NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge, pbs.org

NESEA Pro tour – Hampshire College

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NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge

Last month I toured the R.W. Kern center at Hampshire College with a bunch of Green building Geeks and fans as part of a NESEA pro tour. This building is being certified under the Living Building Challenge or LBC label. Pretty much the highest certification a building could achieve. Way beyond LEED. The architecture firm was Bruner Cott.

Side note: I met Simeon Bruner at Ashfield Stone without knowing who he was. (I don’t pay much attention to the goings on in my own industry) He told me his firm did Mass MOCA and I nearly fainted. Now Bruner/Cott is on my top list of firms that I follow and would like to work for. Except for the part where I rooted in Vermont and became a fuddy duddy.

The group also toured the Hitchcock Center architected by DesignLab architects and also built by Wright Builders. This building is also being built towards LBC certification. I can’t wait to see the finished product

NOVA NEXT ran an article about LBC and the Kern Center. The comments on the facebook are interesting and revealing. Education about green building is slower to trickle down than technology. We need gold standard buildings like this to learn from. Lessons learned go toward Hampshire college’s goal of a net zero campus which then then are vetted and applied to the larger community. It also provides a learning tool for the current and next generation of thinkers who will apply those lessons elsewhere. Green building nowadays emphasizes durability and simplicity of systems in addition to energy use. This building will outlast most new buildings being constructed today and cost much less to own and operate. And attract the best and brightest students to the college. It’s a win on so many fronts.

Here are a few photos I took during the tour plus a short video about the Hitchcock Environmental Center

NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge
NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge
NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge
NESEA protour, Kern Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge
NESEA protour, Hitchcock Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge
NESEA protour, Hitchcock Center, Hampshire College, LBC, Living Building Challenge

New and Improved plan set structure

By | education, good ideas, projects, super insulated, working with a builder, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I’m trying out something new: a smaller scale simplified plan with all major reference information on the front cover so the contractor has one place to find all sections, details and locate windows and doors.

Robert Swinburne Vermont Architect super insulated house brattleboro

The floor plan gets broken into three 1/2″ scale sheets later in the set. I learned that from looking at a set of very complete drawings from a big-time NY firm that a contractor friend was building from. 1/4″ per foot drawings are more traditional but 1/2″ scale (twice as big) is very relevant to modern high efficiency buildings where framing is much more relevant to windows and doors as well as being easier to understand air sealing details. There are also places where I need to show actual framing in plan.
Robert Swinburne vermont architect Brattleboro

I also try to get relevant section details on the same sheets as the overall sections where possible. I learned this from my days as a carpenter as well as through feedback from builders over the years.

Robert Swinburne vermont architect

Hemlock siding Vermont Modern Robert Swinburne architect

Hemlock – Open Gap Rain Screen Siding

By | affordable modern, cool stuff, education, good ideas, Living in Vermont, products, projects, Small house, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with a builder, working with an architect | 6 Comments

My use of eastern hemlock as a siding material has been generating interest. Hemlock is a common wood in Vermont but doesn’t get used a lot except in barns and outbuildings and sometimes for timber frames. My summer job during high school involved working in a small sawmill. We sometimes cut hemlock and I found the wood beautiful, but heavy. One summer, we cut some hemlock for a bridge. Fast forward um… lots of years and I ordered a bunch of hemlock for framing and decking when I built my barn. I learned a bit about how to work with hemlock, how it ages and weathers and I started thinking about how I could use it in my own work. I try to source materials as locally as possible and design within local builder’s abilities and interests – which is easy to do here where builders get together monthly to discuss building science related issues

Eastern hemlock in Vermont

In rural New England, buildings are often sided with pine siding in a vertical shiplap form – and often unfinished. It tends to develop a black mold that is relatively harmless but can be ugly. I found that hemlock is more resistant to this mold. It’s also harder and more rot resistant. It is nowhere near as rot resistant as cedar, a more common siding material however.

White pine siding on my own barn
white pine siding on a barn robert Swinburne Vermont Architect

A brief on open rainscreen siding: Good architect and builders are installing siding with a vented airspace between the siding and weather resistant barrier (WRB). This allows any moisture that gets behind the siding to dry out before it does damage. Modern materials (a better WRB) and the venting detail allow us to use different materials and different details for the siding itself. I have commonly seen the open gapped rainscreen detail used with ipe boards but Ipe is a tropical hardwood related to mahogany. Cement based boards are also used commonly but cement has fairly high embodied energy. Both of these are not locally sourced materials. The gap in the siding also reveals a view of the WRB (depending on the size of the gap) This means that damaging UV rays are also reaching the WRB. And bugs. Thus the need for a better (and black) WRB. There are several on the market designed for this. Both projects shown here use Mento and tapes from Foursevenfive.com

It occurred to me that I could use narrow hemlock boards from local mills to create a very elegant (I hoped) rainscreen siding detail. It would use local and relatively inexpensive materials, it wouldn’t need paint or stain, installation could be simpler and faster if I got the details right, and if I installed it horizontally, the lowest courses could easily be replaced if the siding degraded due to splashback and snow banks. The damaged siding would not present a disposal concern – just toss it in the bushes and it becomes habitat for red backed salamanders.
I was lucky to have a client with a taste for modernism allow me to try my ideas out on his home. The results were rather spectacular and gave me a sense of the potential. Now I am doing my second project with hemlock siding. The builders for this project (Webster Construction of Marlboro, Vermont) are quite familiar with good building science and modern products and methods. They saw the potential and were happy to give it a try plus they were able to improve my detailing in several ways which I can then incorporate into drawings and specifications for the next time around.

modern ski house in vermont near Statton

The hemlock turns silvery gray within a year. The narrow boards create a woven, fabric-like aesthetic.

