Passive House Rebuild Elements

Now that we have discussed why we are building passive homes in the Marshall Fire community, lets get into the details of what makes a home meet this standard, and how our company’s values have determined what methods we use to achieve it.

Climate, Solar Orientation, and Energy Use

Passive houses take into account site conditions such as orientation of the lot/home in relation to the sun, the local climate, and energy needs of the home. A passive house should use the least amount of external energy inputs as possible, by orienting windows to capture heat during the winter, yet providing sufficient shading in the summer to keep the home cool and comfortable.

Air Sealing and Insulation

Passive House design, with its superior insulation and airtightness, significantly reduces heating and cooling demands in residential buildings. This combination not only reduces energy bills but also enhances indoor comfort and air quality for occupants. Additionally, windows and doors must meet high quality standards, including the use of triple-paned glass, and be designed to have a tight seal when closed. Attention to detail and careful planning are required to meet thermal continuity and air tightness standards.

Passive house modeling for window and wall assembly insulation
Interior Air Quality and Continuous Ventilation

A Passive House will provide a healthier indoor environment when compared to code built new construction by minimizing the use of toxic chemicals and incorporating mechanical ventilation. Each of these homes has a full house ducted ERV ( Energy Recover Ventilator), with intake and/or exhaust vents in each room. The system runs continuously, bringing in fresh filtered air and removing indoor air which may contain VOCs, excess CO2, and other pollutants that are created indoors. The air passes through a central system which exchanges the heat and humidity to maintain the indoor air temperature.

Low Carbon + Passive House

Although the Passive House standard does not currently require it, we are choosing to build with low carbon and carbon sequestering materials as much as we can. In conjunction with implementing Passive House design principles, the choice of building materials plays a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions. Low carbon building materials refer to products that have a lower carbon footprint throughout their lifecycle, from production to disposal. These materials include recycled content, sustainably sourced timber, low-emission concrete, and innovative alternatives like hempcrete.

Building materials that actively sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere further enhance the sustainability of residential construction. For instance, products that not only have a lower embodied carbon footprint compared to traditional construction materials but also lock in carbon during their lifespan. Examples of carbon sequestering materials include straw bale construction, which employs straw as a natural insulating material, cellulose insulation, which is made using recycled newsprint, and denim, hemp or sheep’s wool batt insulation.

In our homes, we are building double stud walls to reduce thermal bridging, and filling this entire cavity with cellulose insulation from recycled newspaper. The attic and rafter framed roofs will also be insulated with cellulose. We do have some EPS foam below grade in the basement of one of the homes. This serves in part to reduce the amount of concrete being used by eliminating a concrete slab floor. The other factors going into the decision are cost, and a decision to use the foam to provide an extra barrier between the living space and the cool concrete basement walls, without having to worry about potential condensation and moisture wicking damaging bio-based insulation.

All Electric

In another effort to minimize our contribution to climate change, these homes will be all electric, using heat pumps for heating and cooling and hot water, as well as electric induction stovetops. Colorado is already promoting all electric housing because this will reduce the consumer use of natural gas. Another benefit to all electric home is that they will have the option to add renewable energy directly (rooftop solar), which can reduce energy bills to zero. Also, as we clean up the power grid more and eliminate petroleum based energy sources, these homes will have a reduced impact on air quality and climate change, even without needing a personal solar power array.

Let’s Build More Passive Homes

Residential construction in the United States is undergoing a significant transformation as Passive House design principles and low carbon building materials start gaining more attention. Follow along with our projects on our Instagram page as we build these homes!

About Passive House Design/Build

Residential construction is undergoing a transformative shift towards energy efficiency and carbon reduction. The Passive House design standard, coupled with low carbon building materials, is at the forefront of this revolution.

Living Craft is building two new homes in the Marshall fire burn area in Louisville, CO to the passive house standard. We have partnered with Shape Architecture, a passive house designer and promoter based in Denver, to design the homes.

History and Principles

Passive House originally began in Germany. It has now become an international standard for constructing energy-efficient buildings that prioritize occupant comfort while minimizing energy consumption. The principles include airtight construction, high-quality insulation, high-performance windows, and a mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery. These elements significantly reduce the need for heating and cooling, resulting in up to 90% less energy consumption compared to conventional buildings. Just like LEED or Living Futures certified buildings, a building must meet certain requirements to become Passive House Certified.

