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I'm working on an old studio (single-family, one-storey, with minimal crawlspace and an attic), which currently has no added insulation. As-is, the estimated heat loss is 12.5kBTU/hr (for a 30°F temperature differential), which is a bit insane for a 300 sq. ft. space. Factoring in attic insulation (at R-15), it still only gets around 10kBTU/hr. The biggest source of heat loss is in the walls (after the attic gets insulated), so I am wondering how to go about insulating them, since they already exist and are nearly 100 years old.

Things worth mentioning:

  1. The walls are lathe & plaster
  2. There are fire braces about halfway up each wall between each pair of studs
  3. The exterior was originally wood siding (no house wrap moisture barrier, of course)
  4. There is now ~1-2" of stucco on the exterior, on top of the wood siding

It turns out the stucco really helps keep the place cool in the summer by rejecting heat ingress, but due to the high air turnover rate, this means that the house stays generally cooler than ambient in the winter too.

I'd really like to hear some ideas on how to get my walls insulated. Getting them to ~R-10 overall would go a long way to reducing my maximum heat loss.

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To me, a moisture barrier is on the exterior of the building and a vapor barrier is on the interior of the building. Vapor barriers should not have a perm rating of 1 or less because trapped vapor in the stud space needs a way to escape back towards the heated side (or air conditioned side in the summer.) Moisture barriers should have a perm rating much better (lower number). Moisture from inside the building will migrate towards the exterior. After you install wall insulation, moisture will turn from vapor to water at the dew point and end up in the wall cavity. That's why it is important to completely fill the wall cavity, giving less air (vapor) to turn to water.

So, on the interior face of the wall, it's ok not to have a vapor barrier, because any moisture that does get in the wall will need a way to escape. On the exterior side of the wall a moisture barrier is a must, because you want to keep water out. (this isn't just a little vapor trying to enter the wall.)

The exterior stucco could be an EFIS System if it's 2" thick and it should have a vapor barrier. If it's stucco, then it should have a vapor barrier too, but needs to be verified. (Probably 2 layers of building paper.) if the "exterior stucco" you call it is helping keep your house cool in the summer, then it's probably EFIS because it has a layer of insulation board in the system.

I don't think you can use anything other than foam insulation in the wall, because you need to make the insulation go "up" due to the diagonal bracing. However, remember the entire stud space must be filled. You'll need to drill holes at the top and bottom of the wall due to the diagonal bracing, which brings me to the most difficult issue: drilling through the stucco or EFIS system.

Patching stucco or EFIS is difficult. Stucco probably has a metal fabric layer that will be difficult to cut through without ripping the stucco apart. Stucco and EFIS should be patched by a professional. If you mess up patching these systems it will leak and you'll have a mess. Don't try it yourself.

The plaster in the lathe and plaster system may have asbestos. You can get a kit and send a sample off for testing. If positive, be sure to protect you and your helpers. (By the way the asbestos fibers will linger for days and land on everything in the room. Clean up involves cleaning everything. Use plastic drop cloths and toss when done. Asbestos companies use fans in windows to create a negative air pressure so you're not blowing asbestos around the neighborhood. ) I recommend a licensed abatement company if you have much to remove. Plaster can be patched, but you may develop cracks again. I'd add a layer of 1/2" gypsum board if the studs are 16" oc.

By the way, don't forget to vent the attic when you add attic insulation.

  • That was hugely informative. You are the second person to mention asbestos in lathe & plaster, so I'll definitely get a test kit, but at this point, I've done a fair bit of wrecking on the plaster (and the lathe) so I may want a medical exam too... As for the rest of it, I'll try to get more info on the Stucco. The attic is already very well ventilated (with cross ventilation). – Hari Ganti Feb 23 '17 at 22:06
  • I don't think it's an EFIS system. I could upload some pictures if it would help identify whether it's EFIS or not. That said, there is definitely a layer or two of some papery material. I just bored a couple holes for a breaker panel, and found the paper between the stucco and the original wood siding. Cutting through the stucco is actually remarkably easy. Chicken wire doesn't resist much. – Hari Ganti Feb 27 '17 at 21:16
  • Hmmm...I doubt if you have an asbestos breathing problem, if this is your first time...and haven't been doing your demo work for very long...like weeks...(there's some free medical advice.) if there is "chicken wire" in the system, then it's probably stucco, not EFIS. Old Stucco here is about 1-1 1/4" max. Building is a great moisture barrier. I think you'll be ok. But make sure you don't have a vapor barrier on the inside side of the wall that's better than 1. Fill stud space with blown-in (or foam for higher R-value) and make sure the entire stud space is filled. – Lee Sam Mar 1 '17 at 6:55
  • I'll test the plaster first. Then see what to do. Anyway, there's only some papery material behind the original wood siding, then the air gap, then the lathe and plaster. My only problem with filling with foam is that any electrical or other work will involve quite a bit more work. But, it's probably the best course of action. – Hari Ganti Mar 1 '17 at 7:35
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    No, just building paper...I've seen cotton felt and "paper", but they're not a moisture barrier. I think you're ok. I'd do it, but make sure the vapor barrier is not plastic sheeting so it allows moisture back out. – Lee Sam Mar 1 '17 at 8:01
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That's a tough one. One approach is to have a company spray foam in, but that involves drilling ~1-1/2" holes in each stud bay, and in your case multiple times, and then repairing them.

I've seen 1/4" drywall installed over plaster in this scenario, which of course requires a complete tape job. Depending on your woodwork scenario you can drywall above the base trim, and optionally apply a new coordinating cap to cover the drywall seam.

  • So, I've read that blown-in insulation without a proper moisture barrier can just lead to a soggy mess forming at the base of the wall, which can also bulge outward... We do have to patch quite a few holes in the wall, but I don't know how much drywall we can reasonably add, aside from those small patches. – Hari Ganti Feb 21 '17 at 23:43

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