Volume 53, Issue 5

Boy were we shocked when we got our first energy bill in the winter of 2010! Turns out, trying to keep a drafty house warm is a rather expensive endeavor (and, as you may recall, our floors aren’t insulated). We have been engaged in a number of experiments  to keep energy costs down and the task recently became much easier when we signed up for Entergy’s In-Home Display pilot program. We now have a small meter that lets us know when we have spikes in energy consumption (driven, not surprisingly, by HVAC dependency).

We’ve had to adjust our expectations when it comes to comfort level: no longer do we submit to the standard operating temperature of 68 degrees, year round. In the winter, we get used to being a little more chilly and keep the house at around 65 degrees (and supplement with a space heater as needed). In the summer, we get used to being a little more warm and keep the house at around 78 degrees (and ditch the down comforter).

We also follow these useful tips:

  • Keep TV, stereo, DVD player and gaming devices plugged into one power strip and turn the power strip on and off with use (you may be familiar with the term “vampire appliances”).
  • Routinely change air filters.
  • Adjust water heater temperature to 120 degrees.

What are some ways you stay comfortable and save energy at the same time? Cooling season is upon us! Send me your suggestions and I’ll follow up with the next Monthly Spectator!

Volume 53, Issue 3

I moved here from a city whose outlying municipalities have pretty strict rules about what can and cannot be built and, furthermore, how the built environment is maintained over time (see footnote).   Those rules are in place not only for the health, safety and welfare of citizens but in small part, to help maintain property values in neighborhoods. So, as a (former) midwestern property owner, it should come as no surprise that I pay attention to the number of blighted properties in my neighborhood and eagerly follow the construction of houses, like the one pictured above.

That said, I’m reasonably certain this house would not have received a building permit where I come from, let alone a certificate of occupancy, for its lack of windows, alone.

Also, you’ll note that the installation of siding is not complete on this house under construction: I can tell you from personal observation that it has not been complete for some time. Is that cause for concern? Probably not… unless you live in the community of Burnsville, Minnsota, where failure to finish installation of your siding can land you in prison! I’m not kidding  (nor am I suggesting that it makes sense).

This prompted me to look into the property maintenance requirements for New Orleans. Not surprisingly,my search came up relatively empty.  However, I did find an interesting research study noting the creation of the Office of Recovery and Development Administration (ORDA) and the City’s relative lack of code and ordinance enforcement when it comes to property maintenance.

Should I be calling the authorities?

(Ha, this time, I’m kidding).

Volume 53, Issue 1

This month, I’m turning my attention to a more ‘global’ observation !

In November, I had the great fortune of traveling to South Africa for vacation and, while there, had the opportunity to visit a hugely growing yet terribly impoverished community on the outskirts of Cape Town. It was an incredible glimpse not only into the culture and history of Cape Town but also a reminder that there were probably many, many communities such as this one at some point in the history of developing cities in the United States.

What made my experience unique was the realization that I was witnessing a very modern phenomenon in that a poor, underdeveloped community has rapidly growing access to global technologies (something that I doubt existed decades ago).

As a ‘for instance,’ this community has not, and never will be, introduced to what we know as “land lines” for telephone communication: this community leapt straight in the realm of cellular technology. Cellular technology is just more economical.

On top of this, the community is also leaping directly to solar-powered technology and foregoing what we know to be the conventional use of electric-powered or gas-powered home appliances. Inexpensive and highly efficient solar water heaters decorate the rooftops of many homes that otherwise appear to be lacking in ammenities.

I had to ask myself; Why aren’t we doing more of this?

A recent study by the Earth Policy Institute reveals that the U.S. “ranks 36th in installed [solar water heater] capacity relative to its population.” Food for thought the next time you enjoy a nice, hot shower!

Volume 52, Issue 11

When I moved here a little over two years ago, I made the mistake of assuming that if a State had adopted the IBC, it had also adopted (by default) the accessibility requirements in Chapter 11. Not so, as it turns out! Granted, the State of Minnesota, from where I moved, made amendments to Chapter 11… but I was somewhat shocked to learn that, until recently, the State of Louisiana was enforcing a version of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines that is 15 years old!

