Tag Archives: U Value

  • The worst building you can build by law

    "We live in an era when our homes have the potential to be energy efficient, comfortable and affordable places to live, despite ever-increasing fuel prices. In the past, it could be argued that we didn't know how to achieve this but today we have no excuses. Yet, on the whole, we continue to build new houses to a pathetic standard, and our refurbishments commonly concentrate on kitchens and bathrooms, rather than investing to provide warm and pleasant places to live without ruinously high fuel bills." this is an extract from the blog of Ben Adam-Smith a campaigning documentary filmmaker and creator of a film about poor quality building called 'The Future of Housing ' there is a short  clip below to help illustrate how poor quality construction can directly affect us all.

    There is mounting evidence to suggest that buildings that are being designed to achieve thermal performance standards, including standards set out within the current UK Building Regulations, are in some cases consuming in excess of 70-100% more energy than the predicted values.[1]

    Plus, some would say more worryingly, that the Building Regulations do not set an adequate base level of performance and facilitate the delivery of many buildings of poor quality into the UK housing market.

    But….don’t blame the Building Regulations they are not designed to deliver quality they are a set of minimum standards, all too often they are described, used and promoted as a benchmark; something to aim for:  we must remove the presumption prevalent in the UK that they provide some form of performance guarantee……….they don’t.

    The Building Regulations contain 14 individual sections that, in their own words, ‘contain the rules for building work in new and altered buildings to make them safe and accessible and limit waste and environmental damage’[2] nothing there about quality or performance then.

    airtight-house-diagramWithin the Building Regulations, Part L is the section on ‘Conservation of Fuel and Power’ which relates to the thermal efficiency/performance of buildings. This is important because it covers the building's potential (target) level of efficiency and therefore comfort, it also has implications for running costs and is linked to (largely erstwhile) carbon reduction targets.

    In particular section 43 of Part L deals specifically with a buildings air permeability, or airtightness, recognising this as a major factor in a buildings energy performance Interestingly the word “airtightness” wasn’t even a word used in connection with domestic buildings, until it was introduced and formalised (through building regulations in the early 2000s) and has now become a key part of Part L, section 43 goes on to describe how this the means by which a buildings efficiency can be measured. Compliance with Part L is mandatory throughout the UK[3] it applies to new buildings and certain types of work in existing buildings and is there to enforce minimum standards of energy efficiency.

    air-test-graphicAirtightness is measured as m3/ (h.m2)@50Pa given as the flow of air (m3/hour) in or out of the building, per square metre of the building internal envelope at a reference pressure of 50 Pascal’s between the inside and outside of the building.  Current Building Regulations require 10 m3/ (h.m2)@50Pa, for a new build property, that’s 10 cubic metres of exchanged air per hour at 50 Pascal’s. This is a low standard by anyone’s reckoning, examples of just how bad this is, in reality, are easily found. A new build terraced house with a tested result of 9.1 m3/ (h.m2)@50Pa passes Building Regulations but the tester pointed out (see clip below) that with external wind at an average of 20mph it would take just 6 and a half minutes to exchange all the heated air from within the building resulting in an expected increase in annual heating bills of around 50%.[4]

    The short video below is an extract from The Future of Housing which clearly illustrates the point made above, it's well worth a watch, most people who watch this have exactly the same astonished and angry reaction as the owner of the house.

    future-of-housing-clip

    So how do you reduce wastage and increase the energy efficiency of a building, in simple terms insulate well and prevent leakage..... and that sits right at the heart of what needs doing.

    In order to arrive at some basic elements that would apply to most building situations, we asked the technical team at Pro Clima if they could come up with a simple list of the “workhorses” of airtightness? Could they find six to eight products that would cover most eventualities? The answer came back as a resounding yes.

    First two very pared down observations about airtightness.

    • Airtightness is effected on the inside of a building, on the warm or internal side of the insulation; the function is to prevent leakage. Variously called vapour check, vapour barrier, vapour control, or airtight membrane
    • Wind and weatherproofing is effected on the outside of a building the function is to prevent adverse weather penetrating the building fabric and reducing the insulation's capacity to perform and prevent deterioration in the building fabric. Variously called vapour control, breather membrane, vapour open membrane, vapour permeable membrane, vapour open underlay and sometimes additionally described as being diffusion open.

    air-movment-and-insulationTogether this ‘wrap’ for the insulated layer allows moisture control geared to our climate with protection from the elements on the outside and leakage prevention on the inside. The airtightness won’t increase the U value of the insulation but it does ensure that the insulation functions to its optimum performance and more likely to achieve designed U Value. It cannot be overemphasised that airtightness and vapour control go hand in hand they work together to solve different problems.

