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.