Air Barrier Details and Materials: Avoiding Failures, and Considerations for Designers & Specifiers

An airtight building enclosure is an important part of a modern building. Airtightness is achieved with an effective air barrier system that is carefully designed and detailed, then built and commissioned in the field. An effective air barrier consists of a continuous system of materials, components, and accessories – not an individual product.

Achieving airtightness on the open area is relatively easy. However, the majority of air leaks occur at the fine details, like transitions and interfaces between elements. Successfully managing the inevitable joints, laps, penetrations, fastener holes and other air barrier details differentiates a good, high-performance air barrier system from an ineffective one.


The air barrier functions as a control layer

Every functional enclosure design needs to identify which wall layers are responsible for water, air, thermal, and vapor (diffusion) controls. Each control function has different requirements. Hence, one must know what function each layer is serving to judge whether it will live up to performance expectations. A useful way to think about the different layers is widely known as the “Perfect Wall” concept.

The system providing air control typically includes a number of air barrier materials working together. The overall system must also meet a few criteria.


Detailing a continuous air barrier

A complete air barrier system is a combination of several assemblies and components connected by multiple accessories that are designed to provide a continuous air barrier to the movement of air through an environmental separator.

High-performance air barrier systems must have the following characteristics:

  • Continuous (most important)
  • Strong enough to withstand forces during and after construction
  • Stiff to help absorb and transfer wind loads evenly
  • Durable to last the expected lifetime of the building
  • Impermeable to air flow (least important)

The reason for this order is that an air-impermeable component will be ineffective without continuity. An air barrier system must meet several requirements, but continuity is the most important and challenging characteristic to achieve in modern steel, wood, or concrete buildings.

Recommend reading…High-Performing Air Barriers: The Unsung Hero of Construction

The interior air barrier approach is common for residential buildings. The detailing of a continuous air barrier is considerably more difficult because of penetrations and transitions. The exterior approach involves fewer penetration details and is easier to inspect for discontinuity. A fully supported (rigid) air barrier installed on the exterior of the structure is the most likely approach to meet the performance criteria. For commercial buildings, sometimes the only solution is an exterior air barrier (Figure 1).

air barrier approaches
Figure 1

Airflow in the ventilation cavity or within the stud space causes cooling or ‘wind washing’ of air-permeable insulations. This is why air barriers must be thought of as a system, and not a product. Even though air movement into and out of the building is controlled, unrestricted air movement through the stud space can increase energy consumption and moisture risk, reduce the R-value of insulation, and create discomfort for occupants.


Air barrier requirements for airtightness

Air barrier requirements have brought significant changes to detailing. The focus is on the performance of the whole building, and not that of individual materials.

There are different requirements for air barrier materials, components, and systems:

  • Standard Test Method for Air Permeance of Building Materials, and Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (CAN/ULC) 741, Standard for Air Barrier Materials – Specification,
  • ASTM E2357, Standard Test Method for Determining Air Leakage Rate of Air Barrier Assemblies, and CAN/ULC 742, Standard for Air Barrier Assemblies – Specification, for components

While these are important standards that exist, neither are whole building performance tests. How the building performs is the most important. There are many standards worldwide that detail how to perform whole building airtightness tests, commonly called blower door tests

Some include:

  • ISO 9972:2006 – Thermal performance of buildings — Determination of air permeability of buildings — Fan pressurization method
  • ASTM E779 – Standard Test Method for Determining Air Leakage Rate by Fan Pressurization
  • ASTM E1827 – Standard Test Methods for Determining Airtightness of Buildings Using an Orifice Blower Door
  • ABAA Standard Method for Building Enclosure Airtightness Compliance Testing

For more than 20 years, the National Research Council Canada (NRC) has recommended air leakage across the enclosure of commercial buildings be limited to a maximum of 2 L/s/m2 at a pressure difference of 75 Pa. This should be considered a minimum standard. Buildings are often designed and built to much tighter air leakage standards.