    Airtightness means designing and installing a continuous seal around the internal fabric of the external envelope to eliminate unwanted draughts. Once the airtightness layer is in place and sealed with flexible and durable tapes, seals and glues, it ensures that the insulation functions to its optimum performance, saving energy and drastically reducing carbon emissions for the lifetime of the building. The airtight layer also ensures that interstitial condensation risk is minimised, ensuring no structural damage from moisture, mould, rot and damp.

    Here is the workhorse list

    1. Internal airtightness membrane Intello Plus
    2. External roofing membrane Solitex Plus
    3. External wall membrane for use with timber frame Solitex Fronta
    4. Universal jointing tape Tescon Vana
    5. Sealing tape for windows Tescon Profil
    6. Sealing tape for masonry and integrating into plaster Contega Solido

    Six products that cover pretty much all the basic requirements, there are various accessories such as grommets, stoppers and glue that will be required but the bulk of the work is done with these six products.

    How to use these products is neatly described in our “Making Airtightness Simple” [sic] guide available to download here

    If you start with the basic principles and keep the products to a proven few then you will be less susceptible to industry ‘noise’ creating confusion or quandary over what product to choose. It would be disingenuous to say the there won’t be times when technical advice is be needed and that is easily available through our technical support team. What it does mean is that for those manufacturers who do it well and make it look simple, take them on trust you are benefiting from years of robust and thorough testing and R&D arriving at a proven and purpose specific product. Their expertise should be your comfort.

    Our thanks to Ben Adam-Smith at Regen Media for his quotes and permission to use a clip from the programme see the whole film by clicking here

    [1] Lessons from Stamford Brook, Understanding the Gap between Designed and Real Performance, Evaluating The Impact Of An Enhanced Energy Performance Standard On Load-Bearing Masonry Domestic Construction, Partners in Innovation Project: CI 39/3/663, Report Number 8 – Final Report, Leeds Metropolitan University

    [2] DCLG Policy paper 2010 to 2015 government policy: building regulation

    [3] Check local variations for Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland

    [4] The Future of Housing Paul Jennings 2016

  • A brief history of Building Regulation U-Values – with examples

    In this post, we look at how U-Values within Building Regulations have changed over that last 50 years and how that has affected the thermal efficiency of a new build.

    The theme of Building Regulations and U-Values is something we have commented on for many years, the Regulations, especially Part L1A is designed to set minimum standards for the conservation of fuel and power, but they are just that. For those who are looking to build energy efficient homes with good indoor air quality, the Regulations are simply part of the process as the design of such buildings will necessarily far exceed these minimum standards. We have looked at this subject many times in our blog, one of the most popular was an article that described ‘The worst building you can build by law’ subtitled Building Regulations are no guarantee of quality. However it is a fact that the Building Regulations do influence behaviour across the sector and can act as a lowest legal common denominator for any building, exceeding them for many developers has to be a considered choice, one that carries the certainty of return on investment so many still default to ‘Regs compliant’ only building. For this reason, we thought it interesting to look at how the regulations have changed over the past 50 years and how this has affected the baseline performance of our housing stock.

    The theme for this article came from a piece originally written by Jon Davies and published on www.great-home.co.uk  in this post we look at his observations and examples with comment and opinion by Paul Kalbskopf MRICS Senior Building Control Surveyor Wiltshire County Council and ATTMA Level 2 Airtightness Tester Paul Jennings of Aldas.

    In his original article Jon Davies points out that the age of your house is a fairly reliable indicator of its likely thermal efficiency especially if no upgrades have been made to the fabric of the building – although many houses have been extended or otherwise significantly modified over the years. Over the last 50 years, the level of insulation required in Building Regulations has changed drastically to reflect both the need to reduce heating bills and increasing demand for comfort from homeowners. Below we consider how insulation levels have changed and what difference it has made to energy use.

     Determining Factors on Space Heating Demand
    When heating any space there are two critical factors that help determine how efficiently it can be done.  The two factors also interact, typically in a detrimental way, and this has been a major cause of the “performance gap”, about which so much has been written in recent years.

