Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Dark and Quiet Bedroom

I have a sister who must stop the pendulum on my mother's ancient ticking S & T Child clock in order to sleep. Not me.  As long as it's dark, I can sleep. I've never been able to "sleep in" during daylight.

When I was 19, I made automotive glass in the bending department at Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass.  Glass is "bent" by heating it until it sags into a mold.  If you are a "loader", you and a helper load flat glass into molds at the mouth of an 1800 degree furnace.  It's a hot job.  Air is blown on you to make it bearable.

Every third week I worked the Midnight to 8am shift.  I'd come home, grab a bite, and  hit the sack by 9am.  I'd sleep fitfully, then be up by noon.  I could hear the typical sounds of the day, and see light peeking in.

You'd THINK that by midweek of this torture, sheer exhaustion would have kept even an early riser on the mattress, but instead it nearly put me on the floor.  And falling asleep while standing is unwise in a factory where everything is either hot or sharp.

Reflecting upon my own experiences, and listening to similar complaints from clients, has inspired me to create rooms which seal out the sounds of cars, lawnmowers, birds, and even noisy clocks !

Rather than toss and turn, wouldn't it be nice to snooze for that third-of-your-life-spent-in-bed?  Now, with properly designed light and sound proofing, you can.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Is Faux a Foe? Is Fake a Mistake?

When today's discerning giant utters "fee fie faux fum", he's sniffing out synthetic siding, polystyrene beams, granite laminates, wood floor lookalikes, as WELL as the occasional thieving Limey.

You too can be a giant detective among men, and women. 

Here are a few examples of what to look for in faux siding and trim:

Simple painted exterior "wood" trim may actually be Cellular PVC.  [ Excellent substitute for cedar.  Dimensionally stable.  Doesn't cup, check or rot.  Factory finish. - [ I HIGHLY RECOMMEND ]  See Azek.

Painted "wood" clapboard siding and its trim, may actually be fiber-cement.  [ Excellent substitute for cedar.  Dimensionally stable.  Doesn't crack, melt, cup, check, or rot.  Holds stain or paint FAR longer. - [ I HIGHLY RECOMMEND  ]  See Hardi-plank.

Simple painted interior "wood" trim may actually be MDF, medium density fiberboard.  [  Substitute for finger-jointed wood.  Dimensionally stable.  Doesn't cup, check or rot.  Paints well. - [ I RECOMMEND ]  See Louisiana-Pacific Corp. 

More complicated painted interior "wood" trim may actually be molded plastic foam.  [ Can be molded into beams, complex profiles such egg and dart, dentils, and other "stacked" moldings.  Substitute for finger-jointed wood.  Can shrink slightly.  Doesn't cup, check or rot.  Paints well. - [ I RECOMMEND (BE ADVISED that this is a plastic product that regardless of its fire rating, will vaporize in the high temperatures of a house fire, producing toxic gases.  To be fair, so will your carpeting and upholstery foam, and typically there's a LOT more of that in a house.) ] See Fypon.   

The questions is, how should we FEEL about substitutes?

If having the traditional material makes you feel GOOD, use it.  There are tradesman ready to install anything your heart desires.

Sometimes the substitute products are indistinguishable from traditional materials.  In that case, feel BETTER.  The Pilgrims would gladly have used Azek if it had been available.

If a new product like fiber-cement siding almost looks the same, but performs better, then in MY eyes it looks and feels BEST.

Go faux it !

Monday, September 13, 2010

You Can't Get Those Things Anymore?

Client:  I've been told you can't get anyone to _________________ anymore.

- do stucco
- turn a replacement spindle
- turn a replacement porch post
- make fancy curved wood stairs and railings
- match fancy plaster moldings
- build wood shutters
- machine special hardware
- make ______ repairs
- do ______ replacement
- make a _____

Architect:  Ohhhhhh YES you can........

Client:  Really?

Architect:  There's always an expert.  Some are local.  Many don't advertise.  Most don't  rush !

Client:  Yeah, but it'll cost a lot !

Architect:  Actually it DOESN'T cost a lot.  You are charged exactly what the rate is for getting what you want done DONE.  After all, he/she is "the" person who does "that thing".  If you want it done, you need to recover from the sticker shock and get in line.  They'll get to you....

Client:  I mean it'll cost more than buying what is standard THESE days.

Architect:  Yes it will.  You'll get some pleasure out of it though, and you'll be keeping a specialist tradesman fed, and a special trade alive.  You'll be a Supporter of the Construction and Architectural Arts.

