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?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

True Confessions of a Building Material - Part One: Brick

If my dog/cat/bird could talk he'd say.....
If walls could talk, they'd say....

We all do it. It's called "anthropomorphics". Or "ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things."

If building materials could talk, they'd tell you what they liked, disliked, their strengths and weaknesses, and what would destroy or preserve them.

The world famous architect Louis Kahn said "I asked the brick what it liked, and it replied, 'I like an arch.'"

Kahn's brick didn't say much. Tight-lipped and terse. But when I asked a brick what it liked, I got an earful.

1. Squeeze me but don't bend me. [Bricks are strong in "compression", meaning you can stack them up and support a building with them, but they are weak in "bending", meaning they are brittle and will break if you try to make a beam out of a bunch of them and don't reinforce them with steel.]

2. Don't let me get soaking wet, then allow me to freeze. [If you do, the brick will spall, which means the hard face of the brick will pop off, and the "soft" core will be exposed. Not good.]

3. Butter me, but DON'T SLUSH MY HEAD JOINTS. [Apparently a pet peeve! Ever watch a bricklayer work? Troweling mortar onto a brick is called buttering. Cute! First he creates a horizontal "bed" of mortar on the existing brick course. This mortar forms the "bed joint". Then he butters the end of the brick which forms the "head joint", then taps it down into the bed mortar and over against the adjacent brick. But sometimes they don't butter the end of the brick, then fling or "slush" the mortar at the joint after it's laid. You don't get good mortar penetration that way.]

4. Hard face out towards the weather. [Not all bricks are created/fired equal. A bricklayer wants/needs to put the most weather-worthy face of the brick outwards. Similarly, a sodlayer needs to remember to put the green side up.]

5. Make sure you like my color, I'm gonna be around a LONG time. [Brick will outlive your grandchildren.]

6. Don't hate me because I'm more expensive, because like I said, I'm gonna be around a LONG time and PAY for myself.
[As L'Oreal used to say: "I'm more expensive but I'm worth it."]

7. I'm beautiful. [Can't argue with or hate THAT. As Pantene used to say, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Bricks come in hundreds of colors, and can be mixed and matched.]

8. And yeah yeah I ALSO like an arch, but I like other patterns, too. [No doubt tired of hearing about Louis Kahn. There are many STANDARD bonding patterns to choose from, or you can CUSTOMIZE, and even mix in different colored brick as well.]

9. I love the sun and don't mind the rain. I'm easy. [Now he's bragging but it's true. The same ultraviolet light that fades paint, weathers wood, and eventually cooks vinyl siding until brittle, has no effect on brick.]

That's where the discussion ended. Apparently that demanded a lot of effort from such a dense character. And this dense characteristic not only blocks sound from entering your house and provides fire-resistance, but also provides thermal mass which smooths out and lessens energy usage.

The analysis of construction materials and systems is known as value-engineering. Lifespan versus cost. Bang for the buck.

Brick is a premium siding material. You have to lay bucks out to lay brick down, but you get a LOT of bang for it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Powerwash that Bathroom?

Salt, sodium chloride, NaCl. You know the stuff. It's in shakers, and for northerners it's on the street in the winter. According to Hemo the Magnificent, it's in seawater in the same proportion that it's in our blood.

It also manages to get sprayed in bathrooms. That and other human "residues" make bathroom cleaning lowest on even June Cleaver's chore list.

I've had requests to design a bathroom that could be powerwashed. Completely. Like with hide-the-toilet-paper and Q-Tips, here-comes-the-Fire-Department thoroughness.

And it CAN be done. I've actually put a lot of thought into it. You'll need a sprayer, a floor drain, and someone to design the fixtures and cabinetry as though built for the outdoors.

That's where I come in. Whatever doesn't go down the drain or out the exhaust fan, evaporates. Drip dry. Water in/water out.

We will:

+ Install a frothing flexing showerhead instead of a ferocious powerwasher. Think washing your car versus removing peeling paint. ROOM-Washing.

+ Floor, walls and ceiling must be waterproof. Some combination of tile, synthetic stone, acrylic sheets, or stainless steel.
- Nothing that can grow mold.
- Consider also COPPER, or copper alloys such as brass. Nasty germs, like the ones that infect hospital surgery patients, have been shown to die within a couple hours of exposure to copper, WITHOUT the use of chemical cleaning products against which the germs seem to acquire immunity.