    The first factor is the thermal efficiency of the structure, and within Building Regulations this is largely defined by U-Values for which there are target ‘pass’ values for the key elements: walls, floors, roofs & windows and doors. U-values are arrived at by calculating the combined individual lambda values of all the section components to arrive at an overall number, the number given in the Regulations will be the minimum required.  It is generally accepted that the lower the U-value of an element of a building's fabric, the more slowly heat can pass through it, and so the better it performs as an insulator. The u-value is measured in W/m²K (Watts per square metre per Kelvin) the figure tells you how much energy is lost for every 1°C difference between the two sides of the material. Very broadly, the better (i.e. lower) the U-value of a buildings’ fabric, the less energy is required to maintain comfortable conditions inside the building. If you have a material with a poor u-value then you can generally improve it with insulation - broadly speaking the more insulation you put in the lower the u-value although it’s important to note that thermal bridging can ruin the performance of any installed insulation, make sure these are checked.

    The second factor is air leakage, whether uncontrolled draughts or ventilation heat losses. Heating an insulated space may keep it warm but (and possibly more importantly) if the building leaks then the heat will be lost and the efficiency plummets. Too much air leakage and we lose our expensively heated air much faster than we need to, resulting in bigger heating bills and colder rooms. The circulation of fresh air to maintain good indoor air quality is essential,  so the elimination of leaks coupled with controlled ventilation is one factor in determining an associated requirement within Building Regulations for a certain number of air changes per hour as houses get better insulated to reduce heat loss through the fabric then the heat lost through air leakage starts to become more significant.

    Changes in u-values over the years

    The table below shows the u-values required by Building Regulations for each building component in each decade. Building Regulations actually change more frequently than that (about every 5 years or so and each part of the regulations may be updated at a different time) but it gives a good guide to what has happened over the last 50 years. Highlighted cells indicate the first time the U-Value requirement for a component was strengthened.[1]

    Building Regulations U-Value minimum standards 1970 – present*


    *
    New Build Regulations Part L1A https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/540326/BR_PDF_AD__L1A__2013_with_2016_amendments.pd 

    See also Appendix 1. Below on ‘Limiting fabric parameters’

    Typical 1970s built terraced houses, despite the small size of the house they have front and back gardens with ample parking bays nearby. many of the houses on this estate also have separate garages.

    The oil crisis of the 1970s forced the government to think seriously for the first time about reducing energy usage through regulation. The crisis drove changes in the 1976 Building Regulations which set minimum insulation levels for the first time. Before 1976 the standard cavity wall had not changed much since the end of the 19th Century, although solid, thermally less efficient, walls were still being built into the 1930s. Walls and ceilings were the first target areas with floors and windows following on later. Until 1994 you could still put a single glazed window in a house (u-value 4.8). When double glazing became a requirement the standard was set at 3.1 (what the double glazing industry could achieve at the time). In 2002 stricter regulations were introduced for windows for both new houses and also for replacement windows in existing houses.[2]

     In his article ‘Building Regulations and U-values: How have they changed?’ Jon Davies gives a good example of the impact of the changes in u-values over the years, he provides the following example for a house built in each decade. He uses, in this example, a simplified 3-bedroomed two storey house, a rectangular box 10 metres long x 5 metres wide x 5 metres high (the pitched roof is not counted as part of the house as the floor of the loft is insulated).

    Jon’s example works through the consequences and comparative outcomes for each decade when building to prevailing Building Regulations, he also takes into account air leakage as described in the Regulations as this has an effect on the overall performance and subsequent heating cost. Needless to say, this is an ‘on paper’ exercise and as both he and Paul Kalbskopf points out later ‘as built’ will generally provide poorer results.

    Jon assumes that the occupants try to keep all the rooms at 20°C for 15 hours per day whilst the outside temperature is at zero (0°C); that the floor is a suspended timber floor with clay underneath. The house is constructed with a cavity wall construction insulated to the standard prevailing at the time of build; he also assumes that air leakage is equivalent to an optimistic 1.5 air changes per hour (using this figure to compare ventilation heat loss with fabric heat loss).

    Using the dimensions above gives the following for the simplified 3-bedroomed house:

    • Ground Floor Area: 50m²
    • Upstairs Ceiling Area:50m²
    • External wall area: 125m² (excluding windows/doors)
    • Windows/doors area: 25m²
    • House volume: 250m³

    This simplified house is not that different to a house built today; today’s average house has shrunk a little over the years in length to be 8.6m with a 5.2m width.

