Growing Pains


As a project progresses, my desk piles with sketches, redlines and other reference material.  It almost always becomes an archaeological dig as the deeper in the pile I dig the older the drawing.  This time the pile was a little deeper to dig through as since the beginning of the year we have been working with four different clients on different types of projects ranging from a simple kitchen remodel to a whole house renovation and addition project.  For a small office like ours, that is still working on a part time basis, this is a large increase in work load making for late nights and early mornings to get the job done as we typically are only working on one project at a time.

The past few months have been stressful and tiring, however with three of the four projects out the door, each project brings us closer to taking Sym-Home full time.  With each project we pay ourselves a fair wage and the rest goes to pay for business expenses. We are following the philosophy of Entrepreneur Architect and building a debt free practice.  This means purchasing the tools we need as we can afford them and building the nest egg for when that day comes to take the practice full time, to ensure we have the cushion to pay the bills as we grow even more.

We are excited for the future as our projects are getting larger and we are receiving referrals from past clients.  As well as new ones finding us online either from our website or social media sites like Houzz.  So continue to follow us as we grow.

Energy Targets

EnergyUse-InfographicI am sure we have all seen graphics like these, giving us a pretty picture of what is one of the primary contributors to climate change, as buildings contributed nearly half of all the CO2 emissions in the united states in 2010.  Not to mention it gives us an idea of what kind of pace we are using our fuel sources, and as they become more difficult to obtain, costs will just continue to rise.  Energy usage in our homes is becoming a big deal as energy codes are becoming stricter and utility companies are being required to produce a certain percentage of their product by renewable sources and provide energy efficiency programs for their customers.

Related to home energy usage, I have noticed a lot of press on Net Zero Energy Homes and even attended a webinar by Matt Grocof who renovated a home built in 1901 and is now the oldest home on record to be a Net Zero Energy home.  Now most Net Zero homes are new homes as it is easier to build new rather than retrofit energy efficient systems into an existing home, hence the reason for my attendance on the webinar.  With more than half of the 113.6 Million homes in the United States, over half this number was built before 1980.  This leads to a huge potential of improvement in energy usage with our existing housing stock and that is why organizations like the Affordable Comfort Institute (ACI) have created the 1000 Home Challenge to create case studies of how to drastically bring the usage of our existing housing stock.  Therefore I was hoping to learn more about some of the retrofit strategies that were used to obtain net zero.

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Thousand Home Challenge

I am a LEED Accredited Professional and have been since 2004.  I have also adopted the goals of the Architecture 2030© 2030 Challenge and incorporate energy efficiency measures into all of my design projects.  However we as a country cannot reduce our dependence on foreign oil by designing and building new energy efficient buildings and homes.  We need to address our existing building stock.   There are plenty of programs around the country to help homeowners and building owners increase the energy efficiency of their aging structures.  However the majority of the programs only bring the efficiency of the buildings and homes up to today’s current standards of energy efficiency.  However a building built to code minimums today, will be ready for efficiency improvements tomorrow as the energy codes only get stricter.  Thanks to organizations like the USGBC and RESNET, energy efficiency has become more mainstream and there have been great improvements in the energy efficiency standards to our buildings and products in the past decade.

Thousand Home ChallengeTherefore, a couple of years ago now I wrote an article stating my interest in participating in the 1000 Home Challenge to use my home as a case study to find strategies to reduce an existing homes energy usage by 70-90%.  In August of 2012 my home was accepted into the program.  Why the 1000 Home Challenge instead of a program like LEED for Homes?  At the time that my wife and I began the journey of “greening” our 1965 ranch home the LEED program did not make it easy to certify an existing home without completely gutting the home and that was never our intention.  Sym-Homes’ mission was to show homeowners affordable strategies to make their home more energy efficient.  As not everyone can afford, or is up to the work that is involved with taking the exterior walls down to the bare studs.  Also the LEED for Homes and other energy efficiency programs are a onetime test and certification that is based off of energy modeling and tests/inspections of installed measures.  With the Thousand Home Challenge there will be a one year monitoring period of the utility bills to verify that improvements are performing as expected and that the homes overall energy usage is meeting the set targets.

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Potential Hazards of Conventional Water Heating

Beginning May 1st, 2013 80 AFUE, also known as induced draft atmospheric furnaces will not be installed in cold climates, such as here in Ohio (article) as determined by the US Department of Energy (DOE).  The new minimum AFUE requirement is 90 AFUE, which means the unit is a sealed combustion unit.  All combustion is contained inside of a sealed chamber and a powered vent fan is used to exhaust all of the combustion gases.  The DOE reason for the new change is to set a new higher minimum efficiency standard; however I like this new requirement for safety reasons.  It practically eliminates the potential of backdrafting.

I would like to see the same kind of requirement for water heaters.  In my professional opinion atmospheric water heaters do not belong in today’s homes, even the older ones that are getting weatherized.  New homes and even older ones that are getting sealed and insulated are getting tighter, and this could have a negative effect on the atmospheric water heater.  How do you ask?  Well as we tighten things up we have less air infiltration into the home which means fewer holes to allow air to replace the air that is being pulled out of the house by running bathroom or kitchen exhaust fans.  Because the adage is for every bit of air you pull out of the house, it has to be replaced.  Why does this mater, how does it affect your water heater?  Well your water heater has a 3-4”, sometimes larger hole to the outside known as the flue.  So when you turn on your exhaust fans or even use your fireplace, this is the path of least resistance and can be a harmful one pulling combustion gases and carbon monoxide back into the home.  Because when your water heater is running, it relies on the buoyancy of hot air to travel up the flue pipe to exit the home and it does not take much to pull that hot air back down the pipe along with the carbon monoxide.

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Design Tools – SketchUp

I have been working with a family that needs to expand their home to accommodate their growing needs.  The challenge is to design a first floor master bedroom suite, great room and to renovate the kitchen to a 1960’s Cape Cod.  As a designer it sometimes slips the mind that homeowners cannot always read floor plans and elevations like we can.  SketchUp rendering of bathroom designOr they can, they just cannot visualize the space, and that is why I use SketchUp to create quick 3D representations of the proposed home design to allow the homeowners to visualize the forms and space better than in a flat two dimensional drawing.  Plus with product manufacturers making pre-built models of their products such as kitchen cabinets, bath tubs, furniture, etc. available, it is quick and easy to allow the homeowner to walk through the space before construction even begins.

However SketchUp is good for more than producing presentation drawings to clients.  It can help solve problems, or allow you to easily see how an addition for instance may interface with the existing home.  Addition design studyThe best part about the software is that it is free to use.  I have been considering upgrading to the Pro package to create my entire set of construction documents.  The pro version comes with additional software called LayOut that allows you to create standard drawing sheets.  I am sure it would take some time to really learn what the software could do, but I have found a few case studies of other design firms (here & here) that have successfully transitioned to SketchUp for their design and construction drawings.  I am must say what they have produced for the home designs are impressive.  To have the ability to present drawings in 3D makes the drawings much easier to understand by the homeowner and contractor.  Therefore it is a tool that is very useful throughout all stages of a project, especially in the early design stage to explain the intent of the design to a clearer set of drawings for contractors to follow.