Advanced Framing: Insulated Headers

Scope Images
Advanced framing details include insulated headers over windows and doors.
Advanced framing details include insulated headers over windows and doors.
Scope

Construct framed walls using advanced framing details like insulated headers over windows and doors that reduce framing and thermal bridging and allow more space for insulation.

  • Use pertinent code requirements to determine minimum header lumber requirements.
  • Eliminate jack studs (also known as shoulder studs) on non-load-bearing walls and replace with metal hangers on load-bearing walls. Add 2x2 nailers as needed for siding attachment.
  • On non-load-bearing walls, install open headers and insulate like wall cavities.
  • On load-bearing walls, install an insulated header that meets minimum header strength requirements. Options include a prefabricated insulated header, a SIP header, or a header made of one piece of plywood plus rigid foam, or two pieces of plywood sandwiching rigid foam.
  • ENERGY STAR requires that the header be insulated to at least R-3 in 2x4 framed wall assemblies or at least R-5 in thicker wall assemblies (e.g., 2x6 framing). (ENERGY STAR 2018). 

See the Compliance Tab for related codes and standards requirements, and criteria to meet national programs such as DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Home program, ENERGY STAR Certified Homes, and Indoor airPLUS.

Description

In load-bearing exterior walls, structural headers are placed over windows and doors to pick up the load from the building above and transfer it to the posts on both sides of the window or door opening. Structural headers are a point of increased heat loss because they are made from solid or laminated framing timbers with no insulation. Proper sizing of headers allows better insulation and saves wood. Insulated headers reduce heat transfer to keep the home warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

In many cases, headers are overdesigned, consisting of solid wood layers that add up to the full 4- or 6-inch wall thickness. (For example, a header made of two 2x12s sandwiching a ½-inch layer of plywood is installed when a header comprised of thinner layers of plywood or OSB would provide enough structural strength and allow room for a layer of rigid foam.) In some cases, no solid wood layer is needed; in nonbearing walls, the header space can be left open and filled with insulation instead. Structural headers are not required in most interior walls or in gable-end walls with only non-bearing trusses directly above. A single flat 2x4 or 2x6 can be used as a header in interior or exterior non-bearing walls for openings up to 8 feet in width if the vertical distance to the parallel nailing surface above (usually the top plate) is not more than 24 inches. For such non-bearing headers, no cripples or blocking are required above the header (2009 IRC R602.7.2). Insulated or open headers should be used except where a framing plan provided by the builder, architect, designer, or engineer indicates that full-depth solid headers are the only acceptable option. [See 2009 IRC Tables R502.5(1) and R502.5(2) for header span requirements.]

Insulated headers can be made of rigid foam sandwiched between two layers of plywood or OSB or one layer of foam and one layer of plywood, or structural insulated panels. These can be built onsite, or pre-fabricated insulated headers can be purchased.

Headers are installed by the framers using plans provided by the designer or architect. This task should be included in the contract for the appropriate trade depending on the workflow at the specific job site. High-performance branding programs and the IECC code require that builders meet specified insulation levels. See the “compliance” tab for these specified insulation levels.

Advanced framing details throughout house including insulated and open headers
Figure 1 - Structural headers are used above the windows on the bearing walls in this drawing but the wood layer is properly sized (no thicker than necessary) to allow for a layer of rigid insulation. On nonbearing walls, the headers are open allowing for the space above the windows to be insulated to the same level as the rest of the wall (Source: Building Science Corporation). 

How to Install an Insulated Header on a Bearing Wall

1. Use pertinent code requirements to determine minimum header lumber requirements. [See for example, 2009 IRC R602.7 and Tables R502.5 (1) and (2).] Install a properly sized prefabricated header or fabricate the header onsite from one piece of rigid foam and one or two pieces of plywood; see Figures 2 and 3.

Insulated header made of two pieces of plywood that sandwich a layer of rigid foam insulation
Figure 2 - Insulated header made of two pieces of plywood that sandwich a layer of rigid foam insulation (Source: Building Science Corporation). 