    So what is the impact of improving u-values on the heat loss from this house? 

    Building Fabric Heat Loss by Decade Built To Building Regulations

    Jon Davies makes the calculations in the table below in order to show the comparative difference that each change in building regulation has made. The calculations he uses are necessarily simplified based on pure fabric heat loss with no additional factors included.

    He assumes the gas cost at 4p per kWh which means the occupants of the simplified 3-bedroomed house built to today’s Building Regulations would be spending around 16% of what someone living in an unmodified 1970s built house would spend to mitigate fabric heat loss when the outside temperature was a constant 0°C.

    A small terrace of 3 houses part of a 1980s development note how the front garden is now a parking space.

    Jon's figure ignores the cost of heat loss due to air leakage which is worth briefly mentioning. The ventilation heat loss (air leakage) of a 1970’s house would be about 2,475 Watts when the temperature outside was 0°C. That would add about 37kWh and £1.49 to the day’s demand, taking the total heating cost from £5.46 to £6.95.

    Moreover, the air leakage and insulation choices interact to give rise to a significant part of the performance gap mentioned earlier.  Put simply, most of our bulk insulants (mineral fibre, glass fibre and more recently recycled plastic bottles or cellulose fibre) rely upon trapped air for the majority of the insulation they provide. If air is whistling through the insulation in a leaky house, most of the heat we expect to be retained by the insulation is actually being blown away!  Especially in a loft with rolled out batts of fibrous insulation and warm air rising through it, the insulation might only be 1/3rd as effective as theoretically calculated.

    A 2016-built house is expected to have less air leakage but it will not be dramatically better.  A requirement to restrict air leakage was only introduced in the Building Regulations issued in 2002 (see updated 2016 edition, Approved Document L1A: Conservation of Fuel and Power in New Dwellings) - and even now Building Regulations airtightness requirements are sadly weak. Airtightness is checked by an air leakage test when portable fan equipment is used to apply a pressure difference of at least 50Pa relative to atmospheric pressure and the amount of air required to maintain this pressure is measured. But sample testing is still the norm when large developments are being tested, and the whole industry is well aware that those houses chosen for testing tend to get finished to a significantly better standard – draw your own conclusions!

    For this example calculation, the Building Regulations airtightness target is 5m3/(h.m2) and the maximum allowable is 10m3/(h.m2) when tested at 50 pascals, roughly equal to the pressure of an external wind of 20mph.  If you compare this with a Passivhouse air leakage is an order of magnitude lower at less than 0.6 ac/hr, which equates to approximately 0.5 m3/(m2.h) this being one-tenth of the standard target (or 10 times better than it) and one-twentieth of the maximum allowable (or 20 times better than it).

    In a 2016 built house, it is likely that air leakage is a bigger cost than heat loss through the fabric. This is the big opportunity for future improvements in energy efficiency in Building Regulations. However, once you go much below 3.5m³/ (hr per m²) then other features should be added to the house design such as Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery Systems (MVHR systems).

    Jon continues to provide a little more detail about how the heat loss figures are calculated, below are his fabric heat loss workings for the 1970’s house.

    U-value and Fabric Heat Loss for a 1970s Built House

    This tells us that ignoring air leakage, on a cold day 9,100 Watts or 9.1kW will be required to maintain a 20°C temperature. For a 15 hour period, this figure is multiplied by 15 to give 136,500 Watt-hours which is best expressed as 136.5kWh or kilowatt hours. Paying 4p per kWh for gas equates to about £5.46 uplift on the gas bill per day.

    A modern mixed development from 2016. Note the small strip as a front garden compared to previous decades plus the houses have parking for one car or offroad parking.

    Jon calculates the heat loss because of air leakage (ventilation heat loss) by multiplying the volume of the house (250 m³) by the air changes per hour (1.5) by the temperature difference (20°C) by 0.33 (energy required to heat 1m³ of air). This gives 2,475 Watts of heat loss that converts to an extra 37.12kWh of energy and £1.49 per day. Air leakage probably reduced as construction standards have generally improved between 1970 and 2016 but it is hard to quantify without air leakage testing on individual houses

    Paul Kalbskopf adds that Jon Davies’ excellent example has set out the theoretical requirements and costings for work carried out perfectly (as Jon notes).  As we are all too well aware, the practical outcomes in this fallen world are very different.  Practically all our buildings are prototypes, and, what is erected even in the controlled conditions of a test centre is rarely reproduced in the mucky reality of building sites affected by the daily changes of the UK climate.