Passive House Model Designed by Shape Architecture for construction in Louisville CO
One of two Passive House Marshall Fire Rebuilds, designed by Shape Architecture

Why We Are Building Passive Houses

With so many energy efficient home standards to choose from, we chose passive house for a number of reasons.

Local Incentive Program for Passive House

Incentives in the form of rebates are being offered by our local energy company for homes in this fire area. The rebates will offset any extra cost involved in making the home live up to the passive house standard, and hopefully provide some cash back to the homeowner.

Operational Energy Use and Comfort

Another reason we wanted to build to this standard is because a passive house should provide energy savings over the long term. The reduced heating and cooling costs and needs make monthly energy bills low. It also will be comfortable, quiet, and healthy for the residents.

Resilient Buildings for Climate Change

Additionally, our clients are concerned about climate change. The Marshall Fire that destroyed their homes was worsened by extreme weather patterns brought about by climate change. Because of that, they are hoping to provide an example of how housing and building in general could be involved in mitigating climate change rather than exacerbating it. That means we have to take into account the reduced energy consumption of the house, and also make smart choices about our design and the materials we use.

Also, simple homes that are airtight are actually more resilient in the face of future fires. Because it is so air tight, a passive house is less likely to have smoke damage after fires nearby. There are also fewer points for embers to gather and ignite with simpler roof lines.

It Takes a Village

Of course, the clients need to be excited about and on board with this process. Shape has the expertise in creating the design to meet the energy standards and the clients needs. Living Craft has four Certified Passive House Tradespeople on our team. This will help to ensure proper on-site implementation of the design elements, which requires a lot of attention to detail. Rounding out the team are BldgTyp, the PH Design Consultant and CertiPHIers, a third party certifier who will review the home design and construction process at completion of the project to make sure we have met the goals of the design.

We are excited to be getting building with these two new Passive Homes in Louisville, CO. Stay tuned for more updates.

Kitchen/Home Remodel Before and Afters

This remodel involved moving a staircase and eliminating a trip hazard landing to open up the flow in the main level, and make it easier for aging in place. We also relocated the kitchen from a cramped corner, added an island and second prep sink, enlarged and added windows, and had Grimes Carpentry build and install a bunch of beautiful custom cabinetry and built ins. Architecture by ShelterBelt Design.

Our ongoing COVID-19 response

Thanks for checking in! Like many other small businesses around the country and the world, Living Craft is actively working to move forward with our operations during the Coronavirus pandemic.

We chose to close down our site operations early in the pandemic because we decided that we wanted to do as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus. Limiting exposure for ourselves, our clients, and our suppliers in order to flatten the curve are our best routes to alleviate the pain that this virus is causing to our communities and to medical professionals.

As an essential business in the state of Colorado, we are working on off-site operations, including our design services and project development and planning. We are still accepting new client inquiries and can aid you in your home project planning needs through videoconferencing and other remote communication methods.

Additionally, we are continuing our on-site work. In order for essential work to continue, we are putting safety protocols and training procedures into place which will allow us and our employees to navigate the challenges of staying safe and limiting our exposure while making progress on our projects. We strive to comply with social distancing guidelines and have implemented additional disinfection practices. For more information, we will be posting samples of our working protocols and job site checklists as we develop them.

As an added precaution, we are offering our employees extra paid sick leave in order to provide them with flexibility and to encourage them to stay home if they have any symptoms or possible exposure to the virus.

We hope that you are all staying safe and healthy during this challenging time.

A Beyond Green Approach to Remodeling

When I interned at an organic farm in Moab, they called themselves Beyond Organic. In addition to meeting all the standards for USDA organic certification, they also took the extra time and care to be good stewards of the land and soil. They did this by soil testing and adding natural amendments, planting cover crops and using crop rotation practices, and using other tools for increasing biodiversity and supporting pollinators like companion planting and crop rotation.

