Residential Wall Design Part 2: Wall Functional Considerations:

As we mentioned in the previous blog on Wall Aesthetics, in addition to looking good, the walls of your house need to perform three very important functions; structural, thermal protection and moisture protection. We will focus on the second two, as they are both at the core of how modern residential building science is improving home construction.

Framed walls ready for insulation.


The American Society of Heating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHAE) was founded in 1894, and the American Society of Refrigerating Engineers (ASRE) was ten years behind in 1904. In 1959 these two merged to form the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Obviously the Department of Non-confusing Acronyms (DNA) has yet to be formed in Washington.

Prior to the 1973 energy crisis, the topic of building passive houses was far from the mainstream. The ideas were nurtured by those with primarily scientific concerns, producing often unusual building designs that responded to severe desert or very cold environments. The Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 created the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and by 1977 this was consolidated with several other government energy related organizations under the Department of Energy Organization Act. DOE was born.

Now with the engineers aligned, the regulatory agencies formed and empowered to codify, and the newfound sense of urgency surrounding energy efficiency the movement gained mainstream momentum.

By 2000 the International Code Council created the IECC (International Energy Conservation Code) which has been updated every 3 years since. As of this writing most main stream jurisdictions have adopted either the 2012 or 2015 version, and many will shortly adopt the 2018 version.

The IECC begins with a Climate Zone map that breaks the United States into 8 climate zones. Based on the zone that your house is in you will have differing requirements with regard to the building envelope. 

The Three Little Pigs Emphasis on Structure

Exterior wall in process of adding siding. The green panels are ZIP sheathing with integrated water barrier.

If the three little pigs were to be re-written in the 21st century, the pigs would be forced to address their structural issues by a rigorous building code that would enforce all types of shear design regulations to guard against ominous earthquakes and gale wind forces. Rather than a wolf being the villain in this story, the pigs would be living in fear of mold spores and a senseless waste of resources expended to keep our little friends both in comfortable air conditioning.

In the 21st century the two primary concerns in wall design are temperature and moisture. Whereas the pigs’ safety resided in a strong brick box, they would now be looking at the problem of building a sturdy, and beautiful, thermos.

Goldilocks and Indeterminacy

If Goldilocks had a brother and sister with her the chances are good that as she expressed her satisfaction with the third bowl of porridge being just right, her brother would chime in, “are you kidding me? That baby bear bowl is not hot enough and it is too dry.” Her sister might say, “you’re both nuts, mamma bear had it right, though it is a bit too moist.”

One of the slightly frustrating aspects of thermal design has to do with how indeterminate it is. The initial problem is simple enough, design an efficient building envelope (thermos) and then appropriately size a heating and air conditioning system to keep the interior temperature and humidity relatively stable.

This can get complicated very quickly by both the wide range of exterior conditions and by the variability of how many occupants are using a building and how much heat and humidity they are producing as they use the building.

Finally add to this the varying perceived levels of comfort by the occupants. That’s probably why the three bears left the house in the first place.

The Metrics

To design a better wall, you need to know the criteria on which you will be judged. This can get very granular, so we will keep it to the basics with regard to temperature, moisture, and air tightness.


R VALUE: The ability of an insulating material to resist heat flow. The higher the R value, the higher the insulation power. Technically it is the rate of heat transfer through a material. A typical wall might be insulated to R-21.

U FACTOR: The U Factor is the inverse of the R-Value. It has traditionally been used to measure the flow of heat through windows in housing design. The lower the U, the better the insulative ability.


DEW POINT: Temperature (varying according to pressure and humidity) below which water droplets begin to condense and dew can form. There are several values that effect at what temperature this will occur. With regard to wall design this is very important in that the dew point temperature will occur inside of your wall, so you want to make sure that even in extreme cases (coldest and warmest days of the year) that this will not allow water to form and get trapped in your wall cavity. This will result in mold growth.

PERM RATING: The rating used to measure how vapor impermeable a vapor barrier or vapor retarder is. Typically, a vapor barrier will have a perm rating of 0.1 or less and can also be called a Class I Impermeable Vapor Retarder. A Class II semi-permeable vapor retarder would have a perm rating of between 0.1 and 1.0. A class III permeable vapor retarder would have a perm rating of between 1 and 10. This will measure how much moisture will be able to penetrate your wall system.