The hemlock is installed “green” with deck screws. This siding is all 1×3 so gaps will be quite small as the wood dries. Fiberglass bugscreen is installed directly behind the siding. strapping can be regular 1×3 strapping although coravent makes an excellent product for this purpose and should at least be used on any strapping set horizontally such as over and under windows.

hemlock siding installation

This is the corner trim detail the builder came up with and I really like. One side runs long and is cut after installation. The other side is held back for a crisp reveal – very architecty! Of note: the deck is white oak (local) and the post is European Larch which is from a harvest of a Vermont tree farm. European larch is used in Europe as a durable siding material that needs no treatment.

hemlock siding corner detail - Vermont architect Robert SwinburneHemlock siding in Vermont - Vermont architect Robert Swinburne

modern ski house in vermont near Statton with open gap rainscreen siding

detailing around windows is super simple. On the first house I used metal panels (installed by the roofer) to accentuate the windows and wrap corners. Here it is about as simple as it gets.

Eastern Hemlock siding detailVermont modern house by architect Robert Swinburne

A few of my minimal details:
wdw2

wdw

triple glazed windows

Windows – decision making process

By | education, products, super insulated, working with an architect | No Comments

I am grappling with window issues for several projects right now. Designing, choosing, pricing and detailing windows is much more complicated than it was as recently as 5 years ago. I used to simply specify window sizes and the builder would have the lumber yard price a few lines or a favorite manufacturer. This is still the way it is done my most builders and architects.

Now we have many more options to consider with windows and this has radically affected the decision making process. In the past we didn’t look carefully at the solar gain (how much warmth from the sun gets in, visible light transmittance, U value (insulation) and especially installation detailing. With my own work, a primary goal has become to eliminate the traditional heat distribution system – boiler (oil, propane or natural gas) manifold (that thicket of valves and pipes and pumps in the basement) and distribution (radiant tubes in the floor, baseboard radiators etc) – in favor of the simplicity of an air source heat pump and often, a wood stove for alternate or backup heating. The heating system then becomes a heating appliance. This has not, for my practice, been a client driven goal but I figure I’m not doing my job if I don’t discuss these options. Most clients in recent years have simply expressed a desire to minimize fossil fuel consumption and have a house that they don’t have to worry about leaving for a few weeks in the winter. Windows are usually the biggest variable in being able to minimize and simplify the heating equipment for a building.

The process, which continues to evolve, begins with sizing and placing windows according to light, views, privacy and ventilation. So far, a fairly traditional approach. Some things effect the decisions such as whether the window opens inward, outward, up and down, sideways, or not at all. Smaller windows open easier and larger fixed pane windows are cheaper (per square foot) so we often mix and match for maximum effect. Exterior doors are often now part of the window package as well.

I use sketchup modeling for this part of design as it brings a high level of clarity at an earlier stage than any method I’ve found thus far. This is also not so traditional.

family-room

Once we have arrived at a good window configuration we need to pin down some minimum energy performance specifications. The first big decision is double glazed vs triple glazed. Double glazed windows meet energy code currently but probably won’t in a few years. Window manufacturers (in the US – in Europe they are already there) are starting to realize this and gear up to offer triple glazed window options. A largish house with small windows can probably get away with double glazed windows and meet the energy use criteria I mentioned above. I also have found that with large areas of glass, comfort becomes a big issue. It can be very unpleasant to be near a large window at night when it is zero degrees outside. Condensation issues are vastly mitigated with a triple glazed window as well. I often do some energy modeling to get a sense of what the overall heat loads of the building are. It’s easy to change around the U-value to see the effect of different windows. I’m also learning how to use the sketchup plugin for the Passive House Planning Package. In my spare time. (insert smiley emoticon)

Next we look at several different options from several different window manufacturers. Unplasticized PVC (UPVC) is usually the least expensive option for any window with aluminum and fiberglass usually more expensive but offering thinner profile frames. Wood is very expensive. I’ll stay away from the PVC argument here.

triple glazed windows

With preliminary pricing in hand we – myself, the builder and the client make THE DECISION and the subset of choices that affect the price and my detailing. When these decisions are made I can put specific CAD details from the manufacturer into my drawings and create much more accurate details for how it all the windows are installed, air sealing strategies, tolerances, finish work around the windows, very specific rough opening and flashing information etc. In the past this was all fairly standard and left to the builder to figure out in the field. We don’t do it that way anymore.

d

eave detail

Always know what and where your AIR BARRIER is.