By using whole building airtightness tests and by setting performance targets, architects and contractors can quantitatively verify the methods used were successful. They can also be employed diagnostically on new construction, remedial projects, and major energy-efficiency retrofits.

To learn more, watch…A Cup of Joe: The Air Barrier

Canada net zero building code

The National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB), which applies to Part 3 or commercial and institutional buildings, and the National Building Code’s (NBC’s) Section 9.36, which applies to Part 9 or small buildings and houses, are key components of the model code system defining the minimum energy-efficiency requirements for new buildings. NECB and NBC 2020 are now integral components of Canada’s climate action plan.

Building testing is not mandatory for commercial buildings, but is a performance-based option that many designers require. The only Canadian jurisdiction mandating the blower door test is the City of Vancouver, as part of its Green Building Strategy for one- and two-family homes.

A national model for a four-tiered code is in development for each model code (NECB and NBC), similar to the B.C. Energy Step Code that was launched in 2017. A tiered code is an incremental approach to achieving more energy-efficient buildings. It is a series of steps starting with a base building code.

NBC is proposing a concept of ‘tiered performance’ for structures described under Part 9 buildings. These structures are not more than three stories high, and less than 600 m2 in area. Buildings falling under Part 3—larger residential, commercial, and institutional structures—will follow an advanced energy model that will compare the proposed facility’s performance to a ‘reference structure.’


Air barrier details: connections and transitions

Final airtightness of a building depends on the critical details in the building enclosure design, including windows, and structural (e.g., balconies) and mechanical penetrations. Each of these details can be improved through careful attention to continuity during the design phase and quality control throughout construction.

The ‘perfect wall’ approach means details such as transitions between wall and roof assemblies need attention, and someone must be clearly responsible detailing each. 

In Figure 2, red circles represent critical detail areas that are challenging. The blue dotted line represents the plane many architects draw in detail.

air barrier details
Figure 2

Each red circle requires a scaled drawing. If the drawing lacks details, then the contractor who may not have the experience will decide the best course of action, potentially sacrificing critical air barrier continuity. Every detail needs to be addressed by the designer.

The transitions of components cause many challenges for building enclosure installers. At the same time, inexperienced designers may not identify these challenges and fail to detail complex areas in full. Designers should not assume all installers will be able to identify breaches and correct them to ensure a continuous air barrier has been created during the air barrier installation.

Recommended reading…Insights from John Straube: Ensuring High Quality from Design to Construction

Window penetrations are the most common detail because nearly every wall has one. The window must be tied into the air barrier system to ensure airtightness. It is best to follow the line of the air barrier and note the window connection to the air barrier plane. Critical points with window detailing are the corners. Prefabricated corners can be easier to install and help ensure air- and water-tightness. It is also critical, even in a vapor permeable system, to use vapor-impermeable materials at the window sill where standing water is a risk.

The wall-to-roof transition can be a difficult air barrier detail for both contractors and designers. Where walls intersect the underside of the metal roof deck at overhangs or soffits, light-gauge metal plates can be sealed and fastened to the topside and underside of the deck and wall, and roof air barriers can connect directly to these plates. The top and bottom metal roof deck flutes need to be sealed to prevent airflow between the plates.

Lastly, there are other structural penetrations such as balconies, exposed slab edges, and intentional holes left to accommodate services like plumbing. These are major contributors to poor airtightness. Just like windows, each must be detailed to maintain continuity (Figure 3).

Illustration of a detailed penetration.
A flexible material for pipe penetrations is an easy solution to seal pipes and maintain continuity. Note here that sequence is important and ought to be specified.
Source: RDH Building Science
Figure 3

Find air barrier interruptions with the pencil test

One of the best tools to begin the envelope commissioning process during design is to perform a “pencil test” on a building cross-section or floor plans.

Take a pencil and, starting in the lower right-hand corner of the drawing, trace the line of each of the barriers moving upward along the walls, horizontally across the roof, back down to the footing, and horizontally across the lowest floor and back to the point of beginning. 

The areas where the pencil encounters anything other than a smooth, continuous plane is circled to identify potential areas of air barrier interruptions. This includes wall penetrations, fenestration openings, offsets, or changes in materials.

