Youthful memories of the Paris of the West

Posted on 20. Jun, 2012 by in General

My worldly, intimidating and rather dour great-grandmother Ellita Genevieve Carroll lived in San Francisco most of her adult life moving there from her hometown Sacramento in 1904.  Visiting Nana meant trips to Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Podesta-Baldacchi Flower shop, and City of Paris Department store at Union Square;  started by French sailors out of the hold of a sailing ship abandoned during the gold rush. 
        Imagine a young boy’s Christmas with window displays on Union Square rivaling 5th Avenue, Santa living on the top floor, and a truly gargantuan 5 story Christmas tree decorated to scale in the magnificent lobby.  Nana’s prickly disposition was a small price to pay for my wondrous experiences in “The City”.

 Nieman Marcus bought COP and destroyed it in the usual corporate image fashion-all except the rotunda that fascinated me as a child.  It’s still there in all it’s Baroque glory.  Podesta-Baldacchi still exists too-in a different building.  On our recent Father and Sons tour  the Curls visited well-known landmarks Chinatown and the Wharf, crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate.  On the last day, driving down Van Ness to the airport we passed City Hall, another landmark building.  Across the street stood the Opera House -more impressive than it’s civic neighbor.  That’s San Francisco; where the grandeur of Fine Arts supersedes both civic and commercial.  Paris of the West

More stupid fan tricks: Over-Ventilation Ruins Comfort and Efficiency

Posted on 12. Feb, 2012 by in General

Louvers open only when fan is operating

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of days after posting my previous blog, I came across a properly installed attic exhaust fan. 

This fan really sucks.  It has louvers that close when the fan is off.  The fan is bigger, it draws more air, about 3000 CFM (cubic feet per minute) than the standard 1000 CFM fan.  Must be better, right?

Fan viewed from inside attic

Well, not really.  The fan draws air from the conditioned area of the home through poorly sealed openings.  It quite literally sucks conditioned air out of the house, especially the 2nd floor.  This results in very poor cooling upstairs.

The homeowners response to over-ventilation was to double the amount of ceiling insulation and add fans in the upstairs bedrooms.  This did almost nothing to solve the problem.  The answer lies in a reasoned application of building science.

Boundary not Draftstopped

Part of the problem is that no sealed boundary was established between conditioned and unconditioned space.  Sealing the boundary with rigid materials is termed draftstopping. Think of it as an open window in a car with the heater running:  the heat escapes quickly.  Putting a blanket over the window (like more insulation on a ceiling) might slow the loss a bit, but it does prevent outside air from getting in.   Poor draftstopping leads to heat loss in winter, regardless of whether a fan is operating.

Black Insulation at attic kneewall insulation

Now turn the exhaust fan on.  Our car is moving, increasing the loss of conditioned (inside) air.  This “fix” for a hot attic has now compromised cooling efficiency for the entire home.  How can I tell?  Look at the black insulation in the photo.  The discoloration is caused by dust particles captured by the insulation.  It filters dust out.  You often see this in carpet as well:  the material is not airtight and the fibers capture the dirt.

Black strip on carpet=airflow

An interior door was used to the separate the attic from the house.  It was not draftstopped.  Black marks on the carpet indicate airflow in both directions.  The attic exhaust fan sucks cool air out, pressure pushes warm air out.

My recommendations:
 Disconnect the attic exhaust fans allowing passive vents to reduce attic temperatures.  Establish a boundary between conditioned and unconditioned space and draftstop it.  Install reflective materials over vertical (knee) walls in the attic to block heat from entering the conditioned space.

What is written here has just been verified in the field:

Fan OFF!

Stupid Fan Tricks

Posted on 09. Feb, 2012 by in General

Conventional Wisdom informs us that hot attics can be cooled with fans.   A fan at the upper part of the roof will pull hot air out making it easier to cool the house.  Seems logical.

Temperature controlled fan installed at gable vent

Building Science informs us that air is a fluid.  As such it flows from areas of higher to lower pressure along the path of least resistance.

