Unintended Consequences: 7 Home Products to Reconsider

Posted on 22. Oct, 2017 by in Home Products

Every technology created to solve a problem comes with its own set of problems.  Garrett Hardin

Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.  Home products succeed or fail over time and change as negative effects are corrected. Inspectors, wedged between the immediacy of a home purchase and long-term sustainability, are leery of new products, often with good reason. 

There are health concerns with the chemical composition of air fresheners

Air fresheners

Plug-in liquid and aerosol air fresheners degrade indoor air quality. Even “green” fresheners emit VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Tightly sealed homes amplify the physical effects of these secondhand scents.
Best bet: Find the source of smell and treat it. Go fragrance-free

Greasewipe Fatberg

“Flushable” Wet Wipes

The world’s sewers are clogged with wet wipes. Slow to degrade wipes combine with grease to create giant clogs known as Fatbergs.  The result: iceberg-sized maintenance and repair costs
Best Bet:  Never flush wet wipes, cooking grease, dental floss or other non-human waste except toilet paper

 

 

 

 

Accordion drains are ideal for growing bacteria

Accordion drains

Accordion drains used to connect fixtures to traps aren’t sanitary.
They’re a DIY dream: cheap and easy to install.  The code says:
“Drainage fittings shall have a smooth interiorwaterway of the same diameter as the piping served.”
Best bet: hire a plumber who doesn’t play the accordion

Inspectors know this low slope, no cleanout install will fail. We just don’t know when

Ribbed Surface Water Drains

Ribbed drains, like accordion drains, are cheap and easy to install.
They work on steep slopes but not low ones. Ribbed drains with a slope less than 2/12 sag allowing water to flow backward during heavy rains. Because internal waterways are not smooth and uniform they clog.
Best Bet:  install hardpipe drains with cleanouts on gently sloping sites   

 

 

Dirty 1′ filter is bad for equipment and air quality

Air and Water Filters

Half the 1” wide pleated fabric filters I check are fouled. Dirt in your HVAC appliances and ducts affect performance and feed mold and parasites.
Ditto for water filters: dirty kitchen faucet, refrigerator and whole-house filters contaminate instead of purify
Best bet: install 4” wide pleated fabric filters: their greater surface area limits duct pressure drop 
If you’re not committed to scheduled filter          maintenance hire someone who is

Combination alarms better at detecting smoke and fire

Ionization Smoke Alarms

Overall risk of fire death has remained roughly constant between 1977 and 2009 despite a widespread increase in alarm installations. The reason: Ionization alarms don’t detect smoldering fires as well as flaming ones. Photoelectric alarms are better at detecting smoke
Best bet: install combination ionization/photoelectric alarms

Concentrated flow combined with zero maintenance equals failure

Gutter Guards

The logic of gutter guards is obvious: today’s higher, steeper roofs make cleaning hazardous.
But guards can’t handle concentrated flow from adjacent surfaces and heavy rain.
Best Bet: Use the money you save by not installing guards to pay an insured contractor to clean your gutters  

For more information, scheduling, and knowledge of How Homes Work contact Dan at
www.dancurlhomeinspector.com

The Future of How Homes Work

Posted on 14. Jun, 2017 by in General

Phantom loads that leak energy in standby include modems, phones, and TVs

It’s been a crazy-busy spring.  So much so that I’m only now getting around to writing about the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors March conference, plus a few personal observations

Proposed Electric Code:  Plugged Into the Future

One goal of the code is to anticipate future trends
The future is here: for the first time in history plug (receptacle) loads consume more energy than space heating
There are so many new plug location requirements it’s easier to figure out where plugs aren’t required than where they are.
“Phantom” or “Vampire” loads occur when appliances leak energy in the standby mode.
“Smart” surge protectors and hard switches limit loss.

Stand-alone de-humidifier keeps mold out. Understanding how to manage humidity is key to cooling comfort

HVAC:  Load Calcs, Variable speed takes moisture out, Ventilate it right

Heating systems work above design temperatures 99% of the time, cooling systems 1%.
This disparity is mostly due HVAC contractors using “rule of thumb” sizing, not actual load calculations (measuring the home and calculating the correct size of the appliances)
New code requires contractors perform, and to be liable for, proper load calculations.

 

Look for agents who know what it takes to sell expensive homes

It’s not the heat but the humidity that makes Atlanta’s mixed-humid climate a formidable A/C challenge. Variable speed appliances answer with longer run times that remove moisture better than single speed.                                                                                     Atlanta builders are halfway to the Build it Tight, Ventilate it Right design goal. Newer, tighter homes require balanced ventilation systems instead of exhaust-only type, especially when high volume range exhaust fans are installed. Timed or pressure-activated                                                                systems deliver the correct volume of fresh air

Variable speed HVAC systems improve comfort and efficiency

Real Estate Realities

Initial pricing is critical. If it’s not right reductions likely follow
One third of homes listed for sale don’t sell
Cheaper homes are an easier sell than expensive ones
Corporations purchased tens of thousands of homes during the recession
Frustrated buyers have tens of thousands                                                                      fewer homes to choose from

Designed ventilation systems bring fresh air in to replace air vented from range hoods, bathrooms, dryers and gas appliances

Energy:  Three best DIYs, Spray Foam Works!