By | affordable modern, education, links, mutterings, Passive House, projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, Uncategorized, working with a builder, working with an architect | No Comments

I’m working on detailing out a smallish house in Greenfield, MA. We probably won’t go full Passive House on this but we will look at what additional costs and detailing it would take. And if we’re close…

We are doing some novel (to me) stuff for the shell of the house that, I suspect, will become more standard practice for me in years to come.
Here are some “progress print” detail drawings from the plan set. My drawings tend to look a bit different than most architect’s drawings due to two things: The time I spent wielding a hammer and trying to interpret my own drawings and the fact that I have worked as a sole practitioner for so long and have developed my own graphic style. I should add to that a third thing – my knowledge of building science informed best practices.

building section and details illustrating air barrier location and definition

The first thing you will notice about these drawings is actually the most important thing. The red and blue dotted lines represent the weather resistant barrier and the air barrier respectively. If your drawings don’t have at least the air barrier called out in the sections, (and continuous around the thermal envelope) The drawings are incomplete. I have been getting picky in my detailing about how to make the air barrier both easy to achieve and durable. In my opinion, relying on painted sheetrock to serve as an air barrier just doesn’t cut it – certainly not for the next 100 years.

Many builders and architects in the Northeast US are still building 2×6 walls with fiberglass batts and a poly vapor barrier. That’s how I learned to do it when I was just starting out in the 90’s. I also opened up a number of walls built that way that were full of mold.

    Good

builders don’t build this way anymore. Check the Building Science Corporation website for some pictures of what can go wrong.

One part of building science is probability and statistics. I often hear builders say “I’ve always built that way and I’ve never had any problems” – that you know about. But those builders are only looking at 50 or 100 projects. Luck plays a part here. What happens when you look at thousands or even tens of thousands? You start to see some patterns emerge and you start to see the luck factor drop out of the equation. You are able to formulate some best practice standards for a number of things including durability, air quality, energy use and even catastrophic failure. I prefer to work with builders who are informed about building science and involved in the discussion.

That’s easy here in the Southeastern Vermont area home of Building Green area, home of Building Green and SEON which sponsors a well-attended monthly building science discussion group and learning circle. – If anyone wants to get something like this started in their own community, send Guy an email at the address in their website.

I owe it to my clients to help them get the best constructed project possible. That, in addition to the most functional, aesthetically appropriate, finely crafted project possible.
– Oh and the budget thing too – Read More

Thermal bridging and Air sealing – simplified

By | bad ideas, education, good ideas, Passive House, working with a builder | One Comment

Just a quickie about thermal bridging and air sealing. I can explain it in way fewer words and terms and scientific-ness than what you find when you go looking for information on the web. Thermal bridging is when there is too much stuff that is not insulation in a section of exterior wall. This includes most traditionally framed houses. Especially near outside corners and around windows. In the cold of winter, the inside room surface of these areas stay much cooler than the surrounding room temperature and condensation occurs, then mold.

Improper air sealing is when your builder tells you your house needs to breathe and he’s not talking about an air exchange system. Improper air sealing allows air to enter your house through tiny pathways through and near these moldy areas. The mold spores are then breathed in by your children.

Get it?

Passive House Training – One year later.

By | business, education, mutterings, Passive House, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Note: this blog entry was published on Green Building Advisor on March 31, 2014

I have been asked about my Passive House consultant training by other architects enough times that I though I’d write up a quick synopsis, one year later.

For me, the Passive House training was very useful for several reasons, not the least of which was the networking aspect. It is a small community with some really great conversation happening and it is fun to be a part of that. There is a lot of controversy as well, especially on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com Such as where does the law of diminishing returns kick in when it comes to insulating and how to handle latent loads (excess moisture). Plus there’s the whole U.S. vs the rest of the world thing which I won’t go into as I find it rather annoying, or at least boring. Secondly, It represents state of the art science on how to build good buildings with an overriding emphasis on simplicity and quality. Passive House is really all about quality and even, as I’m finding out, represents a necessary re-thinking of how to get something built. A much more collaborative approach is necessary than often happens when building even high-end projects. The process gets much less linear. I also like the idea that the Passive House approach is a valid part of the conversation, not just achieving certification and getting the plaque to hang beside the front door. I see projects being showcased that utilized the approach in a value engineering manner to get the most bang for the buck that simply don’t have the budget to go all the way and attain certification and I like the general consensus that that is okay.
Much of my own work had been trending in the PH direction anyway so it was good to undergo the intensive training so that I could make decisions with much more confidence and authority that comes with PH credentials. As an architect who was never very (ahem) enthusiastic about the numbers and physics of things and more into the airy-fairy poetic nature and scholarly aspect of architecture it was also helpful in terms of training my weaknesses. I call myself a Passive House designer rather than a consultant in part because If I were to attempt a full-on certified Passive House, I would want to hire someone more experienced who does this on a daily basis to do the actual numbers part and look over their shoulder through the process – at least for the first few times.
There is also the notion, similar to my approach to structural engineering where I try not to design anything too complicated to engineer myself – I prefer not to design anything that would require a complicated heating/ventilating system. It does get more complicated in renovation/addition work though for sure. My approach to structural engineering has always been very intuitive and very related to my own building experience and knowledge of materials, assemblies and connections My structural engineering professor once told me that the intuition part is vital and more than half the battle. First you intuit the solution then you apply numbers and formulas to check yourself. The Passive House training augmented my intuition and gave me more confidence to apply the numbers as well as a perspective on when, where and why.