ACH (Air changes per hour): Number of times in an hour that the volume of air in the house is changed. Basically, any house will leak air. If you think about it every time you leak air, you need to either heat or cool the new air that replaces the leaked air. It’s a little bit like blowing up a balloon that has a few tiny holes in it. If you have enough holes the exercise can become futile. You could have all of the insulation in the world but if you leak away the air the insulation becomes pointless.

PASCAL (SI): Unit of pressure used to quantify internal pressure or stress. This is the unit by which a Blower Door Test is based. Though it is fairly technical it is worth understanding that the air pressure directly affects how quickly the air will move through small leaks and openings in your wall. SI would be the assumed pressure that your wall should be able to meet its performance requirement.

Peak Load vs Total Load

To further complicate things, a designer must deal with peak loads on the HVAC system so that the home can remain comfortable on the warmest and coldest days of the year.

Peak Loads can be influenced more by heating or cooling based on the location of the house. This will have an impact on the wall design and its detailing. Cold Dry climates would require a great deal of insulation. Warm Humid climates, would still want insulation, but moisture management becomes a very critical component.

The wall design hopes to keep the total energy load to a minimum. The strategy being to design the wall in a manner that will make the houses ability to passively maintain its interior comfort levels so that the active systems can be sized more efficiently.

Design a Better Oreo (The Components: Exterior - Middle - Interior)

In your effort to design a wall that protects the occupants from temperature and moisture, you will be dealing with what you see on each finished side, as well as the design of the inner layers of the wall. We need to stop both bulk water (rain) and water vapor (moisture) from getting into our system to avoid rot and mold.

We also need to insulate our wall system, as well as make it air tight to keep the interior temperature stable with minimal energy consumption. Speaking strictly about energy efficiency, the number one thing you can do to reduce your heating and cooling is to build an air-tight house. This is even more important than insulation!

From inside to outside, the typical old school wall would have been composed of ½” drywall, then 2x4 wood studs placed at 16” on center, then 7/8” OSB or plywood sheathing, then a Tyvek house wrap (vapor barrier) and finally some type of vinyl, wood or cementitious siding or a masonry veneer. The stud cavities (space between the 2x4 studs) would be filled with Batt Insulation giving you an R value of between R13 and R15.

A version of this wall dominated US home construction from the early 1970s until the 2009 IECC (International Energy Conservation Code) required an improvement to its performance. The code acknowledged the importance of “thermal bridging,” which was the point that each of those studs touched both the interior and exterior faces and interrupted the insulation. IECC would require that the wall studs either increase to 2x6 (resulting in more space for insulation), OR they could remain at the 2x4 IF an exterior sheathing with an insulation value was used. The trade off is that a 2x6 is more expensive than a 2x4, but simply using Batt insulation in a 2x6 wall ends up being cheaper than buying and installing that exterior insulation. From a thermal performance standpoint, the 2x4 wall with exterior insulation is superior to the 2x6 wall with cavity insulation only.

The Exterior: (mostly about shedding bulk water…and looking good doing it)

The exterior is what you see on the outside and is thus wholly related to the aesthetics of your house, as covered in a previous wall aesthetics post. From a performance standpoint the exterior siding physically protects the assembly from wind and the majority of the rain (bulk water).

For years the exterior layer was also constructed to protect against water getting into the wall assembly, and was attached directly to any vapor barrier or retarder that was wrapping the exterior sheeting

Given the near certainty of water getting behind the siding, it is more commonly accepted today to install the siding with an air gap behind it so that intruding water will flow out or dry out before entering the interior. This can be done as a cavity wall or a rain screen, and although it is not the standard practice in the Mid-Atlantic region (yet) it is required by building code in some of the rainiest climates in our country, like the Pacific Northwest.

The Middle: (all about everything)

The Outer Middle: (mostly about moisture and air tightness…your first air barrier))
Just behind the exterior you will typically have the vapor barrier or retarder. This is basically a wrap that will keep moisture from entering your wall system. In so doing it will mitigate the problem of having moisture condense inside of your wall. The critical problem with these building wrap products is making sure that they are sealed at all penetrations and building breaks.

