Dealing with Nature

John Connell founded the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in 1980 and the Yestermorrow Building Group Inc. (later to become 2morrow Studio in 1982.) He taught at Yale's school of architecture for five years after which he authored the book Homing Instinct: Using Your Lifestyle to Design & Build Your Own Home, McGraw Hill, 2000. Besides teaching he is currently designing green homes that tell "stories", design/building treehouses for handicapped children, and animating short films. 2morrow Studio puts into actual practice the design/build philosophy taught at the Yestermorrow School. A small design/build firm in Vermont, 2morrow Studio works with residential and small commercial clientele interested in integrated energy-efficient architecture using the latest green and sustainable methodologies. Besides architectural design, Connell is an experienced team builder, group facilitator and educational program designer. The Yestermorrow School teaches people how to plan, design, build or renovate their own homes. It is staffed by over 40 architects, builders and artisans from all over the United States who believe that the way to improve the built and natural environments is to re-involve people in vernacular architecture.

Questions and Answers

Q: I am interested in building a home on the Caribbean island of Culebra, Puerto Rico. I would like to build a home that could serve as an alternative example to the cigarette box homes that the majority of islanders live in. Culebra, is a small island 25 sq. miles and 3,000 inhabitants. 60% of the island is a nature reserve zone. What type of structure would you recommend for the Caribbean where hurricanes pose the greatest threat, and do you know of a group that can assist me? (My father was a Culebran.)

A: I haven't built in the Caribbean so you should take my advice with a grain of salt. Personally, I would build with masonry if I were worried about hurricanes. But there are several choices here. Can you use rammed earth? Is there a low cost concrete mix that you might make? I can't imagine there is much stone, but what about coral? As a last resort, you might use CMUs filled with sand for thermal mass. This would be expensive, but very comfortable and quite hurricane proof. I am assuming from your reference to "cigar box houses" that the typical budget down there is pretty small. If you were to tell me more about your budget and intended design layout, I might be able to be more helpful in directing you to appropriate technologies. In any event, best of luck! Build to last!

Q: I am trying to determine if a house interior of knotty pine planks is a drier house in regards to humidity than a sheetrock , textured interior. We live in Central Oregon and our winter humidity is relatively low. We also heat with a wood stove. Our knotty pine plank interior is sealed with about five coats of lacquer. Can it absorb moisture from the room more than the textured sheetrock?

A: If the pine has one or more coats of sealer on the BACK side it will be functionally inert and play no appreciable part in the humidity of the room. If it's not sealed, then pine is very much more capable of adsorbing and releasing water vapor than is textured drywall. but with wood heat, I'm not sure where the moisture would come from. This sounds like a very dry interior any way you slice it. Is there a problem or is this simply a point of debate?

Q: I have a skylight and the metal frame leaks from condensation and I was wondering how to fix it.

A: Your problem stems from too much moisture and too much cold (surface).  So you need to eliminate one or the other.  You can eliminated the cold surface - and save some serious energy loss - by covering the inside of the skylight with another well sealed pane of glass (or even insulating glass).  This glass will remain warm enough so that the moisture in the air won't condense on it. Alternatively, you can simply reduce the amount of moisture in the air by running or dehumidifier or, much better and less energy costly, heating with a wood burning stove. If you really want to go belt and suspenders, you can always do both!

Q: My husband and I plan on putting an apartment in our walkout basement. We have block walls that make the interior walls very damp. What is the best and most inexpensive way to eliminate this problem? Also what is the most inexpensive way to finish the interior walls to give it a "homey" look and feel? My husband's plan was just to paint them but I feel that is more of an industrial look. Is the traditional drywall best or is there something less expensive?