    This has been recently confirmed by work carried out by Colin King and his colleagues from the BRE (Building Research Establishment) who, by performing in-situ U-value tests on a range of buildings of all ages across the country, have revealed some startling results[i].  (The pre-1900’s solid walled homes are performing twice as efficiently as we had assumed and the more recent, so-called low U-value elemental homes being compromised by poor construction standards; the 1940’s/50’s cavity-walled homes being worst of all!) Moreover, re-evaluation of condensation risk analysis methods, thermal storage capacity (and hence thermal inertia), microclimatology and air handling/air movement, should be causing us to consider buildings in a different light.

    While a combination of materials in any given thermal element will result in virtually the same U-value irrespective of the order of the layers in the ‘sandwich’, it will have a dramatic effect on thermal capacity, interstitial condensation risk and ultimately, comfort and health factors.

    The requirement for higher air-tightness requirements is a double-edged sword: whilst it reduces the energy loss due to uncontrolled ex- and infiltration, without addressing air quality, an increase of house dust mites, condensation, mould growth and ultimately rot can increase.  While there are four different systems that may be used to comply with the performance specification requirements, the blinkered view of most designers and builders is to stay secure and comfortable in the old ways of doing things.  Changing the way we do anything in our industry is akin to changing the direction of a fully laden supertanker!

    Therefore, the suggestion in Building Regulations Part F section 5 of employing something other than locally operated isolated extract fans is just that – a suggestion.  SAP calculations do not often allow for an air leakage rate of <3m3/(h.m2) at 50Pa, as most assessors will try to achieve design compliance at levels above that due to construction vagaries and quality.  However, on pre-completion testing, if a figure of <3m3/(h.m2) is achieved and an MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) system has not been installed, there is huge potential for problems as outlined above, as a retro installation will be inordinately expensive and disruptive.

    Passive stack ventilation (PSV) only works if there is constant air input at a low level.  Any visible openings are often closed as the occupier views the incoming air as a cold nuisance.

    Mechanical extract ventilation (MEV) systems without heat recovery would appear to be literally missing the point if the priority is to maximise thermal efficiency, however, the fundamental reason to ventilate a building is moisture management (including odours) a critical factor in accelerated building decay.

    The other major factor is that the standards set out in the Approved Documents are only minimum standards.  Sadly most people – developers, builders, homeowners, see this as a maximum to be built up to, rather than a minimum to be built from. This attitude has sadly been disseminated throughout the industry by virtue of the major house builders who, in the name of maximising profit, build down to the minimum provisions required by Building Regulations, at minimal quality standards.  Paul Kalbskopf comments that in his 40 years in the industry, he has rarely seen a multi-house developer do anything more than the (Criminal) law requires.  The attitude is one of immediate expediency for short-term gain (profit for the shareholders) and for the foreseeable future, this looks set to remain unchanged

    FOOTNOTE

    Here's another statistic that affects our comfort and our pockets, we are building smaller and smaller houses, smaller houses you would think will require less heat (not necessarily the case as we have set out above) but the size of the building and plot does have a direct bearing on occupant comfort and well being, according to research published by www.onthemarket.com new build homes today are often 20% smaller than homes built in the 1970s. Forty years ago there was room for a garage and two cars on the drive of most semis commonly built 12 to the acre. Today, buyers are lucky to get one parking space outside a terrace, built up to 24 to the acre.

     

    Appendix 1.

    Paul Kalbskopf notes, within the current Building Regulations[ii] there is now a requirement to insulate/ seal party walls to achieve U-values as set out in Table 3 of L1A, which vary from 0.0 to 0.5, depending on whether solid, filled or unfilled or sealed or unsealed. See Building Regulations Part L1A Online Version pages 14/15

    Introduced in L1a 2014 is a requirement for swimming pool basins, if one is so fortunate, max. U-value 0.25.

    Paragraph 2.33 alludes to Table 2, which gives the ‘Limiting fabric parameters’.  The vital sentence is the third: The shame is that the word ‘likely’ is used, rather than ‘should’ or ‘must’.

    Table 3 does give values to which we try to achieve, but, given we are dealing in area-weighted averages, there will still be scope for variations to be at the (poorest performing) limit.

    Windows are a case in point where, for example, the insertion of an unsealed trickle vent into a hollow profile frame will make a mockery of the profile U-value and hence the ‘whole window U-value’ as given in Table 4.

    The original article can be found at http://great-home.co.uk/building-regulations-u-values-how-have-they-changed/ January 19, 2016 Jon Davies

    [1] http://great-home.co.uk/building-regulations-u-values-how-have-they-changed/ January 19, 2016 Jon Davies

    [2] http://great-home.co.uk/building-regulations-u-values-how-have-they-changed/ January 19, 2016 Jon Davies

    [i] https://www.bre.co.uk/filelibrary/pdf/projects/swi/UnintendedConsequencesRoutemap_v4.0_160316_final.pdf

    [ii] Building Regulations 2013 Edition Incorporating 2016 Amendments for Use in England.  Approved Document Building Regulations Part L1A the Conservation of Fuel and Power. Online Version.

    Further reading.

    LABC Warranty Survey 2018 ‘What is the average house size in the UK?’

    https://www.labc.co.uk/news/what-average-house-size-uk?language_content_entity=en

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Facts

     

    New build homes today are often 20% smaller than homes built in the 1970s. Forty years ago there was room for a garage and two cars on the drive of most semis, commonly built 12 to the acre. Today, buyers are lucky to get one parking space outside a terrace, built up to 24 to the acre.

    Source www.onthemarket.com

     

    Interesting article

     

    LABC Warranty Survey 2018 ‘What is the average house size in the UK?’

    https://www.labc.co.uk/news/what-average-house-size-uk?language_content_entity=en

     

     

  • What exactly is a VCL?

    Vapour Control Layer (VCL) Explained

    One of the most commonly used, and widely recognised, acronyms in construction is VCL, which stands for vapour control layer. A VCL is a critical building component designed to protect the building from potential degradation (or poor performance) by managing the passage of water vapour within a building structure. In other words, it is used to manage condensation risk. Condensation is formed when warm moist air condenses into a liquid on contact with a colder surface. A vapour control layer is typically installed on the internal side of the insulation to control the passage of warm moist air (water vapour) entering the structure. However, as a simple acronym, there is a problem because in most applications a specific level or type of performance is required, as a ‘catch all’ acronym VCL is wide open to error.

    Condensation on the internal side of a window, showing that there was plenty of water vapour in the room, which has condensed onto the cold internal window pane. This is a good example of how much water vapour can be available to penetrate and condense within a building structure.

    Unfortunately, and perhaps part of a wider misunderstanding, to many the term VCL is a synonym for polythene sheet, add in only a basic understanding of how condensation forms (as described above) and it is easy to see how the use of the term VCL can cause considerable confusion and anxiety. This is made worse by a large number of alternative terms such as vapour check, vapour permeable membrane, vapour barrier, vapour retarder, ACL, AVCL, vapour diffusion retarder, variable diffusion membrane, monolithic membrane, vapour diffusion barrier, airtight membrane, vapour tight membrane, microporous membrane, breather membrane all used to describe products covered by the acronym VCL …………………frankly it’s no wonder people get confused by all of this. In this article, we will try to bring some clarity to the description and use of internal membranes to help you decide which type to use, where and how. A companion piece is in preparation about external membranes.

    Broadly put there are 3 types of internal membrane.

    Type 1: An impermeable barrier such as polythene, this lets nothing through.  It’s a vapour barrier or a vapour block, has only one function: to stop water, in all forms. An impermeable barrier cannot let water vapour back out of a wall when generated by solar gain - see point below - so this type of membrane has serious limitations in all but a few circumstances. Needless to say, the installation of an impermeable barrier needs to be 100% perfect for it to work.  So, no holes, no gaps at the joints or overlaps, no accidental cuts or nicks and no major scrapes.

    Type 2: A membrane that acts as an impermeable membrane most of the time but has some capacity to allow vapour transfer in certain circumstances.  These are often described as a “vapour retarder” or a “vapour check” and they are designed to work under specific conditions where the inherent properties of the membrane can be relied upon.  Since they only allow the movement of water vapour under these narrow and specific conditions, it is essential to apply them in appropriate situations.

    Type 3: A membrane with variable permeability is often called an intelligent membrane. These are vapour control layers whose ability to allow moisture vapour to pass through depends on circumstances.  Also known as variable diffusion membranes (VDM), most allow vapour movement in both directions, depending upon relative humidity either side of the membrane.

    Some membranes in categories 2 and 3 can be described as breathable, you can read more about breathability here.

    The choice of a membrane can largely be determined by location and build type so a vapour barrier (type 1) can be used under a concrete slab but an intelligent membrane (type 3.) is better to line the inside of a warm roof space.

    The terminology used to describe membranes in buildings is hugely confusing and often ends up being concentrated into the single three letter acronym ‘VCL’ appearing on a drawing, but we know that VCL is a catch-all acronym it means nothing without some context or explanation, for example, we often notice people using the terms VCL and ‘breather membrane’ interchangeably, particularly with regards to pitched roofs. Whilst they have a similar purpose, there are a couple of important differences between the two.

    So why do we need either? Quite simply – the vapour control layer is there to prevent condensation, which can cause a number of problems, including:

    • Structural damage due to rotting timber, whether this be a timber frame, joists or rafters
    • Insulation losing its thermal performance due to having absorbed the moisture
    • Mould, which not only looks unsightly but can also lead to respiratory problems and other health issues

    People generate moisture inside their homes, through breathing, through cooking and particularly by washing themselves and their clothes.  To prevent condensation, we need to eliminate this water vapour from inside the building. We also need to get rid of moisture that is outside the habitable zone but within the building envelope.  This might be water from construction – fresh concrete, for example, takes many months to dry out fully - or perhaps rainwater that seeps through tiled roofs or is wind-driven up under the eaves.

    Traditionally we have eliminated moisture by ventilation; for example, by ventilating the space between the insulation and the slate or tile on a pitched roof. However, studies have shown that ventilation directly above an insulation layer can reduce its thermal efficiency, which means more and more people are opting for an unventilated roof.

    Some Definitions may help

    • Airtight layer- prevents the movement of air which may/ may not act as a Vapour Control layer
    • Vapour Control Layer- a material which can limit both movements of vapour by diffusion, and air movement
    • Breather Membrane- defined as a membrane with a vapour resistance less than 0.6 MNs/g situated on the external side of the insulation acts as a weatherproof layer whilst still allowing water vapour to be passed to the outside.

    Understanding your walls, temperatures and condensation

    With a plethora of membranes on the market, each designed to do a different job and behave in a subtly different way it is easy to be confused about which membranes are required to create a dry and airtight building structure.

    Starting with the basics, when insulating walls you create a temperature gradient across them with the warmest being on the inside and coolest on the outside during the winter months. You can imagine a graph of the temperature showing a fairly steady decrease in temperature as you move closer to the outer surface of the wall.

    When you take warm, moist air and cool it (as it will moving through a building structure) you find moisture condenses at a point known as the ‘dew point’ or ‘condensation point’.  This will typically be the intersection of an impermeable or low permeability surface with the temperature falling low enough for water vapour to become liquid.  This is how damp accumulates inside the fabric of your walls or your insulation, to the severe long-term detriment of your building.

    Why you shouldn't use a ‘vapour barrier’ (Type 1. Membrane) in your walls

    Different construction and insulation materials cope differently with condensation. Some materials, such as masonry, can absorb and release it again once the weather warms without too much damage. However, when using vapour impervious insulation in timber frame construction, any condensation forming in the walls tends to be absorbed by the timber, a process that can cause rot. Additionally, during the winter months when this condensation tends to occur, driving rain may also enter the fabric of the building, further increasing moisture levels in walls. It is therefore very important to prevent this condensation process occurring in the first place, for the longevity of the building.

    One further complication to the above process can be found in the summer months. The temperature gradient is often reversed and the higher temperature is found on the outside of the wall and the lower temperature on the inside. This creates a situation where moisture is driven inwards and condensation can form close to the inner face of the wall instead.

    In the UK until relatively recently an impervious vapour barrier was used on the inner face of a timber frame and was thought to prevent condensation formation by simply blocking the flow of moisture-laden air through the wall. However, it has since been found that not only are vapour barriers regularly full of holes which let moisture through during the winter months, they also cause the accumulation of moisture inside the wall during the summer months. This was caused by the barrier preventing moisture from escaping towards the interior of the building.

    Water vapour that has condensed against a VCL, in this instance a polythene sheet (type 1) used as a VCL over mineral wool and behind plasterboard. Damage can be seen on the timber stud. This occurred within 2 years of installation. Photo courtesy of SkamoWall.