“Well, what could be that different?” you might ask.

As it turns out there are significant differences: differences that will have an impact on design and execution as the State of Louisiana will begin enforcing the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design as of October 1st, 2011.  NOTE: The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design are not necessarily the same as the requirements of IBC Chapter 11, which references ANSI A117.1, but attempts are being made to bring ADAAG and ANSI A117.1 a little closer in line.

One change that I’m pleased to bring to your attention is the elimination of the stair handrail extension at the bottom of stairs. Hopefully you have learned this, and more at this year’s Chapter Seminar, which took place on November 10th, and you’re probably already marking up your copy of the 2010 ADA Standards!

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Volume 52, Issue 10

Since I wrote about my drafty home in last month’s post, I’ve gotten a few requests to talk about the measures I’m taking to improve energy efficiency! You may recall that our energy consultant was unable to establish a pressure differential in our house such that an effective measurement of air flow could be taken. What I didn’t mention is that while the consultant was performing her blower door test, we walked around the house and felt wind (yes, wind) coming through just about every little hole and fissure in the house. Not surprisingly, it was recommended that we seal just about every little hole and fissure in hopes that less energy would, literally, get thrown out the window. These include:

  • Gaps between window frames and window units.
  • Holes in the mortar joints in our fi replace(s).
  • Gaps between electrical junction boxes and drywall.
  • Gaps between plumbing piping and drywall and/or gaps between plumbing piping and the floor.

Lack of proper weatherstripping was a key factor in the blower door test failure; many of the double hung windows have large gaps between the upper and lower sashes and the wood has shrunken to such a degree that the sashes just aren’t tight fits. A great resource for retrofit weatherstripping can found be found by going to page 70 in this PDF.

Additionally, because one can see daylight through some of the cracks in our wood floors, it was recommended that we insulate either by way of spray foam between floor joists or by securing rigid insulation, continuously, across the bottom of all the floor joists (the latter accouting for thermal breaks and ease of installation).

Needless to say, I’ve been doing lots of climbing on ladders and lots of poking and prodding. Turns out, there is an art to installing spray foam sealant and a variety of brands and types with which to experiment (some expanding far more than others). That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is another art to energy savings:  Spend less on cooling your home by not setting the thermostat so low!

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My personal preference is DAPTex.

Volume 52, Issue 9

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When we bought it at the end of 2009, my husband and I quickly noticed that the house was… shall we say… drafty. Having lived in a home that was built over a hundred years ago, I knew not to expect modern-day comfort but this was a whole different story. So, in anticipation of making some “energy improvements” on the house, we enlisted the help of an energy auditor to perform a “blower door test” (see image below). The results? Drafty was an understatement.

Blower door tests require that a house be de-pressurized to a difference of, say, 50 Pascal before beginning to measure either the air flow required to achieve that 50 Pascal or the number air exchanges per hour. Our auditor could not even get a reading of 50 Pascal to begin with (read, our house does little more than keep the rain out). It was an eye opening experience to say the least and I’m glad to have observed the process… it is one that I think the entire construction industry will have to familiarize itself with in the very near future.

I say that because the “topic du jour” at this year’s CSI Convention was ‘high performance building’ and the looming possibility that the International Green Construction Code will be adopted as code in many municipalities (already adopted in Rhode Island!).

As is currently the case under some States’ energy codes (mostly up North) or by some green building standards, the air flow rate per square foot of a building must be range from 1 to 1.5 cfm/ft2. If the IGCC is adopted (which references ASHRAE 189.1), the required air flow rate will be 0.4 cfm/ft2 (at 75 Pa) and building envelope commissioning (energy auditing) will be required! So, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to start getting those flashing, penetration and transition details in order and update your air barrier spec!