+ The bathroom door:
- OUTswing exterior fiberglass with gaskets and threshold, that will swing INto the bathroom. Seal the edges.
- Protect door frame and casings and provide drip flashing at head.
- Stainless hardware.

+ The bathroom window:
- Solid vinyl frames with waterproof trim. Marble or other sill.

+ The shower will be a walk-in design. No threshold. The entire floor of the bathroom will be gently sloped to a floor drain by the shower hardware. This plus other factors enables it to be a handicap bathroom.

+ Shower curtain on shower end of room.

+ Medicine, vanity and linen cabinetry must be:
- Flashed to the wall so water runs down wall, onto and over the cabinet, and drips onto the floor.
- Made of waterproof materials like stainless, chromed steel, acrylic, or glass.
- Cabinet doors must have gaskets. Yes, like a refrigerator.

+ Waterproof GFI electrical outlets and lights and fan.

I just outlined the TECHNICAL requirements of an "outdoor bathroom" that came indoors.

But what about the AESTHETICS? Are we confined to airline bathroom or commercial kitchen themes? No. Materials and colors can be mixed and matched as with any bathroom. With proper design, we can mix and match tile/glass/synthetics/stainless and stone for your wainscoting/walls/cabinets/floor and ceiling. You can even have wood.

Depending on the mineral content of your water, and if you are using wood, you may want to wipe surfaces with a dry cloth after rinsing. And of course if you NEVER want sodium on the podium, you WILL have to Swiffer-swipe the insidious chloridious beTWEEN Room-Washings.

Might be a good job to do in a bathing suit or less, followed by a personal latherrinsing. ShamWOWser !

Thursday, July 15, 2010

No Strings, No Ramps, No Kidding

Two of the requirements for Kindergarten admittance were to be potty-trained and to be able to tie one's own shoes. I passed the former but had trouble with the latter.

I tried learning my mother's way of shoe tying, but devised my own, which while producing the identical knot, still had the inherent knotty problem: No matter who he/she the knotter be, shoelaces loosen. Mom overcame this by teaching me to tie the loops themselves together after creating them.

This is known today as a "work-around", a way to achieve your goal without solving the underlying problem.

Question: Why do we continue to hold shoes on our feet with string? String is for kites.
Answer: Tradition. Ever see wingtips with zippers?

Maybe SOME shoes or boots require laces due to the high stress placed on them due to athletics or hiking or physical labor. But probably not.

Solution: Knot-free elastic or zippers or Velcro or slip-ons.

Now that I'm an architect and have been designing new houses and remodeling others for 31 years, I've observed problems within houses and the "work-arounds" developed to deal with them, accessibility for the handicapped being one example.

Anyone with a house with a basement and an attached garage knows that there are typically two steps up from the garage slab to the house floor level. It's about a 15" difference in height.

Question: Why is a 15" slab-to-floor height difference the industry standard ?

Answer: In a garage, wood floor framing "likes" to be separated from the slab so it won't soak up gasoline, oil, or salty water from dripping cars in winter. Outside, it "likes" to be at least 12" above grade to protect it from splashing rain. This VERTICAL separation creates a problem if you want to be barrier-free.

Solution for existing house: A 15' long parking-space-killing ramp must be built (1' of ramp per 1" of rise) in the garage plus a 5' landing at the door. 20' feet of "stuff" to build, and often it's more if the ramp has to have a switchback.

Solution for new house: Instead of separating the slab from the wood framing VERTICALLY, separate it HORIZONTALLY. ISOLATE it from the water source. Pour the slab 2" below house floor height, and slope it up flush with the house door threshold. Slope the main garage slab gently down towards the garage door (no floor drains) to direct heavier-than-air gasoline fumes outdoors. Isolate the slab from the wood floor framing with a waterproof membrane such as Grace Ice and Water Shield, then cover the membrane with aluminum flashing. Raise masonry on the remaining garage walls to allow a similar isolation of the slab from the wood wall framing.

Now a wheelchair can roll right in. Your inlaw, you and your newly broken leg, as well as the guy that delivers your new refrigerator will appreciate it. And really, why climb even TWO stairs with your groceries if you don't have to?

Walk straight into your house wearing penny loafers !

Let LaFrance Architects design away these and other problems.

No strings, no ramps, no kidding!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Birthday United States of America

Happy Birthday United States of America, First World Wonderland, land where my bread is buttered. Baked, sliced, toasted, buttered, tasted. I'm lucky.


Prince once sang "Let's Go Crazy", and it's certainly possible these days, just by strolling through the lawn tool department at Home Depot.

