Making the Grade

Ryan showing the thermal imaging camera with the colored palette in use.

A cold and bitter wind blows outside. Open the door, walk through, and close the door of Desert Rain – immediately you are enveloped in warmth and quiet. Insulating materials in various forms have been applied to the structure this past week. The interior walls have been filled with blown-in cellulose.  The cellulose is comprised of ground up, recycled newspaper. The density of cellulose makes it a superior sound barrier. Initially, spray foam insulation was used on the ceilings and all the exterior walls.  The north wall of the house has 12 inch framing. Spray foam was applied in layers, the first layer, before any electrical or plumbing obstructions were in place.  This created a tight seal. The final coat was applied after the plumbing and electrical inspections.  Cellulose was then used for the remaining few inches of space. UltraTouch Cotton batt insulation is being used on some of the interior walls and ceiling spaces as a sound buffer.  The denim blue batts are made from 80% recycled jeans and cotton fabrics. No fiberglass, asbestos or formaldehyde is used in the batts. Ecobatt insulation is being used in the garages. It is made primarily from sand and nearly 62% post-consumer recycled content.  The binder is not petroleum-based and it has a much lower embodied energy than traditional fiberglass insulation. It does not contain phenol or formaldehyde, elements that are on the Living Building Challenge Red List.  It is an earthy brown color, soft to touch, not scratchy, making installation more comfortable than traditional fiberglass batts. With all the insulation in place it was time to put Desert Rain to the test.

Cellulose being blown into the interior wall. The dark, right side has insulation. The left side of the wall has not yet been filled. Thin fabric is on both sides of the wall to hold the insulation in place.

Will Lebeda with ECI and Ryan Davies with Inline Builders scan a complicated corner with the thermal imaging camera.


Tuesday the house was inspected with a thermal imaging camera.  Ryan Davies with Inline Builders, Will Lebeda with Energy Conservation Insulation, and Jim Fagan, builder with Timberline were at the site to view the results. Ryan uses thermal imaging as an energy auditing tool. Thermal imaging is a non-contact, line of sight technology that can measure temperatures of virtually any surface. The thermal image camera takes pictures of heat rather than light, detecting variables in hot and cold surfaces. Ryan said that thermal imaging cameras have become more available, more affordable, and have better technology than the early versions. They are becoming common as the tool of choice to test the performance of a home in both new construction and retrofit projects.  Ryan was using the thermal imager at Desert Rain to look for consistency in the insulation throughout the house. He specifically targets vulnerable areas, such as corners where several interconnecting building components meet, and bridging, where framing studs or plates create a connection between the inside and outside envelope.  The camera has different color palettes or black, white and gray tones.  The cameras are quite sensitive which Ryan demonstrated by pressing his hand on the wall. The camera then picked up that image left from the heat of his hand.  Since the insulation in Desert Rain is ‘over the top’ and well above standards and code, the thermal imaging revealed very few areas of concern.

Jim Fagan, Will and Ryan check out another wall.

Will said, ‘thermal imaging on the inside only tells part of the story’.  He wants to see an outside scan later when the house is completed.  An outside scan is done after dark.  The thermal image of a well insulated, passive house should only show the windows and doors.  If a house is inefficiently built and insulated it may be possible to see every stud.  Ryan and Will think the Bend community in general has a great group of people who are motivated to choose more energy-efficient building techniques.  Will said that sparks an interest in new products.  Ryan sees the insulation industry in general changing. He said, “education is a big part of it – explaining what we are looking for in an energy audit, talking to people about programs that are available to help retrofit a house, and what technologies and materials are available options’.


Matt Douglas with Earth Advantage Institute setting up the blower door testing equipment.

Desert Rain had another exam on Thursday when a blower door test was conducted.  Blower door tests are the industry standard for evaluating how efficiently a home is sealed.  The test may be used to assess the quality of the building envelope, locate air leakage pathways, assess energy losses from the air leakage, and assess building performance.  Matt Douglas with Earth Advantage Institute conducted the test.  The three primary components of the test are a calibrated, variable speed fan that induces airflow to pressurize and depressurize the building, a mounting system that allows the fan to be placed in a window or door opening creating a seal, and a manometer that is used to simultaneously measure the pressure differentials.  The test depressurizes the air to measure in cubic feet per minute, how much air is leaking into the home. This is then calculated to air exchange per hour (ACH) – the lower the number the tighter the building envelope.  Since the house is not completed there are several areas of obvious air leakage.  Jim and Will  placed tape over the holes on the doors where the hardware has not yet been installed as that would affect the readings.

