January 30, 2009


It's a little bit of a challenge to install siding in bitter cold (I'm told), or when the roof is dribbling on your head, or if supported 20 feet off the ground by a platform shiny with ice, or when the coffee runs out. Synergy plows forward pushing towards completion.
November 13, 2008

January 29, 2009

One of the challenges siding over 4" of foam on an 80 year old house, is that the house has settled, the walls bow slightly. They may even have been built that way. Wouldn't be surprised. To reduce these imperfections they torque the firring screws, better aligning the exterior. It is an imprecise science.

January 27, 2009

Night Shots

These may be the last interesting night shots of the project. Siding is going up quickly now, and will soon cover the dazzling reflective aluminum foil. These shots show that the entire front has been covered in rigid foam except for the 3rd floor.

For safety, the 3rd floor will be de-windowed, re-windowed, flashed, stripped of shingles, tyveked, insulated and sided all at once.

These 15 second exposures were long enough to capture the stars above but not long enough for the blur of Earth's rotation to set in.
The right side of the house is lit by a clean white 75 watt bulb in the neighbor's house. The front of the house is unfortunately yellow, lit by the sodium vapor street lights.
Click on the photos to see the full "compressed resolution", but let me tell you that the full uncompressed photos, too large to upload, are awesome.

Firring strips screwed into the wall through 4" of rigid foam using 6" screws. As the firring strips are tightened the foam pulls in tight to the house, and only then as the air is squeezed out between the layers and the house, does the insulation really go to work.

NuCedar Siding

It's unlikely that you have seen this new siding system before, but you will be seeing lots more of it. It's brilliant. NuCedar is a solid engineered pre-painted clapboard made of vinyl. It installs in a similar fashion to wood clapboard, but because the vertically adjacent pieces lock together there is no face nailing. It's attached loosely to allow expansion into the specially designed trim pieces, and does not require caulking like wood and fiber-cement. Because it's solid, and installed piece by piece, it has the shadow lines of wood clapboard.

The Pella Parlay

The fine people at Pella asked me to speak this weekend at the Boston Home Show about the project, and I was thrilled to be asked, and looking forward to doing it, and brushed up on my rusty PowerPoint skills, and printed up handouts, and fretted about how exciting insulation really is when you get right down to it. Oh, I know I shouldn't have worried. Who doesn't love to talk about insulation? See Pella printed a great sign as well.

Lovers of insulation were to miss out though. My sensational presentation was derailed by the failure of the Bay Side Expo's public address system. They can't come if they don't know. Foul play by Big Oil you ask? One never knows.

Know anyone who wants to hear a sensational Super-Insulation presentation?

January 26, 2009

Side Show Moves to the Center Ring

Siding was last installed on November 18, when Steve Thomas and his Planet Green TV crew were filming Renovation Nation, and they needed to see a little bit of everything.
No longer needing to entertain the Hollywood folks, the contractors reverted to their normal system of installing all the rigid foam before installing any siding. With the foam insulation nearly 98% complete, the NuCedar engineered siding becomes the primary focus. For the record, Green is a fine color, but the look of polished aluminum just blows me away, and I'm not the only one. Why isn't this an option anywhere?

January 25, 2009

Snow melt

Walking the kids to school and back one passes all manner of roof ice and roof insulation problems. The neighborhood is marked by gutter freeze, and big honking icicles. What people tell the world about their homes, and particularly their attics through the snow melt.....if only they knew.