Acquire some of the POWER versions of these 1st-world-wonders, and "...you've got Power by the Hour in Your Hand". (Thank you ancient McCullough chainsaw jingle.)

I emphasize POWER because certain power tools are life-changing. A select group. Wielding this power can change a beach wimp into Charles Atlas, a Clark Kent into Superman, and allow him to take on projects previously thought neither to be possible nor necessary.

Powerwashers, weed trimmers, and chain saws are charter members of this elite club. (Founding members of the safety committee too: Eye protection, gloves, long pants, caution...)

The powerwasher can gently remove bird leavings two stories up, or it can blow a hole straight through the wall. With a turn of a valve it can gently wash the dog or create past-the-gasket carpet-soaking gale-force car-washing rain. So much power you can alMOST remove the stains on a maintenance free deck!

Weed-eaters, weed-whackers, we'd NOT be better off without them. Sure beats hand grass clippers. Now you can "clip" the edge of your driveway neater than you can clip the nails on your hand. Just gonna do that "little section" of lawn with the trimmer instead of mowing..... And you'd be surprised at how large a sapling trunk you can gnaw through with this baby. Ummm, sorry about the roses.

Lopping and chopping a chore? Chainsaws make it a snore. A loud ANGRY snore, and with flesh-ripping gore, if you're not careful. REALLY careful. Maybe I'll prune that little branch over there. Then that one, and that one, gotta even it up.....Great for helping with neighbor projects, too. You da man.

And I haven't even gotten to power CONSTRUCTION tools yet !
Be on the lookout for this blog-to-be.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Geometry versus Miracle Materials

Houses are combinations of geometric shapes. Most are groups of rectangular boxes, sometimes end-to-end, sometimes stacked, and nearly all capped with sloped roofs. The proportions of the boxes and the angles of the roofs create an architectural language. Successful house additions usually mimic this language.

To accommodate additions, houses often need to lose or relocate doors and windows. It's part of the "cost-of-connection", a subject for a future article.

Here is a typical conversation between architect and homeowner regarding the cost-of-connection:

We need to relocate the bedroom window in your daughter's bedroom.

- Uhhh, Suzette's room? The one my sister and I just wallpapered?

Ya. That one. Nice job, too. But the bedroom window needs to be moved because the new addition's roof will cover up half of it.

- Can't we lower the roof instead so the window can stay?

We CAN lower the roof slope, but then we CAN'T use shingles, which in this case is the preferred roofing method, because shingles and the steeper roof slope is more in keeping with the style of your house, and instead we'd have to rely on "miracle materials".

And if I have to play the miraculous material card, I'm not going to use the high maintenance modified bitumen or torched down type materials often used in the residential construction world, I'm going straight to the good stuff, a commercial EPDM membrane roofing system.

- And that costs more money than the residential type material?

No and yes. No, because I'm only interested in "doing it right", and whatever it costs to "do it right", is the baseline cost. The cost of what we should be DOING is what we should be PAYING. Yes, because skimping on inferior and/or short-lived materials costs less in the short term.

- Is it cheaper to put on the shingled roof, move the window and patch the hole?

Maybe. It's a win/win/win for you. It's at least comparable in price, will require less maintenance, and will look better on the rear of the house.

- The flatter roof wouldn't look good?

It won't look traditional. It'll look "jammed on".

- Oh...forget it then. I can buy another roll of wallpaper.

And if you can't bring yourself to face your sister, there's enough money in the budget that we can have a pro rehang the paper for you!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Who's Responsible for the Gulf Oil Spill?

I am responsible for a small part of fossil fuel usage and the joys and the sorrows that come with it. You are too.

I not only like the heat, the cool, the light, the electricity, the food, the medicine, the products, and the freedom and travel mobility that comes with modern life, I LOVE it. I think we all do.

It's fantastic. And that must mean that crude oil (and coal) is fantastic stuff, because in part it makes this lifestyle possible.

Even if we didn't crudely burn crude's products for heat or heat engines, we use it for many other things, notably energy and cost-SAVING infrastructure. Things you want to do once and forget about for 300 years. Buried plastic utility pipe and conduit, hidden from its Achilles heel, UV light, is a perfect usage and makes plastic's non-biodegradability an asset.

Oil-based foams make excellent insulation which is not only infrastructure but it's IN your structure (hidden from UV), and will save tremendous amounts of fossil or other fuels for generations to come.