Plus it was really good for marketing.

If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

By | bad ideas, education, mutterings, Passive House, super insulated, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

I had another comment recently from a builder who wants to build a house that breathes. I started to reply in an email and then decided to put it hereon the blog instead.

What we are doing nowadays in the world of high performance homes is based on studying hundreds of thousands of houses built in the last half century that have failed (which includes the majority of 70’s and 80’s super-insulated and passive solar homes in the northeast) and applying those lessons to building a durable house nowadays. Houses from before that time period that failed for one reason or another are mostly gone and many of those that remain are simple piggy banks for big oil. We put our money in and the oil companies take it out. Simple. (usually, I like simple but…) For the past few decades, builders in the northeast have been living in a vacuum while the northern Europeans and Canadians paid much more attention to how houses fail, learning from them and adapting. Now the conversation is opening up again and we are taking a seat at the table.

I have lived in houses that breath my whole life. It sucks. Aside from the part where you have to give your money to someone else just to not freeze to death in the winter, there is the comfort aspect of things. Houses I have lived in have never been all that comfortable whether in terms of temperature or moisture levels or even wiping mildew off the window sills. Now, with two children, I worry about the air quality and mold issues inherent in my house that breathes. I would rather be able to seal up the house in the winter and be confident that I was breathing fresh Vermont air all the time than have to step outside for a breath of fresh air or open up the doors and windows if I screw up on getting the woodstove going. Six months out of the year, I would still have the choice to open the windows and turn off the HRV.

We do seem to have more summer moisture and humidity problems than we used to but we also have access to more durable and proven materials and building methods. Some builders and architects are taking advantage of this but most are building the same way they did 20 years ago despite all the failures. A house that breathes and has little or no insulation is a barn and If you want to heat it, that means coming to terms with giving your money away. Jesse Thompson says “People breath air through their lungs, not their skin. Why should houses be any different?” If you want your house to breathe, give it a set of lungs.

There are a range of options for doing this from exhaust only bathroom fans and range hoods (simple and cheap but where does the makeup air come from in a very tight house?) to a full-on Heat Recovery Ventilation System or HRV. These are also fairly simple and effective although significantly more expensive but have the added advantages of recovering much of the heat from the outgoing air as well as providing fresh incoming air exactly where you want it. For more information just type “HRV” or “house ventilation” into the search box on Green Building Advisor and start reading.

Window installation in a super-insulated wall

By | education, Passive House, super insulated, working with a builder, working with an architect | 5 Comments

Designing a Super-insulated wall with good drying potential and good air sealing is easy. But the Devil is in the windows. With passive house level construction we want the window to be recessed toward the middle of the opening and the middle of the adjacent insulation layer. This is about thermal bridging and heat loss. An advantage that I’ve found is that it can potentially simplify the flashing which is certainly a welcome idea. Window and door installation has become increasingly complex over the past decade especially with exterior foam details. (I try to stay away from that) What I’m looking at in this sketch is how flashing for siding can be decoupled from flashing for the window to a great extent. Does the siding even need flashing anymore? Depends on how you do the siding. With some Rain screen siding details, perhaps not! Windows are now coming with really nice integrated sill flashing – you specify the depth when you order. This makes for a much more integrated and seamless system which should have long term durability advantages over what we have been doing up until now. What is missing from this drawing is an exterior layer of rock wool insulation to keep the sheathing warm (not rigid foam !) A more expensive detail and this may be less important when using cellulose than fiberglass insulation but is a detail I would certainly do on my own home. The other option is to use more of a Larsen truss system similar to what Chris Corson is doing in Maine with no exterior sheathing. It is A tough sell around here to leave the insulation protected only by a weather barrier such as Mento plus. The conversation on building science is terribly interesting and seems to be resolving itself towards simplicity as we gain knowledge and experience about what works and what doesn’t and develop products and materials based on our increasing knowledge base. Of course, 93% of builders and architects aren’t really paying much attention.

I am a Passive House Designer!

By | education, ego, Passive House, super insulated, working with an architect | 6 Comments

Apparently, although I never got an email, I am now a Certified Passive House Designer!!

What is Passive House ?

– The passive house standard represents the highest level of energy efficiency and “green building”.
– The passive house standard is where state and municipality energy codes are headed.
– Public housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity and regional housing authorities and land trusts are starting to require new housing units to be built to the passive house standard as these groups tend to prioritize overall cost of ownership over initial cost of construction.
– The roots of Passive House trace back to the 1970s, when the concepts of superinsulation and passive solar management techniques were developed in the United States and Canada.
– More than 25,000 buildings have been built to the Passive House standard in Europe. The standard is especially common in multi-family housing where it often makes little financial sense not to build to this level of energy efficiency.

Concept
“Maximize your gains, minimize your losses”. These are the basic tenets of the Passive House approach. A Passive House project maximizes the energy efficiency of the basic building components inherent in all buildings; roof, walls, windows, floors and the utility systems: electrical, plumbing & mechanical. By minimizing a building’s energy losses, the mechanical system is not called to replenish the losses nearly as frequently. This saves resources, operational costs and global warming related pollution. Unlike any other structures, Passive House buildings maintain occupant comfort for more hours of the year without the need for mechanical temperature conditioning of the indoor air. The opposite has been the norm in this country where we have a history of inexpensive fuel and construction techniques with little consideration for energy losses through thermal bridging, air-infiltration, and inadequate levels of insulation.