Frozen gutters. Extensive icicle growth.
Icicle formation requires that the outside air be warm enough to allow the escaped heat to melt the snow, yet cold enough to refreeze the water before it falls to the ground. The less effective the roof insulation, the warmer the roof, and greater the snow melt. Super insulation will minimize melt and icicles by cooling the roof surface. There will still be melt during warm sunny days, but then icicles are impossible.
January 21: neighbor

January 21: neighbor

January 22: neighbor

The lower roof melt areas here are wider than the higher ridges. Guessing, the insulation in the attic is on the floor and the area between the roof rafters are uninsulated. The heat that does escape into the attic travels to the roof and passes more easily between the rafters (the wider areas) than through the somewhat more insulating rafters (the thinner areas).
January 22: neighbor

I would guess this to be the opposite. Insulation is in the roof rafters. The rafters here are the weak link and show the greatest melt.
January 22: neighbor

Another example of attic floor insulation, shown with the wider melt areas, demonstrated with a kind of shingle lithography. The thermal properties of the roofing shingles comes right through.
January 22: neighbor

The roof area to the right of the downspout in this December 7 photo is a new addition with a cathedral ceiling, and one assumes extensive insulation in the rafters. You can see that the rafters on both sides of the skylight are doubled up as is the practice, and we can guess that there are two recessed lights, one on each side of the skylight. The roof to the left of the downspout is a cold attic insulated on the floor and sealed from the cathedral ceiling. The diagnal telltail? No idea.
UPDATE: Read the reader comment below for a brillaint sugestion for the cause of the diagnal telltail.

This is our roof in a photo taken January 21. Like a Westminster Kennel Club winner, this blue ribbon roof has a nice shiny coat of snow, and is completely house-broken with only a few stray icicles. A roof like this should have a very small range of icicle producing temperatures.

January 22, 2009


Near zero temperatures, and 2 or 3 pretty incredible snow storms. Contractors miss 2 days but it's not a complete loss; the pond skating is fantastic as long as you dig out a spot.

The sun room wall is fully insulated and actually quite cozy, and the new tiny windows are slick.

The team starts on the front of the house zipping towards completion of insulation. The boiler is spending long periods off.....even when outside temperatures are frosty. We're using less oil, but some post-project number crunching is required to know exactly how much less.

I have a new hobby. I'm driving down the street looking at the contours of other people's roof snow. You can figure out alot about a house's attic layout and rafter insulation just by looking at snow. We'll get some pictures up here soon.

January 17, 2009

Our Story Goes Regional, National and Global

Associated Press reporter Jay Lindsay releases the story to the wires:
Mass. hopes to learn from 'super insulated' house
It found a home at a few national outlets; ABC.com, MSNBC.com, a few global environmental websites, a slew of regional newspapers, and something in Australia. It wouldn't seem to me that Australia has a problem staying warm.
Homeowner Alex Cheimets shows the two-inch-thick insulation on his house in Arlington, Mass. Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009. Cheimets' house is part of a super insulation pilot project designed to conserve energy and control heating and cooling costs for the homeowner. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

The timing could not have been better for the story of the super insulation research taking place in Arlington Massachusetts and the team of supporters and sponsors behind it. The story hits after several days of "tuchas" freezing weather across great swaths of the United States, and just days before Barack Obama takes his place, and turns the page on alternative energy and conservation and our expectations of government and ourselves.

Also picked up by the websites of the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Worcester Telegram, WHDH channel 7, CW channel 56, Examiner.com, The Danbury CT News Times, Fosters Daily Democrat of NH, The Day from New London, CT,

January 12, 2009

Windows, Doors, and Lights

The glorious custom Lemieux oak doors are installed, dusted and polished, and the door's low-E windows have been cleaned of the residue urethane and cherry stain.
They look so good, feel so solid and heavy, and work so well in comparison to the doors that they replace, that they carry the entire house several notches up the status chart. Even without the siding, they make a huge contribution to the view from the street.

The project includes window size reduction in the Unit 1 and Unit 2 sun rooms, converting a wall of windows overlooking the driveway to a mostly insulated wall that could be lined with bookshelves, or upgraded with a wood stove, or simply a space to hang a poster showing your basic cuts of beef. The sky's the limit.

The plan was to re-use the trim so that the new low profile windows look like they were always just that way.