Three DIY energy projects worth doing:
Switch your light bulbs to LED.  Added energy bonus: retrofit recessed light kits keep attic air out of your living space
Seal ducts. With average leakage at 25% it’s worth the effort. Aeroseal (airborne mastic sealant) is an alternative
Install radiant barriers in your attic. They’ll lower attic temperatures and make cooling                                                                      easier.

Foamed attics perform better than modeling would suggest because small and irregular gaps are sealed

Foam Future

Spray foam works even better than scientific modeling predicts because it seals small, irregular gaps
Though not cheap performance and payback make foam an energy industry leader. Heating, cooling and ventilation consume 50% of the average household energy budget.

 

Proposed electric code requires a receptacle for each parking spot in a garage

Making it Last

Old homes built with durable materials can take a lot of abuse. Moisture goes through without causing much damage. They’re durable but not comfortable. New homes built of heat and moisture-sensitive materials are comfortable and efficient. They’re also more susceptible to moisture damage. Your best bet is to manage moisture carefully, whatever and wherever its source

Home inspectors serve the public as quality control advocates. We’ll show you how to make your home work better. Getting an maintenance inspection could save you money and make life more comfortable

I’d appreciate a shout-out from happy customers
Help others find Comprehensive Home Inspections with a google review of 
Dan Curl Home Inspector

Looking ahead, Looking back

Posted on 31. Jan, 2017 by in General

Comments, observations and opinions on my 30th inspection year

Down the Road
Drive-to-mortgage bigger, newer, cheaper suburban homes still dominate the market.  But Millennials have altered the equation by demanding neighborhood amenities and short commutes.
Fundamental change toward efficient and sustainable construction methods and materials is gathering speed. Drivers like http://www.southface.org/ lead the way.

Infrared camera gives you a picture of what’s hot and what’s not

The bigger task, developing sustainable communities, will happen when all parties decide it’s time for regional change.

On my Radar
My new infrared camera will help detect safety hazards, energy loss and moisture. The pictures are worth 1000 words and 25 bucks

Also new this year: cardswipe for the checkless

Variety comes in many colors:One of the last Grandma kitchens in Morningside

Doing Bad Flips
Fast makeover, quick profit Flips are popular on TV. I hate them. They remind me of the shoddy new homes built in bubble years; a combination of high market demand coupled with vague standards and enforcement. Buyers need beware that “good work ain’t cheap and cheap work ain’t good”.  They’re also major pain to inspect.

 

 

Flashlight illuminates dirty air pathway bypassing the filter

The Pace of Change
Conventional wisdom can’t be trusted. Over the decades I’ve seen it disproved by new evidence time and again. What was acceptable is now defective, essential now superfluous, luxury now commodity, safe now a hazard. Keeping up with and understanding these contradictions, their implications and explaining them to clients, is challenging. Examples abound: Hardboard siding, Polybutylene water pipe, synthetic stucco, rule of thumb sizing of HVAC equipment,                                                                         powered attic vents, Ionization smoke alarms.

Every home, and every homeowner, is different

Solving the Puzzle
Every job is a mystery. How does this home work? How can I apply general principles to this particular building? How does it withstand the forces of nature, insects, mold, fire, ill-use, lack of maintenance, modifications, additions, social and economic changes? Each inspection requires careful examination, comprehensive knowledge and a curious mind.

 

Friend and associate Dean Moore ready for a church crawl

The Spice of Life
I’m not a creature of routine.  Put me behind the same desk every day and I’ll go crazy. Inspections provide the mix of physical demands and mental acuity, field and office work, social interaction and quiet study I require. I’ve inspected 200 year old churches, factory lofts, Reid and Shutze designed homes, tiny houses, mansions and McMansions, farms, mountain cabins, Victorians and thousands of bungalows, 5 over 4s and brick ranchers. The people I meet; clients, agents, tradesmen, engineers, specialists, even builders, help make the hard work of inspecting less onerous.

 

 

Unsustainable: Wet crawl space and moisture sensitive engineered framing

Blessing and Curse
I have trouble keeping my mouth shut. It’s open because I’m social, more so because I want to arm my clients with the knowledge to make their homes sustainable: lower operating and replacement costs, improved comfort, health and safety, increased value.

 

 

 

Sustainable because it’s beautiful and well-built

O Lucky Man
My career path was unplanned, circuitous and serendipitous. In 1986 engineer neighbor John Kamisky was looking to hire. I was looking for a new career. There have been many along the way who’ve helped, especially John, in good times and bad. And many, many others who’ve shared of their time, talent and training. I’m grateful for their guidance and friendship, grateful also that I continue to enjoy doing what I do.

