Superinsulation Can Mean Many Things – But it is all good

The term was started in the “new build” industry but it has since migrated to the built environment as well. The general concept is that there is no such thing as TOO MUCH insulation in the residential market. It can provide living space that “sips” energy.

The term “superinsulation” was coined by Wayne Schick at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1976 he was part of a team that developed a design called the “Lo-Cal” house, using computer simulations based on the climate of Madison, Wisconsin. The house was never built, but some of its design features influenced later builders.


If I am not mistaken he was getting his concepts from those used in much colder climates, like Sweden and Denmark where they value their resources…actually where they value life and family in general.

The house that came in from the cold:

Houses designed with energy efficiency in

mind are more pleasant to live in, less

harmful to the environment-and need not be expensive to build.

09 March 1991

Buildings use about half the energy industrialized countries consume. Much of it could be saved, conserving resources and reducing our contribution to global warming. Energy efficient housing has already been tried and tested in several countries, with some success.

Between 1975 and 1977, building researchers and designers in North America and Scandinavia pioneered a radically new approach to reducing heat loss from buildings, now called ‘superinsulation’. Conventional buildings lose most of their heat by simple air leakage. Superinsulated buildings are firmly sealed against draughts, with a controllable ventilation system to provide fresh air in winter. In Sweden, all new houses must by law have fewer than three air changes per hour, tested at a pressure difference between inside and outside of 50 pascals. In superinsulated houses this figure is often brought below 1 air change per hour, while in a typical British house there are 10 air changes per hour under the same conditions (see Table 1).

By the late 1980s, there were more than 100 000 superinsulated dwellings in North America and Scandinavia, where most houses are built of timber. But the problems of adapting these techniques to houses built of brick and concrete prevented superinsulation being applied on any large scale in Europe until the early 1980s. Most of Britain’s houses-new and old-are put together with little regard to energy efficiency . In the rest of Europe, however, the technique is beginning to take root.

The Netherlands now has more than 1000 superinsulated houses.


The important thing to remember here is that these are not just superinsulated living spaces, they are TIGHT spaces as well. Just throwing insulation at the problem is a good thing but tight construction techniques are important too. Little things like caulking in existing homes can accomplish much the same thing. Another thing to pull out of the construction “speak” above. It takes 3 turnovers in the atmosphere in a living space to keep humans alive. Also in tight spaces smells and moisture can build up so adequate ventalation is critical as is a carbon monoxide/dioxide detector.

Also note that most of these houses contain backup, many times “unconventional” heating sources. Though the idea was that all of the cooking, human waste heat, water heating etc. would handle heating in the winter. ¬†And that ventaltion could handle the cooling in the summer. Most buyers wanted backup heating and cooling as a psychological reassurance. Often times a geothermal heat pump served as a device that could supply both heating and cooling.

Then there is also the Passive House movement:

Passive solar buildings aim to maintain interior thermal comfort throughout the sun’s daily and annual cycles whilst reducing the requirement for active heating and cooling systems. Passive solar building design is one part of green building design, and does not include active systems such as mechanical ventilation or photovoltaics, nor does it include life cycle analysis.

Passive Building

From the energy-saving point of view, passive buildings are most advanced, and when considering the involved technology they can be constructed almost anywhere

Basic Ideas in

Passive Solar Buildings

Natural Forces At Work For You
In any climate, a building can make use of free heat from the sun. An elementary passive solar heating concept is letting in the sunshine with windows, then keeping the resulting heat inside with insulation and thermal mass. The goal in passive solar building is the optimal balance of mass, glass, and insulation for a particular site and house design. A well-designed solar home in Oregon’s Williamette Valley can get up to 30 percent of its winter heating needs met at no cost.

Passive Cooling

Passive cooling requires correct placement of windows, proper shading of windows by trees or constructed shade, light-colored roofs and walls to reflect heat, nighttime ventilation, and thermal mass to prevent overheating in hot, sunny weather. Large west-facing glass areas usually present a risk of unwanted summer afternoon heat gains. Air-conditioning is unnecessary in the maritime Northwest, if the house is properly designed.

Choose The Right Building Site

The more southern exposure, the better the site for passive solar. A steep north-facing slope, or large trees or other buildings in the wrong places will cut back on your solar window. Protective berms, natural slopes, and thick tree cover to the north side block cold winter winds and help create a warmer microclimate around your house. See the Energy Outlet handout on landscaping and house siting.

Let The House Face The Sun

It is very important to orient the long axis of the house east-west, so that as much wall and roof length faces directly south as possible. The most livable homes group the kitchen and dining room to the east, for morning light. Clerestory windows and dormers can bring winter light into otherwise dark areas of the house (minimize skylight use). Use a solar path chart to design a building so that low winter sun shines in and high summer sun is blocked by effective use of windows, overhangs and shade.

South-Facing, High Quality Windows

Passive solar houses have large window areas on the south side where the sun comes from, and minimal windows on the north side. Some sites will suggest minimal west-facing windows (SHGC<.40) as well. Window specifications should be tuned for the window location; use softcoat LowE (lower SHGC) on north, west, and possibly east-facing glazing, and hardcoat LowE, or maybe uncoated windows (.55 or higher SHGC) on south-facing glazing. You should be able to get windows with U-values below 0.32 without much difficulty by using warm-edge glazing spacers, LowE coatings, and inert gas fills.

Superinsulate, Build Tight, Ventilate Right

High R values and minimal air leakage are the most important factors in building any low-energy house. The Oregon Energy Code is a minimum, not a maximum. There is no such thing as too much insulation, only practical difficulties in implementation! Blower door test to verify house tightness. Invest in a high performance ventilation system; an air to air heat exchanger recovers the heat in exhausted ventilation air.


This however can lead you into exotic discussions of equipment and materials which cause people to go to sleep. As the forward on one passive building book put it, “If you have never read about superinsulation before this could be a tough read”. These discussions do not include rammed earth homes:

or houses made of bales of hay or straw,

which would baffle most people. Bottom line is that if you can get R value 60 in your unused attic or a radiant barrier and R 30 if it is being used for storage. You will save BUNCHES of money quickly. I would add the small point that adequate ventilation of the attic space during the summer is important too. Also if you stuff R 15 in your walls anyway you can you will exceed probably 50% of the housing stock in the USA.

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