Each circled area identified in the pencil test represents an architectural detail that is required to communicate how the barriers connect and remain continuous across the circled areas. Those details must be thought through and shown on the final construction drawings to ensure the barrier can indeed be constructed as continuous. It is no longer enough or appropriate to simply mention ‘continuous’ in a note identifying the air barrier—it must be accompanied by an architectural detail.

Recommended reading…Large Building Airtightness and Appropriate Air Barrier Strategies


Quality control during construction

The importance of the continuous air barrier is more widely understood, but disconnect between air barrier installation and design is not always given the attention it deserves by project teams. Insufficient drawing details at transitions and intersections can result in breaks in the air barrier and increased air leakage across the building enclosure plane at the point of installation.

In some cases, the construction manager and subcontractors do not have a fundamental understanding of the air barrier. As a result, breaches in the air barrier due to difficult transitions are unidentified during construction, and subsequently go unnoticed. However, instilling quality control methods during design and construction minimizes the risk of damage associated with a leaky air barrier.

First, consider full-scale, onsite mock-ups to illustrate and review details and conditions found in the overall project. This offers the installing contractor an opportunity to review the assembly, sequencing, and constructability of the various components. All participants can see and agree upon the critical details upfront and prior to large-scale assembly.

The lab test for a mock-up is CAN/ULC 742 or ASTM 2357 (both acceptable under NBC, but the CAN/ULC test also involves temperature differentials, so it is often preferred by Canadian designers). But determining if those standards are met should be decided prior to the mock-up.

Second, pre-installation meetings are a simple way to ensure coordination of all onsite workers. It is important to include not only the installing contractors for the air barrier, but also the tradespersons responsible for overlying components. Insist on a meeting where the wall air barrier, roofing, and waterproofing contractors discuss edge conditions and the overlapping of materials, potential time delays between the installation, and other coordination issues to ensure a continuous air barrier.

When the products are ready to be installed, specify the substrate assembly and adjacent materials, including the surface preparation for the air barrier and the treatment of joints between the products. Specify flashing and transition materials needed to bridge the gap between window assemblies and roofing or walls. Also include specification for repair of damaged air barriers and substrate conditions.

It is advisable to always stress continuity and the coordination with other trades.


Field inspection

As part of the air barrier installation, the contractor or third-party inspector should conduct an air barrier quality control program that includes:

  • Inspecting all air barrier materials to ensure conformity to contract requirements and confirm all materials are not damaged or stored improperly
  • Checking all surface preparation prior to air barrier installation
  • Assessing in-progress work to ensure it is being done in accordance with established procedures, third-party standards, or instructions from manufacturers and the project’s architect
  • Obtaining all air barrier materials and accessories from a single manufacturer and providing other system components only as approved by the manufacturer of the primary materials

Additionally, the architect on record or third-party inspector should conduct field evaluations during the air barrier installation and afterward. These inspections should include a visual check to confirm it is continuous and an adequate bond is achieved to each substrate specified for the project.


A continuous air barrier is a complete system

Minimizing air leakage across the building enclosure is fundamental to high-performance buildings. As mentioned before, airtightness is achieved with an effective air barrier system composed of continuous materials, components, and accessories, and not an individual product.

The experience of designers and installers varies widely across the industry. Adequate construction oversight and quality control measures with respect to the air barrier design and air barrier installation can help offset lower experience levels. Designers less familiar with air barriers may not fully appreciate the difficulty of providing continuity at complex transitions, the importance of clearly detailing these transitions to adequately illustrate the design intent to the installer, and the need for material compatibility for long-term performance.

Building scientist Dr. John Straube explains the importance of realizing a continuous air barrier is a complete system, and why your team probably needs to talk about it:

To avoid air leaks at transitions and interfaces between elements, designers must first identify challenging joints, laps, penetrations, fenestrations, and fastener holes. These identifiers must be well detailed and clearly communicated with mock-ups and onsite meetings, observed during installation, and inspected once completed to identify any gaps.