Client:  Not sure I want to spend the money.

Architect:  That's a DIFFERENT story !!!


Monday, August 30, 2010

Paving Paths of Power?

The following is a link to a video outlining a study to create paved road surfaces which will generate electricity:

I like the idea of the LEDs or photocells laminated between sheets of special glass.  I'm interested in the modules shown, the way they connect to each other physically and electrically, and how damaged ones would be replaced.

The road profile would be of special importance, especially in snowplow country.  A segmented roadbed made of flat modules would present edges for plow blades to snag.  

The video didn't describe the glass formulation itself. Maybe glass design would be "by others", like Corning or Pilkington.  [Pilkington is a British company that invented the float glass process.  They absorbed the Toledo, Ohio, Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co., where my dad was a mechanical engineer for 37 years.]

I doubt that the pelletized landfill material described would provide a good road base.  I noticed that "compost" was noted in the cross section drawing.  A road base that would decomposes, shrink and settle, is undesirable.

Driveways might be a better place to start. Less physical wear and tear than roads. But parking = shading and shading is counterproductive, and people prefer driveway instead of street parking.

GROUND-mounted solar cell systems already exist, making them more economical than a PAVEMENT-based system, and they avoid shade from cars  The following story describes such a photoelectric installation [which happened to be manufactured outside Perrysburg, Ohio, my childhood home]:

ROOF-mounted systems would avoid shade from cars, garage sales, the house itself, and face fewer shadowing problems from trees.  Even better would be a roof-mounted electricity-generating system that doubled as  weather-shedding roof surface. Solar roof shingles are available today:
A solar ROOF technology that cleverly integrates electricity production with weather-shedding capability EXISTS.  

The solar PAVING technology proposed is FAR from existence.  Only when it proves to be a commercial success will residential viability follow.

But it's GREAT fun to think about.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Pane Clinic

Do you think the home builders of 1776 used multi-paned 6 over 6, and 9 over 9 double-hung windows because of their darling decorative demeanor?

Nope.  Limits of technology.

Due to the difficulty of making LARGE distortion-free pieces of glass, a large window required a carpenter to construct a grid of intricately intersecting mullions, to hold an assembly of SMALLer panes.

And even SMALL panes had optical distortions.  A glass blower created either a sphere or a cylinder, slit and flattened it onto a capping table, and finally cut the cooled glass into panes.  Flattening the glass caused the distortions.  Even so, and in spite of the cost, glass was in high demand, a miracle product, able to admit light while excluding the weather.

If they could have had larger panes, say 3 foot x 3 foot, they'd have been THRILLED.  Fewer mullions = less carpentry, and less puttying and painting.

Historical Societies assign nobility to the old.  Older = better, though from a technological standpoint, that's almost NEVER true.  But people like traditional looks.  Utilizing modern technology, today's window manufacturers easily produce 3 foot x 3 foot panes, and substitute less expensive fake mullions to satisfy the public's taste.   And don't forget the faux shutters ! 

Heck, today you can have a perfect distortion-free sheet of glass 12 feet wide x 40 feet long, [unless you have a longer trailer].  But try to slip THAT past a persnickety Architectural Review Board !!

Friday, August 13, 2010

They Don't Build Houses Like They Used To?

You've heard it.  You've probably even said it:  "They don't build houses like they used to."

Did you know that that's a DARN good thing?

I'm not talking about exotic tile floors, stained glass, fancy woodwork, and impossibly curvy stair railings.  I'm talking  the "BONES" of the house.  The foundation and the framing.

Ever see/smell a "rubble" foundation?  It's the ultimate "green" technology, green in that it's leaky/danky/stanky/moldy/mossy.  Made of stacked field stones and about two feet thick.  No more.  Now we use poured concrete, ICF [insulated concrete form] systems, concrete blocks, or some sort of precast product.  The rubble foundations support houses just fine.  We like that part.   But they leak, are in a continuous state of collapse, and are MISerable and expensive to stabilize when remodeling.

Old covered porch footings are a pet peeve of mine.  The footings under porch piers were routinely undersized, not excavated to below frost depth, and yet expected to support the loads from roof/snow, and often from more than one floor.  The result?  The too-small footing is slowly driven deeper into the earth, taking everything with it.  Prevention is easy.  Calculate the load in pounds, determine the soil bearing capacity in pounds/square foot, divide the former by the latter, and that's how many square feet of footing area you need.

