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 "'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.