Passive House is both a building energy performance standard and a set of design and construction principles used to achieve that standard. The Passive House standard is the most stringent building energy standard in the world
The Passive House approach focuses on the following:

Strategic Design and Planning:
Passive House projects are carefully modeled and evaluated for efficiency at the design stage. Certified Passive House Consultants are trained to use the Passive House Planning Package (PHPP), a tool that allows designers to test “what-if” scenarios before construction begins. They are also trained to use other software tools to identify and address potential thermal bridges and moisture issues at the design stage.
Specific Climate, Siting and Sizing:
Passive House design uses detailed, specific annual weather data in modeling a structure’s performance. Orientation of the windows can maximize or minimize solar gain and shading. Passive House theory leans towards minimizing the surface area to interior volume ratio, favoring an efficient shape to minimize energy losses.
Super-Insulated, Air-Tight Envelope (But Diffusion Open):
To keep the heating/cooling in, wall assemblies require greater insulation values to “stop the conditioned air” from leaving. Walls are typically much thicker than today’s standard construction. Passive House takes great care in designing, constructing and testing the envelope for an industry-leading control of air leakage. Blower door testing is a mandatory technique in assuring high performance. Walls are designed to be virtually air tight, while allowing water vapor to dry out. “If moisture gets into the wall, how does it dry out before damage can occur?” is a fundamental tenet of modern building science addressed in Passive House design. Wall assemblies are analyzed to allow for proper water and moisture management to make a long lasting and an exceptionally healthy building.
Thermal Bridge-Free Detailing:
Breaks in the insulation layer usually caused by structural elements and utility penetrations in the building envelope create a “thermal bridge,” allowing undesirable exterior temperatures to migrate to and “un-do” expensive interior conditioned air and creating colder interior surfaces that encourage the growth of mold. Passive House design attempts to minimize thermal bridges via progressive mindful architectural detailing.
Advanced Windows and Doors:
Historically these items are the weak link of a building’s envelope and thermal defense system. Passive House places significant emphasis on specifying high performance windows and doors to address concern. To meet the high performance needs of various climate zones, windows must meet strict performance standards regarding: component insulation, air tightness, installation and solar heat gain values.
Energy Recovery Ventilation:
The “lungs” of a Passive House come from a heat (or energy) recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV). It provides a constant supply of tempered, filtered fresh air 24/7 and saves money by recycling the indoor energy that is typically found in exhaust air. The heat from outgoing stale air is transferred to the unconditioned incoming fresh air, while it is being filtered. It provides a huge upgrade in indoor air quality and consistent comfort, especially for people sensitive to material off-gassing, allergies and other air-borne irritants. HRV’s are fast becoming standard equipment in all new houses in Vermont.
Heating:
One of the best benefits to implementing Passive House design is the high performance shell and extremely low annual energy demand. This allows owners to save on operational costs as they can now significantly downsize a building’s mechanical system. Passive solar gains, plus heat from occupants and appliances supply most of the needed heat. Radiant floor, baseboard, or forced hot air heating systems are unnecessary!
Alternative Energy:
Considering alternative energy systems on your project? Building to meet the Passive House Standard is the smartest starting point. The significant reduction in energy use, allows alternative energy to power a greater percentage of a buildings demands. Likewise smaller demand equates to smaller and more affordable alternative energy systems providing higher cost-benefit value. Passive House design puts a project within reach for achieving true “Net Zero” performance (the building generates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year), making use of alternative energy systems smaller thus more affordable and attainable.

SEON – building science learning group in Brattleboro

By | education, good ideas, working with a builder | No Comments

SEON or Sustainable Energy Outreach Network is a relatively new organization in the Brattleboro area. The mission from the website is to “establish a network that promotes Southeastern Vermont and its neighboring regions as a vibrant center of sustainable energy.” which sounds rather vague. I think they are trying to feel out exactly what their role in the community will be. They are off to a great start by sponsoring a monthly building science learning group. This is in a presentation and discussion format, often moderated by Peter Yost of EBN and GBA, with topics brought to the group by the participants who are mostly local builders.

“Each month over 20 building professionals meet for 3 hours to advance their understanding of building science principles especially as it pertains to the problems they confront on their worksite.  Case studies are reviewed, root cause analysis is applied, hypotheses are generated based on the physics of building science.  The challenge is that there are no clear solutions to many of the problems.  We are still learning in the midst of uncertainty and ever changing product design.  Hence the need for ongoing discussions.”

The discussions are at a pretty high level but are very accessible to everyone as a goal is to bring the general building science knowledge level in this area to a very high level, making this area even more of a hotbed for green building than it is currently. Many of these folks are way beyond the standard hour and a half presentation you tend to get in symposiums such as at Better Buildings up in Burlington – not to knock that one (definitely go!) – and, perhaps had been feeling the need for much more in-depth and collaborative discussion relevant to their own daily work.

