Building Science and Home improvement

Posted on 04. Dec, 2013 by in Caring for your Home

Fundamental #1: Managing Moisture

removing carpet and subfloor

Carpet, subfloor and plastic removed to reveal moisture and mold. We installed tile after fixing the moisture problem.

There is no getting around it; the first step toward improving your home’s comfort, health and efficiency is moisture control. Here’s a case study in moisture control-at my house.

 Basic Concepts

Liquid water is best managed by slowing and dispersion, ambient moisture (relative humidity) by venting outside or dehumidification. Bottom of the hill homes need better moisture control than top of the hill ones.


I determined where I wanted water to drain, then removed or added soil to create a slope away from the foundation. I cleaned or replaced roof and surface drains and capped an old water line that was leaking into the crawl space. Key to success: a properly maintained roof drainage system. Maintenance check: inspect and clean drains.


Basement bathroom fan

Basement bathroom fan vented through PVC pipe to outside. We installed a 15-minute fan timer switch.

I stopped water entering the basement by filling foundation block cores with liquid concrete. I replaced moisture-sensitive wood and carpet basement floors with tile. I enclosed and conditioned my crawl space to keep summer humidity and winter cold out. Maintenance check: clean and reset gutters and and inspect for roof leaks.


Condensate water from A/C systems is pumped outside to water our garden. Timer-controlled bathroom exhaust fans, along with the range/oven, are vented outside. A dehumidifier coupled with the basement HVAC system controls ambient moisture in the basement and crawl space. Maintenance check: clean dryer vent and repair plumbing leaks.

You cannot have a tightly built home AND a moisture problem.

Start the year with a Maintenance and Efficiency Inspection. I’ll inspect for moisture defects AND show how to improve comfort and efficiency for 50 dollars off my regular fee. Discount not valid for point of sale inspections.


Have a Merry, and Dry, Christmas!




Costs and Conservation: Electric Gas Water

Posted on 05. Jan, 2012 by in General

Kai tracked our utility costs at Villa Curl the past four years.  Here are my thoughts (unsupported opinion not based on science or statistics) on the subject:

Electric down 373 Gas down 156 Water up 252
We’ve been doing that Eco-Thing:  paying more attention to thermostat settings, turning lights off, and water use.

Gas Cost should be lower but isn’t
Gas prices are at historic lows.  The sweetheart privatization of Atlanta Gas/Light marketing has actually worked against the consumer.  Great for stockholders and Atlanta Gas/Light, bad for consumers.  Can anybody say “pass through charges”?

Water Cost way up
Water Authorities go decades without upgrading their systems.  Politicians tout their leadership abilities by keeping costs down while allowing systems to fall into disrepair.  Atlanta has been going through this for years-now it’s DeKalb’s turn.  Up next:  Balancing accounts by claiming leaks on the user side of the meter.  Tell the customer to pay an enormous bill or have their service cut off.  This happened in the Atlanta system and is likely to occur should DeKalb run short of cash.   Think this won’t happen?  I just got a solicitation for the “Water Line Protection Program”.  Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse.  Sewer charges are based on meter charges so watering your garden (or any type irrigation, pool filling, etc) comes at a premium.

Electric Futures
Many power companies are run like water utilities:  companies promise lower rates at the expense of infrastructure maintenance.  Use is going up along with increased IT technology.  Nuclear plant and dirty coal cleanup costs are coming, so is the cost of renewing the physical and personnel structure sacrificed to quarterly profit statements.  The Piper must be paid.

Consumer Bottom Line
Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass we will have to run faster just to stay in place.  Relying on Politicians, Utilities and Corporations to act in the consumer’s interest is, at best,  a questionable proposition.  Better to be a true conservative:  act smart and in your own interest.  I’m here to show you the way….

Your friendly, neighborhood Eco-Inspector

Basic BS: Physics eventually defeats Chemistry

Posted on 29. Dec, 2011 by in General

Icyclene Foam Insulation and Plastic-lined Ducting

A recent story on national TV news pointed out that fires spread much more rapidly in newer than in older homes.  Building materials like OSB (Oriented Strand Board) roof, wall and floor panels burn more quickly than solid wood.  Hydrocarbon based products, in general, degrade more quickly than inert materials.  They burn faster and create more toxic gas.

Newer materials degrade faster when exposed to heat, ultraviolet light and moisture.  A friend who trained and worked with me inspecting homes commented that new homes started degrading before the sale had closed.

