints, Jim and Andy came for a second test which had a result that I thought was too good to be true but we felt comfortable enough to proceed with drywall and everything else.  I think there was a discrepancy in how the total air volume was calculated…

Last Friday, Andy did our final testing the ACH at a number of different pressure levels and our final number was 0.52 ACH 50!  The number is not 0.33 but we think it is a very respectable one for our first attempt at Passivhaus.

Final Blower Door Test

Air-tightness really is a difficult thing to achieve if you do not plan ahead.  I think to get the air infiltration number even lower, air sealing must be done in conjunction with construction, i.e. tape as you build.  I know of a builder that tapes up each nail hole right after the nail is hammered in so as to not miss any.  It is obsessive but I am not sure if that effort is really excessive.  Air-tightness is a quality of construction issue.  We’ll never get to a 0 ACH 50 unless you build a house with a balloon but we can certainly get darn close…

The Importance of Air-Tight Construction

I know this is a huge topic but in an effort to share information and help me articulate the issue I must dip into the importance of air-tight construction.  We had previously talked about this but we only talked about what we need to achieve but never explained why.  Here are some of the “why”.

1. Energy conservation:  Did you know that you can have all the insulation in the world and the build can still perform poorly? A leaky building envelope means “uncontrolled ventilation”.  This means conditioned air can leak out and hot/cold air can leak in; thus decreasing the effectiveness of the insulation.

This is an illustration of air-infiltration from

As you can see, air can leak in and out at a variety of places.  This is “uncontrolled ventilation” or what some typical builders talk about when they say, “You don’t want a tight house, your house needs to breath.”  Our retort is, “Your house does not need to breath, you do!”

2. Indoor Air Quality: Air can carry pollutants, moisture, odor and other undesirables into the building through these leaks.  If you cannot tell where the air is leaking in from, you have no idea what pollutants are being carried into the indoor environment.  As I like to say, “you are breathing like a frog.”  I love Kermit the Frog but we are mammals, so let’s have a tight skin (air-tight building envelope) and breath through a dedicated respiratory system (an Energy Recovery Ventilator or Heat Recovery Ventilator) that brings in fresh air through a controlled path and filters it before we consume it.

Do you want to breath the air that passes through this window?

3. Vapor Penetration

Air carries a large amount of vapor or moisture.  Each air leak has potential to cause water intrusion which in turn causes mold and structural damage if the moisture does not dry out.  In well insulated buildings, this problem can get worse because there is so much material that can trap moisture.  Therefore, air-tightness becomes even more important as building envelopes get tighter to keep water out in the first place.

This image from  Building Science Corporation paper RR-0412: Insulations, Sheathings and Vapor Retarders gives us a dramatic visual of how moisture laden air behaves with air-tight building envelopes and leaky building envelopes.  Over just one heating season in a cold climate, 30 quarts of water enters into a 1in sq hole in a building envelope whereas in an air-tight building envelope, only 1/3 quart of water enters into the envelope through diffusion.

Water is the biggest enemy of buildings, keep it out.  By building an air-tight envelope, water intrusion becomes water diffusion.

So, we’ve concluded that a house does not need to breath and does not need to drink water either.

Planting a Vegetative Roof

We placed an announcement on facebook to see how effective FB is at turning virtual connections to real life ones  In the end my fellow Passivhaus designer Bokyung and her husband Min and their lovely daughters came out to our green roof planting event.

Ready for planting!



We have eight different varieties of Sedums, some are deciduous and some are evergreen.  Some of them will disappear completely on the surface when winter comes and reemerge next spring.  All of them flower and should be really beautiful in a couple of months.


Here’s Bokyung planting the Sedums.

All planted

All planted.  It took eight of us (4 adults and 3 kids and 1 baby) about 2 hours to plant it all.  It was a great time and now we can all say, “we’ve planted a green roof.”

Thanks Bokyung and Min for coming out!




How to Build Your Own Green Roof

Our Roof

We started researching a way to build our green roof when we first conceived of putting a green roof on top of the garage.  The foremost important thing to a green roof is to engineer it correctly to hold the loads.  Since the green roof, once installed is not going to be removed, dead load considerations need to be discussed with the structural engineer so the resulting structure is strong enough for the green roof.