As an architect, this is a joy to see because these are the folks that I get to work with on a regular basis. As an architect, I often have to provide a basic education in building science to both the builder and the client. Having a builder who is “hip” to green building and building science issues makes my job much easier.

I encourage any local builders, architects and designers, and any folks involved with building and energy to check this group out. They usually meet from 3 to 6, once a month on a Wednesday or Thursday. Where and when can be found on the website calendar.

Miscellaneous Musings

By | affordable modern, education, mutterings, products, projects, super insulated, traditional vs modern, working with an architect | 3 Comments

I am working on this new small greek revival in Maine. Not the high style Greek Revival with huge columns like you see on banks and government buildings but the small, simple style that is so ubiquitous in New England and doesn’t get much attention but everybody knows. I’m designing it to “pretty good house” standards. It is for a family member who lost her house in a fire Read More

Passive House New England Symposium review

By | education, good ideas, super insulated | 5 Comments

Passive House New England Symposium
Saturday, October 27th I went to the Passive House New England Symposium to see what’s what so to speak. I came a way with lots of good information about where to take my own practice, where the state of the art in building science is at, currently, in New England, who is involved with Passive House, how Passive House technology is being used and what my next steps as an architect will be. Read More

What’s next for this Vermont Architect – some thoughts

By | business, education | 9 Comments

When I finally finished college (at age 25 and after 7 years) I didn’t feel like I knew everything. In fact, I felt like I knew nothing. I still do actually. In reality, I have spent the last 19 years learning like crazy. After a year or so of internship, I went to work for Mindel and Morse Builders where I spent 5 years building houses, doing innumerable additions and renovations and generally learning like crazy. I learned a lot of practical stuff such as how to handle bituthene on a warm day but I also learned a lot about what I’m good at – and what I’m not good at. I’m not such a good finish carpenter – I don’t have the patience. I can do it but it is “not me”. I am, however, a good framer. What I’m best at on the building end of things is understanding the flow, the dance of a project and I’m good at figuring out better ways of doing things. I’m good foreman material. But what I’m really best at is design, pure and simple. Read More

Styles

By | education, mutterings | 2 Comments

I have been thinking a lot about traditional vs. modern home design. These terms are gross oversimplifications and this is the categorization of style issues I like to complain about. In the eyes of the populace it seems that modern still connotes white boxy houses with flat leaky roofs. Traditional has become a bastardized cheapened re-interpretation of the older houses found in the neighborhood. Architects working in the modern style used to be “out of touch”, overly intellectual”, “never swung a hammer”. Few are that anymore. Builders used to be scholars of the vernacular and learned the rules of convention and proportion in addition to construction . That mostly went out the window decades ago.

Speaking abstractly, when I look at a pleasing-to-the-eye older house in Brattleboro, say a two family Greek Revival, I see an interplay of proportion, traditional details and an overall set of rules. A successful modern building would not try to copy this but instead perhaps be more true to available building materials and methods and not try to engage in historical fakery.

greek revival gable end

A successful modern building would still need to play by a set of rules even if those rules have been updated considerably in the last 100 years. Although some of the more mathematical rules such as the golden section seem to stand outside the progression of time and are perhaps more to be thought of as universal truths.

Think Music

In music there are definite rules that nearly all styles play by; scales, rhythms and harmonics to name a few. In the past, music styles have been greatly segregated. In modern times the separating walls have eroded. Musicians now draw on a wide variety of influences and new music is increasingly hard to categorize according to style. The internet has accelerated this phenomenon greatly and the music world is experiencing an artistic renaissance. The world of residential architectural design is as well although at a slower pace. The average 35 year old new home buyer has probably been exposed to modern design much more than a generation ago. The house that their parents wanted in House and Garden magazine is not necessarily what the younger generation, who are more likely to peruse design focused websites on the internet or subscribe to Dwell, want anymore simply because they have seen the alternatives. Although developers and the banks seem a bit slow to recognize this there are exceptions.

Like any good musician, an architect must continually practice the fundamentals. In my case that means studying and working within the successful local vernacular and try to do it in a scholarly way without being too anachronistic. And occasionally I am given license to fly!

Building Science gives me a headache.

By | education, mutterings, working with a builder, working with an architect | One Comment

Building Science gives me a headache.

I read the usual sites: Greenbuildingadvisor.com, building science.com, plus a few others, I attend seminars, I get all the proper magazines, I belong to the correct organizations such as the USGBC. I’m a good little architect. But I am confused. The more I dive into building science the more questions I have – and therefore the less authoritative I sound in front of clients and I don’t think clients want their architect to sound wishy-washy.
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Blog: Coffee with an Architect + Rural Studio

By | cool stuff, education, good blogs, good ideas, good web sites | No Comments

Coffee with an Architect is a blog that has really gotten rolling. Why is it suddenly everybody does this way better than me? In any case what caught my eye recently was some lovely photos of the rural studio work at Auburn University So I followed the link and found a treasure trove of beautiful images of projects completed in the Rural south.
A bit of background on the rural Studio from the website

In 1993, two Auburn University architecture professors, Dennis K. Ruth and the late Samuel Mockbee, established the Auburn University Rural Studio in western Alabama within the university’s School of Architecture. The Rural Studio, conceived as a strategy to improve the living conditions in rural Alabama while imparting practical experience to architecture students, completed its first project in 1994. In 2000, Andrew Freear was hired as thesis professor, and upon Mockbee’s death, succeeded him as director while continuing to teach thesis. Under his guidance the focus has shifted from the design and construction of small homes to larger community projects.