Free-standing garages were often poured on an unreinforced slab.  No footings at all.  The edges of the slab cracked and tipped, gradually sank, and exposed the wood siding and framing to the earth, allowing it to rot.  Today we use a full frost depth footing, or a monolithic slab.  A monolithic slab is reinforced with steel, and has a thicker steel-reinforced edge.  Sort of like a raised edge cookie sheet turned upside down.

Often framing was either under-designed, or installed and then weakened.  2 x 6 roof rafters were used almost exclusively reGARDless of their span and spacing.  Floor joists under bearing walls were merely doubled when expected to carry loads from the floor above.  Porch floors were often trampoline-like.  Electrical conduit was installed in notches in the bottoms of joists, the WORST possible place, both by weakening joists immediately by reducing their effective depth, and by encouraging future cracks.  Floor joists were notched to bear on ledgers on basement beams, fostering cracks at the notches years later.

Carpenters had great skills using  handsaws, hammers, and chisels.  They had neither power tools nor attended training seminars.  "Construction" wasn't thought of as a science.  I've looked at houseplans of the era.  Even Architect-drawn plans for upscale homes didn't include many details.  The carpenters were expected to make it happen, and to the best of their abilities they did.  Fortunately for the carpenters and architects, balloon and platform framing, [the building of houses with "sticks" of lumber], is inherently "forgiving."  A lot of structural redundancy.  You can forget to add a stud here or there, or actually started removing pieces, and the house holds together.  It may waver, wiggle and sag, but it won't collapse.  We like that too.

Even today's simplest box of a home, no more sophisticated than an oversized birdhouse, has a structural design that has been thoroughly engineered.

Foundations are now designed out of stable materials, reinforced as required, made water-resistant, and equipped with proper drainage.

Framing is now sized from span/load tables in the Building Code. Pre-engineered trusses allow longer clearspans.  Joists, studs, rafters/trusses generally align in a modular fashion, allowing problem-free load flow from the roof to the foundation.  Fire-blocking is provided at all floors.  Engineered lumber can be used to created strong beams flush within a floor, to support loads from above.  Plywood or OSB sheets create stiff floors, walls, and roofs.  Joists are drilled instead of notched to allow wires and flexible plumbing to slip through.  If joists must be notched, they're cut within certain depth and distance guidelines.  Engineered steel hangers replace notching/ledgering.

In summary:

Those of yore who designed and built the floor, were not daft in the rafters.  They employed the accepted architectural and construction practices of the day, and used the tools and materials available.

But now we do it better.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Light Green is Good Enough

Save the Earth ! Go green ! Sustainability !

There are many shades of “green-going.”

From the excruciatingly scientific LEEDS Certification, to the silliness of straw bales and yurts. [Here comes the straw bale disciple and Nomadic hate mail...]

From the sublime green to the hippie scene. How about LIGHT GREEN instead of lime green?

Less science mathematical and New Age fanatical, and more to the fore common sense.

We can provide energy-efficient and not-wasteful-of-materials buildings without squeezing the pleasure from the architectural profession, the practicality of the building industry, and without succumbing to wishful thinking.

Keep your construction dollars as near to home as you can. Many products are available locally and your neighbors need jobs.

Example flooring choice: Bring Far Eastern grown bamboo across the Pacific Ocean in high-sulfur bunker-oil-belching container-ships, glue the strips together in California, and market it as "sustainable" because new bamboo will regrow from the root stock of the harvested canes, OR buy solid oak flooring that is sawn and milled from oak trees in the next county.

Pay for higher-end products with VERY long lives. They will cost more and will be tagged as being less "green" because of their manufacturing energy and pollutant costs, but in the long run they save energy because they won't be replaced often if ever.

Example of hydrocarbon use choice: Provide government subsidies to convert natural gas into nitrogen fertilizer to grow corn to create ethanol to create Gasohol OR burn the natural gas in brick kilns which turn clay into one of the most maintenance free products available.

Consider sheet metal of longer-lasting-than-steel aluminum and copper. (Lots of electricity is needed  for smelting the ore). Consider sturdy concrete, concrete blocks, fiber-cement shingles and siding. (All contain Portland Cement, the manufacture of which releases some contaminants into the air). Consider tough and beautiful brick. (Lots of gas is burned to fire them.}

You can "sustain" foreign growers and powers. You can “sustain” the energy costs of longer-haul-than-necessary transportation. You can “sustain” the use of short-lived disposable products.

Or you can keep your dollars closer to home, support local industry and labor, and use long lasting materials. Look in the mirror. NOW who’s green?