Friday, May 8, 2015

Your Choice of Fireplace

At BuildSense we focus on our individual clients to design and build a home that suits their personal needs. One common request is a fireplace. As with the diversity of our clients, comes the diversity of the type of fireplace that is right for their design and how they live.
We take pride in building healthy homes with high indoor air quality and safe and energy efficient systems. In regard to fireplaces, we believe the best means to achieve this is through directly vented, sealed combustion gas or wood-burning fireplaces with a dedicated exterior air source. The sealed combustion unit and dedicated exterior air source assure interior conditioned air stays in the house, rather than traveling out of the house through the chimney. Directly venting the fireplace exhausts air to the exterior of the home rather than into the home. Seems like common sense, but there are many ventless fireplaces on the market and in existing homes. We have recently installed bio-ethanol fireplaces as a far safer option when venting to the exterior of the home is not possible. The waste product of these units is water, steam, and carbon dioxide. The quantity of CO2 emitted by burning 3 hours of an ethanol fireplace is about equivalent to the amount of CO2 produced by burning 2 average candles (http://www.ethanolfireplaces.com).
Wood burning fireplaces with gasket doors that are directly vented come in a wide range of designs allowing for various design solutions. With every individual client we are able to customize their want for a wood-burning fireplace within their design. Below are examples of different types of fire units that achieve varying design goals.
 
This ICC Chimney allows for a see thru design that links the dining and livings room while breaking up the large open space.
 
The Rais unit allows for a wood burning fireplace to be incorporated into the design of the stair and bookshelf, maximizing the space while created cohesive design elements.
The Morso wood burning stove has a modern, compact design that allows it to be placed anywhere within the design, taking up minimal space while producing a generous amount of heat.
The dining room, living room, and above loft are connected by the Montigo see through gas fireplace unit allowing for a visual connection through the fireplace. The venting to exterior is hidden in the reclaimed wood shaft chimney.
This EcoSmart bio-ethanol burning unit was chosen for clients upfitting a condominium in a multi-unit building with an HOA that would not allow fireplaces to directly vent to the exterior.
This is another (2) bio-ethanol unit in the same condominium building (in the cabinet below the TV). Please note this a very complex installation with numerous fire retardant materials carefully crafted into the design according to product manufacturer's specifications and building code.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Drawing interpretation and Communication

Not long ago, we engaged one of our trusted trade partners to fabricate a steel rail for a staircase. Due to the speed of the project, we met on site, drew sketches in the field, turned over a final CAD drawings, and they proceeded with the fabrication. The installed rail was not detailed as had been drawn or discussed. Their project manager agreed to reconfigure the design as intended. We are pleased to work with trade partners who exhibit our same dedication to “getting it right”. However, issues as this one in the design and construction process strike me as peculiar. Does a fabricator not see the same thing as drawn on the page? Or what designers find even more discomforting; does a fabricator take it upon him/herself to change the design? Lesson learned: even when fast-tracking, work closely with trusted trade partners and always have the fabricator produce shop drawings. By the way, the finished rail looks great.
Original rail drawing
First iteration in field
Revised rail under construction
Final rail complete
Final rail complete

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Baby Luck and Culture Clash

I'm writing this at about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, flying from Managua, Nicaragua to Atlanta. The International Builder's Show in Las Vegas was the first leg of this trip and San Ramón, Nicaragua the second. Hence, culture clash. I'm not sure that I could have selected two more different places but both were worthwhile destinations.

I was inspired by information and product and material ideas at the Show. While the volume of vendors and education sessions is overwhelming, I walked away with a few powerful take-always for our client's and for our business. Highlights include pet washing stations, water and space efficient and reasonably-priced wall hung toilets, CNG trucks that arrive as original equipment from the manufacturer, beautiful glass aggregate counter material, luxurious composite and wooden freestanding soaking tubs, solar roof shingles (might be good for that pesky HOA), autoclaved aerated concrete, and spectacular and affordable "full wall" door systems.

Seminars included everything from design trends from Houzz (houzz.com) to working in the rental market. Starting at the International Builder's Show, I am now a charter member of the National Green Building Standard Advisory Board and am looking forward to help shape that standard and it's use (ngbs.com).

After the show, I met my wife (Lori) in Atlanta and we set off to Nicaragua to plan a Rotary service project for our South Granville Rotary Club in partnership with the Sister Communities of San Ramon, Nicaragua (rotary.org). We started in Granada and Pantanal, checking on past projects (schools and a medical clinic). The students are on their break - school starts on Monday after a 6 week break. So, we did not see schools in use, instead we saw schools being readied for the next session. The schools look good but well used, just what we would hope. As always, the medical clinic was enjoying very heavy use. We did visit with the contractor and welder (Luis) that we have worked with on two prior projects. His children attend the Jose de la Cruz Mena school in Pantanal. He commented that the school is serving its purpose and that it is well attended. Another notable item is that the electrical infrastructure in Pantanal and in the neighborhood around Escuela Ruben Dario has been completely rebuilt and looks great.

A school we completed years ago
Real electrical service (as opposed to pirated power which has been the norm).
We headed next to Finca Esperanza Verde (FEV) outside of San Ramon. On the way, we saw millions of pounds of coffee harvested, dried, and processed. This is an amazing season to be in the mountains of Nicaragua, especially for a coffee lover.  We had a delightful afternoon at FEV and shared a meal with the owner (Vivienne) and we identified a possible future school project in this tiny rural community. We highly recommend a visit to FEV if you are in this neck of the woods.

