Collaboration between Chemours, BASF, and eleV8 Design+Build leads to a Five Star house in the Lone Star State
By Jen Kramer
Austin, Texas is known for being a little “unconventional,” perhaps a little more cutting-edge than the rest of the state – sometimes more than the rest of the nation. The city’s unofficial slogan is “Keep Austin weird” and predictably they aren’t afraid of the avant-garde. After all, Austin is the birthplace of SXSW® (South by Southwest, for those not in the know), an annual festival celebrating music, film, and progressive technology that occurs every March and attracts celebrities and top innovators from around the world.
This willingness to embrace progress extends, not surprisingly, to construction in Austin. In fact, Chris Little, the President and Owner of EleV8 Design+Builders not only embraces cutting-edge building science, he specifies it.
“We aren’t the only designer/builder in Austin to use spray polyurethane foam,” he states. “But we are [to my knowledge] the only one to use closed-cell.”
This distinction happened for two reasons: One based on marketing, the other based on Little being the first to explore a new technology.
“Certainly there is a premium cost associated with closed-cell spray foam,” Little explains. “The problem in this market; however, stems from marketing perceptions. Closed-cell foam creates an effective vapor barrier. Companies used to run campaigns [in this market] stating that you didn’t need to have a vapor barrier in a hot, humid environment. Well, as we have discovered, through our many high-performance designed structures, this has been debunked.”
Both Little and his chief architect, Andrew Wagner, are Home Energy Rating System (HERS) certified. The firm takes an active interest in tracking the energy-efficiency of their designs and the performance of the materials that they specify.
Of the house featured in this article, Little states, “We had a design in mind for a high-end, spec home that would be built without a specific buyer in mind, but with all the bells and whistles when it came to luxury appointments,” Little says. “Included in this design were requirements for energy-efficiency, comfort, and insulation. A huge component of the energy-efficiency factor was that it be high-performance and sustainable. This, of course led us to SPF and to BASF, who we had worked with before.”
BASF informed the architects about their collaboration with Chemours to create a next-generation blowing agent that would allow their foam to not only provide excellent thermal insulative performance and improved R-Value, but also would feature an extremely low global warming potential (GWP), as well as zero-Ozone depletion potential.
The new blowing agent, Opteon® 1100 is nonflammable, has zero VOCs, low vapor thermal conductivity, and a boiling point of 91°F.
“This product really aligned with the high-performance / sustainability requirement that we had given ourselves for the spec home. The Opteon® 1100 blowing agent with the low GWP was a huge driver for us to specify BASF Spraytite® closed-cell foam,” explains Little.
And so the spec house that was going to be a “green” challenge for eleV8, became the first field application of the new collaborative SPF. On a grand scale.
First Field Application: Go Big Or Go Home
Austin may be cutting-edge, it is also the capital of Texas, where the motto is “Everything is bigger,” and this first field application of the new BASF foam with the Chemours blowing agent was no exception.
“To truly get a sense of how energy-efficient all the materials involved could be, we built the home to a luxury-scale, with all the trimmings,” Little says. “The house is fifty-one hundred square feet, with five bedrooms, five-and-a-half bathrooms, a pool, the works.”
But how would the new foam spray?
Installed Building Products (IBP), a national insulation and spray foam contractor, was contracted to install the seamless air barrier onto all the house walls and the roof deck. As with all his home designs, Little also specified an unvented attic because “Sealing the bottom of the roof deck with foam drastically reduces the temperature differences by impeding the ‘stack effect’ and creating a more effective environment for HVAC equipment and ductwork,” he explains.
John Werner was the IBP installer on site. Suited up and spraying, the IBP crew could see little difference between the new foam and the “old” reliable blends that they were used to spraying with such success. “The product was very user friendly,” Werner says. “It was seamless and we had no issues.”
Little concurs; elaborating that in overseeing the application the crew reported that, “spraying the material was similar to the ‘old’ foam with a uniform spray and the ability to accurately control the depth. Obviously, the slower expansion rate is due in part, to the nature of a closed-cell foam, but it still seemed like the crew was able to more easily spray and control this foam.”
Little also notes that the material provided good yields, more than expected, stating that several barrels of materials were left over and returned to BASF.
“This project shows that closed-cell spray polyurethane foam may be expensive, but what it does for us in return is HUGE,” Little says counting off the value adds, the excitement rising in his voice with each number. “One, it provides superior insulating value. Two, as an air barrier it reduces air infiltration into our homes and creates a healthier indoor living environment. Three, where the cost savings – actually the cost shifting – really comes into play is here: You are spending more on insulation, BUT because of the superior enclosure system that you have created, you now can significantly optimize your HVAC system. For example, this spec home had five-and-a-half tons of cooling design specifications, which equals about 1,000-square-feet-per-ton, but the industry norm is 500- to 600-square-feet-per-ton, so that means we were able to cut the mechanical equipment size in half. You purchase per ton per BTU output, so this represents significant monetary savings. By cutting the size in half, you offset and bring the cost down.”
Good luck trying that with fiber.
Little recognizes that fact. “Other materials only achieve one of three things that we need out of material. Fiber only attributes to R-Value, but SPF can also achieve an air barrier, sound attenuation, and superior thermal resistance, and in areas where it is needed, spray foam can achieve vapor control. We don’t need it in this hot, humid climate here in Texas, but they do need it in cold climates.”
Little is such a firm believer in closed-cell foam that in his design he “implemented advanced framing to decrease the use of lumber to not only decrease lumber costs, but also to increase thermal performance (or total U-Value) of the assembly. We pulled out wood, which is a terrible insulator and put in more SPF, which is a superior insulator.” He continues, “Another big intangible benefit that comes with using closed-cell spray foam is the structural integrity that is gained through sealing the various surfaces – the studs to the sheaths, the top plates to the roof rafters, all of these aspects that now also give our project additional performance against wind uplift.”
Five Star Project In The Lone Star State
“SPF absolutely helped us achieve the very difficult Gold Efficiency rating within the third-party-rated GREEN Building program,” Little contends. “SPF helped us maintain that level of efficiency necessary to achieve Near-Net-Zero or Net-Zero-Capable rating.”
The project was awarded Five Star Level, the highest honor given in the GREEN Building program. “GREEN Building is the oldest building program in the country,” says Little. “In fact, LEED is based on the original Austin GREEN Building requirements. The measuring requirements are very tight in GREEN Building, in fact, they are currently the tightest requirements out there.” This means that the BASF Spraytite® closed-cell SPF insulation with Opteon® blowing agent is not only green for the environment, it will also save homeowners green as well through energy efficiency.
While 12 months of utility bills were not available at the time this article was written, based on energy modeling, the projected energy consumption for this home predicted an average utility bill in the range of $220 per month.
“eleV8 Design+Builders is excited to utilize a new SPF system that will significantly help reduce energy consumption, improve durability, and indoor air quality, while reducing environmental impact,” Little says. “We were excited to work with BASF and Chemours on this spec house and should the project application create a need or a want for a closed-cell foam, we would look forward to working with them again.”•
Photos courtesy of Chemours