Notice the beige surface mounted outlets below the window in the first photo? Now seems like a bang-up time to rip those out and re-locate 12" higher in the new window voids. Only 3 outlets? Heck I can do that myself. I even know to shut the circuit breaker at the service box so as not to jump-stop my already beating heart.

The sunroom is directly over the basement electrical box, so I plugged a work light into the sunroom outlet and dangled it out the window 12 ft to the ground. In the basement, I switched off the circuit breakers until the light outside the basement window went out.

Circuit breaker 11 did it. Great. Returned upstairs to do my electrical magic only to find to my surprise that most of the house was dark. Breaker 11 is one busy little circuit breaker, with its tentacles secretly controlling nearly everything we do. Just look at this inventory of its domain:

  • 2nd floor sunroom ceiling light + all of its plugs
  • 3rd floor storage room
  • 3rd floor front bedroom ceiling light but none of the plugs
  • 3rd floor stairway light
  • 3rd floor master bedroom and one of its plugs
  • 2nd floor dining room light and one of its plugs
  • AND the power to the kitchen range hood and gas oven

How have we put most of our lives in the hands of breaker 11? Were we asleep at the switch?

Since all the lights are now CFLs the electrical load has never been lower, but still this is kind of whacky, and needs to be fixed. If only we can keep breaker 11 from learning our plans.

January 8, 2009

The Home Stretch

The team slogs through the measuring and carving of the rigid foam, cutting in every bloody slot to make way for every bloody rafter tail to finish this drama free "Quickie" wall. It's always the details that kill you, and Mike is taking on a crazed look. No more coffee for Mike today.

Finished with that, they turn the corner and start stripping the 2nd floor above the front entranceway.

We learn that the two front columns are NOT weight bearing. Just there for looks. That chunk of house is just cantilevered over the abyss. A cantilever would be rocket science for the hacks that built this house (and that field stone foundation).

The electricians arrived and whipped through their work orders:
-Fixed the bizarre basement wiring, organizing and fastening lines to the ceiling and eliminating dead lines.
-Re-wired the rear lights, the front entryway lights, the back deck lights.
-Moved the dryer hook-up for Unit #1 next to the washer for unit #1.....and just as quickly moved it back. I guess that was a mistake.
-Shifted the main electric service connection from the driveway-side around the corner to the front of the house.

The driveway width was always barely acceptable before........in fact if ever a passenger, I normally closed my eyes. Now it will be 5" less acceptable. To avoid the loss of our electric meters (again) to a wayward vehicle, we're shifting the service pick-up to the front and crossing our fingers that it can made to look somewhat less than a festering sore on the house, a wound, a scar, a blight.....not that I'm fixating on the wiring. OK, I am fixating on the wiring.

We are actually so proud of our wiring and electrical service, that we asked for an extra coil to be up there banging against the wall. That's going to get fixed.

We had considered reducing the insulation on that one wall segment to 2" thick, or just 2" thick within 6 ft of the ground, and then transitioning back to 4" to the roof. Sounds fussy and complex doesn't it? Keep it simple. Learn to drive or get off the driveway.

The reflective foil is looking pretty slick.

January 7 is a freezing rain day. No one shows up and the kids leave 2 hours late.

The team returns to work the 8th, finishes stripping the front, starts stripping the last sections of the old siding on the sun room, and rips out the entryway doors.

The doors going in are of standard height, which is shorter than the doors coming out. Some trim surgery is required above the door.

With day's end, the last of the ugliest shingles on Earth await their execution on the peak of the roof. The magnificent Lemieux doors are installed and accessorized with such things as knobs and locks. We are totally unworthy.
More un-insulated voids are found and stuffed. House wrap is applied over sheating.

I don't want to jinx anything here......but... Can I confide in you? Can you keep a secret?
I can actually visualize completion.