Certainly there are many benefits to using newer materials.  The photo shows icycylene foam applied to the underside of rafters.  The foam forms an airtight, insulated boundary between the attic and roof.  Ducting no longer subject to energy loss due to a hot or cold attic. 

Phelan Building Destroyed by 1906 San Francisco fire

I’ve learned through experience and study that “Physics Eventually Defeats Chemistry”.  Forces of nature:  heat, moisture, ultraviolet light, and pressure, overcome the chemically produced materials.  The hotter something is the faster it’s molecules move leading to disruption of the molecular bonds.  The more a material is subject to physical forces the greater the potential for damage.

We’re not likely to return to building with inert materials.  Stone houses last longer but present a different set of cost and comfort issues.  Sometimes chemical reactions (fire) destroy buildings.  What we can do is build smarter, better and with a greater understanding of how buildings work. 

Get educated:  Learn some good BS (Building Science)


A Semblance of Urban Life

Posted on 22. Dec, 2011 by in General

The closest shopping center, the one with stores we all use, is the Edgewood Retail District.  It does its’ best to work as an “intown” shopping center:  there’s a main street, underground and deck parking, a mix of shops and big box stores.  But is just doesn’t work as well as it should.

Sembler Construction tried to split the
difference between a suburban strip mall
and an urban street.  The result is more
strip mall than street.

Edgewood Retail works mainly because the people who use it make it work.
What’s sad is that it could have been so much better.

Urban features I enjoy are:
Proximity:  a little over a mile from home
Partially Permeable:  there are back door (neighborhood street) entrances east and south
Mix of stores, restaurants, services, housing

Suburban Features I enjoy are:
Parking and lots of it
A modestly upscale Kroger
Lowes:  retail for real men

What doesn’t work:
Inconvenience Stores
Store entrances are placed far apart instead of clustered together.  Sembler has created a semblance of a pedestrian/urban space.  Recently my wife wanted to go to the electronics, book and grocery stores.  She got lucky and found a space in front of the electronics store.  Since moving the car in busy surface lot was such a bother she decided to walk to the bookstore; not too far away.  There were no pedestrian pathways to get from store to store.  She had a long walk through the auto landscape to the bookstore, further to reach the grocery and, when she anticipated the 1/4mile return trip to her car, bought only as many groceries as she could reasonably carry that far.

Fake Frontage
Outparcels along Moreland Avenue are visual, not functional enclosures of space.  The same is true for the sides of the big box stores:  the architectural details infer windows and doors where none exist

Empty Spaces
The parking decks and garage (I had not realized until this week how much space was underground) were mostly empty.  Contrast them with the jammed surface lots.  Most of us will choose surface parking if it is available, even on a day when it was pouring outside. Lighting and signage do not direct you and the underground spaces are spooky.  If I were a woman I wouldn’t want to go there.

Cars 28 Pedestrians 13
“Main Street” has the architectural elements of
pedestrian space but is so busy with traffic that it doesn’t work:  unless you like watching and endless stream of vehicles passing by.  The store awnings are too small and there’s no life on the wide sidewalks.  It’s a picture but not a reality, a cartoon of city life.  Bottom line:  Sembler tried to work with the urban model and this is how it turned out.  Maybe we’re not ready to give up our cars and maybe the design could have been done better.  I think they should have studied mall design more carefully:  an avenue dedicated to walkable, convenient stores without big surface lots.  Maybe we’re just not ready to return to a pedestrian environment-unless it has a roof over it.

Posted on 16. Dec, 2011 by in General

A Long Time Coming:  A Perfect Storm Creates a great house

The pre-drywall inspection was nearly perfect.  Imagine a home inspector telling his client that there are NO problems.  Here’s why

Kudos to Mike Barcik and all the staff at Southface for their efforts formulating, training and promoting the 2011 Georgia Energy Code.  This will be a healthy, efficient and low-maintenance home. 

Costs are down:  the production builder bought a foreclosed property at deep discount.

The production builders vertical organization assures careful adherence to construction standards and quality control.  Staff and workers are committed to energy efficiency and good construction practice.

I’ve been waiting almost 20 years to experience a well-engineered and energy efficient home.  At times I have just about given up hope that things will change. 

This gives me hope

Sustainable Fundamentals: the Green Building Pyramid

Posted on 06. Dec, 2011 by in General

Green Builder magazine recently re-issued their Homeowner’s Handbook.  The Green Building Pyramid lays out a logical path towards efficiency and health.  We all remember the food pyramid:

What you find at the base of the Green Building Pyramid may surprise you.

