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The evolution of enclosures and the evolution of my thinking

Sometime after WWI, milk doors were standard issue built into the walls of most homes in North America for daily home milk delivery. My son recently bought a 1950s bungalow and of course, it came with a milk door that’s long since been covered up. I’ve visited thousands of homes in my capacity as a home energy auditor and I always looked fondly on these little doors – always tempted to open them just in case someone left a bottle in there or some other memento. Times change, economies change and social values evolve.

There are so many features about my son’s “new” 1952 house that seem like bad ideas: massive walls made of cinder block with cores that line up from the footing to the rafters (for more expedient convective heat loss), the “whole house ventilation exhaust fan” in the attic*, low pitched roof with rafters that scarcely allow for 4 inches of continuous insulation above the ceiling drywall, ceiling joists covered full depth with vermiculite** and a floor slab thickness that varies from 1.5 to 3 inches poured over furnace slag as the aggregate which took a long time to settle causing the slab to fracture like a puzzle. In short, there’s a lot to get hot and bothered by in this house for a guy who spent the last 20 years testing the best of the best high performance homes and renovations in southern Ontario.

I could go on but the gist of my message isn’t a complaint about an older building, it’s rather how short sighted I was and how much I took for granted the details sweated by the professionals I had the luxury of working with. As an energy auditor, I always had a quick answer and swung from the hips with the solution, but when my turn came to make decisions with my son about his house, I was caught in a morass of decision making paralysis. I wasn’t the role model I wanted to be.

From 2012 to 2017, I was lucky enough to have worked with many in the PBC community testing countless near passive houses and I always knew that I was standing on the shoulders of giants who were quietly making huge changes with their progressive clients in how buildings were assembled. However, I was ignorant of the quantum leap they had to make to go from a scarcely Ontario Building Code compliant build to a higher performance build. What I missed was the countless creative solutions to complex details, the collected wisdom and the sheer effort needed to push these projects to completion on the trades’ side of the equation.

Take for example the goal of using low embodied energy materials especially where there’s a huge volume of material like insulation, cellulose is a very attractive material. The issue is it’s hard to find qualified people to install the product let alone finding an installer who actually cares about doing a proper installation. Another example might be where existing walls are kept in a renovation to avoid taxation but now you have to incorporate large slabs into your building that make a continuous air barrier system a bit more challenging.

In the end, the milk door box didn’t survive 40 years of milk delivery, but what I do know is that perfecting the building envelope and detailing for durability isn’t a trend, but a defining requirement in buildings of the future that need to last more than 150 years. Climate change is the equivalent of WWIII and we all need to change, from our personal to our professional lives. So to all of you tradespeople, designers, architects and engineers who have been sweating the details, thank you for sharing your insights with me and thank you for pushing the sector towards greater performance; I hope your children will see you are the heroes you are.


* For the record, the “whole house exhaust fan” might work in some climates, for a few days of the year, but in Canada, they should be categorically avoided. ** Does anyone want a potting soil amender?

Greg Labbé has been working in the high performance building industry for over 20 years including 5 years with the BlueGreen Group conducting air tightness tests and enclosure diagnostics. Greg is currently a Building Science Research Lab Technician at Ryerson University. Greg created High Performance Design Meets Boots on the Ground while at the BlueGreen Group and passed the “BOG” torch to PBC in 2018. In other words he is the BOG Father.

Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC. Photo by Nolan Issac on Unsplash