 

 

Three Insights from the Thinking Man’s Home Inspector

Posted on 24. Jan, 2017 by in thinking man

Understanding The House as a System helps this inspector do a better job

Field Generals and First Responders

Not for sale
inspectors are ethically bound. Our business model is built on impartial reporting. “Inspectors shall avoid conflicts of interest or activities that compromise, or appear to compromise, professional independence, objectivity, or inspection integrity.”
We recommend contractors based on quality of work, not referral fees.

Inspectors combine comprehensive building analysis, integrity and objectivity

 

Something for everyone 
Inspectors and their reports benefit a variety of groups:

  • Buyers use reports to make an informed purchase and limit risk
  • Sellers use pre-listing inspections to prepare homes for market
  • Agents use inspection reports to clarify contracts and adjust price
  • Professionals, tradesmen and specialists use reports to identify defects and to bid for repairs
  • Building Departments, lenders and insurers use reports to identify defects and limit risk
  • FEMA and other relief agencies employ inspectors to assess flood and fire damage

 

Replacement plumbing drains are not properly sloped to remove solid waste. Messy repair comes later…

The House as a System

Inspections are inclusive. They review buildings, grounds and component systems. They are forensic and diagnostic:  They aim to discover defects and assess current conditions.
Inspectors understand homes as a system of inter-related components; how failure in one area may lead to failure in others. We don’t specialize in repair and maintenance, but on the overall condition of the property. 
Studies of Building Science increased my understanding of how homes work, why they don’t and how to “read” clues of latent defects. Check out this authoritative link on The House as a System
https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/inpr/su/regrgu/regrgu_002.cfm#science

Attic above a beautifully renovated kitchen hosts numerous code violations. You’ll never see an architect or code official up here…

Uncomfortable Renovations

The Atlanta housing market is strong, especially for affordable homes in desirable neighborhoods. Renovations of homes built between the 1920’s and 1960s are common. Renovation dollars are spent on kitchens, bathrooms, master suites, laundry rooms and open floor plans.
Standards require complete upgrades when systems or components are altered more than 50%, but there are no specific requirements requiring energy and air quality improvements.

 

 

Renovated bathroom exhaust fans were added but not vented outside

This lack of a comprehensive approach results in homes strong in appeal and weak in performance.
Functional defects often get a pass, especially if they aren’t in readily visible attics and crawl spaces.
It’s no surprise renovations slip past sustainability and efficiency requirements.
Cities are keen to add residents. Square footage and features, not sustainability, drive sales.
The consequence of incomplete renovations play out over time.

 

 

 

 

Dead Legs (water pipe connected to supply through which water does not flow) could incubate the bacteria the causes Legionairres disease

Wind, rain and fire events cannot be prevented after the fact.  Environmental defects; poor indoor air quality, contaminated water and lack of comfort are not immediate. Mold, water in basements, high utility costs, constant maintenance and health issues occur over time and are hard to quantify

 

 

 

 

 

12″ Supply duct riser can’t move enough air to cool upstairs

Sustainable Solutions
Twenty years ago we didn’t understand how to address these problems. That’s no longer true. Today a whole industry has evolved to assess, improve and verify healthy, comfortable and efficient homes.
Sustainable renovations present a logical starting point. New homes represent a small fraction of housing. The optimal path to improve sustainability is during the design, construction and permitting of renovations.
It’s time for improved renovation standards. Reasonable standards that combine public policy, marketing and education.

The coolest “room” was the crawl space. Here’s one reason why

Age Matters in HVAC

The 1968 two story home I inspected was not only well-maintained, the owner had replaced the heating and cooling appliances, sealed the exterior, added attic insulation, storm windows and ceiling fans. Best of all he’d installed a partially sealed and de-humidified crawl space.
During my walk-thru with the buyer we noted sections of wall had been removed in bathrooms exposing a 12″ supply duct riser running from the single HVAC airhandler to the 2nd floor. The upstairs temperature was significantly higher than downstairs. The crawl space was cold, mainly due to loose duct connections.

 

 

Stupidity born of Ignorance: this louvered door to the attic lets heat in and out of the conditioned space

I did some rough cooling load calculations and considered a number of other clues that indicated cooling problems upstairs. I recommended further evaluation.
The evaluation revealed the duct riser upstairs was undersized, ducts were leaking, the A/C was undersized, reduced cooling efficiency due to refrigerant leaks, lack of wall insulation, a dirty air filter, and a heat-only duct system.
The recommended solution: install a separate HVAC system and seal the attic.

 

 

 

 

 

The contrast between meticulously designed living area and sloppy, un-workmanlike attic reflects the current approach to renovations

The conscientious homeowner was ill-served by his contractors. They didn’t use House as a System analysis. They sold a product and promised a solution

Lesson Learned
The pre-1980 HVAC system couldn’t cool upstairs, it wasn’t designed to. New equipment and piecemeal energy upgrades were not enough. Only an HVAC system design based on a comprehensive understanding of The House as a System, could. If you’re buying a two story home built before 1980 don’t forget that:
Age DOES matter in HVAC

Respectfully,

Your Thinking Man’s Home Inspector

Ten Takes on Atlanta Real Estate

Posted on 27. Jun, 2016 by in Hot Atlanta Real Estate

Ever-changing pattern language of American architecture

1. Spring buying season was hot hot hot And what a wild ride it was; unpredictable, intense, frustrating, exhilarating….that’s why I’m writing March’s newsletter in June. 

