Creating Sustainable Rainscreen Building Envelopes: It’s Like Motorcycles and Rain Suits!

Sustainable building isn’t possible without moisture management.  And for those forced to live or work in a building without moisture management, life becomes a health and safety nightmare.  Bold statements, but totally supportable.

According to the HUD’s Path Project, “Moisture, in all of its physical forms, is commonly regarded as the single greatest threat to durability and the long-term performance of the housing stock.  Excessive exposure to moisture is not only a common cause of significant damage to many types of building components and materials, it also can lead to unhealthy indoor living environments.  A long list of serious adverse effects can result from moisture problems in houses.  There is wide agreement that successful management of moisture in its various forms is essential for houses (buildings) to be durable, safe and energy efficient.”  In its 2004 report, the Path Projected listed the following outcomes of uncontrolled moisture in the building envelope:

  • Decay of wood and corrosion of metals
  • Infestation by termites and other destructive insects
  • Negative impacts on indoor air quality
  • Growth of mold, mildew and other biological contaminants
  • Reduced building material strength
  • Expansion/contraction damage to materials
  • Reduced thermal resistance of wet insulation
  • Premature failures of paints and coatings
  • Damage to building contents
  • Negative effects on building aesthetics

Enter the key phrase sustainable rainscreen building envelope into Google and you will get more than 18,000 results, including MTI’s “Drainable is Sustainable” presentation delivered at last fall’s technical meeting of the Sealant Waterproofing and Restoration Institute.  A key point of the presentation is that a moisture management solution for the rainscreen building envelope requires a systemic/holistic approach.  There is no single magic bullet; it takes a well-thought-out, coordinated system of products and processes designed and implemented by a team of professionals working collaboratively at every stage of the project to reach a successful outcome.

To illustrate the importance of a coordinated system in moisture management, I used the analogy of a motorcyclist riding towards an approaching storm in that presentation.

“It’s a nice sunny day, so I decide to go for a motorcycle ride.  Being an experienced motorcyclist, I always have raingear in my saddlebags because it’s summer and anything is possible!  As I move through the countryside, I notice that the sky is darkening and a storm is imminent so I pull over and put on my rain suit.

In a matter of minutes, the rain starts.  It’s light at first but soon becomes heavy, and it’s coupled with a driving wind.  Rain is forced around my windshield and into my eyes greatly limiting my ability to see the road.  Water cascades off my helmet and runs down the back of my neck soaking my shirt.  The water on the highway flies upward leaking into my boots through the seams and around the tongue.  To make matters even worse, it’s a hot, humid day so beads of condensation start to form on the inside of my rain suit making for an increasingly miserable ride!  Obviously, even though I thought I was prepared for rain, I hadn’t looked at all possibilities.”

Even though I had a collection of items designed to keep me dry, I hadn’t thought out the outcome fully, and I hadn’t properly combined the items into a functioning system.  If I had used goggles or a helmet with a visor, I could have seen the road better.  If I had used the hood on my jacket and worn it under the helmet, I wouldn’t have gotten rain down my back.  If I had used a rain jacket with vents, air could have moved around inside the system and reduced the condensation. Finally, had I worn rain boots with my rain pants lapped over the top of the boots and fastened snugly, I wouldn’t have got wet from the water spraying up from the road.

So what can be learned from this analogy about the importance of a system in solving the building envelope moisture management problem?  It takes many products, put on in the right order and at the right time, to create a positive result. We need to look at how many factors are in play and then employ several moisture management solutions as part of a system to solve the problem.

This same idea of a coordinated, multi-component solution can be applied to the people designing, specifying and constructing a building.  Gone are the days when designers, specifiers and contractors could successfully do their jobs in a vacuum.  There are just too many new products, processes and complex codes for the “Lone Ranger” approach to work.  Everyone must collaborate and communicate if a sustainable, healthy building is the goal.

Those are my thoughts; I welcome yours!

HD Big Twin

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But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

I don’t know if Frank Lloyd Wright read Romeo and Juliet or not, but the quote (used as this article’s title) certainly rings true with the importance Wright placed on windows in a building.  In his 1943 autobiography Wright wrote, “Glass, this super material, will awaken in us the desire to escape from the prettified cavern of our present domestic life and to see the clear countenance of nature.”  Wright’s goal for his personally-designed windows was to form a marriage between the interior of the house and the nature outside.

Wright’s art glass featured abstract natural patterns that combined well with the natural geometry of his homes and commercial structures.  While the patterns used in his art glass windows are not specifically identifiable by their natural shape, patterns based on sumac and wisteria are recognizable.

Earlier this spring I wrote a bit about the restoration of Wright’s last remaining hotel, the Park Inn Hotel in Mason City, Iowa.  Scheduled to reopen in about a month from now, visitors will be treated to both original Wright-designed windows and new windows based on his designs.  A glass restoration expert from nearby Clear Lake, John Larsen, will have restored or remade a total of 62 stained glass windows by the time he is done with his work at the Park Inn Hotel.  Seventy-two additional windows for the hotel’s guest rooms were manufactured by Andersen Windows of Minnesota.  As can be seen in the accompanying photos, Wright intended to let in a lot of Mother Nature through the many windows that were incorporated in the original design.

One of the greatest stories of the Park Inn restoration project was the discovery of Wright’s original skylight.  Removed many years ago during one of the many remodels done has the hotel declined in prominence, the window wound up in a Mason City home.  The current owner of the home had always wondered where his beautiful skylight had come from, and when the remodeling of the Park Inn Hotel revealed an old frame the same size has his skylight, the connection was made.  He and his wife donated the skylight so that it could once again rest proudly in its original home.  Returning the window to its spot on the north side of the Park Inn Hotel was no easy task as it consists of 25 3×3 panels and weighs several hundred pounds.  (View image of window)

To see more about the restoration of the Park Inn Hotel, view a movie created by Arian Schuessler.  To learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright’s art glass windows, visit the Oakbrook Esser Studios site.