January 5, 2009

Basement Archeology II

Just when we were having fun....
What better way to spend the first weekend of the new year than to Shop Vac the basement, inspect the foaming work and look for any air leaks? You should try it. With the plaster shielding finally removed, the first full inspection in 80 years would now be possible. The unusually "cold" cold would make the hunt for air leaks a snap.

First, if you have a minute, a little background on foundations:

Your modern poured concrete foundation, with their "finished" basements, toy rooms, shag carpet, and home theaters, are designed for all those shallow people with weak constitutions. You know the type? Think folks with hoop earrings and cheese whiz. These are people who have trouble committing to anything larger than themselves......like a basement.

Your field stone walled basement, on the other hand, is something akin to the darkest corners of the Bastille. Children will never willingly go into a field stone basement because they know that an under-lit New England basement is where nightmares are born, and sometimes are secretly buried. A field stone wall is a living, breathing, heaving, moving entity just barely held together by a lime-based mortar softer than your fingernail. As they age, the ancient walls poop little piles of lime dust. They form cleaving cracks that several generations of immigrant Italian and Irish labor have toiled to keep stiched together.

How does one maintain a field stone basement? The sage advice fluctuates between, "It's 80 years old, and it's going to survive you, your children, and your grandchildren", to a recommendation for regular annual checks and touch-ups which end only when you die.

The "foundation" of this most recent foundation concern can be seen in the corner behind our state-of-the-art, gleaming laundry center. (Why, you can just about eat off the floor!) Not the 4 ft gaping crack leaking arctic air, no not that. That we can fix. No, what spooked me, was behind that crack. A void opening at the top roughly large enough for Jimmy Hoffa. Truth be known, I almost stuck my whole arm in there, until Jimmy Hoffa came to mind.

Oh no, what to do?
An urgent call to the mason (stone mason not the cult with the protractors) was met with a rapid response, "be there in 30 minutes". The mason arrived, looked around, and said, "ehh, no big deal, we fix it after your project is done. You know, this foundation is 80, and will last another 100 years no problem."

January 3, 2009

Basement Archeology I

Look what we found in the basement.
A new, unused in the box, Underwood Electric Dry Shaver, and as the sign says, "...equal in quality and performance of any $15 shaver".

Manufacturered sometime between 1938 and 1941 just 67 - 70 years ago.
The razor came with a "Lifetime Guarantee Service Card", but since the company, their employees, the salesperson, the customer, and the poor slob who never received this as a gift are all dead......I wondered if the razor itself might still have some life left in it.

The wire insulation had disintegrated, so I rewired it with a new cord set, and electrically taped it up. No on/off switch, just plug it in and hope for the best.

Wouldn't you know it? Not only did I not get electrocuted, I was able to coax it to remove the random arm hair. A 70 year old shaver that jumped to life on its first shave. This is exactly the kind of quality that Americans are capable of assuming that there were any factories left in America still making consumer goods. Well we still make great building materials, like every one of the products used in this project. They will still be on the job keeping this house warm and comfortable, for generations to come.

January 1, 2009

Finally, a Quickie Wall

December 29 - 30, 2008

Finally the wall that we've all been waiting for. No angles, no porches, no challenges, no personality at all, just a quick strip, wrap and full size boards of Dow Tuff-R insulation. Our guys should have been able to go to town on the wall blindfolded, but the weather had a few curve balls up its sleeve. 30 mph gusts.

Pre-Project photo of the wall December 29, 2008: a quick strip Notice the 1st and 2nd floor sealed windows. These are two bathroom windows that were closed off 20 years ago when the duplex was converted to condos. Those contractors from a generation ago, could not be bothered to stuff a little fiberglass next to either bath tub. The voids are stuffed tight this time.

December 30, 2008: Two hours before the Fastened Wrap. Unrolling and attempting to staple 10" wide house wrap in 30 mph winds. It was a bit nuts.....and would have made a great picture.

December 30, 2008: The crew nearly completes cutting and applying two layers of foam and completing the wall before the arrival of the New Year's Eve snow....but not quite.