2. Neighborhood truck parade To paraphrase J.B. Jackson:  New houses built for the professional middle class are divided into rooms for specialized functions-media rooms, exercise rooms, bedroom suites. A steady caravan of trucks and vans from outside these enclaves provide services. Space traditionally used for repair and maintenance; garages, unfinished basements, sheds, are shrinking or disappearing altogether. The broader middle/working class, whose homes typically combine working space with living space, have not profited from this trend.  They’re stuck, financially and culturally, at home. 

 

 

Specialized rooms are a feature of the Professional Middle Class Home

3. Revise the Atlanta Real Estate Contract It penalizes honest seller disclosure (pre-listing inspections) and turns inspectors into deal killers.

4. Buyer’s agents abuse inspection reports   Inspectors observe and report major or immediate defects. Conscientious inspectors list minor defects and recommend improvements. Using second tier information to extort money from sellers is unethical.

Inspector laments the crawl vent halfway up a wall. Backfilled soils above the masonry foundation create a permanently wet crawl space

5. Home inspectors are not professional  Some inspection reports focus on minor defects and omit major ones. Inspections should present information fairly and accurately. Report language should clearly state what is wrong and what to do about it. 

Thousands spent to fix a mold problem that wasn’t

6. Mold is misunderstood  Unlike asbestos, lead and radon the science surrounding mold is not settled.  Mold-related health issues are real: approximately 3% of the population is sensitive to mold. Savvy companies know it’s easy to make a sale when family health is concerned, hence the phrase “Mold Is Gold”. The real issue, controlling mold, lies not in testing and remediation but how to prevent recurrence. Mold control should be based on building science, not ignorance and fear.

Rube Goldberg style duct layouts in renovated homes are common

7. We need a transportation fix Building more freeway lanes merely shifts congestion down the road.  On a recent bike ride I counted 6 condo buildings. Where are we going to put all the cars? I’m one of many forced to schedule around traffic. It’s past time for creative solutions.

8. Stick with local pros  A previous newsletter discussed why it’s hard to find good contractors.  Search for individuals and companies with established reputations. Page 1 Google does not necessarily guarantee quality

9. Dime a Dozen Defects New homes are more durable, healthy and efficient because of changes in building codes, methods and materials. Common defects yet to be addressed include drainage, exterior wood damage, substandard renovations, poor ventilation, and deferred maintenance like clogged dryer vents and fouled shower drains.

10. Inspectors Lament   High-risk, low-reward home inspections are more challenging when the market focuses on appearance and features rather than function and safety. Many within the industry are ignorant of how buildings work, the majority of outsiders haven’t a clue. That’s why I take time to explain the what, where and why details.          

          

                                 

My Takeaways on 2015

Posted on 23. Jan, 2016 by in Living Large

Vaulted Great Room at Jean’s mountain home

Trends

Living Large

Big sells no matter how small the household

Bling to Bland: former luxury items like granite countertops, doublepane windows, efficient construction and fancy master bathrooms are now standard

 

 

Hot Property: Marietta Street loft with lofty views of downtown and midtown

Hot and so Pricey

Midtown, Virginia Highlands, Decatur, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and other close-in home values and rents are up

Millennial Market

30-somethings must cope with a harsh and changing world and they’re doing pretty good at it. A couple ways they differ from Boomers:

No sale when the commute is more than ½ hour

No DIY maintenance, repair and renovation. That work is for others

Careful with the Cash

Unlike the aught bubble days lenders and appraisers are fastidious

Quick closings are over. All documentation must be legally perfect

The rains came before the terrace was covered

Challenges

High humidity continues to confound the experts

Every new technology, design and product fosters new mistakes
Tight construction improves comfort and efficiency. It may also cause indoor air quality (IAQ) problems

It’s next to impossible to build in the rain

Flashing and water barrier help keep moisture out of exterior walls

Solutions Sought, Solutions Found

If the answer escapes you hire someone with the training and experience to catch it

Google can’t completely answer the questions you’re asking but it helps

 

 

It’s past time to replace this overloaded fuse box

New building code addresses common defects like deck construction, energy efficiency, moisture control and defective siding

If you haven’t assessed, repaired or upgraded your home in the last 20 years chances are you’ll spend a lot more money on repairs and improvements at 25 (Dan’s 20-year Rule).