Inspired by that, I like to think of our company as Beyond Green Building. Of course, we support the goals of the green building movement, but we are also also striving to stay on the cutting edge of new developments and research. Incorporating these new ideas can lead to the creation of an even better home, with a lower impact on the environment. Especially with remodel and retrofit jobs, we believe we can do better with more natural and healthy options. So, we like to look at an existing building holistically, first taking the data from an energy audit and materials testing, and then applying our knowledge and techniques to design the most green and healthy building we can.

Just by choosing to keep an existing structure, rather than demolishing it, you’re off to a great start. The greenest buildings are the ones we already have, because then you don’t have the initial carbon emissions costs of tearing down and moving the old building materials to a dump. With creative remodeling and potentially an addition, an old home can have a new life and all those useful materials are kept out of the waste stream.

Once a remodel has begun, there are many strategies we can turn to in order to take it Beyond Green. One is using carbon sequestering insulation materials like straw, hemp, cellulose, recycled denim, and wool. This helps offset climate change which would otherwise be exacerbated by the building industry. We also choose interior finishes that are VOC free to improve indoor air quality from the start. Additionally, using advanced air sealing membranes, efficient mechanical systems, and the use of a service cavity for utilities can turn an older leaky home into one that is air tight. That way we aren’t letting unwanted air move through small holes in the wall assembly where it can create condensation points and eventually lead to mold. Whole house continuous ventilation systems, which are quickly becoming a requirement for new buildings, can also drastically improve indoor air quality in older, remodeled homes.

A Living Craft designed remodel is meant to last for beyond the life of an individual, with means not only choosing systems that create a more durable home, but also using finishes and materials that are timeless. Plaster and wood finishes can be varied to meet the modern styles of today, but also have been used in homes for thousands of years, so they have better staying power in a fast moving design field.

We are constantly looking to keep ourselves up to date on the knowledge and new ideas in green and natural building and remodeling. Through this evolution, we hope to stay on the cutting edge and keep collaborating with other companies and individuals who have similar goals. It’s an exciting place to be!

The Importance of Energy Auditing

An energy audit is sort of like a physical check up for your home. This is especially important in the case of an older home which may have been built before the updated building code called for a certain level of insulation and air tightness. An energy audit is a great way to find out exactly which interventions will have the most impact on lowering your home’s energy usage and reducing heating and cooling losses.

Do you know where your home is losing the most energy?

To make the process even easier, Xcel Energy even has a program available to their customers for home energy audits, including options for rebates to offset the cost of the audit.

An energy audit is often the first step we recommend for our remodel clients. That way, we can be sure to design the project with all the data available. This allows us to meet budgetary needs while making the best choices to craft a more efficient home.

In addition to finding areas that lack insulation or have air leakage, energy auditors can point out aging mechanical systems which may be having a greater than necessary impact on energy bills and carbon emissions. Going all electrical with the mechanical systems in a home is one great way to plan for the future, as our energy grid becomes less dependent on fossil fuels. The auditor will recommend specific practices for sealing leaks and insulating, or suggest which systems to upgrade. We can help you decide which of these options will give you the best and healthiest home.

An example of some of the types of infrared images that the energy auditor will include in their report, tailored to your home.

With the data from an energy audit, together with Living Craft, you can choose which areas of your home to focus on, whether it’s air sealing in the attic, adding cellulose insulation, or upgrading an aging water heater or boiler. Once we’ve set up your home to be more efficient, we can then design interior renovations that will make it more beautiful and healthy.

For example, one client came to us with a bathroom remodel project. Since her bathroom tub was leaky, it had caused damage to the ceiling below, and obviously needed some work. After an energy audit, we were able to find out that the attic also needed air sealing and the bathroom fan wasn’t venting outdoors, but instead bringing humid air out of the bathroom and in to the attic. Since these are not ideal, we were able to reroute the bath fan vent, air seal and add insulation into the attic, and also give her an updated bathroom with a fully water sealed shower. Without the energy audit, she may have only acheived some of these objectives. She not only got a rebate from Xcel, she also saves money every month on her heating and cooling bills, and stays more comfortable year-round in her home.

The finished bathroom, with a bonus whole house efficiency upgrade.

