Building the ultimate wall to break down sustainability barriers

Over a series of weeks, the Timberjay will be exploring how home builders can move forward in their projects with a sustainable initiative. Looking through the lens of a Northwoods local’s sustainable construction expertise, you can begin to construct the outline for your upcoming building, guest house, remodel, or otherwise that will, ultimately, benefit the greater environmental good. Step One? Build a wall. That is, the Perfect Wall.

The mark of a stalwart home is the exterior- the envelope, the encasement, the packaging, so to speak. This build is what keeps onlookers guessing at the square footage, the number of levels, and may even give an insight into the builder’s agenda. In the case of Andy Hill, General Contractor and soon-to-be retirement home owner, the envelope, or what Hill refers to as “the Perfect Wall,” a term previously coined by the Cold Weather Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, holds a greater purpose than to serve his own benefit. “It’s no big deal for me to build this house,” says Hill. “What matters is getting other people dialed in on how to build this house.”

His new home sits on the far east side of the Trezona Trail in Ely and overlooks bikers, walkers, and roller skaters, offering a subtle reminder of the role sustainable building can play in our 21st Century age of climate concern and materialism. In designing his home, one of the first considerations Hill was required to make was how the building envelope would contribute to the site’s eco-friendly status. This is where the Perfect Wall begins; “What makes a Perfect Wall is that all the control layers are on the outside of the frame,” says hill. “Therefore, the insulation is unbroken by framing members.”

Have we lost you yet? Let’s break down this wall before we build it up any further. Here’s the skinny:

  1. A Perfect Wall is made up of insulating foam and a vapor barrier, which are placed
    exterior to a wall’s studs and frame. The furring strip and the siding finish off the job.
  2. With a traditional wall, insulation is placed on the interior side between the studs, which allows for a significant transfer of warm and cold air between the resulting gaps in the insulation. This means more energy to heat or cool a home, and more cash flow to fund the effort.
  3. Similarly, the vapor barrier – or the barrier that keeps water vapor from collecting inside a building’s walls- is traditionally set on the inside. When placed on the inside, humans’ other desired interior amenities, such as wall outlets, require us to drill holes through the vapor barrier. This too creates the potential for warm and cold air to be more easily exchanged between the outdoor and indoor environments. The Perfect Wall bypasses these deficiencies and offers a sustainable alternative.
  4. A Perfect Wall has insulation exceeding the rating of R20, which is the rating of a
    standard wall. That’s construction speak for: A Perfect Wall helps to naturally manage
    climate control.

All of the walls comprising Hill’s new home will feature the Perfect Wall style. While a single piece of wood has a rating of R1 per inch, and a standard building wall maxes out at R20, every wall in Hill’s home will have a rating of R92. However, sustainability doesn’t stop with a design. Hill went above and beyond what many may consider a typical environmental-friendly threshold when he sought out sponsors for used building materials. Nelson Roofing out of Hibbing, for example, is providing Hill with salvaged insulation sheets. “The sheets typically cost $28.00 a piece,” says Hill, and included that the sheets would have otherwise been thrown away. Upon completion, 90% of the home’s insulation will have come from recycled material. By focusing on reuse, says Hill, “the Planet’s resources don’t have to generate new product to keep up with our
buildings.”

As Hill passes the baton onto other home builders and remodelers in the Northwoods, use his guidance to remember that your home’s walls do more than separate the cool indoors from the steaming, dense summer air; they offer a starting point for designers to build upon, and a framework for a sustainable future.