 

Insulated header made of one piece of plywood aligned with exterior wall, with room for insulation to inside
Figure 3 - Insulated header made of one piece of plywood (or two if needed) aligned with exterior wall, leaving room for insulation toward inside (Source: Building Science Corporation). 

2.  Eliminate jack studs (also known as shoulder studs) on load-bearing walls by hanging structural headers with metal hangers instead. Note that jack studs are not needed on non-bearing walls. Eliminating jack studs will reduce the available nailing area for siding and trim if nailable sheathing (e.g., plywood or OSB) is not used. If needed, attach a 2x2 wood nailer to the outside edge of the stud for siding attachment.

Insulated headers can be hung with metal hangers instead of jack studs to reduce lumber usage
Figure 4 - Insulated headers can be hung with metal hangers instead of jack studs to reduce lumber usage (Source: Building Science Corporation). 

How to Insulate a Header on a Non-Bearing Wall

Install a single flat 2x4 or 2x6 at the top of the door or window rough opening as the header in interior or exterior non-bearing walls for openings up to 8 feet in width if the vertical distance to the parallel nailing surface above (usually the top plate) is not more than 24 inches. For such non-bearing headers, no cripples or blocking are required above the header (2009 IRC R602.7.2). Insulate the cavity above the header in the same manner as the rest of the wall.   

Structural headers are not needed on nonbearing walls
Figure 5 - Structural headers are not needed on nonbearing walls; the open space above the window can be filled with the same insulation as the other wall cavities (Source: Building Science Corporation). 

 

Ensuring Success

It may be possible to detect heat loss at the headers with an infrared camera, if a sufficient temperature difference exists between the outside and the conditioned space of the house. The quality of installation of the insulation should be visually inspected by the site supervisor before the drywall is installed.

Climate

No climate specific information applies.

CAD

Compliance

The Compliance tab contains both program and code information. Code language is excerpted and summarized below. For exact code language, refer to the applicable code, which may require purchase from the publisher. While we continually update our database, links may have changed since posting. Please contact our webmaster if you find broken links.

ENERGY STAR Certified Homes, Version 3/3.1 (Rev. 09)

National Rater Field Checklist

Thermal Enclosure System.
3. Reduced Thermal Bridging.
3.4.3b Headers above windows & doors insulated ≥ R-3 for 2x4 framing or equivalent cavity width, and ≥ R-5 for all other assemblies (e.g., with 2x6 framing).23

Footnote 23) Compliance options include continuous rigid insulation sheathing, SIP headers, other prefabricated insulated headers, single-member or two-member headers with insulation either in between or on one side, or an equivalent assembly. R-value requirement refers to manufacturer’s nominal insulation value.

Please see the ENERGY STAR Certified Homes Implementation Timeline for the program version and revision currently applicable in in your state. 

DOE Zero Energy Ready Home (Revision 07)

Exhibit 1 Mandatory Requirements.
Exhibit 1, Item 1) Certified under the ENERGY STAR Qualified Homes Program or the ENERGY STAR Multifamily New Construction Program.
Exhibit 2, Item 2) Ceiling, wall, floor, and slab insulation shall meet or exceed 2015 IECC levels and achieve Grade 1 installation, per RESNET standards.

2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)

Table 402.4.2 Air Barrier and Insulation Inspection Component Criteria, Walls: Corners, headers, narrow framing cavities, and rim joists are insulated. Table 402.4.2 Air barrier and thermal barrier: Exterior wall insulation is installed in substantial contact and continuous alignment with the air barrier. Air permeable insulation is not used as a sealing material.

2012, 2015, and 2018 IECC

Table R402.4.1.1 Air Barrier and Insulation Installation, Walls: Corners, headers, and rim joists making up the thermal envelope are insulated. Table R402.4.1.1, Air barrier and thermal barrier: A continuous air barrier is installed in the building envelope including rim joists and exposed edges of insulation. Breaks or joints in the air barrier are sealed. Air permeable insulation is not used as a sealing material.