Instead of burning so much of it as fuel, we can turn more of it into plastic, but not in the form of disposable toys, gadgets and (over) packaging products to be permanently entombed in landfills, but to be utilized as permanent infrastructure.

Does oil exist not to be used? Is the oil that happens to exist in places where it is challenging to extract and ecologically sensitive, not to be used?

Redundant safety systems need to be mandated. The Exxon Valdez ushered in the era of the double-hulled tanker, ground water contamination brought us both the double-walled underground gasoline storage tank and the double-lined landfill (double lined with EPDM oil-based membranes BTW...), and this latest oil well catastrophe you would THINK might introduce the double, triple or quadruple shut-off valve ! (How about pairing a MANUAL shut-off when the automatic fails, with a PRE-made diving robot whose sole job is to dive, dock and turn valves?)

Let's work through the process of lamenting, despairing, chasing the guilty, prosecuting the scapegoats, and bayoneting the wounded. Simultaneously let's get the leak plugged, the mess cleaned up (and of course it'll take many years), and do a better job with petro-plumbing in the future. Because despite advances in alternative energy sources, oil is going to be with us for many decades. We want and need it, but we can be not only smarter with how we obtain it, but in how we utilize it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

KISS (Keep It Simple Steve)

When the architect LeCorbusier said that "a house is a machine for living", he was thinking about the essence of a what a house needed to be to be lived in.

He wasn't thinking about insulation, heating and cooling, alternative energy systems and the machinery required, though every house requires some form of it.

Since the 1970's "energy crisis", architects, engineers, manufacturers, builders, laymen and shaman have sought the Holy Grail of energy-efficiency for houses.

Of special interest were heavier insulation or Super-insulation, and Active and Passive systems for harnessing the sun.

Super-insulation = less energy consumed = less money spent on fuel. Obvious, but dull to a Syracuse University Architecture School grad in 1979. Being the son and grandson of machine designers, and a machine lover myself, I was initially attracted to the more exciting world of Active, gadget-based systems.

The Rolls-Royce of these solar heating systems was manufactured by Owens-Illinois. A double row of long vacuum tubes made of specially silvery coated glass, with reflectors behind. A gleaming boiler-of-the-future that wouldn't look out of place on a space station. Problem was, the pretty glass tubes were super-duperishly expensive. For commercial use only. And like any liquid-based solar collector system, it needed a storage/heat exchanger tank, and coils, and gauges, and pumps, and sensors, and thermostats, and back-up boiler, and finally electric power to run the aforementioned pumps, sensors, and thermostats.

Are there less expensive forms of liquid-based solar collector systems? Sure. But by their nature, they rely on a lot of "plumbing". Ground source heat pumps, a liquid-based but non-solar system, have the same up front cost issues.

Similarly, hot air systems, cousins of the hot liquid systems, rely on a lot of "ducting".

My interest in the Passive approach grew when I realized my father had been right. (Hear that up there dad?) In 6th grade we had just studied about steam engines and internal combustion engines and I was in love. I was going to be an engine designer. I drew up devices for daddy's review, and he always had the same comment. "Too complicated, you need fewer parts." Why? "Because the more parts, the more things there are that can go wrong." Always a good engineering principle, and today shortened to: Keep It Simple Stupid, or KISS.

A Passive system relies not so much upon mechanical equipment placed withIN the building, as it does in changing the physical shape of the building itSELF, aligning with the path and angle of the sun, allowing its energy to enter directly when it's needed both daily and seasonally, and providing shade when it's not. The house itSELF becomes the energy collecting/deflecting machine. The house itSELF becomes a machine not only "for living", but "for living in harmony with the sun". Apologies to LeCorbusier.

Years ago a potential client presented me with a passive solar house plan he'd designed, and wanted to know how much it would cost to review it and provided stamped/sealed drawings so he could get a building permit. Didn't get that far.

Although the interior was thoughtfully laid out, or as we say "it worked", the exterior was a whole lotta homely. He'd researched code minimums, read every solar design guru's book, and had created a solar machine. And he wanted neither to budge on the aesthetics, nor listen to 20 years of experience tell him that his roof and foundation design were going to create moisture problems that would rot away the framing. The technical issues were solvable, and the aesthetics weren't my main concern, as it was going to be HIS house. But he was a young technical type who thought too much of his own analytical abilities to be swayed from his self-destructive path.

We parted ways, but I learned something about the housing market, the houses, and those who wish to be housed. Most solar houses are not extreme solar machines. There are plenty of houses that are obviously solar, but have retained some "normal" residential characteristics. But even those houses aren't common, due to concerns about resale and financing. I've found that while most people won't deviate very far from the aesthetic norm, they are still VERY interested in energy savings.