So, if you have an older home that you are planning on upgrading or remodeling, be sure to get that energy audit before you start budgeting for other upgrades, because it is the quickest and simplest way to start saving money on energy bills. Even if the inside of your home doesn’t need any work, an energy audit can let you know where the weak spots in your building envelope are, without being intrusive. And if you need help interpreting the results and deciding which interventions to make, let us know!

Building and Remodeling with Hemp

There’s a lot of information out there now about hemp construction. Since the recent passing of the 2018 Farm Bill in congress, which legalizes the growing of industrial hemp on a federal level, the hempcrete building technique has gained media attention.

But what do you need to know if you are thinking about your new dream hemp house or hempcrete remodel?

hemp building in progress

How Hemp is Used in Construction

Many articles in the press have done a good job of explaining the use of hemp in hempcrete walls. This system involves hemp hurd being mixed with lime binder and then loosely packed into forms that are built around the wall framing. This is applicable in both new builds and remodels. There is lots of room to experiment, as well.

For example, the hemp-clay house we worked on uses the hemp portion of the wall solely as an infill which butts up to the inside of the otherwise more conventional wall. It serves as a thermal break and plaster substrate. Hemp can also be mixed into plasters, earthen floors, and used in creating blocks, with either lime or clay binders.

There are companies that make building products made with hemp that could replace plywood, batt insulation, and even wood framing members. For now, though, hempcrete (or hemp-lime, or hemp-clay) is the king of hemp building.

Benefits of Building with Hemp

There are many benefits to building with hemp and hempcrete systems.


First off, the environmental benefits. One way hemp is better than other building materials that it may replace is that its production (farming) and processing (making the hemp plant into hurd) can require less energy, water, and time inputs. In fact, due to its long root system, hemp plants can actually improve soil health by increasing organic matter in soil over time and naturally loosening dense soils.

A hemp home may use less lumber, since the wooden frame of the house can be designed with greater spacing than if the home used more conventional insulating batts that are designed for 16″ or 24″ spaces. And since hemp grows much faster than trees, it requires less water and energy inputs, and a smaller area of land to produce an equivalent amount of material.

Hemp also replaces insulation. Batt insulation like fiberglass and mineral wool are manufactured products that need a lot of energy to create and ship. If local hemp hurd is used instead, the embodied energy is much lower. Also, hemp captures carbon from the air as it grows, which is then sequestered and stored in the walls of your building for as long as it stands. This means you get to start out with a carbon neutral or even carbon negative home from the beginning!

Building Health

The rise of “sick building syndrome” is well documented. As homes get more energy efficient with tighter envelopes, indoor air quality can decrease. Particularly when the materials used to build and finish them and the products we bring inside are off gassing chemicals and VOCs, this can result in poor health, lowered cognitive abilities, and potential long term disease. In addition, mold can become a problem from condensation forming within wall systems or inside of poorly ventilated homes.

Hemp can help with this is a few ways. If you follow our plaster site, you may have read about how plasters can improve indoor air quality. The lime (or clay) binder in hempcrete is the same earthen material as in a natural plaster. Also, most hemp walls are finished using plaster on the inside.

Also, hemp won’t contribute to VOC and chemical off-gassing as it is a wholly plant based material which has been dried and processed before being mixed with the lime.

Finally, hempcrete walls are highly mold resistant. The lime binder has a very high pH while wet, which prevents mold. And, once it has cured and been plastered, a hempcrete wall regulates humidity and allows water vapor to pass through it in a way that won’t lead to any points of condensation within the wall. There are also no gaps within the wall through which air can move. This eliminates another source of moisture and mold, and contributes to the longevity of your building.

Boosting Local Economies

Growing hemp is seen as a healthier, safer alternative to other economic activities, like mining and large scale industrial agriculture. Because hemp requires less inputs of pesticides and herbicides than other crops like cotton, soy, and corn, it is a good candidate for replacing or joining into a crop rotation with these plants. Also, parts of the country whose economies were dependent on coal mining or manufacturing jobs could use the recent legalization of industrial hemp to carve out a new living. In Colorado, hemp and marijuana growing is already boosting the economy.