A: It would help if I knew where you are located - N, S, E, W?  Are you in a humid climate, by the shore, in the mountains?  Believe it or not, this makes a big difference.   Sadly, in construction the best way is almost never the most inexpensive way.   Because the best way would be to insulate the OUTSIDE of your foundation walls so that they block was unable to be cooled by the surrounding soil.  But this is not cheap.  In your case you will want to seal and insulate the interior walls.  The best way to do this is with foam.  There are many different kinds of foams and they run the gamut in price and difficulty.  I would suggest a soy based open-cell foam or an icynene open-cell foam.  These are the least toxic and most environmentally sound.  Urethane foam is closed cell and gives better performance but at the cost of being environmentally irresponsible.  

This will not keep the walls from sweating.  If you go with the foam approach above, you will have to strap out the walls anyway.  2x strapping should work fine, giving you an insulation layer of 1 1/2" - not a lot, but plenty for the basement.  Then you can use traditional drywall or, moving up a notch, blueboard with skim plaster. If you want to add an element of wood, consider a wood wainscot.

Q: We have owned for the past 2 years a 150 year old stone house in northwest Illinois. As I am writing this it is 0 degree and the winds are at about 30 miles per hour. The cold seeps through the 20" stone walls that are plastered inside and out. We have just had one room re plastered inside and the cold still somewhat radiates through the walls. Should these exterior walls be somehow insulated to protect from the extremes of cold and heat, to conserve interior energy?

A: (Kelly) You are experiencing one of the laws of thermal dynamics: thermal mass materials (like stones) will take on the average ambient temperature, and hold that temperature for quite a long time. This is a great advantage if the stones are on the "inside" and have a nice warm blanket to keep the cold outside from penetrating, but without this insulating blanket they will always be sending more cold to the inside. So yes, you should put a good layer of insulation on the outside of your home if you want it to be comfortable. With 20" walls it might take quite awhile for all of that mass to warm up, even with a warm blanket, so perhaps a good time to do this would be towards the end of the warm season when the walls have already warmed up. Or, if you add insulation sooner, you may need to be patient to feel the effects. Even just a couple of inches of a rigid panelized foam insulation can make a big difference; this can have a stucco plaster over it.

Please tell me more about this exterior insulation.  Does it cause a problem with moisture build up within the walls or on the inside walls? 

This sort of insulation should not create such moisture problems. It will seal the wall from any moisture that might come in from the outside, and it will provide an insulated blanket to keep the stone wall warm enough to keep it from reaching the dew point required for condensation of moisture arriving from the inside. 20" of stone will not pass very much moisture anyway.

How do you attach it? 

It would need to be attached physically with anchors in the mortar. Sometimes you can actually nail into mortar effectively...sometimes you need to drill into it and insert anchors that receive screws.

Do you need to put chicken wire over it then plaster? 

Yes, this is commonly done with stucco applications and should be familiar to a local stucco crew.

How do you deal with the windows with the extra inches of material when they are flush with the walls?

This could be the trickiest part of such a project, and would involve some expert attention to the specific situation. It might be that some additional rock work would be best, or it might be that the stucco can be effectively finished in a satisfactory manner.

Q: I would love to do some sort of sustainable house and use strawbales, though I have reservations about the humidity in Virginia where I live. Would you be able to direct me to a builder or information to help me out? or else what are my other options on a high moisture climate?

A: Congratulations on your good common sense. The reason you might be having trouble finding a strawbale builder in your high humidity area is that it is simply a bad idea...and no builder wants the headaches of that sort of call back. In your climate a much better choice would be wood or masonry. Indeed, they are making a lot of lightweight, air-entrained concrete products these days that look wonderful when properly detailed and finished. Another "alternative" building type, if your site will support it, is earth sheltered design. This approach uses the steady temperature of the earth to mediate temperature and humidity swings so that heating/cooling/dehumidifying all become much less of an energy proposition. Your project sounds like it might be in the very early stages. Might I be so bold as suggest that you get a copy of my book (at your local library or on Amazon), HOMING INSTINCT. I attempted to give the pros and cons of many different building approaches and where they should be applied in that now out of print book. Build we must!

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