Coffee Harvest from the highway


Tuesday and Wednesday were planning days filled with photographing and measuring the school project that we will complete in March (block making for a future school and rebuilding the electrical system of a large existing school), meeting school staff, meeting the SCSRN crew (san-ramon.org), meeting local contractors, attending a Rotary meeting, and checking out hotels and restaurants for our group. A busy and satisfying duty. The staff at SCSRN are a friendly, productive, and extraordinary group. The Matagalpa Rotary Club changed their meeting date to accommodate Lori and I and we had a very good meeting with this amazing and delightful group as well. They are ready and willing to partner with our Rotary Club on future projects. On Thursday we found our way to the sweet town of Leon for fun and for continued logistics planning. Stops along the way include Cascada Blanca and a weaver’s cooperative in an astonishingly beautiful area on a mountain ridge (telaresnicaragua.wordpress.com).
Cascada Blanca
Weaving
I never cease to be fascinated by transportation modes and Nicaragua is a colorful study. There is still a tangled mass of motorcycles, old US school buses, horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians, hand carts, and livestock. Hazards abound. Lori photographed an over loaded and unbalanced hay truck right before I passed it in the highlands outside of Sébaco. After the semi, I passed another slow van. I looked in my rear view as the hay semi was also passing this slow van. Just as he got past the hay tipped. It was like a hay bomb, complete with a mushroom cloud of grass and dust. Just a little too close for comfort.
Safe load?????
We have been fortunate to never rent a new truck in Nicaragua. I’m more comfortable with a vehicle that has been around the block. The diagram below shows the pre-rental inspection results: dings, scratches and dents. Mind you, usually a different person checks you in than out.
Just a few dings
Friday we visited the Central American Rotary Project Fair in Managua. This was a well organized event designed to build partnerships between clubs to complete international service projects. We met Rotarians with whom we felt comfortable and will plan future projects; exactly what we hoped! We met up with three Folks from Gig Harbor, Washington, that have partnered with us on prior projects (Gig Harbor Morning Rotary Club). We took a spur of the moment trip back to Granada to see projects that they helped fund and, of course, to have a cold beer in town.
Prior school project
Prior school project
One of these Rotarians, I think it was Tom, commented on baby luck. On other words, how lucky he feels that he was born in the states. When you compare the things that we have and take for granted to the same for Nicaraguans, there is a stark contrast. Even if you only consider safe water, a complete sanitation system, and access to education and health care. Regardless of the context or contrast, we consistently find that Nicaraguans are warm, friendly, fiercely entrepreneurial, and just simply decent and good.
The smiles that bring us back.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Aged

We are in the process of renovating the Oakland Plantation. The home is a treasure, standing tall since 1784.  BuildSense is currently transforming the cellar into a wine enthusiast’s playground. It has been a challenge uncovering building techniques that are 231 years old, and shoring up that the house may stand another few centuries.

Renovation work like this is impossible to fully figure out before construction because you don’t know what lies hidden beneath the surface. Proper planning and design drawings are still required, but one must be able to tweak and/or adjust the plan where required when uncovering the unknown. Each day brings exciting new problems to tackle with new design solutions.

The project is far from completion so check back soon to see how the space finishes out.
Oakland Plantation Original House
The old basement was a hodgepodge of materials and chaos
 Before we can build up we must strip down, setting a new concrete slab floor with a proper foundation, insulation, vapor barrier, and water drainage.  Many old homes not only omitted a wide concrete footing, they placed the first coarse of stone foundation directly on soil.  These homes were built to move as the red clay expands and contracts.  It is very different than modern building practices but after 231 years I’d say this house has done all the settling it is going to do and is just fine.
New drainage was set prior to the new floor slab
New vapor barrier was set prior to the new floor slab
The best way to showcase aged rustic materials is by creating a uniform clean edge separating it from the new.  A curb can serve many purposes including a supporting element for the stone walls as well as an additional entry stair.
New floor slab with new edge curb. In this area the curb allows for a final step.
The edge curb uniformly supports the wall and cleans the edge where  the 231 year old foundation wall previously met grade.
The curb cleans up the base of the old fireplace as well.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If These Walls Could Talk

What is it about old becoming new that evokes such intrigue? The repurposing of materials has always been favorable as a sustainable practice, however now more than ever the reuse of materials has emerged as an aesthetic choice. There’s something undoubtedly cool that happens when salvaged wood, brick, concrete, etc find new life in modern applications… But why you ask? Perhaps it’s because aged materials have a story to tell. With more efficient means available for supplying structure for a building, the option to use salvaged materials for finishes, flooring, and furniture has gained popularity. 


Reusing materials can be viewed as a showing of respect for the material’s ability to endure. Reclaimed wood salvaged from abandoned barns and factories from the early nineteenth century has weathered the weather, now mature, full of character, and ready for the next phase of its life. Perhaps that salvaged wood will find itself celebrated as an accent wall full of texture and juxtaposed by the sleek finish of neighboring walls. How interesting it is to have feelings of nostalgia evoked by rustic reused materials and yet be energized in the present by contemporary design. Maybe it is simply the opportunity to experience this unexpected relationship between old and new within the same structure that is so intriguing.

So instead of looking upon old abandoned buildings such as those seen above with sympathy, we should try to imagine the possibilities. In what ways could this material be repurposed? Whether it’s a rustic door, shelving, flooring, or custom furniture pieces, it’s sure to be admired.

An old barn may be up for some new tricks



Salvage is a lot of work, but the materials have unmistakable character.


Reclaimed siding from one old barn was cleaned and coated and reused on a new storage facility in this new barn. The ladder was reclaimed as well from an old silo.


This farmhouse addition makes use of beams from an old outbuilding as new structural collar ties in the cathedral ceiling. Yes, these are not fake or for aesthetics only. Besides looking great, these beams are actually holding the roof together. Additionally, reclaimed wood is slatted on the far wall for more texture in the room.

These stairs were constructed by laminating and bolting together the rough 2x10 roof joists from the same renovated building.