Jim was excited about the results of the test and sent an e-mail to the Desert Rain team.  He did such a great job summing up the blower door test that I will use his words here:

“A quick update on our blower door test today; we wanted to do this preliminary testing (before walls are closed) so we could address and remedy any problem areas. Our goal for DR is to meet or exceed the Passive House standard of .60 Air Changes per Hour (ACH).
For reference Earth Advantage Certification requires 5.0 ACH, Energy Star and LEED require 4.0 ACH. The three recent Net Zero homes that were built in Northwest Crossing had finished ACH’s of 1.4,1.2, and .96.  Sooooo……drum rolll please …….DR main house without drywall and without under-floor foam insulation, tested today at .65 ACH! The Accessory Dwelling Unit tested at 1.0 ACH. If we blend those proportionally it would be .70 ACH.  What Matt from Earth advantage explained today is that a smaller volume building like the ADU is more difficult to get a lower number, just as a function of how the math equation works. Long story short we were all very excited to get this good of a test at this stage of construction……yeeha!!”

Team members from the Clean Energy Service Corps were visiting the site during the blower door test. They have performing tests and installing insulation as part of their work with Habitat for Humanity homes.

When you enter Desert Rain, you are embraced by warmth and quiet.  The tests that were conducted this week at the site give us an explanation for that inviting feeling.  The thermal imaging and the blower door test are tools used to help evaluate the performance of the building envelope, materials, and installation of those materials.  Desert Rain not only made the grade, it passed those tests with flying colors!

The thermal imaging camera is sensitive and detected a ‘Hi Tom and Barb’ note written on the wall. The camera picked up the image from the heat left by Will’s finger.

Desert Rain owner, Tom Elliott, responsed to the test results:  “Congratulations to the entire team–this is one of many benchmarks we hope to meet as Desert Rain moves toward completion.  Great work!  I think about the contribution of each team member from design to contractor to concrete, framing, windows, insulation and so many more!  I hope every team member can take a moment to savor this small measure of their contribution.”



No Cold Feet at Desert Rain

Twelve degrees F. here at my home outside of Bend today. I am currently renting an old farmhouse with inadequate insulation, low quality double paned windows, arctic air through the electrical outlets, and  ice-cold floors that quickly freeze the feet.  I rarely use the high-cost, high- energy consumption, electric wall heaters.  That leaves me with a pellet stove – warm enough if I’m in the same room, additional layers required in the rest of the house.  While I sit writing in my wool  sweater and booties, I’m thinking of Desert Rain – all the elements of energy efficient home design and building technology that make a home comfortable, no matter the outdoor air temperature.

The ADU received the final application of spray foam insulation a few days ago.

Attention to detail with spray foam insulation ensures an airtight seal.












At the project site yesterday, the Energy Conservation Insulation crew was back with more spray foam insulation.  The process started in July with spraying the ceiling area and around duct work and vent stacks. The initial coat of spray foam insulation in the walls was installed to about half the final thickness. Without the obstructions of wires and pipes, the spray foam can more easily penetrate the wall cavities, creating a better seal.  The electrical and plumbing system work has been in progress throughout the fall.  Mike Wagnon with All Phase Electric Service and Beau Parazoo with Parazoo Plumbing confirmed that both the electrical and plumbing systems passed inspection this past week.  With those approvals in place ECI is working on the final layer of spray foam insulation. Desert Rain will have R-values more than twice the code requirement. ECI also uses an infrared camera to find potential ‘air leaks’ and weak spots in the insulation.  The attention to detail is apparent as spray foam is visible at every location where there is a possible connection to outside air.  The insulation, combined with the whole house caulking that stops air infiltration, contributes to the temperate comfort.

So many wires! The electrical system passed inspection this last week.


Plumbing system in place and passed inspection.












While I covet the idea of good insulation and no cold air infiltration, I am absolutely envious of the infloor hydronic heating system.  The 4″ thick concrete slab is the thermal mass for both the infloor heating and any passive solar gain that permeates the structure.  That concrete retains and radiates the warmth.  The energy efficient heat pump has been working during my last few visits keeping the space warm even without an airtight front door and with construction underway. I can also appreciate the choice of the Loewen windows.  Loewen uses thicker glass than most other window manufacturers. The triple glazed windows consist of two full half-inch air spaces, argon gas, Low E2 technology, a special cladding design to keep exterior metal away from the interior of the window, and edge sealing.  The craftsmanship of the window frame is cabinet quality for a tight seal. The window installation process with pre-flashing details that prevent water and air infiltration is essential.  The results – gradual and uniform transition from outside to inside temperature and energy efficiency.

Outside in the winter cold, work continues on the garage soffits with reclaimed lumber.