The insulated outer surface of a house, the shell, is analogous to a boat hull. If you go to sea in a very leaky boat, you'll either sink, or you'll need back-up pumps to back-up your bilge pump. Similarly, if your house shell leaks energy, you'll either be uncomfortable, or you'll need a large heating and cooling system.

Why not seal the leaks in your boat's hull before you leave port, and Super-insulate your house before you move in? With NO moving parts it's the ultimate opportunity to KISS.

If your building site isn't conducive to good solar orientation, or if the street elevation has to maintain a certain style for the neighborhood, or you just want what you want and to heck with all that planning stuff, you can Super-insulate and still have a house that has reasonable utility bills.

But if your site IS conducive to good solar orientation, and if the neighborhood will within reason let you build what you want, you can Super-insulate, include Passive and/or Active systems as allowed by your budget, and I can design your energy costs into insignificance.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Porches Covered

Soft white clouds so nice to see
with blue surround and flowing free
as though they have a place to be
away from you, on way to me.


That's what Rochester, NY has to offer today. I'm standing on the wood floor of the breezy covered front porch of my 1927 vintage American Foursquare house, unwinding the winding flags, and happy the raining is waning.

A lot can happen on a covered porch. I grill, have picnic suppers, swing, hang out my flag collection, and even have my hair cut. And I can do it in the rain. It's like having a rigid tent. The floor is made of tongue & groove boards, just like an indoor wood floor, but painted and sloped, and the whole thing is protected by a roof and surrounded by a railing. Unlike most porches, this one has no stairs leading to grade, a feature that provides some security, a sense of privacy, and served well as a playpen for my toddlers. If you want stairs in your new porch, a gate to close off the stairs serves just as well for a toddler or dog enclosure.

Wood used in an outdoor setting makes a few demands.

1. If I'm not protected from vertical rain, like in a siding application, I need to be cedar or fir, or some decay resistant species. I don't need to be stained or painted, but I'd prefer it.

2. If I am protected from vertical rain, I can be a less expensive species like pine, but I definitely need to be stained or painted. (The board behind the gutter, the fascia, can be clad in aluminum.)

3. If I must lie flat, which frankly I hate, make me tongue & groove fir, tilted slightly, with three coats of porch paint, and put a roof over me. And don't let snow lie on me forever! I'm tough but come on....

4. If I must lie flat with no roof cover, make me pressure-treated Yellow Pine, but stain me anyway. And use stainless steel fasteners.

A traditional wood porch has a wood floor (see #3), wood railings, balusters and newel posts (see #2), wood posts (see #2), wood steps (see #3), and a tongue & groove beaded wood ceiling, which commonly comes in fir and should be painted or stained.

These products have individual demands, but together insist that an architect be hired to ensure that they are assembled properly so not only can they can live long lives, but so they form a pleasing whole. Can you blame them? To make sure they last the longest and look their best, quality wood products, of course, insist on design by LaFrance Architects.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Design in the safety

Needing to enlarge a Design Counseling drawing 600%, I deviated from my usual 2 mile loop walk today, substituting instead a 2.6 round tripper to FedEx Kinko's. On the return leg, rolled drawing in hand, I stopped to look at the architect's rendering, (adhered as usual to a 4' x 8' sheet of MDO plywood) at a construction site excavation. In center of the "hole" a group of men were assembling scaffolding to complete masonry work on what looked to be the foundation for the elevator and stairs core. The poured concrete basement wall was already complete, with beam pockets awaiting the next major trade, the steel erectors.

Hopefully the scaffolding erectors were extra diligent, with the knowledge that 5 men were injured recently in a scaffolding collapse in Binghamton, NY. OSHA is investigating.

Non-diligence is all too common. On earlier walks this season I followed the progress of 4 re-roofing projects. Roofing contractors have the highest Worker's Compensation Insurance rates in the construction industry. Accidents common to any trade consist of strains 'n cuts 'n scrapes or gun-nails-through-the-fingers. But roofing accidents usually consist of a high speed fall from grace. And you don't fall-down-go-boom, you fall-down-go-splat.

To catch falling workers, OSHA regulations require wearing harnesses which are snapped to safety lines tied to the building.

The disparity in professionalism was apparent on the jobs. Three of the jobs had multiple trucks with names painted on the sides and swarms of men punching the job out. Though there were visible harnesses and safety lines, not all were snapped in, at least not all the time.