Retrofit: 

2009, 2012, 2015, 2018, and 2021 IECC

Section R101.4.3 (Section R501.1.1 in 2015, 2018, and 2021 IECC). Additions, alterations, renovations, or repairs shall conform to the provisions of this code, without requiring the unaltered portions of the existing building to comply with this code. (See code for additional requirements and exceptions.)

2009 International Residential Code (IRC)

Table N1102.4.2 Air Barrier and Insulation Inspection Component Criteria, Walls: Corners, headers, narrow framing cavities, and rim joists are insulated. Table N1102.4.2 Air barrier and thermal barrier: Exterior wall insulation is installed in substantial contact and continuous alignment with the air barrier. Air permeable insulation is not used as a sealing material.

2012, 2015, and 2018 IRC

Table N1102.4.1.1 Air Barrier and Insulation Installation, Walls: Corners, headers, and rim joists making up the thermal envelope are insulated. Table N1102.4.1.1, Air barrier and thermal barrier: A continuous air barrier is installed in the building envelope including rim joists and exposed edges of insulation. Breaks or joints in the air barrier are sealed. Air permeable insulation is not used as a sealing material.

Retrofit: 

2009, 2012, 20152018, and 2021 IRC

Section N1101.3 (Section N1107.1.1 in 2015 and 2018, N1109.1 in 2021 IRC). Additions, alterations, renovations, or repairs shall conform to the provisions of this code, without requiring the unaltered portions of the existing building to comply with this code. (See code for additional requirements and exceptions.)

Appendix J regulates the repair, renovation, alteration, and reconstruction of existing buildings and is intended to encourage their continued safe use.

More Info.

Access to some references may require purchase from the publisher. While we continually update our database, links may have changed since posting. Please contact our webmaster if you find broken links.

Case Studies
References and Resources*
Author(s)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Organization(s)
EPA
Publication Date
Description
Guide describing details that serve as a visual reference for each of the line items in the Thermal Enclosure System Rater Checklist.
Author(s)
Lstiburek
Organization(s)
Building Science Corporation
Publication Date
Description
Report detaining advanced framing techniques, including discussion of cost and energy savings.
Author(s)
NAHB,
Southface Energy Institute,
Oak Ridge National Laboratory,
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Organization(s)
NAHB,
Southface Energy Institute,
Oak Ridge National Laboratory,
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Publication Date
Description
Information sheet about advanced wall framing.
Author(s)
APA - The Engineered Wood Association
Organization(s)
APA - The Engineered Wood Association
Publication Date
Description
Detailed guide to advanced framing, a system of construction framing techniques designed to optimize material usage and increase energy efficiency.
Author(s)
Green Building Advisor
Organization(s)
Green Building Advisor
Publication Date
Description
Information sheets containing plans and details for advanced framing.
*For non-dated media, such as websites, the date listed is the date accessed.
Contributors to this Guide

The following authors and organizations contributed to the content in this Guide.

Building Science Measures
Building Science-to-Sales Translator

Insulated Headers = High-Efficiency Window Framing

Image(s)
Technical Description

Solid wood headers above windows and doors are often oversized for the load they need to carry. And the solid wood creates a cold spot because there is no insulation. On a non-load-bearing wall (a gable-end wall), the header space can often be left open so it can be insulated like the rest of the wall. On load-bearing walls, the builder can install headers with rigid insulation sandwiched between structural framing. By sizing and locating windows to align with wall framing, the builder can avoid having to put extra studs in the walls to support the windows, which also allows more room for insulation.

High-Efficiency Window Framing
Sales Message

High-efficiency window framing reduces the heat loss and gain though structural framing. What this means to you is less wasted energy along with enhanced comfort and quiet. Knowing there is one opportunity during construction to lock in quality construction, wouldn’t you agree advanced thermal protection is a great investment?

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