It is important that your architect specify how these details should be executed, and that your builder performs this work exactly as detailed.

The Inner Middle (Mostly about insulation)
The middle of the wall system usually contains the structure which in most houses these days is wood studs. Since the structure creates cavities the middle is always a place to build up the insulation and thus the R-value of the wall. This is often done cost effectively with either batt or blown-in cellulose insultion.Unfortunately, if those studs touch the exterior you will create a thermal bridge at each stud. This is best dealt with by using additional insulation across the outside face of the wall. The exterior insulation is typically some type of rigid foam that can receive the rain screen design.

The Interior: (a good place to stay airtight…for your second air barrier)

The interior surface of the vast majority of homes being built today, regardless of style, is drywall, also known as gypsum board. Rather than dwell on this we will just acknowledge its primary role from a performance standpoint.

It is the final air barrier, so it needs to be taped and sealed properly. This can get tricky in locations we call penetrations such as boxes for electric outlets and light switches, but the windows and doors also provide a sealing challenge as well as being a blog category unto themselves.


There are an abundance of wall assemblies, designs, and even proprietary systems available. This has touched on some very basic general concepts that are probably geared toward more conventional frame construction in non-severe climates in the United States.

You will hear people say that a house can be “too tight” or that you can insulate too much. Its true that a house does need to maintain an adequate fresh air supply and that you can reach a point of diminishing return with regard to insulation, but that is what design is about. Understand your climate, and your building orientation. Design your wall appropriately.

If you can mitigate moisture, remain relatively air tight, and insulate as much as possible, you will have a comfortable house, with minimal energy use and excellent air quality. In other words, it will be just right.


Residential Wall Design Part 1: Aesthetics

The walls of your new house are a very complex system. They provide structural support for your floors and roof, they keep water out and conditioned air in. Plus they need to look good too! There are other functions, but these four primary roles are: aesthetics, structure, moisture protection and air-tightness. We'll discuss all four of these in a two-part post. In part one we're going to focus only on that first function, aesthetics.

Aesthetics is something we all care about because the visual appearance of our home is a big part of how we experience and enjoy our spaces. The color, shape and texture of our walls is one of the first things you see when you look at a house. It's the first impression, the curb appeal.


In the early styles, there were a limited number of material choices, so most houses were either brick, siding or shingles. These materials were tasked primarily with keeping wind, rain and snow out. The shapes of the materials were used to make both structural and stylistic gestures such as brick arches and coursing or accentuated trim work and trim detailing in wood veneered structures. Often the early colonial styles would try to mimic classical architectural elements such as pilasters, cornices, and window surrounds.

While the pre-war period featured an array of historic references, post-industrial revolution mass production led to a surge in very affordable sturdy housing that was less concerned with stylistic detailing, and more concerned with mass production and economy. Think Sears and Roebuck kit houses.

As the turn of the century approached and passed by, informal lifestyles and the adoption of more open plans which allowed for new compositions in house forms that allowed architects and designers to take a new creative approach with how to clad the exterior wall systems.

Materials: Composition, Color and Texture

There are literally too many subtle distinctions in material options to name them all, so let’s keep it to a manageable few of the primary choices we use in housing today. To break down the aesthetics characteristics of these materials, lets observe them from the perspective of Composition, Color and Texture.


In most historic masonry structures the brick or stone exterior walls were load bearing. Today most houses are framed in wood and the masonry is just a veneer.

Red painted brick at the Logan Circle historic renovation project.

Brick, Concrete Block (CMU) and Stone are the most common forms of masonry exterior wall surface used on houses in the United States these days, but masonry can include a variety of materials such as cast stone, granite, limestone and even adobe.

Composition: Brick can be arranged in different patterns referred to as “bonds” and different courses (rows).  Bonds and courses can be used to accentuate openings in the walls, create bands and fields, and break up the scale of the surface. CMU and stone can both be used to create fields of material, or bands and water tables, to break of the scale of the building.