They have created a huge portfolio of community projects and 20k houses. Here are a very few photos grabbed from the website:

Heating Options for a Small Home – Fine Homebuilding

By | education, links, products, super insulated | No Comments

Fine Homebuilding magazine has run a lovely and concise article by Martin Holladay this month (March 2011 actually) that covers the options for a small, low heat load home (my favorite type to design) What I like about this article is that it is simple and clean enough that I can ask clients to read it as a primer. Many of my houses are about 1/2 again energy star but only 2/3 passive house in terms of insulation. This is a low load house but not a no load house, a house that doesn’t need radiant heat but everybody wants to spend the extra money on it anyway. There is rarely the budget for heat load analysis and heating system design by an engineery sort so what gets installed is a regular old boiler. In recent years this is not so much a problem because there are so many good options out there for modulating boilers and the regular heat folks are familiar with them. A decade ago, this meant a non-modulating boiler would be installed capable of putting out 100,000 Btu/hour even when the house only really needed 30,000. This meant the boiler cycled on and off and wasted lots of energy. ($$$) The article covers “using a furnace anyway” as well as providing brief information on Direct vent gas heaters, electric heat (good for very low heat load houses especially if you put the money saved by not installing a conventional heating system into photovoltaics), Minisplit heat pumps – an excellent, low(er) cost option that can also provide air conditioning and are very simple to install although you usually need a certified person to do the installing in order to obtain the warranty. And also connecting a simple hot water coil to your ERV of HRV. You do have one of these in your new house….don’t you?
The article is not available online without paying something (I suspect) so pay or pick an issue at the newstand.
The Graphic below was an old scheme from when I was considering selling stock plans myself. My current collection (numbering exactly 1) can be accessed at Houseplans.com

“Why Modern Architectural Education is Archaic” by Duo Dickenson

By | education | No Comments

This from Duo Dickenson of CORA about the relevance of architectural education. (or lack thereof)

It is clear to me that the architectural profession’s cultural irrelevance (and thus mass unemployment) is born of intellectual distortion caused by an exclusive internal focus and “let them eat cake” attitude of contempt for the “bourgeois” outlook that asks more of buildings than what is asked of sculpture. The seeds of this attitude were planted in the way architects are educated. The resulting general cultural perception is that architects are as useful as couture fashion designers.

Read the full article here

Budget lessons for the architect (me)

By | business, education, mutterings, working with an architect | 2 Comments

Here is an interesting lesson to learn if I can figure out what it is. Perhaps writing this blog entry will help.
I tend to attract the sort of client who wants a 2500 square foot house with porches, hardwood flooring, granite countertops and an attached garage and wants it for $275 K. If they don’t flee the office in disgust when I tell them A: can’t be done and B: my fees would definitely be more than $3000. (There will of course be someone who will “say” they can) What has happened too often to ignore in the past several years is that clients have come to me with a set of parameters (we architects refer to this as a program) The program consists of needs, wants, site and zoning issues, budget etc. Usually the budget requires a rethinking of needs vs wants and this is where things can get sticky. As I mentioned above, there will always be someone who will tell them they can have it all (meaning: let’s wing it) and some clients will seek them out. A few years later when I see the project completed without me it is clear that either the budget was much more “flexible” than it was when they originally came to me or the “needs” list was pared down much more than what I was able to accomplish with them. I know I am not the best salesman, hoping instead that my obvious experience, references and air of quiet competence will engender trust (insert emoticon here) (real men don’t use emoticons) There have been times when I have thought of a great solution to a design problem but scrapped it because it was a budget buster only to find out later when the clients went to another architect who came up with the same idea and “sold” it to the client. Discouraging. Perhaps the lesson is that I should take things a bit less personally and realize that other people’s idea of budget is more flexible. Of course, I am often the second architect on a project because the first architect designed something too expensive to build…

Typical Simple Construction Drawing Set

By | business, education, projects, working with an architect | 3 Comments

This represents a typical Construction Drawing set for a simple house minus a site plan. It represents a bit over 100 hours of labor. Thought y’all might be interested. A more complete set would have framing on a separate sheet, Interior elevations at least of the kitchen and bathrooms, a site plan, Materials schedules usually called out on the floor plans, and separate electrical plans.
simple house sheet 2
vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 1vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 3vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 4vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 5vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 6vermont simple house construction drawings sheet 7

How to become an architect

By | business, education, working with an architect | One Comment

People often tell me they took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I took a drafting class in high school and thought about becoming an architect. I suspect that few people have in idea of what it takes in terms of the whole process.