First step:  have me perform a maintenance home inspection

 

 

New homes are designed to resist higher wind loads

Universal Truths

These days forces of nature are more forceful

Ultra-violet light, heat and moisture continue to destroy buildings

Atlanta traffic is bad. The region is overdue for thoughtful change

                                       Never, ever, buy a house your wife has not seen
 

Why a good contractor is hard to find

Posted on 17. Nov, 2015 by in Caring for your Home, Home Improvement

Tim Allen: enthusiastic amateur

Home improvement is not as easy as it looks. Homes are unique, not commodities like facial tissue or breakfast cereal. Homes differ in age, the number character occupants, improvements, orientation, methods of construction, and materials. One size or solution rarely fits.

 

DIY stores have become part of American culture

Home repair and improvement demand equal amounts of brainpower and physical strength. Visible defects are only the tip of the iceberg. The true extent of damage remains hidden until the project is underway. Constant revision is the norm. Even experienced contractors need to make multiple trips to Home Depot.

No Rules, DIY, Ignorance, Indifference, Cowboys and Economics

 

Building Science guru Joe Lstiburek explains how to keep water out of walls

The first rule in home improvement is that there are no rules in home improvement 
Nominal oversight is absent from many projects. Unlike commercial construction licensure, permits and insurance are an option, not a requirement.

No BS is bad for Business

Many in the home improvement industry do not understand Building Science; the study of interaction between occupants, the building, and forces of nature. This diagnostic tool is essential. If you don’t understand the source of the problem you probably will spend your time fixing symptoms again and again.

You can do it, we can help
Home Depot helped popularize Do It Yourself (DIY) home repair. The public perceives home contractors as fundamentally simple-minded like the Tim Allen character on the show Home Improvement. The real world is different. My inspection reports document defects that arise when amateurs are confronted with professional level projects.

There ain’t no app for this

Have you got an App for that?
I use my computer to research home improvement videos, text, and specs.  Home repair apps are touted as the Uber of home repair. The underlying assumption behind these apps is that information is all you really need.

Wild Wild West
Cowboy Contractors make a point to assert their independence. They don’t care much about customer service, appearance, timeliness, responsiveness and documents. They’re independent, proud of it, and if you don’t like they way they work that’s your problem, not theirs.

Macro-Economics
When the building boom collapsed in 2008 talent, especially young talent, left the construction industry. According to linked report they haven’t returned.

Where Did All the Construction Workers Go?

Franchises and Trade Associations

How to decide which product or service really works for you?

Home Improvement franchises follow the same principles as other types of franchising:
Individuals or groups buy and operate the business and pay the franchisor advertising and management fees. Improvements typically come with a warranty. People feel less at risk with a large, brand-name company.

 

Some products work in the short term then fail over time

Trade associations set standards, promote training and lobby for favorable policy and regulations. They’re also in the business of business. Their goal is to help their members succeed professionally and financially.

Square Pegs and Round Holes

Franchises develop uniform products or services. Homes aren’t uniform, they’re unique. While franchise methods work in most situations sometimes they don’t.

 

Moisture managed: whole house dehumidifier with fresh air intake

Overhead
Franchisers have to pay their sales and office staff, warranty and legal expenses, taxes and other costs associated with their business. Trade-offs for the increased cost of franchise-provided home improvements are less risk, better service, and a quality product.

Failure to Launch
Some products and services fail to meet claims made by the manufacturer or provider, especially over time. Some may appear useful on display but fail to deliver. Sales staff may be more interested in their commission than solving their clients problems.

Trade Groups find profits in new rules
Some construction industry associations use revisions in the building code and industry standards to generate new business. Revising standards is normal. Identifying previously acceptable systems as hazards needing costly repair is, to this inspector, problematic. Is the intention of new standards to improve safety or to generate income for members? The line between the two is sometimes blurred.

Save-a-lot: Stick with the Basics

For what it’s worth
Many of us are hardwired to be cheap. If you want quality you’ve got to pay for it.  Not a fortune, but enough to cover the cost of the project, including profit. Be aware that low bids may equate with low quality.

 

 

“Yelped” now the vernacular

Help, I’ve been Yelped!
Contractor referral websites can be a valuable resource. But be aware that reviews, good and bad, are easily falsified. Dissatisfied customers post more reviews than satisfied ones. Some companies attack their competitors with negative reviews and/or post multiple positive reviews about themselves. For many contractors the rush be page one Google is no longer the main marketing goal.

 

Assess first, then repair
Building Science informs us that identifying causes, not symptoms is key. Mold is caused by excessive moisture. The permanent solution for mold problems is to remove the source of moisture before you treat the mold.

Deferred Maintenance
Some repairs require immediate repair. But it’s cheaper to replace an appliance, fixture or component before a crises occurs. Check the age and condition of your appliances. Look in your attic and under the home. For an overall review of your home’s systems and components consider a maintenance home inspection.

DeKalb will pay you 100 dollars towards replacing an old toilet like this

To many things there is a season
Don’t expect to get a great deal on an A/C unit in mid-summer, a chimney in mid-winter, a drainage system in the midst of a flood or a sprinkler system in the midst of a drought. Work tends to be cheaper and is definitely finished sooner in the off-season.

