Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Durability-the not so pretty side of design

The introduction of new technologies and materials is one of the hardest areas for designers to stay current.  Occupations in building science have exploded in the last ten years because of the growing problem of building failures.  When we started to tighten up homes in the 1980's because of the energy crisis, we learned that keeping warm air inside the house also kept the moisture inside that house.  The whole realm of moisture problems bloomed when our homes were no longer "naturally" ventilated.  We saw and felt the immediate result of more insulation and caulk-our gas bills went down and our toes were warmer.  It took a while before we identified the source for an increase of asthma and mold allergies, a side effect we neither anticipated or wanted, but that only time would tell.

So, we introduced the use of rain screens or drainage planes, vapor barriers, gaskets, sealants and many other products to make the building system work better.  Building scientists introduced the methods for determining the location of the dew point within wall systems, thus dictating the best type and location for specific insulations.  They got us thinking about air movement, which equates to moisture movement and the need to control moisture movement caused by wicking or thermodynamics.

Building codes were dictating that we build more energy efficient homes, but neglected to ask building scientists the best ways to do that, so many homes were built following codes, but ignoring the science that would also make then durable.  Building codes are now addressing durability, but there is a whole decade of homes out there that are now suffering the consequences of forgetting that the whole house needs to work as a system.  As energy prices continue to rise, more pressure is on code agencies to raise the insulating standards again and some building scientists are taking a harder look at the ramifications to durability.  There will always be a tug of war between a more energy efficient and a more healthy home.

Minnesota has some of the best energy codes in the country and right now they seem to be working fine, with a good balance between saving energy and maintaining durability, but as national codes push harder for more energy efficiency, the balance will be in jeopardy.  Politicians and material suppliers need to back off and let the building scientist do their research before pushing the housing industry into requirements that may or may not achieve the desired result of healthy, durable homes that save energy.  The current housing slump is the perfect time to do research and document results, it is about time for building science to get ahead in the race.  Energy codes should also be region specific, because what we do in Minnesota to save energy is vastly different than what they do in Arizona to save energy.  Controlling moisture movement is as important as air movement and depending on where you live, the methods for controlling them could be vastly different.  Regional energy codes make much more sense than dictating that the whole country has to follow the same rules.

I will get off my soap box now, but I want to remind people who are planning to build a new house, that as much energy should go into designing it to be durable and energy efficient as goes into making it look great.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Client vs Designer

A good friend of mine, who is an Architect, was asked to help remodel a home that was originally designed by another Architect we both had worked for in the past.  Since the original blueprints no longer existed, he carefully measured every inch of the house and re-drew the plans as it was built. 

We were looking at those "as built" plans together when I mentioned that it was a pretty quirky floor plan and he agreed, saying he had always known the house was a little odd, but couldn't figure out just what made it feel so awkward.  We both commented that this floor plan was totally out of character for the now deceased architect/employer, who had been proficient at designing homes with a "Frank Lloyd Wright" feel to them.  Then it occurred to me what was wrong with the plan.  I told him I thought it was a compromise between what the architect intended and what the homeowner wanted.  He said "exactly!".  He knew the homeowners and their personalities. They would have insisted on having it their way, had the money to get it the way they wanted it and by God, no one, not even an accomplished architect, was going to talk them out of it.

If we had the preliminary sketches that evolved into this floor plan of boxy, isolated rooms, we would have been able to follow some of the thought processes or client demands that changed a potentially wonderful home into an awkward house.  With a few quick sketches, we remodeled that plan into a home that embraced the view of an expansive wooded valley, opened the kitchen to both formal and informal living spaces, configured the family room into a usable space, made the formal living room fireplace a focal point and created an accessible but quiet office area.  We removed many walls, but didn't move any plumbing or the fireplace.  We increased window area towards the million dollar view, but didn't structurally change any exterior walls.  We created sight lines through the house that visually expanded its size without compromising private areas and I think what we ended up with was probably pretty close to what the original architect intended for this house.

So, the lesson in this, is that you need to trust in the professional you hire to design your home and maybe in this instance, the consumer is not always right, no matter how much money they have.  The advantage design professionals have over most people is their ability to visualize things in 3-D.  For us, it is not just a floor plan.  We can visualize the wall height, the ceiling, either flat or vaulted, the walls that define spaces or the floor coverings which can define spaces.  Sight lines, angles, windows and other openings can all change how a room feels and how it relates to other spaces.  Light angles and shadowing change the feel of rooms and attention should be paid to quantity, intensity and pattern of all light sources.  These are the design elements that can make a room or plan feel just right, but they are the parts of a plan that most people can't visualize.

So many times, when I visit with clients after they have moved into their new homes, they tell me how much better it is than the thought it would be.  Ouch!  I thought I had done a pretty great job conveying to them what the house would look like when it was done, but they are happier than they expected.  I guess that's a good thing, but why couldn't they see all along what I was seeing?  Why weren't they as excited as I was, when I realized we nailed this plan six months ago?  Because they couldn't fully visualize it the way I could.  they didn't understand the subtle transitions from room to room that make it flow, they don't understand the impact of creating spaces for calm, or just a place for the mind to rest for a moment.  Why can't I now put into words the methods I use to create a home that says "Wow, this is mine and I love it!"  I can't write it, just like they can't see it.  That's the best argument for hiring and trusting a professional you like.