The other job featured a pair of gnarly no-harness no-net no-doubt-in-my-mind-uninsured Wallendas stripping off decades of asphalt shingles, and then the original cedar shingles. They slipped their feet into the slots between the original "skip sheathing" boards, using them as ladders to move up and down the 12:12 roof (45 degrees for you civilians) to do the work of installing new sheathing, new felt, and new shingles.

I'm 55 and don't want to do that job. But if I had to do it, I have the sense to invest in 20' of 1/2" line, tie a bowline loop to slip under my arms, and tie myself off.

When dealing with heights, civilians and contractors alike need to take a moment and inspect their ladder set-ups. Shim the feet level or better yet, dig out under one side to make it level. Shims have a way of wiggling out unless you attach them. Stake the bottom. Pass a 1/2" line through windows to tie off the top of the ladder. I've ridden a ladder down before and was lucky. Don't reach out so far. Take your time. Move the ladder. But RE-level it and RE-tie it each time. If you're high up enough, and the pavement is far down enough, tie yourself off to the ladder itself.

This is good advice whether you are just doing painting or cleaning gutters around the house, building your own house or addition, or paying to have someone else do it. OSHA and Insurance are great, but it's better if no one ever gets hurt.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Details, details, details.....

Whether you prefer "the devil is in the details" or architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's "God is in the details", in the architectural world, the ability to assemble a beautiful whole relies upon religious attention to details.

It's all about joints and connections. Intersections of similar or dissimilar shapes and products. It's where the meeting of the minds confronts the meeting of the materials.

And if it isn't planned, chaos ensues, producing what's known as a "kluge", a "clusterf___", or the term I like, "shotgun wedding", the unholy joining of that which shouldn't.

Without a plan including job coordination with the contractor, and without drawn details produced by a drafter doing "detailing", (the starting and for several years the position of any architectural graduate), be assured that your job quality may devolve into "gee, what you specified seemed expensive and these materials were in stock", or "the kitchen installer got here first, so I had to butt to his tiny molding", or "I talked the owner into changing to this", or "I've never done it that way", or finally "the painter will fix that up".

Proper detailing extends to the invisible parts of a building as well.

How many lovely things have been spoiled by a leaking roof? How often does a damp basement cause health concerns? Why is the door sticking, AGAIN? Why is the corner of the brand new deck sinking? Why did the plumber cut away half my floor joist? Why does the china rattle when I walk through the dining room? Why do the heating bills seem so high? Why are there odd J-moldings in the middle of my siding?

Why indeed? Why, in details !!

Detail, details, details.............

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

House versus Time

This morning I was going to write on a different subject, but when staring at the blue sky I noticed a dim half moon still visible at 8:18. Not an unusual phenomenon, but enough so that I stopped to envision where the sun must be in the sky to make the shadow on the face, and when would the increasing light make it invisible. I lined the moon up with a tree branch, held very still, and was pleased to be able to detect the lunar progression. As I wrote this, in a blink of geological time, the moon has disappeared.

While the moon may acquire a few more pits in 100 years, Mankind's buildings don't fare as well against geologic Father Time, or Mother Nature if you prefer.

To keep property up, constant vigilance must be followed by dreaded MAINTENANCE.

My usual morning routine includes a two mile urban walk, keeping me abreast of the progress of construction projects. The neighborhood is almost 100% developed and some of it more than 100 years old so not surprisingly most of the projects are remodeling and maintenance.

Lately I've been following porch replacements of the all wood variety.

I have a traditional wood porch on my house (built 1927) and like many of the era, it has inherent weaknesses and design flaws.

I've eliminated these flaws in the dozens of porches I've designed for my clients. No longer must your foundation sink, your floor bounce, or your roof sag.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Initial posting

It's Memorial Day weekend in Rochester, NY. Blue sky. A commodity often in short supply in this south-of-Lake-Ontario micro-climate. This is construction season, and one of the more readily observable projects is a 42" diameter water pipeline replacement down the middle of S. Clinton Avenue.

On my walk I observed crawler excavators on break beside their trenches, awaiting the return of their vacationing operators. Love the big boy construction toys, and their assortment of accessories, none which tips the scale at less than a ton.

On the honor system, smaller piles and pallets of materials for the job are openly set out where they'll be needed. The thinking must be that the items are safe from theft due to their extreme weight or bulkiness, their lack of usefulness for anything other than a pipeline, or that they'll be used up before they can be "inspected" by the curious.