Freebies and New Efficiencies
We’re getting a 50 dollar check for our old refrigerator including free pickup. Georgia Power and other utilities offer rebates for this and other energy-related improvements. DeKalb county has a toilet rebate program. Improved technology can save you money over long term. Paybacks for efficient light bulbs, water heaters and washing machines are well worth the investment.

 

Look around your house for deferred maintenance or get a professional home inspection

Bottom Line: Do your Home Work before you write that check

 

  • The larger and more costly the repair, the more research needed.
  • When in doubt: Google it
  • Handyman are great for small jobs, large firms for big ones 
  • Be aware of issues with franchises, trade groups and online apps and referrals
  • Ask friends and neighbors who they’ve used
  • Follow the three bid rule, more as needed
  • Use reputable organizations like BBB and AARP to find out more
  • Lists and contact information must be current  

Good contractors can be hard to find. And some prefer it that way. 

The Life Of Houses

Posted on 21. Aug, 2015 by in The life of houses

Patterns of Life by an original mind

Patterns of Architecture by an original mind

Two writers who’ve influenced my life and career, William Shakespeare and Christopher Alexander, explore the human condition. Shakespeare’s works reflect universal human truths, Alexander’s the universal patterns of building and organizing communities.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

 
Like Alexander I look for patterns; in this case the similarities between the Life of Houses and Life of Man.

Infants take their first steps toward equilibrium

Infant and Toddler

At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

At this tender age I verify that component parts function and identify omissions and minor defects. These babies have wet diapers: as concrete and wood cure they expel moisture during first years. Birth defects like foundation settlement and framing defects appear at this time.

 

The Joyful Child is fresh and unblemished

Elementary

Then, the whining schoolboy with his satchel
and shining morning face, creeping like snail
unwilling to school.

Homes in the 6-12 year range are least bothersome. This age range correlates to the median length of ownership.  Systems and components have yet to wear out. Other than a bit of maintenance these children do pretty well.

Froward youths demand attention. A time for new component wardrobes

Growing Pains…..and Expenses

And then the lover,
sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
made to his mistress’ eyebrow.

Teen homes are demanding. Shingles, dishwashers, A/C condensers and water heaters fail.  Defective components are identified. Maintenance and repair expenses increase.

The Soldier: Confident, fearless, strong

Passage to Adult

Then a soldier, full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation
even in the cannon’s mouth.

Having withstood the forces of nature for two decades and having clothed themselves in new robes these fearless soldiers are ready to conquer the world……..or neighborhood.

Life Reimagined. Every 20 years or so one needs rearrange the architecture

Repair and Renovation Reality

Homes, like people, need love (repair, attention, renovation, rejuvenation) every generation. The economics of this market produce two variables:

  • Un-loved homes remain unsold or are purchased at a discount by investors
  • Wholly renovated “turnkey” homes sell quickly
“Fixer-uppers” don’t affect the market the way they used to: fewer buyers are interested in increasing home value through sweat equity.

Middle Years are confident and well-maintained

Middle-aged Maturation 

And then the justice
In fair round belly, with good capon lin’d,
with eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
full of wise saws, and modern instances,
and so he plays his part.

40-60 year old homes, especially those well-built and maintained, express comfort, individuality and success. For better or worse they reflect the character, personality and taste of those who live in them.

Like a good wine senior homes exhibit taste and refinement

Senior Citizen

While The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
his youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide,
for his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
turning again towards childish treble, pipes
and whistles in his sound.

The pace of change and rejuvenation slows.  Grandma and grandpa’s house remains comfortable yet dated. It may sag a bit, a condition I describe as “old house ambiance”. Owners replace systems and components only on an as-needed basis without regard to fashion.

The end: Mere Oblivion

Death and Rebirth:  Tear Downs and Homes Reborn

Last scene of all,
that ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Reborn as a pop-top

Unlike man a house, if not too far gone, removed or inconsequential, can be reborn.
Old homes die because they become too costly to maintain, occupy desirable economic locations, burn, rot, are consumed by pests, suffer from changes in demographics and transportation or from lack of care.

 

 

A home of consequence and a timeless way

No building is ever perfect
When things are first built gaps between the parts are often left un-whole
It is necessary to keep changing the buildings, according to the real events which actually happen
…the gaps get filled, the small things that are wrong are gradually corrected, and finally, the whole is so smooth and relaxed, that it will seem as though it had been there forever.

60% of American homes were built after 1970. How these homes age is of particular concern to me.  I want their owners to enjoy them but also to understand how they can always be improved-to strive for a smooth and relaxed whole. I’ve made a career of studying how they are built and why they fail. I share Alexander’s vision for how things might be and appreciate Shakespeare’s timeless understanding of the human condition.

Perhaps I’m hoping for too much. At least I’ve answered the question of why, for this inspector, no house is perfect.

Questions To Ask Your Home Inspector

Posted on 13. Jun, 2015 by in asking the right questions

There’s a catch-all phrase in green building:  Don’t Do Stupid Things. This newsletter explores how not doing stupid things begins with asking the right questions.