Current Challenges of Building with Hemp in Colorado

Since industrial hemp is a new crop in the United States, we are lagging slightly behind in the manufacturing of products using hemp and in the processing of the raw plant material. The equipment, factories, and machinery required for such a task are expensive and it will take time to catch up to other countries where hemp building has been popular for decades.

For example, when we built our hemp-clay project, using a unique and lower carbon version of hempcrete where clay is used to bind the hemp together in the wall instead of lime, we used imported hemp hurd. There are drawbacks to this, like increased embodied energy. However, the current consistency and quality of processed hemp hurd available locally (if it is available at all) meant that there would be more headaches and room for errors than if we bought from a part of the world where hemp building is well established. In those countries, the processing of the plant into the final product is seamless and reliable.

So, while we are still waiting for Colorado and the US to catch up with other areas of the globe, hemp building is coming to Colorado quickly, including in a studio project that we are starting later in 2019. Keep an eye out for updates!

Moroccan Tadelakt Photo Gallery

Living Craft co-owner Ben recently returned from a trip to Morocco. In addition to being a very cool vacation destination, Morocco is also the homeland of tadelakt plaster. This is the polished lime plaster that we use in showers, sinks, kitchen and bathroom backsplashes, and windowsills. Our mentor, Ryan, learned his skill in Morocco, and passed it on to us.

Ben got some great shots of tadelakt on the Moroccan streets, in bed and breakfasts, and in a restored historic lobby of a public garden. Its use is very prevalent throughout the country, in mostly decorative forms. Ben got to see a tadelakt roof, and drain spouts that directed water into a pool. Click through the gallery below to see the natural and beautiful Moroccan aesthetic of tadelakt in the home country.

After his trip, we are all feeling inspired and energized for a big tadelakt bathroom project we are currently tackling in the Park Hill neighborhood of Denver. Check out that completed project here.

How to Build in the Face of Climate Change

Currently the conventional construction industry contributes heavily to climate change. That cannot be debated. What if it could be changed?

Welcome to the modern world of increasing carbon emissions.

No matter the exact numbers, we know that creating buildings from new materials that have been manufactured and then shipped long distances, using machinery that consumes fuel and electricity, and assembled by workers who travel to the site daily in gas burning vehicles cannot be the greatest thing for the planet right now. We are struggling with the real effects of climate change in the present day, while also hearing every day about the potential futures we and our children will face.

How can building actually help?

We are part of a small but growing class of builders who believe we can offer some solutions to the big problems of carbon emissions associated with construction. Some ways this can be done:

Use Local Materials

If you don’t have to ship pine boards from New Zealand, but can instead use wood harvested sustainably from the same region that you are building in, this will reduce the embodied energy of that material. Unless you live in New Zealand, and then go for it with your pine. If you live somewhere where forests aren’t abundant, then you could look into other options like straw bale, masonry, or stone.

Their local abundance is part of why we love to use natural plasters. Sand, clay, and lime are harvested and processed fairly locally, not shipped from across the sea. These materials can be used for floors, walls, and more.

Use Materials with Lower Embodied Energy

If you can choose build a home out of cement blocks or adobe blocks, you can drastically reduce your building’s carbon footprint by choosing the adobe. Cement is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, but adobe blocks can provide as much structural support, increased thermal mass (means more comfortable home in the face of extreme temperature swings), and a much lower embodied energy.

Similarly to how single use to-go containers made of styrofoam can’t ever be considered “green,” a home insulated with lots of foam is also not very green, because of the amount of energy it requires to manufacture that foam. Materials like straw, hemp, and cellulose can perform just as well, at a lower embodied energy cost. There are many more examples of this, so feel free to ask us about low energy materials when designing your dream home!

Use Materials that Sequester Carbon

Straw is made of carbon, and when a home is insulated with carbon-rich materials like that, you’re locking that carbon out of the atmosphere for the life of the building, How cool is that?

In contrast, a fiberglass batt or mineral wool board (or foam of any kind) takes a ton of energy to create and doesn’t sequester carbon at all. Bummer.

Other materials that sequester carbon: wood studs, hemp, cross laminated timber, and fiber boards (some made from hemp are coming onto the market soon).

