Insulating a Brick House in Arizona

It’s challenging to insulate a flat roof, brick house built in the sixties. Just take my word for it. There is no attic to fill with batts of insulation, and there is no gap between the external walls and the inside dry wall to stuff with insulation. (the dry wall is just glued to the brick) The brick (and in our case, cement block) walls serve as a temperature conductor – cold in the winter, hot in the summer. Basically the entire house is a heat sink.

Naturally this makes the house harder to heat and cool. I’m not surprised the Arizona construction industry in the early sixties wasn’t committed to building comfortable and energy efficient homes. Developers are always looking to their bottom line. Their solution was an evaporative cooler (a powerful fan, some straw or cardboard medium, a dribble of water, and voila… cool air). This works quite well in dry heat. When the humidity hits 30% or better, it’s basically useless. You’re pumping damp cool air into damp hot air, which just multiplies the damp. Moist heat may be great for your sore back, but high humidity makes air feel warmer than it actually is temperature-wise. (a 72 degree room with 50% humidity will feel more like 78-80 degrees)

One solution is to “fur out” the inside of the brick/cement block/slump block wall. You frame a new wall (inside) against the masonry wall, which provides space for insulation, wiring, plumbing, etc… This generally involves 2×4’s for the footing, header and vertical studs, plus drywall. The upside is that the home becomes much easier to insulate and do electrical and plumbing changes. The downside is you lose about 4-6″ of interior space from each room, per masonry wall. For corner bedrooms, you lose 8-12″. In a home with small bedrooms, the difference is significant. This is why most small to mid-sized (1000-1600sf) masonry homes don’t have walls that are furred out, and hence properly insulated.

Flat roofs just add to the problem. Imagine an architectural sandwich. There is a supporting framework of 2×4 joists resting on the external walls, or in our case resting on the external walls and a load bearing ‘spine’ (two 2×6’s nailed together, in our case). Inside the house you have insulation (if you’re lucky) and drywall. Outside you have decking (usually weather treated plywood), tar paper and/or a vapor barrier, and some elastomeric coating to seal the roof and reflect light. A roof sandwich.

My problem is that in 1961, the concept of “insulation” wasn’t as… um (how to say this nicely) well-developed as it is today. So I have 1 1/2″ of decomposing fiberglass insulation and about 3 inches of air sitting over my inside ceilings. The challenge is to squeeze as much insulation in between the existing drywall ceiling and the roof decking, as physically possible without actually tearing out every inch of my ceiling drywall, insulating properly, and re-drywalling the ceiling. Expensive, and I’m already over-spending on this house.

Enter the concept of ‘birdboard’. (I’m learning all kinds of fun new words in this reno). Along the gap of the roof sandwich on the outside of the house, are segments of wood used to close off the gap between the interior and exterior parts of the roof sandwich. There are 1 1/2″ diameter holes drilled in this board to permit the home to breathe (I could do a whole segment on this function, having to do with wood, moisture, temperature, weather, mold conditions, dry rot, blah blah blah… but it would be an unnecessary digression, not to mention kind of boring for most people) But you’re reading about insulation, so maybe not. Perhaps later.

Anyhow, the holes are about the size of a birdhouse access hole, hence the name ‘birdboard’. This hole is blocked with wire mesh, to prevent actual birds from roosting between your ceiling and your intimately connected roof.

Enter modern technology and equipment. Basically the contractor is going to yank off the birdboard, rake out as much of the old insulation as possible, and force-blow large quantities of loose insulation between the drywall and the plywood. Naturally some of this birdboard has dry rot. Because… sixty year old house, right?

Also, because the “garage” (4th bedroom) addition was a cheap ass hack job, um shoestring DIY special, it doesn’t have a proper (read, ‘to 1960s building code’) roof overhang shielding the birdboard, rafters, window, etc… So we’re paying for our contractors to construct one while they’re yanking birdboard and shooting insulation.

But insulation in the roof/attic is just one way to make a house more efficient. Insulation in the walls is another way to keep rooms from feeling drafty. (properly hung doors are another way, don’t get me started) For insulation you need to grab a chunk of, to stuff around light fixtures, electrical outlets, or into existing wall gaps, we have been using fire retardant treated denim insulation: none of those tiny slivers of fiberglass that lodge in your skin and itch. This is, literally, recycled blue jeans. If you need insulation with a facing that can be stapled to beams, studs and joists, you’ll need something more traditional.

Wall insulation also makes a house quieter, a side-benefit not to be disdained by any family with teen-age children, musicians, or work from home arrangements. So we have ripped out the dry wall in the entry and main hallway in order to 1) install insulation, 2) make it easier to install new wiring, and 3) give us smooth walls to adorn with… wallpaper. (mind you I generally loathe wallpaper, it just never works for very long before screaming DATED, but this stuff is different. More on that later, with pictures. Then we can argue about it. )

While the insulation is the major driver here, the idea of embossed paintable wallpaper to add a smidge of texture and visual interest to what is otherwise a pretty mundane stretch of house, is not inconsequential. Of course, because we’re expanding the 24″ doorway to the guest bathroom (yes, WTH indeed) and adding a sliding door (not barn-like in any way), we have to be careful to maintain as much width as possible in the hallway. This means I didn’t get the gorgeous chair rail I wanted. Instead we have a tiny 1/4″ inch trim piece to define the upper wallpapered segment from the lower segment. It’s basically an anorexic trim piece pretending to be a sexy and robust architectural element. I may hate it… or not.

Wallpaper digressions aside, one last bit on insulation. The shed. We now have a spiffy new 8′ wide by 20′ deep shed, complete with vents to the north and south, and a 2×2′ skylight. Despite being desperate for space (see also the “garage”, which was supposed to be a fourth bedroom… but don’t make me laugh), we haven’t begun to move stuff into the shed because… INSULATION. If there is one thing that living in the Coachella Valley taught me, it is that insulating every single structure is important. But then, there is the budget. It’s one thing to spend $5K + to have it built. We’re not quite ready to spend another $3K to insulate it.

After some research, we discovered Reflectix insulation. Reflectix is basically bubble wrap wearing a SUPER shiny coat. The principle is similar to the white roof sealant, it reflects light away. (or in technical terms, provides a heat reflecting treatment) There is supposed to be an air gap, then the reflecting material, the bubble wrap air, and more shiny reflecting material. I’m not entirely convinced it will work, but a lot of people with RVs and mobile homes and other exotic applications believe it’s a major saver. For about $600 and the cost of a new staple gun, The Wife and I decided to give it a try. Worst case scenario we rip it out and do pricier fiberglass or foam insulation later. More on that later.

Unfortunately staple guns are designed for men. Men’s hands and men’s strength.

(small digression, or a suggestion on how to make money – you decide)

If you are seriously interested in a business opportunity, design and sell power tools to be used by women. And I’m not talking coloring them pink. Design for easier use and regular peoples’ hands. Not only will women thank you and the Lesbian contingent stock up, the Pros that do this stuff every day will buy them in a heart beat. You try working a staple gun for eight hours. BIG squeeze, recoil, release and shake to cock, BIG squeeze, recoil, release, shake to get the gun to set the next staple. Talk about repetitive injuries. It’s like being thwacked with a nun’s ruler over and over and over again.

Which is why, despite desperately needing places to put all the stuff we have to shuffle around like a life-sized Jenga puzzle to allow the contractors to do their job, we still don’t have a shed to use. We’re about a third of the way through. It’s a good way to stay outside and away from the contractors chewing their way through our renovation. Soon. But with a day in between every day we work on the project to recover… not that soon.

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