First there is admission to a school of architecture. These tend to be highly competitive. My school accepted fewer than one in seven applicants the year I was accepted with admission to the rest of the school being much easier. Artistic talent, leadership skills and life experience were important. High school drafting class counted for nothing. The first year of architecture school is a bit like hazing and typically, about half drop out. Then you are in school (think massive debt) for 5 years at a minimum. Five years gets you a professional degree called a Barch which is a bit more than a regular bachelors but less than a masters. This degree is being phased out because it is becoming impractical to cram all the course work into five years. ( graduated with 181 credits) The new norm seems to be a 4 year degree resulting in a liberal arts type bachelors degree and an additional 2 to 3 years for a Masters degree in architecture.

Then comes post graduation internship (if you are lucky enough to get a position with an architecture firm) Working full time, the requirements for this can theoretically be met in about three years. I have heard that the average internship lasts 7 years but this seems to be a dirty little secret in the industry. My own internship was about 5 years worth of time spread over a much longer period of time because I spent so much time working as a carpenter. It took five years of actual internship because there are a specific set of criteria that must be met to satisfy the internship requirements which are often hard to accomplish without spending some time working in a large urban firm where a regular internship program is in place. Many graduates who go to work in larger firms with salaried positions never get around to taking the qualification exams to become licensed architects. They may not need the license for their job and it can be hard to study when you go home in the evening to a busy family and life.

The Exam(s) – Nine of them when I was becoming an architect. Nine exams which represented over $1000 in fees plus all the study materials which is a whole separate industry. In the old days the exams took place all at once over a 4 day period where you were locked in a room with a drafting table. Now you stare at a computer screen at a cubicle in a small room with flickering florescent lights overhead. (headache)

So, the whole process takes a minimum of 8 years but averages a lot longer. Probably not worth it from an accountant’s point of view when looking at the yearly salary data that comes out courtesy of the American Institute of Architects. Then when you finally have license in hand and can legally call yourself an architect there are all the yearly fees and continuing education requirements that must be met to maintain the license. If you lapse on any of these you are not allowed to cannot continue to call yourself an architect.

Phew!

What architects don’t know

By | cool stuff, education, ego, links, mutterings, working with an architect | One Comment

Architecture is one of those professions where the more you know the more you know you don’t know. Many architects don’t know this. There are some who “float” and others who are in a constant state of continuing education. I am reminded of this by the large number of architects who state on their websites “We have always been green” but then you look at their projects with a trained eye and see otherwise. Geothermal heating or solar Photovoltaics on a house with 2 x 6 walls, probably insulated with fiberglass batts is an infraction I commonly see. Those architects who read this and don’t see the hyppocracy in this example would be the example of “floaters”

NESEA Workshop in Brattleboro

By | education, mutterings | 5 Comments

Yesterday I attended a workshop put on by NESEA, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association entitled “Residential Retrofits for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability” by Larry Harmon.  Usually I have to travel to Boston or Burlington to attend these which can be costly and time consuming so it was nice to have one a mile down the road from my offices.  There was a lot of good information and Larry is an engaging speaker.  The big things that I came away with were the reinforcement of what I have been learning about air sealing, venting, and insulation.

1-Seal completely before adding insulation.  –  Most contractors or architects probably don’t grok the importance or level of thoroughness that is required here or realize the ramifications of doing a less than perfect job.  It is not just about energy loss and heating bills.  It is very much about how to make a house that will last 100 years or more.  There was much discussion and many slides of imperfect air sealing jobs and how they acellerated rot and mold problems.

2-Don’t ventilate your roof!  That was so 80’s and 90’s.  Now, ten or more years later we get to see the nasty ramifications of venting your roof.  yuck!

There was a lot of other information which I may add in here over the next few days and some of which was rather techy involving cost analysis calculations and BTU’s and therms, (oh My!)

What disturbed me as it often does at these events is the lack of local builders in attendance.  Of the 10% of local builders who care about building science and sustainbility issues, very few will go much further than a subscription to JLC.  I’m afraid that if I go out there and draw up plans for a house with an unvented roof or create specifications for enhanced air sealing, builders will simply refuse to follow the plans and convince the homeowners that the architect (me) is full of it.  It’s an issue that I’m sure a lot of other architects face as well.  Although I suspect that 90% of architects don’t really care about such things either.

Added the next day in response to a comment.

The presenter showed lots of slides of what happens when you leave a pencil size hole in the sealing of the attic before adding insulation. Basically air pressure turns it into an moisture laden air nozzle. All the moisture then condenses (dew point) on the sheathing and rots it through fast. Or it freezes on the underside of the sheathing then rains down on the insulation when it thaws.  Ventilation compounds this pressure effect.  The best method seams to be to bypass all these issues and spray the underside of the sheathing with closed cell foam which is what I specify on new construction and treat the attic as conditioned space.  Loose fill cellulose or fiberglass batts lose much of their insulating value when exposed to air movement.  Many independent tests in recent years have shown the temperature on the underside of the roof does not vary due to ventilation or no ventilation.  There were also slides of what happens when insulation is added to an existing house attic that previously had no problems other than high heat bills.  Suddenly the attic was cooler, the dew point moved to inside the attic and rot set in almost immediately.  board sheathing holds up better than plywood which holds up better than osb.

I get the feeling that as building science matures, ventilated roofs will become a way for architectural historians to date houses to a specific time period in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz

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bob@swinburnearchitect.com 802.451.9764 72 Cotton Mill Hill Brattleboro, Vermont 05301