Color: Masonry typically comes in a variety of earth tones, but it can also be glazed to take on brilliant colors. The mortar is another color consideration with this material, giving the opportunity to either complement or contrast the color of the masonry. Stone is often used to show off its beautiful natural color, and the variety of colors in the stone can often be complemented by other colors in the composition.

Texture: Masonry is usually rough, however a glazing can give it a shiny reflective finish. The masonry units can be either the standard course face or a split face, which gives a very rusticated look and can contrast nicely against a smoother material. Stone has a huge variety of textures based on the type of stone, how it was quarried and how it was finished.

Light grey brick at the Bethesda Classical Renovation.

Cedar shingles over a brick watertable at a custom new home in Potomac.


Composition: Wood siding is usually either planks or shakes, and wood veneer panels are also an option. Though the siding can be from any number of wood species, woods like Cedar and Redwood have won favor over time due to their durability.

Color: Color comes down to whether you are painting or staining the wood. Stain allows for some color variation while still maintaining the beauty of the natural wood grain. Painting allows you have more ability to control color and to create compositions based more on color rather than texture.

Texture: Wood allows an enormous number of textural opportunities. Mixing siding and shakes, orienting the siding vertically or horizontally, widening or narrowing the reveal of the siding.

Painted fiber cement panels by James Hardie. Takoma Home Office Renovation.

Cementitious Siding

Cementitious or Fiber Cement siding is made from cement that is reinforced with cellulose fibers. It started to become increasingly popular in the 1990’s as a substitute for traditional wood siding. It too comes in plank and panel form and can even simulate a shake appearance. It has a reputation for being a cost effective more durable alternative to wood.

Composition: When used with aluminum trim products such as Fry Reglet  designers can make interesting and beautiful compositions in a very contemporary style. With the more traditional styles it mimics woods quite well though curves and bending are a challenge.

Color: Cementitious Siding can be painted, and there is also an increasing number of factory finished colors that the product is available in. The factory finish is more durable and of better quality.  

Texture: The product started out trying to simulate wood, and it can do this quite well, but in its panel form it can allow for large fields of smooth texture. In its plank form it can be either smooth or have a wood grain texture, and the panel form can be either smooth or simulate a stucco texture.

Stucco (EIFS)

Left: Stucco finish Fiber Cement Panel
Right: Popcorn stucco

Stucco is just a cement plaster that is applied as an exterior finish to a building. It has been around for many centuries but more recent versions of the product include EIFS (Exterior Insulation and Finish System) that adds some science to the mix, which will be covered separately. From an appearance perspective it mimics traditional stucco.

Composition: Stucco is incredibly versatile in its ability to form limitless compositions. It is a fluid application so it can basically take on the shape of the substrate it is covering. Curves, bulges, large smooth fields, odd shapes. It is very sculptural and versatile.

Color: Pigments can be added to the stucco system or it can be painted. From both perspectives it allows a great deal of flexibility.

Texture: There are a variety of textures to stucco from relatively smooth like a heavy sandpaper to very bumpy like “popcorn” stucco whose name is appropriately descriptive.


Though it is not very common in residential houses, glass panels can be used an exterior surface, though they can be quite expensive as a cladding system.

Composition: The product will come in panels so the compositions are going to be based on the panel sizes

Color: Glass comes not only with a wide variety of beautiful color but its transparency or translucency gives it a unique aesthetic range in color and how light interacts with it.

Texture: Though glass tends to be on the smoother side of siding materials it can have some texture to it, but it si typically used as a very smooth finish.

Fiber cement panels with aluminum reveals. Potomac Contemporary Addition.


As an alternate to the above mentioned categories there is a wide variety of panel systems that are available for cladding a building. These can be of a variety of materials but are usually made of either fiberglass or plastic,

Composition: Depending on the panel sizes a variety of compositions can be created, but it will tend to work best with more contemporary compositions.

Color: Pigments can be embedded for the superior factory finish but the particular product with establish your color palette and range.

Texture: as with all engineered products the texture is ultimately based on how the manufacturer offers the product. Panels lend themselves to a smoother finish, and as they become more textured their ability to hold dirt can become a concern.


Though windows are their own topic and will be discussed separately, any discussion of wall aesthetics or performance must acknowledge that windows are a dominant element in how a building looks and performs. Whatever the wall systems that are chosen, they must interact with the windows in a manner that unify the exterior of the building and balance the composition in a pleasing and beautiful manner.

