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Common Sense Home Building

Common Sense Home Building
Enjoy modern curb appeal with this design.
Do you wear a winter coat on a hot summer day? Of course not. Then why would you put extra layers of insulation on a home built in Florida? Insulation thickness should vary by climate. Austin Architect Peter Pfeifer was at no loss for common-sense gems during his presentation at the American Institute of Architect’s CRAN conference in Minneapolis this fall. Though he was speaking to architects, his advice – to put yourself in your home’s shoes -- is important for anyone thinking of building or remodeling a home. Here are 11 more pearls of wisdom from his presentation:

--Are you cooler under the cover of trees on summer days? Of course you are. So are houses. That’s why it makes sense to keep as many shade trees on a new-home site as possible. They are a free source of cool air. The air-conditioning system within your home won’t have to work as hard (Plan 48-656, below)

--Do you drain your hot water heater every year? When Pfeifer asked the room of architects this question, only few raised their hands. Even professionals who specify mechanical systems don’t maintain them properly.
“You’ve got to keep things simple,” he said, advising the audience to think twice about high-tech gizmos that are currently in vogue. “In a few years people won’t be maintaining energy-recovery ventilators.” He began periodically cleaning the photovoltaic panels on his own home, after he noticed that their efficiency had decreased. “How many of us will do that?”

--Does your great room overheat on a hot day? If so, your home’s designer didn’t consider how to properly shade the interior space. “Shading the south windows on my house saved more money than the solar panels ever produced,” said Pfeifer, who shared the advice he gives real estate agents trying to identify a high-performance home. If you walk into a home on a summer afternoon, and there’s a lot of daylight coming into the living room, it’s not properly daylit.”

--Do you first try to fix a problem before you spend money to solve it? The same approach should be taken to designing net-zero homes that produce all the electricity it consumes. Before buying a large photovoltaic system to generate electricity, your home should be as energy-efficient as possible. That process starts with designing a home that takes advantage of free solar energy. The next step is using products within the home – dishwashers, dryers, and water heaters – that require as little electricity to operate as possible. Only then does it make sense to size expensive systems to generate electricity and hot water. Pfeifer showed the picture of a low-income home with a $10,000 PV system. The blinds were closed during the day, which meant the lights were on. “Awnings would have been a better investment.”

--Do you really need to live on just one floor? The advantage to a two-story home is that upstairs bedrooms don’t have to be heated or cooled during the day. The HVAC system can be zoned. “That can save much more than upgrading to high-performance windows,” he said.

Here's a zonable 2 story house by Leon Meyer, Plan 496-18.

--Do you go out in the rain without an umbrella? By the same token, the best way to keep a building dry is to keep water off of it. Don’t skimp on eaves and overhangs that direct water away from walls and the foundation. (For example, see Plan 443-24 at the top of this post.) And think twice about the siding on your house. “Masonry, stucco, and brick absorb moisture. They make it harder for air conditioning to work in the summer because it has to absorb moisture.
--Do you wear sunglasses on particularly bright days? You shouldn’t have to wear them inside your home as well. But that’s what can happen when architects go overboard, designing big glass expanses that bring loads of natural light into the home. Eaves, overhangs, and awnings are necessary to control glare from direct sunlight.

--Do you look north on a cold winter day? Not if you are seeking the warmth of the sun. Similarly, the best location for your home is on a street that runs east and west. The advantage to this orientation is that a longer side of the house will face south, which enables you harness the sun for as much energy and daylight as possible during the winter.

--Does the roof of your home make sense for the climate? Pfeifer often works with clients from Northern climates moving to Austin. They want steep roofs, when flatter roofs are fine in Austin, where it rarely snows.

Here's an example of a house with a shallower roof pitch, Plan 892-10.
--Do you enjoy breathing the air in your garage? Air pollutants from the garage can enter your home if not properly sequestered. For people with allergies or chemical sensitivity, the best approach is to live in a home with a detached garage, since it’s the major source of air pollution in the home. It also makes sense to air out carpeting and furniture for two days before bringing it inside your home, since it can be a source of urea-formaldehyde. Pfeiffer also recommends using a physical rather than a chemical insect barrier under the foundation.

--Do you enjoy a cool breeze on a hot summer day? Most people do, but insects don’t. “Mosquitoes don’t like breezes,” the architect noted. He added that a porch on the south side of the home is protected from winter winds.

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