Low-tech hammer and nail homebuilding days are gone. Construction, along with everything else, is driven by CADs, composites and spreadsheets. New technologies foster new mistakes at digital-speed. Design and install errors are more likely to cause major defects.

Good Intentions, Bad Results

The turning radius into this garage is OK but the floor area was reduced for room expansion. Garages. like stairways, require more space than we think they should.

A Caveat:  Inspectors should never discuss design in their reports unless it affects safety and function.

Disfunction Junction   Side-entry garages require a 30ft turning radius. City lot widths averaging 50-75ft  render these garages useless for cars, good for storage.

Making Mold A Monster  Some mold remediation practices disperse mold throughout the house-transforming isolated, manageable problems into a systemic, catastrophic ones.  

 

Mold is biologically designed to disperse. Best practice is to encapsulate it like asbestos.

Maslow and Limitations of the Trades “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  Contractors are expert in the fields in which they are trained yet often amateur in their understanding the House as a System.   Diagnosing moisture problems illustrates this limitation:  I recently helped a homeowner identify the cause of excessive condensation in his basement but only after he’d paid four different contractors to pound their trade hammers on components that were not the cause of the problem.

A blocked exterior drain forced this perimeter drainage system to cycle water through the basement. Mud stains below the window and trashcan full of water indicate the loop.

Inspectors are often guilty of the opposite tendency:  we should, but often don’t, leave specific analysis of the defects we’ve found to the experts.

Home-Made Heating Upgrade A well-meaning owner connected a return air duct to the back of his home-made fireplace housing to improve heating efficiency.  Yikes!, a perfectly Stupid Thing.

Whole-House (Big Picture) Questions to Ponder

Here are a few topics I consider when writing reports:

Cleaning dirty flexible ducting is impractical. Best bet is to not let it get this bad in the first place. If you have a metal duct system KEEP IT.

How does the dwelling “balance out”; are defects for this style and age normal or excessive and costly?

How are the three forces of nature that destroy all buildings at all timesUltraviolet light, Heat and Moisture, managed?

If there are structural concerns have they been adequately addressed?  Should I recommend further evaluation by an engineer or other construction specialist?

 

My observant client noted ceiling stains below the bathrooms. The installer forgot to install gaskets between the base and tank. One more item on the inspector’s checklist

Is there one component or system in need of serious improvements?

Do recent upgrades address functional and safety concerns as well as aesthetic and cosmetic ones?

How can I help my client maximize function and safety and reduce maintenance costs?

How did I miss an item during an inspection?  How do I change my methods to avoid repeating the mistake?

And More Specifically…….

Is the roof drainage system properly sized and easy to maintain?

 

 

This homeowner went to great lengths to build this chimney. He tapped in a return air vent just behind the flue

Is there a mechanism to replace and replenish air in a tightly built home, condo or high-rise?

Where are Pest and Pollutant Pathways?

Are hard and smooth ducts and drains healthier and more durable than ribbed, flimsy ones?

Are low-pressure return air pathways installed between sleeping rooms to the airhandler?

When should a homeowner upgrade electric service from the street to the house, including the electric panel?

What are the best ways to reduce energy and water bills?

What’s the best way to manage humidity?

Are conditions conducive to biological and pest contamination like bacteria in water, mold, radon, termites, roaches, rodents?

Maxed-out electrical panels are one of the questions you should ask your home inspector about.

Maxed-out panels are all too common in Flipped brick ranchers. Function and Safety considerations dictate that at some point the entire system will have to be re-vamped

Point of sale inspections provide the buyer the opportunity to look at a home in a Comprehensive way.  Because homes and their components are more integrated than in the old days the House as a System approach is required to avoid doing Stupid Things.  Moisture management, energy efficiency and indoor air quality are key elements.

I may not have all the answers but I’m working hard at Asking the Right Questions. 

The Power of Piss and other Tails

Posted on 17. Mar, 2015 by in General

The Power of Piss: mice ruined my oven

Our tenant’s Christmas cooking party turned out to be a stinker when mice took up residence in the back of the gas oven. Building Science informs us that heating accelerates chemical reactions.  Imagine Old Dog Smell to the 10th power.

Cleaning did not change the smell factor.  Here’s the sexed-up explanation why:  http://www.salon.com/2012/11/03/chances_are_your_house_is_soaked_in_mouse_urine/  

Animals obey their biological imperatives.  They’re adapted to survive.  They seek shelter from the weather and predators, warmth and moisture, they eat, procreate, nest, poop and piss, defend and expand their territories.  I have 30 years first-hand experience with un-invited guests, human and otherwise.

Signs of un-invited house guests. As temperatures warm you may notice the smell

Rodentry

Rats run alongside exterior walls, seek cover and burrow under foundations.   They climb trees and run gutters until they find gaps between the fascia and roof.  If there are no gaps they’ll gnaw through water-weakened wood.  Rats chew through rubber and plastic pipe to get a drink.  They thrive in wet basements and crawl spaces.  They love grass seed. They favor the warmth atop water heaters, furnaces, ductwork and the tops of ceiling tiles in basements.  They nest in attics, in ribbed plastic ductwork, in cluttered crawl spaces and basements and in walls.