How the building is placed in relation to the sun and surrounding terrain

Location:  The more driving required the less efficient the home.  A super-efficient home with a long commute is less efficient than a closer-to-work less efficient one

Education:  You have to understand what you’re doing.  Many homeowner improvements contradict sound building science or are of little or no value.

House Size:  Doubling a house size triples its energy use.  Living Large, like driving 80mph on freeway, costs a lot more.  Better to have a well-designed and detailed home

Note that none of these fundamentals involves high tech, high cost, or significant lifestyle changes.  They work in the city and the suburbs. They are universal.

Posted on 27. Nov, 2011 by in General

Friends of Candler Park Golf Course now has a website

More Atlanta Golf:  Practice round at the PGA.  Ryo Ishikawa is the Japanese 18 year old sensation.  Skinny kid with a beautiful swing and signature orange outfit.  He bombed at the tournament:  last place before the cut

Candler Park Beaver cleaning up the pond.  I hear he sells seconds for extra income

Curl Clan Golf Outing near Ocean Isle Beach NC

Don’t Feed the Gators!

Winter Scene at CPGC:  Sledding, Snowboarding and Jackassing down the #1 fairway. 

They say the CPGC is losing money.  That may be true.  But it makes us all the wealthier:  ourselves, our neighbors and our city

Posted on 22. Nov, 2011 by in General

Word has it that they want to change the Candler Park Golf Course.  No Way, Jose!  CPGC is the quintessential neighborhood course:  9 holes, great for practicing your short game, a place to teach kids and newbies the game, 10 bucks weekday for city residents, center for snow day sledding, nighttime after-party rounds, small greens, hills, valleys and a distinct intown vibe.

A gift from the Candlers the course also boasts a naturalized stream (formerly a concrete V) now taken over by beavers and waterfowl.  Every local knows the hawk’s favorite perch on the pine tree on the 7th fairway

Atlanta needs places like this:  public, accessible and cheap.  A place to meet, play and enjoy nature.  Methinks the gentrifizers want to get their grubbies on it:  I say there’s a great way to enjoy this space:
Tee it up and enjoy your own self

Understanding How Buildings Work: Speaking the Language of Architecture

Posted on 17. Nov, 2011 by in General

Edward Allen’s book “How Buildings Work The Natural Order of Architecture” provided a basis for my course “How Homes Work”.  In this abridged excerpt from his conclusion he talks about windows:
 “A standard residential window of the most common type allows for the simultaneous and independent control of:

Natural illumination
Natural ventilation
View out
View in
Passage of insects
Passage of water
Passage of heat-radiant, conducted, convected

Considering this multiplicity of functions, a window is a surprisingly simple mechanism.  To a designer, the possibilities of a window are limitless.   Consider some of the following choices in designing a single window for a building:

Orientation of window
Location of window in the wall
Size of window
Proportion of window
External shading devices
Mode of window operation (fixed, sliding, etc.)
Material and color of frame
Type of glass
Type of shade or shutter
Type of curtain, material, color
Type of insect screen

Speaking of other components in a home…..Each must serve a multiplicity of functions.  Each must be made of a combination of materials of complementary capabilities.  Each offers to a designer its unique set of aesthetic possibilities to be exploited….(or)…to be ignored.  these components are the building blocks of architecture,  the only stuff with which a designer can work the unique magic that results in a satisfying building.

The only solid basis for architectural creativity is an ordered and accessible knowledge of how buildings work.  There is a natural order to architecture, and true design freedom springs from an everyday, easy familiarity with this order.

Here the message is simply that the scientific fundamentals of buildings are always the same.”

Roof Water Formula: The Wet Underwear Analogy

Posted on 01. Nov, 2011 by in General

I tell clients that ignoring moisture control is like wearing wet underwear to work:  you’re appearance is acceptable but you are destined to have difficulties in the future.  Most moisture related problems are cumulative, not catastrophic and that is why so little attention is paid them.  Moisture and its’ effects remain, like underwear, unseen (most of the time). 

Roof Water Formula:  for every 1000 square feet of roof (a typical roof has about 2000 square feet) 620 gallons are generated for every inch of rainfall.  With an average of 50 inches of rain per year that 1000 square foot roof generates 31,000 gallons of water per year. 

Where does it go?  Much of it accumulates outside the foundation walls.  During rainy periods it may enter the underfloor space.  Best Practice?  Pipe it WELL AWAY from the house.  The photo shows downpouts piped along a narrow space in order to avoid draining onto the neighbors yard.  This is cheap and easy:  it’s best to pipe using buried smooth wall PVC drainpipe with cleanouts to allow for maintenance and fewer leaf clogs.