Practice Efficient Home Design

Paying attention to your climate and site conditions and using principles of passive solar design will keep your home comfortable throughout the seasons while reducing your energy bills. It also lowers your carbon emissions.

Another part of designing a wall system is preventing air and water leaks. A tightly air-sealed and well-insulated home will last longer, reduce issues of mold or rot, and be more energy efficient for both heating and cooling.

Start today

It’s a good start to begin thinking about some of the factors listed above when designing and building a home. We can’t change the industry overnight, but the broader acceptance of low carbon building methods today could go a long way.

7 Reasons to Keep Your Old Plaster or Plaster New Walls

You could say that lime plaster forms the foundation of our company, or at least of our origin story. The three of us met on a big lime plaster job in the mountains west of Boulder, CO. We each contacted our mentor, Ryan Chivers, because we had heard of his reputation in the natural building community as a lime plaster expert. Frank had worked with him for a year at that time, and this project was mine and Ben’s first time meeting Ryan. He brought us on to help him sling plaster on both the exterior and interior of this strawbale mountain home. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Here are a few of the reasons we love lime. Whether it’s found in a historic home where plaster was the primary choice for wall building at the time (lime or gypsum), or a new build or remodel where the homeowner chooses to use plaster, this material is definitely not out of style.

1. Beauty

Have you heard the word birefringence? I hadn’t either, until I met Frank. Wikipedia defines it as so: “Birefringence is the optical property of a material having a refractive index that depends on the polarization and propagation direction of light.” Well, maybe that cleared things up for some of us…

The point is, because lime plaster cures back to it’s original material of limestone, it maintains some of the aesthetically enchanting qualities and depth of a natural gemstone or mineral, while being customizable in texture and color.

2. Durability

We all know that something that’s rock solid is very dependable. So, if someone gave you the choice to have walls that are literally rock solid, wouldn’t you take them up on that? It sounds like a no brainer to me.

3. Easy to Repair

One miraculous feature of lime plaster is that it is actually constantly repairing itself on a microscopic level. When small cracks form, new lime is exposed to air and moisture, which causes a continuing reaction which can self-heal smaller cracks. In case your lime plastered walls do get some bigger cracks, or a couple scratches, or an historic wall system needs repair, lime plaster can be repaired by a skilled plasterer. There are even artisans replicating plaster relief art in historic renovation.

4. It’s got History

Today, I told a material supplier that the products I was picking up were going to be used on a exterior plaster job, using lime plaster. He looked surprised and said, “Now that’s old school.” And he is not wrong! But the best thing about an old school material like lime it that it’s tried and true. And lime has been used in building mortars and plasters since the Greek and Roman heydays.

5. Low Carbon Footprint

As lime cures, it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. While there is still energy input during the production and shipping of lime (we call this it’s embodied energy), the curing process helps to offset this carbon footprint. Plus, lime is a more local product in many locations, particularly here in the Denver area, which means less fuel is burned for transportation than a cement stucco or paint.

6. Support your Local Craftsmen and Craftswomen

Many trade groups and magazines are extolling the virtues of skilled craftspeople in construction. The hashtag #keepcraftalive is one example I saw recently. Like many trades in the building industry, the workforce of skilled plasterers is diminishing. Hiring a local plaster company is one way to help rekindle the movement of skilled laborers coming up in the workforce. Plus, dollars spent on local products and with small businesses are more likely to stay in the community.

7. Improve Indoor Air Quality

Plaster improves indoor air quality in a few ways. One is that lime plaster contains no chemicals that can off-gas into the indoor atmosphere. Those are things like VOCs (found in some paints and stains). Instead, plaster is made of solely natural materials like sand and lime, with nothing that will emit noxious chemicals into the home.

Another way plasters improve air quality is managing humidity levels. We wrote a full blog on plaster and humidity over at our plaster specific website, Living Plasters. The general idea is that whether humidity is too low or too high, it can be bad for indoor air quality, or make your home feel uncomfortable. Plasters act as a buffer to moderate humidity levels in the “Goldilocks Zone” of just-right.

lime plaster door

Personally, I’m excited to be part of reviving the lime plaster movement and beautifying our homes and buildings.

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