How to Read Sections

Throughout your home renovation project your architect should be able to provide you with 3D floor plans and other 3D images of the design. These are incredibly helpful for all involved, especially at the preliminary design stage. However, to receive permits and to have your project built, you will need a comprehensive set of construction documents.  There is a lot of information that needs to be conveyed and the bulk of this information gets conveyed in plans, sections and elevations. These are 2d drawings that are packed with information, and many people have difficulty understanding how to read these drawings.

A previous post covered how to read floor plans.

This post will cover how to read your section drawings.

Sections depict the vertical relationships between the spaces shown on your floor plans. They relate spaces above and below each other and provide information about wall heights, floor-to-floor heights, stair clearances and roof slopes, among other things. While your plans show the horizontal relationships between walls in a room, sections show you how tall those walls are. Together, these two drawing types provide an accurate description of the size and shape of the space you are trying to create.


Let’s look a little more in depth at some of the information shown in your sections.

Sections show your ceiling heights. Heights from 8 to 10 feet are common. People often request heights greater than that, not fully realizing how high a 10 foot ceiling really is. A graphical silhouette can help, give your drawing scale, though these are usually not shown on construction drawings. Above 10 ft you may be required to have thicker walls which can add expense to your project and cut into your finished floor space.

Sections also show your floor assembly depth. This is generally the sum of the floor joist and the subfloor above the joist, to which your finished floor will attach. Joists in the 12” range are common, but if you want a really wide open plan you may end up needing deeper joists, which would increase the depth of your floor assembly. This is usually not visible space, but increasing this depth can affect stairs, overall building height and cost.

Sections also show detail callout markers. These are usually rectangular dashed line shapes with a bubble and a number. This alerts you to the fact that there is more information about a specific area in your project on another drawing. This is because every project will have some special conditions that require the architect to provide more detailed drawings. This detail can’t be seen at the typical scale of the section, so a blow up drawing of one small area is provided. If the mark next to the callout says 3/A501 the additional detail can be found at drawing #3 on sheet number A500.

How to Read Floor Plans

Throughout your home renovation project your architect should be able to provide you with 3D floor plans and other 3D images of the design. These are incredibly helpful for all involved, especially at the preliminary design stage. However, to receive permits and to have your project built, you will need a comprehensive set of construction documents.  There is a lot of information that needs to be conveyed and the bulk of this information gets conveyed in plans, sections and elevations. These are 2d drawings that are packed with information, and many people have difficulty understanding how to read these drawings.

This post will cover how to read your floor plans. Floor plans are presented as a view from above looking down at the floor. It is assumed that the plan is “cut” at about 48” above the floor.

The primary goal of the floor plan is to provide information about the location and relationship of the spaces you want to be built. We define these relationships by locating walls, doors, windows and other items. One of the key elements of reading your floor plan is to identify the dimension strings. These sets of dimensions give instructions about where to place walls and how thick those walls are. There will usually be multiple strings of dimensions next to each other, as it helps to separate things like the location of windows from the overall dimensions.

Another important feature in floor plans are plain language text notes. These are brief explanations of something to which the architect wants to draw attention. Text notes are used to point out existing items, atypical conditions or special instructions to the builder.

In addition to dimensions and notes there are often special symbols on a plan that direct your attention to another drawing or a schedule. Marks near windows and doors, often a single letter or a few numbers, indicate the type of window or door. This mark will match a line on schedule, which is a spreadsheet containing additional information. For example, if you see a “B” in a hexagon next to a window you can refer to the window schedule to see that window “B” is 36” wide and 72” tall and is made of wood, etc. Some other symbols found on plans include section and elevation markers. These drawings provide information about the vertical separation between spaces, exterior siding, roof pitches, etc, that can’t be shown on a floor plan. Floor plans will have references to these drawings though, so you can understand where those drawings are in the context of your design. A section marker is usually a circle with an arrow, and a sequence of numbers explaining which page the drawing is on.

Did you have any specific questions that weren't covered here? Leave a comment or send us an email. Check back soon for how to read your sections and elevations!