We opted to use a modular tray system for a number of reasons.  First, the medium would be shallower which means lighter loads (about 3.4-4 inches).  Second, a modular system is easily rearranged.  Not that you would do this all the time, but it’s almost like rearranging furniture.  Third, the perceived notion of fewer leakage concerns.  Well, we think the less direct contact the roof membrane has to the growing medium which will carry moisture, the longer that roof membrane is going to last.

Additionally, for a membrane roof to last a long time, it needs to be properly slopped for drainage.  Here’s Ruff Roofers installing tapered foam insulation that would create a slope to drain water into the scuppers.

Tapered Insulation

After that a TPO (Thermoplastic Polyolefin) is welded on top.  This material is preferable to EPDM because it is largely a single sheet rather than strips and the seam strength is said to be 3-4 times stronger than an EPDM roof.

Here’s the TPO.

TPO Roof

We chose a white TPO to reduce solar heat gain and keep the garage and the membrane itself cooler.  Additionally, to be extra cautious, Ruff Roofers added another sheet of TPO on top of the welded layer.

Then we started finalizing fun stuff on the roof.

Roof Layout

Our flat roof totals about 700 sqft, quite a large space to cover.  We selected two things to install up there: Green Roof Trays and Decking Tiles.  When we started out, both items are almost prohibitively expensive.  However, I realized that more than half of the cost of the pre-planted green roof trays we had considered was shipping.  I decided to find a local installer.  However, the contractors that do this really charge an arm and an leg for it.  We decided to see how much we can save by building our own green roof modules.  After searching high and low, we came up with a solution which I think brings the price point low enough that almost anyone can do it.

Source Locally

The community of green roof professionals is a small one.  This means everyone knows everyone and they’ve probably all been involved in projects together.  It also makes it easier to find different components, you simply ask.  We knew we needed the trays, the growing medium and the plants.  We want to avoid paying for shipping because none of these parts are very expensive but shipping kills the budget.

After spending a few hours googling and reading green roof forums, I found  Mike supplies both pre-planted trays as well as empty trays in South Carolina.  Mike told me where I can pick up his empty modules about 1 hour away from me.  Then I found Waynes Wholesale Nursery, a local supplier of green roof plants about 15 mins away in Fairfax.  The growing medium took a lot longer, since dirt is the heaviest part, this is definitely not something we want to ship.  After talking to people in about 5 different states in the region, someone pointed me to a supplier in Springfield Virginia that carries it.  We were excited that it is actually just in our own backyard.  So, now, we just need to put it all together.  The total cost of the green roof system ended up being about 1/4 of the quotes we received.  This also means we can now afford to build a larger green roof!

Picking up dirt

Eric laying out the trays and geo fabric

Growing medium

We had to move the growing medium one bucket at a time using a rope.  Here’s Eric shoveling them.   My back still aches.


Wayne helped me select 8 different sedums that will work well for this site.  Can’t wait to plant them.

A little more progress…

A few things got done since we last posted.  Little by little this home will cross that finish line…

We finally installed the metal roof.

Metal Roof Installation

After a few spring rains throwing kinks into the schedule, Ruff Roofers was able to come and install the standing seam roof.  We decided to use a metal roof for a few reasons.  First, it should last almost forever.  Second, if the homeowner chooses to add photovotaics onto the roof, they just need to clip them on instead of having to nail or screw the modules to the asphalt roof.  We had Ruff Roofers add extra clips to make the metal roof extra secure in case solar panels are added at a later date.


I really don’t like gutters.  This is mainly because without gutters the facia just looks so much cleaner.  Well, we do have a full basement so, we had to give in.  At least Ruff Roofers did such a nice job with these half round gutters and the round downspout that I am even beginning to like the look.

Kitchen Cabinets arrived

Kitchen Cabinets

Thanks to Amicus Green Building Center, we were able to get our kitchen cabinets very quickly.  These cabinets were manufactured locally (NC, I think), with no VOCs, formaldehyde, hazardous air pollutants, etc.  They turned out beautifully.

Landscaping work also began outside.


Our friend, neighbor and landscape designer Scott Brinitzer’s landscaping team started the work of transforming this extremely well-compacted (nothing grows!) site into an amazing landscape.  We can’t wait to seeing the results.  We think it will knock your socks off!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 616 other followers

%d bloggers like this: