Friday, 10 November 2017

How to build a house part 5: What exactly do you need to know about heat

Some people spend six years studying for architecture degrees, and it can take a lifetime to build the perfect house. In fact it's now 90 years after Gaudi was knocked over by a tram, and his is still not finished. Admittedly that wasn't your everyday family house, but I digress.

So, you'd like to build a house in the next year, and you're also going to be busy at work, and spending time looking after your family. What do you really need to know?

If you're trying to build a low energy house, two important areas of knowledge are thermodynamics
and economics. Structural knowledge is essential, but if you are working with professional builders in Japan, they should have all the structural knowledge necessary to keep your building standing, probably even through the strongest earthquake ever.

As well as knowledge of what to do, you need to know how to do it, and procedural knowledge is also important. So you need to know how the design process works, but I'll get to that later. First, here are five things you should know about thermodynamics. In most places in the world, the biggest energy use of buildings is heating and cooling.

1. Heat will leave the building by the easiest route in the winter. And it will get in by the easiest route in summer. Heat is a lazy opportunist. This means that you should be worrying about the parts of your walls, ceilings and floors with the least insulation rather than being impressed by the parts with the most insulation. Be aware of the performance of doors and windows, and anything in your thermal envelope that is poorly insulated. There may be conflicts between the structural desires of the builder and the thermodynamic needs, but it is possible to make buildings that are structural sound and thermally right.

2. There is less heat loss as walls get thicker and areas get larger, and more heat loss as temperature
differences increase. So thicker is better for your walls and roof, and smaller is better for the surface area of your house. When you are designing the house, you can't do anything about the temperature. It will get hot and cold outside, and the people inside will want the temperature to be within their comfort zone. If the building does not deliver that comfort zone, the people in the building will use electricity or other fuel to change the temperature.

3. Heat loss depends on the insulation performance of the material in your wall, roof, floors and foundation. Very broadly, metals are the worst insulators, or the best conductors, followed by earthy things, including stone, concrete and glass. Next come plastics, which we can start to call insulators, then fibres, which include wood. Foams are generally better insulators than fibres. In both cases their
performance comes from the excellent insulation credentials of air, but foams also stop the air from moving, and in some cases can use different gases to air. Other gases are better insulators than air.

This table shows the thicknesses of different materials needed to get the same insulation effect as 10 cm (4 inches) of glass wool. Depending on where you are in Japan, you may need the equivalent of 20 or 30 cm of glass wool to make a low-energy building.

Krypton (gas)2 cmthree times better than air
Argon (gas)4 cm
Phenolic foam5 cmtwice as good as glass wool
Air6 cm
Polystyrene, expanded styrofoam8 cm
Glass, wool Insulation10 cmthree times better than wood
Cork, re-granulated11 cm
Hardboard high density38 cm
Wood, oak43 cmthree times better than medium concrete
Polycarbonate48 cm
Concrete, lightweight50 cm
Polyethylene low density, PEL83 cm
Concrete, medium1.4 metresthirty times better than stainless steel
Concrete, dense3.5 metres
Stainless Steel40 metrestwelve times better than aluminium
Brass270 metres
Aluminum500 metresYes, half a kilometre!

4. There are five to ten litres of moisture in the air inside your house, and given any opportunity it will build up and cause condensation, mold or rot. This happens where air is not moving and there is a cold spot or a sharp temperature difference. It will happen where you are not looking, possibly on your favourite coat. This can be stopped with airtight insulation.

5. Reflective coatings are a good idea, since they will reduce the amount of heat radiated in or out of your house. However, most heat is lost through convection or conduction, so the first priority is to add insulation. Things that look shiny may just look shiny.

Bonus: It may be useful to know how a heat pump works. There's a great explanation here using a rubber band refrigerator.


While 500 metres of aluminum has the same insulating performance as 10 cm of fibreglass, metals are not effective as insulators. As the insulation gets thicker, the outside area of the house also gets bigger, so you will more heat, not less heat, as you put on more layers.