Meeting 2012 IECC Requirements with Hybrid Insulation Systems

By: L. Daniel Small Manager, Building Science Development CertainTeed Corporation

With the more stringent new thermal resistance and airtightness requirements of the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), energy-efficient exterior wall assemblies are now an even higher priority in North American new construction and retrofit projects. The new IECC requires continuous insulation between a home’s exterior cladding and sheathing in Canada Climate Zones 6 through 8, with a thermal resistance of R-5 (RSI 0.8) in Climate Zone 6 and R-10 (RSI 1.7) in the latter two zones. In addition, third-party blower door testing confirming the airtightness of a home is now required.

Fortunately, today’s high-performance insulation products and innovative installation strategies provide several options for contractors striving to meet these requirements. Caulking under baseboards and along wall stud seams, as well as using closed-cell spray polyurethane foam (SPF) to insulate around rim joists, can provide more effective air seals in areas traditionally known for air leakage. One of the best overall strategies for meeting thermal resistance and airflow resistance requirements, though, is to install a hybrid insulation system.

Hybrid insulation systems combine the best attributes of two or more insulation products to provide a cost-effective airtight seal around the home, as well as high thermal resistance and superior moisture control.


The first component of a hybrid insulation system is a weather-resistive barrier, commonly known as housewrap, which is installed directly under the siding, over the exterior sheathing. Properly applied housewrap allows water vapour, which can damage drywall and wood sheathing, to escape from the building’s wall cavity, while acting as a full wall flashing to mitigate the infiltration of bulk moisture from the exterior.


Usually in board form, continuous insulation covers the entire exterior wall, including structural members. Often placed between the sheathing and exterior cladding, it reduces energy loss by providing a thermal break in the wall and impeding air leakage. Though the most common choice for continuous insulation is a foam board—usually expanded polystyrene (EPS), extruded polystyrene (XPS), or polyisocyanurate (PIR)—there are other ways to achieve the objective. One lesser-known, but effective, alternative is high-density rigid fibreglass board.

Rigid fiberglass has the same advantages as polyfoam, such as easy installation and high thermal performance, but has better fire resistance and tends to be more solid and slightly less expensive than polyfoam. The R-value per inch of rigid fibreglass board is comparable to that of standard polyfoam boards—fibreglass rates slightly above R-4 (RSI 0.67) per inch, with EPS at R-4 per inch and polyisocyanurate at about R-6 (RSI 1) per inch. The boards should be installed over the exterior sheathing with the faced side looking toward the interior, with all seams taped.


Framing best practices have evolved to increase thermal efficiency. This strategy, known as Advanced Framing, places 2x6 studs 24 inches (60 cm) apart, instead of 16 inches (40 cm), utilizes single headers instead of double headers, and reduces the number of studs in corners and at door and window frames. This decreases the amount of lumber in walls without compromising structural support and boosts the overall insulative value of the wall assembly. Wood is a poor insulator, so the less lumber in the wall assembly, the more room there is for more effective insulation materials.


Made from polyurethane, closed-cell SPF insulation offers a thermal resistance of up to R-6.4 (RSI 1.7) per inch of installed thickness—one of the highest insulating values available on the insulation market today. It is more durable than open-cell SPF, has a higher R-value and a stronger resistance to moisture, and is the preferred choice for high-performance hybrid systems. SPF is sprayed as a liquid into the wall cavity and expands via chemical reaction to up to 30 times its initial volume, filling crevices, gaps, and other hard-to-reach spaces. Applying SPF insulation to exterior walls and attic ceilings also provides additional structural support and racking strength.

Combining SPF with fibrous insulation in the wall cavity provides similar airtightness performance as a full cavity of SPF at a significantly lower installed cost. This hybrid insulation system strategy is composed of a 1- to 2-inch (2.5 to 5 cm) flash coat of closed-cell SPF against the interior surface of the exterior sheathing, with blown-in loose-fill fibreglass insulation filling the remainder of the cavity. Fibreglass batts can also be used, but permit more air leakage around and through the fibreglass than does blown-in insulation. 


Completing the system, polyamide-film “smart” vapour retarders are known for their ability to change permeability with ambient humidity conditions. With a high resistance to water vapour permeance at low relative humidity levels, smart vapour retarders protect the hybrid insulation system like traditional poly or kraft vapour retarders. But, unlike traditional solutions, they can react to high relative humidity by altering pore size, allowing water vapour to pass through them. Smart vapour retarders can also form an interior air barrier system when combined with recommended tapes and sealants. 


A hybrid insulation system provides the thermal, air, and moisture resistance needed to meet or exceed the requirements of the 2012 IECC. Installing these components in a 5 1/2-inch (14 cm) wall cavity would produce a clear-wall cavity insulation R-value of about 25 (RSI 4.2). This, combined with the proper amount of continuous insulation, will easily exceed the 2012 IECC R-value requirements for Climate Zones 6 through 8. Hybrid insulation systems are an ideal way for contractors to offer homes that conserve and generate lower utility bills for homeowners.

Danny Small is a Building Science specialist in energy-efficient building envelopes, systems and equipment with over 15 years of industry experience. He has served as an executive with four companies that provided energy efficiency and green building products and systems, as well as building science, green building and sustainability consulting and design.