Fan and Vent don’t match

A typical exhaust fan pulls 1000 cubic feet of air per minute.  To work as designed there should be no openings in the immediate vicinity of the fan:  otherwise air will be drawn from the closest source, the path of least resistance.

How much air gets out?

Assuming the fan is installed correctly (not pictured) the negative pressure produced by fan exhaust will adversely affect cooling and indoor air quality.

Air drawn from the fan will be replaced through the vents

Bottom line:  mechanical attic exhaust fans are rarely installed correctly, and, even when they are, they are often detrimental to safety, efficiency and health.

Negative Pressure has no Positive Outcome

And don’t forget the costs of installation and operation.
Sometimes saving money means not wasting it

A Brief History of Texas Toast: The Asian Connection

Posted on 23. Jan, 2012 by in General

My introduction to Texas Toast was in 1968 when we moved to Austin.  Ever-thangs big in Texas and I quickly learned how to match Texas Toast with Chicken-Fried steak, pinto beans and fried okra.
Imagine my discovering it is common in Tokyo.  Texas Toast is available in the ATL at Mozart Korean Bakery and in Chamblee’s Chinatown. 

A Small Luxury
During the war (WWII) when refined foods were increasingly scarce staples like flour were adulterated with unrefined wheat and other additives.  Humans covet what they cannot have:  a big piece of white bread became desirable-not just because refined flour was scarce but as a reminder of better times and as a status symbol.  Think Caviar for the undernourished.

Morning Seto (Morning Set)
Baby Boomers in Japan took the food to it’s next manifestation, the Morning Set.  Busy salarymen now stopped for a quick breakfast of coffee, small salad and Texas Toast.  The toast provides carbohydrate bulk and can be prepared with a variety of toppings.

Asian Starbucks
The menu photo is from a coffee shop in Chamblee’s Chinatown.  Comfort food with a Texas/Asian connection

Inspection Metrics: Size Matters But Not That Much

Posted on 10. Jan, 2012 by in General

Everyone’s looking for a deal these days and that includes inspection fees.  Potential clients looking for a reduction in fee often point out how small the home is in order to elicit lower inspection fees.  It’s true that size matters; especially when I’ve logged 3 miles walking up, down and through a super mega-mansion.  Other measurements matter as much or more than size. 

These include Where the Wild Things Are, They don’t build ’em like they used to, Time is money and Unexpected Surprises

Crawl Space:  there are crawls and then there are nasty, low, muddy, foul crawls.  They can be dangerous, unhealthy and claustrophobic.  I might find rats, black rat snakes or black widow spiders.

A bit of a moisture problem

Age:  Sarah Susanka, of Not So Big House fame put it succinctly:  “Newer homes don’t age well”.  I put it this way:  Teenage Homes are like Teenage Children:  they require a lot of care AND money.  Design flaws, materials defects and normal component and system aging all factor into more work for me. 

Defective Siding common in metro Atlanta

Client expectations:  Some clients like to play twenty questions during the inspection, some like to play two hundred.  I’m sometimes asked to check a light fixture by changing the bulb, the fireplace by lighting a fire or the gas grill out back.  Buy me a steak if you want that grill checked.  My purpose as inspector is to discover major and immediate defects, not to satisfy a fastidious client.  That said I would rather spend inspection time discussing pertinent observations with my clients. 

Not easy to inspect the electric panel and water heater

Home Condition:  Access can be a big issue-I sometimes have to wait for keys and lockbox codes.  Most Americans are Hoarders to one degree or another.  The places I need to see:  attics, basements, and equipment are often blocked by possessions.  Professional standards require I leave the home pretty much as I found it:  moving items in closet to gain access to the Jacuzzi pump and then replacing them takes time.  Some homes are, to put it bluntly, a mess.  Wading through them while respecting the owners property can be time consuming.  Depending on the neighborhood and the wholesale price of copper I might have to spend more (or less) time disclosing missing water pipes, A/C coils and wiring ripped from walls.

Enthusiastic copper thieves

Bottom Line:  It takes me about three hours to inspect a “standard” single family home.  Less time for condos and townhomes, more time for super-big or especially difficult to inspect houses.  I’ve set my fees accordingly.

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.