Though inside Desert Rain is comfortable, work also continues outside in the bitter, winter weather.  The framers have installed windows and are continuing work on the garage.  They are using more of the reclaimed lumber for the soffits – the same material that is on the main house.  As each element of design is added the garage becomes visually connected to the other structures.  The project site is revealing the ‘compound’ idea that Barb and Tom had envisioned.  It will be a compound of energy efficient dwellings, offering ideal comfort to the people inside – no cold feet here.






Green Foam is Cool

Spray foam insulation in the living room ceiling.

Current temperatures here in Bend, Oregon are soaring above 90 degrees F. What better time to bring up the topic of insulation?  While we often think of insulation as being crucial to keeping out the cold, it is equally as important to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures when there’s a furnace outside.

Spray foam insulation fills all the irregular cavities and flows around obstructions creating an air tight seal.

Spray foam insulation, though not green in color is gaining popularity as a ‘green’ alternative to traditional fiberglass and cellulose insulation systems.  Spray foam provides outstanding building envelope performance by expanding around voids, filling irregular cavities, and creating a seal against air infiltration, the primary source of energy loss.

Did you know that a home that is improperly insulated and sealed, delivers 4500 lbs. of excess greenhouse gases into the air each year? It can also waste 20 percent or more of the energy used to heat and cool the home.


The US Department of Energy studies show that 40% of a home’s energy is lost through walls, doors, windows, and roofs. Buildings using spray foam insulation typically perform at least, 50% more efficiently than buildings using traditional insulation. The result is more constant indoor temperatures allowing decreased use of heat and air conditioning.  While the initial costs of installation may exceed that of fiberglass insulation, spray foam is a long-term, energy and money-saving investment.  Other benefits of spray foam contribute to its rising use. There is no settling or decay or ‘off gassing’ over time.  Spray foam blocks moisture, eliminating mold and mildew growth. The application of spray foam strengthens a building’s structure, as the foam expands and fills the gap between each wall, floor, or roof cavity. As a polyurethane product, spray foam does not act as a nesting ground or a food source for pests and insects. The density of the foam creates a sound barrier.  This all adds up to a healthier, safer, and more comfortable living environment.

The insulated ceiling in Desert Breeze (Accessible Dwelling Unit)

Spray foam is the insulation of choice for Desert Rain. Recently, Desert Rain, the main house and Desert Breeze, the ADU guesthouse received their first round of spray foam insulation. The spray foam used by Energy Conservation Insulation (ECI) on the Desert Rain site is a closed cell, polyurethane foam.

Good Enough for NASA –
The Space Shuttle’s External Tank is covered with closed-cell spray-on foam insulation that serves to insulate the tank before and during launch. It keeps the Shuttle’s liquid hydrogen fuel at minus 423 degrees F and the liquid oxygen tank at minus 297 degrees F. The foam insulation must also be durable enough to endure a 180-day stay at the launch pad, withstand temperatures up  to 115 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity as high as 100 percent, and resist sand, salt, fog, rain, solar radiation and even fungus.    Read more here:


Closed cell- foam insulation is dense, with a small, compact cell structure making it an excellent barrier to air and water vapor. ECI uses foams that do not contain HCFCs, VOCs or formaldehyde, meeting the Living Building Challenge ‘Red List’ requirements and making the insulation systems free of toxic air contaminates.  Polyurethane spray foam typically has an R-value of  R-7 to R-8 per inch. Blown fiberglass insulation is typically only R-2 to R-4.  R-value is the term given to thermal resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the more effective the insulation properties.  Desert Rain will have R-values more than twice the code requirement.

ECI is spraying the foam in stages.  Once the vent stacks and mechanical elements that go through the roof were in place, the ceiling and duct work received layers of spray foam. The walls will initially be sprayed to about half the final thickness.  Any mechanical systems, plumbing and wiring in the wall will then be installed before the final layer of foam is sprayed.  Without the obstructions the spray foam can more easily penetrate the wall cavities, creating a better seal.   ECI uses standard and custom equipment that processes foam through both spray and injection techniques. This allows them to take advantage of numerous chemical systems with varying densities, speeds, closed-cell content, fire rating, vapor permeability, and other desirable environmental characteristics.  ECI considers the principles of heat, air and moisture flow, and how the building envelope interacts with a building’s mechanical systems as well as who occupies the structure.

An example of thermal imaging showing a passive, well insulated home in the front and a traditionally constructed home in the background.

Thermal imaging is used to check for any deficiencies once the insulation has been sprayed.  In a conversation with Will Lebeda, owner of ECI, he stated, ‘my business is all about optimal levels – using the best products and techniques to make the home as energy-efficient and comfortable as possible’.

The spray foam insulation will be a significant addition to the other elements that contribute to the comfort and efficiency of the passive design of Desert Rain. Ninety degrees or nine degrees, – Desert rain is also – ‘all about optimal levels’.

The insulated ceiling in the living/kitchen area.