Chipmunks (ground squirrels) burrow near foundations.  Burrows channel water toward foundation walls and provide ready-made invasion routes for rats.  Flying squirrels are the octopi of the rodent world.  They squeeze through the smallest of openings and nest in quiet attic spaces. Mice live in hollows of walls and ceilings….. and in ovens.  Gray squirrels prefer attics.  Squirreled-away nuts are a sure sign of activity.  They’ll also nest in uncovered chimneys. Nesting squirrels filled our 25 ft chimney flue with tree branches.

Fiberglass insulation a handy nesting material, cellulose not so much

Other Warm and Cold Blooded Creatures

Bats prefer warm south or west-facing attic gable vents.  Nesting birds also use gable vents-they often pile nesting materials several feet deep. Opossums and Raccoons nest in attics and uncovered masonry chimneys. Rat snakes take up residence where there is sufficient prey. Bears, coyotes and raccoons will get into the trash or compost.   House Wrens Nest near and in houses.  http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/atlanta/har.htm
Health, Safety and Functional Concerns

The Power of Piss triggers asthma attacks. Animals and their feces may transmit diseases due to parasites, bacteria and fungi.    Bats are known carriers of Rabies (about 5%).  Never handle a bat bare-handed.  Rodents chew through wiring insulation to mark escape routes causing an increased risk of fire.  Animal bites are bacterial bombs and should be dealt with immediately.
Animals tramp down, pull apart and disturb wall and ceiling insulation-their preferred nesting material reducing insulation effectiveness.

Biological imperative: attic gable vents filled with nesting materials. Screen with hardware cloth

What Homeowners Can Do

Step 1.  Knowledge is Pest Control Power

Pests are ever-present and live just beyond our field of vision.  Animals are biologically engineered to survive. They possess highly developed senses the and ability to detect variations in pressure and moisture.

The hollows of framed walls and between floors, flues, ducts, plumbing vents and wiring openings, are their vertical and horizontal paths through homes.  They inhabit spaces behind kitchen appliances, behind and under countertops and cabinets, in pantries and dropped soffits (ceilings); wherever there’s room to hide and store food. 
Buffered Zones like attics, basements, crawl spaces and storage areas, especially wet and cluttered ones, are ideal because they are close to sources of food and provide shelter, moisture and warmth.

Triply Beneficial: Sealing animal pathways with rigid materials also controls fire and energy loss

Step 2.  Discourage pests by making your home less hospitable for them:

Outside the House
Screen and seal openings in exterior walls at crawl vents and other wall penetrations.  Use hardware cloth, a galvanized mesh with 1/4″ openings, and foam sealant.  Trim tree limbs and shrubs away from outside walls and roof.  Move or trim plants away from exterior walls.  Replace vegetative ground cover close to exterior walls with gravel.  In all ways and as much as possible reduce the volume of roof and site water near exterior walls. Clean gutters and grade or drain roof, surface and A/C water toward the downhill side of your home.  Store birdseed, grass seed and other rodent foods in sealed containers.  Bird feeders are favored in the daytime by chipmunks and squirrels, at night by rats, mice and opossums.
If you leave pet food outside expect it to be eaten.

Rat Path. Rats used the unsealed opening created for A/C refrigerant and power lines to enter the crawl space. Vegetation close to the wall, wet soil and a cluttered crawl space made this an ideal habitat

Exterior and Attics
Screen and seal outside openings:  at soffit vents, gable vents, at corners, where the fascia and gutter meet, at plumbing vents, at roof exhaust vents.  Draftstop (method of sealing with rigid materials) openings that connect the attic to the house:  at plumbing, ducting and wiring openings penetrations. This will also limit the movement of fire and loss of conditioned air.

Basements and Crawl Spaces

Consider closed and conditioned crawl space design:   http://www.crawlspaces.org/
Install dehumidifiers in un-ventilated areas to reduce moisture.  Set glue traps for mice, spring traps baited with peanut butter for rats.  If all else fails install a concrete rat slab over crawl space soils.  Draftstop openings at plumbing drains and vents and where A/C lines and dryer vents extend to the outside.  Install hardware cloth over crawl vents.  It’s especially important to clean up crawl spaces: remove clutter and debris and cover soils with plastic.

Triply Beneficial: Soils covered by rat slabs keep burrowing animals out, limit moisture and soil gases including radon

Inside the home

Remove clutter in kitchens, closets and storage areas.  Fix plumbing and roof leaks. Keep a clean kitchen.  Use covered trash containers.  If your heating vents are in the floor vacuum them out-especially in the kitchen.  Check for evidence of infestation at or behind fixtures and appliances, especially in kitchens and bathrooms.

Step 3.
Contact a qualified pest control company.  If pests are a big problem plan for multiple visits.

Step 4.
Expect repeats.  And don’t ignore the Power of Piss.