John Dennis Murphey, AIA, used to specify his exterior walls the way everyone else did—with 2x4 studs, fiberglass insulation, sheathing, and so on—but very little about his walls is the same anymore. Today he designs high-performing exterior walls that are better because the highly variable climate in metropolitan Washington, D.C., demands it.

“We're in an area where you don't know what it's going to be outside,” says the principal of Chevy Chase, Md.-based Meditch Murphey Architects. “We're in the middle [of the Atlantic Coast], so it could be cold, rainy, or hot and humid.”

outer limits The building envelope is perhaps the least sexy topic to discuss with a client, but few areas of a house are more important. As the first line of defense against the elements, the wall (and roof) is of utmost importance, but many design professionals overlook elements that could have potentially damaging consequences.

“Not being careful about keeping the walls watertight—that's, by far, the single biggest error” design professionals make, says architect Peter L. Pfeiffer, FAIA, of Barley & Pfeiffer Architects in Austin, Texas. “It's not just another thing you have to do; [keeping the moisture out] is one of the most important things you have to do.” But it's more than a matter of moisture protection, says Pfeiffer, who's also a building scientist and green design consultant. Architects must design for “total wall efficiency” based on their regional climate.

“If you're in a very cold climate, having high R-value is clearly going to benefit you,” Pfeiffer says. “Having something like a solar radiation barrier probably isn't going to be all that important, but a good air-sealed wall is very important.” And because almost all homeowners use air conditioning in the summer, the house has to be tight and efficient to contain the cooling, he adds.

Galen Ohmart, AIA, LEED AP, has developed specs that work well for his rainy Oregon climate. “I like ICF, aerated concrete, and Faswall [by Philomath, Ore.-based ShelterWorks], which is made with wood fiber and concrete,” says the principal of SOLARC Architecture and Engineering in Eugene and Portland. If Ohmart is doing wood framing, he thermally separates the inside wall from the outside. “I like using staggered-stud framing with 2x4s on a 2x6 or 2x8 plate,” he says. “Then I prefer sprayed foam insulation, which really fills the cavity between the studs.” The staggered method, he says, breaks thermal bridging because studs never touch the inside wall. If cost is an issue, he foams the first 2 inches to seal the building, then uses fiberglass for the rest of the cavity.

Angela M. Dean, AIA, LEED AP, principal of AMD Architecture in Salt Lake City, says she optimizes passive solar for her mild climate. She also specifies ICF for basements and Faswall or structural insulated panels for the main structure. “It's going well, but it's not the least expensive option,” she says, though it allows the wall to breathe. Dean is also a fan of 2x6 framing with blown-in foam or cellulose insulation to cut thermal bridging. “By code, you can still get away with 2x4 framing, but it's not a good idea,” she says.

brand-new way Washington's heat and humidity, and its moderately cold temperatures, mean Meditch Murphey's walls must be highly insulated and high-performing, which is why Murphey keeps refining his construction methods. In the 1980s he switched to 2x6 studs, and about a year ago he started using closed-cell foam insulation. “We like that [foam] is a moisture barrier and a smart barrier,” he says. “It works both ways.”

Like many architects, Murphey favors closed-cell foam because it offers high insulation value and tightly seals wall cavities. “Leaks bring in humidity, and humidity brings in lawyers,” he says. He's doing more rainscreens, which he says “allow the building to dry out, and, in theory, stop the wind and reduce the pressure differential.” He also has adopted a process that eliminates traditional sheathing. “We use metal bracing to stiffen the studs and 2-inch rigid foam board outside, and then we apply the housewrap,” he explains.

The technique, sometimes referred to as “outsulation,” is becoming popular with building scientists. “The concept is that you're not just putting insulation between the structural members, but also around the structural members to protect the building from being exposed to the outside,” Pfeiffer explains. “It cuts down on thermal conductivity.”

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