Volume 52, Issue 8

Back in May, I was muttering about the lack of stormwater management best practices in the New Orleans zoning code but as it turns out, they aren’t far from implementation! A copy of proposed Article 23 of the Comprehensive Zoning Code (in draft form) recently came across my desk. In it, there is discussion of general landscape design standards that not only must be adhered to but approved in the course of obtaining a building permit. While under review for landscape plan approval, one must submit (among other things):  “A stormwater management plan, including the pre-development runoff rate and the post-development runoff rate. The stormwater management plan must include:

All pertinant calculations and specifi cations used in the design and construction of the detention area and other drainage improvements. Safeguards to present short-circuiting of detention system must be designed into the system. If underground systems are used, a monitoring and maintenance schedule may be required.”

Even more, stormwater “BMP’s” as described in the “Model Storm Water Based Landscape Code” are to be utilized in the development of one’s landscape plan. Encouraging news if you ask me!…
(but don’t put away your rainboots just yet)

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Volume 52, Issue 7

If you’re like me, you’ve been working on understanding the exact defi nition of a “rainscreen” and wonder why it hasn’t been more fully embraced as a common system in this market. I was first introduced to the rainscreen principle when I was in graduate school about twelve years ago and the first firm I worked for employed the philosphy in just about every building that was designed.
I thought I had a pretty good handle on it until I came across an article published by the Metal Construction Association entitled, “Understanding ‘The Rainscreen Principle.’  It says, of TWO different kinds of rainscreen designs,

“Both systems emply open joinery and allow a certain amount of water into the cavity area between the outer and inner leafs. Drained/Back-ventilated systems rely on the ventilation cavity to both drain and dry-out residual water. Pressure-equalized systems (PERS) employ drainable compartmentalization to limit water penetration during periods of pressure disequilibrium and to facilitate rapid pressure equalization.”

Unlike a conventional wall design which assumes a “single line barrier,” relying on sealant integrity, both rainscreen systems plan for the inevitable intrusion of water into the wall assembly and provide a pathway for that water to escape before building up and finding its way through the entire assembly. Not a bad plan for buildings that are seeing a rapid change in the name of energy efficiency and tighter buildings and the resulting periods of “pressure disquilibrium.”

Volume 52, Issue 6

Has the traditional shop-drawing review stamp and ink pad gone the way of the “DoDo” bird? I can’t recall the last time I used one. Nor can I recall the last time I hand drew a revision cloud with a big red marker on a submittal! With the fast pace world of document scanners, email and the internet coming this way, most of the construction administration process will be happening in the digital realm using PDFs and PDF markup tools. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, though an article I read recently warns of the risks of relying on email and file transfer protocol (FTP) sites for PDF transfer during one’s transition into virutal “CA.” Those risks include:

  • Restrictive file size limitations.
  • Spam filters preventing delivery of files.
  • No clear version histories.
  • No automatic logging or automatically generated email notifications.
  • Limited ability to ensure prime points of contact.

These risks can be mitigated by using web-hosted products that have been on the market and have been tried and tested. Having used them before I can safely say they make for a much more streamlined, virtually clutter-free environment with a higher degree of accountability during the construction phase.

But what’s next? Soon, contractors will be reviewing digital shop drawings on the job site using their “iPads” while they’re watching concrete get poured. It’s true!

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Volume 52, Issue 5

All the talk in the news about flooding recently reminded me of a conversation I had at the office shortly after moving to New Orleans that went a little something like this: “Ok, I think I understand the scope of the project. Have we submitted the site plan to the City for stormwater management approval?”

“What stormwater management approval?”

“Do you not have to demostrate implementation of long term best practices for stormwater management in order to be considered for a building permit?”

“No.”

In a city whose streets flood after a 20 minute downpour, I found this very hard to believe. I now realize I’ve taken for granted the very progressive nature of the city I lived in for 13 years that requires a civil engineer to calculate rainfall percentages and a landscape architect to accommodate on-site retention of storm water.  I realize the same approaches to stormwater management won’t hold true in an area with a high water table such as New Orleans but I’d thought I’d share this diagram from the Water Environment Research Foundation to get the ball rolling instead of… well… floating!