    The high humidity levels and warm temperatures found in these walls combined to form perfect conditions for mould and rot to thrive. This was problematic to both the timber structure, as it rotted, but also to the inhabitants of the building as mould spores are well known to cause respiratory problems and ill health.

    Vapour barriers are still useful though. One of the few places above ground level where a complete vapour barrier should be used is in flat roofing when using foil faced PIR insulation. In this case, you need to lay a vapour barrier on top of your flat roof deck before you lay the insulation and your flat roof covering.

    Using a vapour control layer to control condensation

    The answer to keeping timber-framed walls and roofs dry is to use a layer to restrict the flow of moisture but not to try and stop it. In other words a VCL (or a vapour retarder). A VCL is always used as close to the inner face of a wall as possible and reduces the amount of moisture passing through the layer to low levels, ensuring only insignificant amounts of condensation occurring within the structure. Additionally, this will allow moisture that is driven towards the interior in the summer months to slowly pass back inside the building. This prevents the conditions for mould forming and ensures the longevity of the structure.

    Vapour control can be performed very accurately by the many membranes available but it can also be performed at a basic level by OSB, whose vapour resistance (or vapour permeability) is similar to that of some membranes. The benefit of using OSB as a VCL is that it is far more robust than a 0.2mm membrane and does not require the installation of another layer into your timber frame structure if used internally. However, you will need to test the airtightness of the OSB before using it as there is some variation in air permeability. For guaranteed results either use an airtight VCL membrane, such as the ProClima Intello Plus or Constivap or a board such as Unilin Vapour Block or a liquid applied membrane such as Blowerproof. Blowerproof and Intello Plus are both BBA certified.

    It is also advisable to try and minimise the amount of moisture that enters your building fabric during construction.  Much of our construction timber, sometimes including expensive windows, roof joist assemblies and even SIPs panels, are commonly stored on site with little or no protection against rain, especially driven rain.   Once wet, they can take a significant amount of time to dry out, contributing to the internal moisture load a new dwelling has to deal with.  This can even delay and degrade the final stages of construction: for example, airtightness tapes on OSB have been known to come off during airtightness testing, not adhering properly because the timber is still too wet.

    The latest type of VCL membrane is the 'intelligent' membrane, such as Proclima's Intello Plus membrane. These are very useful products that remain very vapour tight (low vapour permeability) during the winter months when it’s important to try and prevent moisture from entering your structure from the interior. As temperature and humidity in the walls rises the pores in the membrane open and allow moisture to migrate towards the interior of the building. This gives the best of both worlds and ensures your structures remain as dry as it is possible to be.

    Watch the video to see how an intelligent VCL works

    Using a vapour-check or foil backed plasterboard as a VCL

    Vapour control layers are always required whenever you insulate, irrespective of the insulation used. They should be used to form a continuous airtight layer and so all the joints and any penetrations must always be sealed with the appropriate airtightness tapes. Without good levels of airtightness the VCL does not work and moisture levels cannot be controlled inside the structures. Products such as vapour-check, foil backed or insulated plasterboard tend to act as a vapour barrier but with none of the joints or penetrations sealed. These products should not be used instead of a VCL or where a VCL is used.

    IMPORTANT REMINDER

    Always refer to a qualified designer if in doubt or ask the manufacturer for technical and installation advice, we are always happy to answer any questions about airtightness or vapour control or point you in the right direction.

     

     

    Thanks to Paul Jennings and Chris Brookman for their contributions to this article.

    Paul Jennings has over 30 years’ experience of airtightness testing, in the UK and around the world, and has been extensively involved in the delivery of onerous airtightness specifications in Passivhaus and other low-energy projects. He tested the first UK certified domestic and non-domestic Passivhaus buildings, both in Machynlleth, on the same day more than ten years ago, and recently led the team that used 8 sets of test equipment to carry out the most complex airtightness test carried out in the UK to date, on Agar Grove Phase 1, in London. He trains airtightness testers and pioneered the development and delivery of airtightness champions training courses. He has been instrumental in improving our processes and tools for achieving good airtightness, as well as training sealing operatives and delivering numerous CPDs and conference presentations to a wide range of building professionals on different aspects of airtightness.

    Chris Brookman lives in a Passive house of his own design which he built based on his own life principles of low impact, low energy living and human health. Chris runs Back to Earth, is a recognised expert on green building and passive construction, he has written widely on the subject and is a keen blogger on the practical and technical aspects of delivering sustainable construction; Chris also curated the first online Wood Fibre Insulation course

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