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Changing our Priorities

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Sustainable Business Network's annual holiday party. It was held at the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia, and featured lots of local food and drink. One of the most interesting things I saw, however, was a table set up by Solar States, a company that offers rooftop solar installations.

I've recently been asked a lot about solar, so I thought I'd check them out. It turns out that they offer a system that will power a typical residence and will fit on about half of the typical rowhouse roof. The system, after tax credits, costs around $10,000. This means that, for a typical household where power bills average out to $100/month, the system pays for itself in a little over eight years, assuming power prices stay the same (and we know they keep going up, right?). After that, it's "free" power until the system reaches the end of its life--Solar States warrants their system for 25 years.

Of course, this doesn't work out exactly; the system doesn't power the house at night, and at peak load times (really hot days when the air conditioner is running) it may not generate enough to power everything. So, you still need to be grid-connected for backup power. But what if you didn't?

I started thinking about solar panel efficiency. Right now, a typical solar panel has an efficiency of around 22%, meaning that 22% of the sun's energy is converted to electricity, while 78% is lost. What if we could capture more? If we got to 50%, then the same size system could produce more than enough energy for one family, even if they owned an electric car. And of course, over time solar panels will get cheaper and cheaper, even as they get more efficient.

If we had more power than we needed, produced by really cheap solar panels, how would that affect the way we think about conservation? Would we be so worried about insulation and high-efficiency appliances? What would be the point? We have an endless supply of free energy, right?

I probably sound like I'm joking, but I'm not. One of our main priorities right now is conserving energy, because energy production is mostly a dirty and environmentally harmful business. If it's not, then do our priorities change? Do we need to rethink the way we look at things? The same goes for cars; lots of people hate those "gas-guzzling SUVs". But if they were powered by electricity, and that electricity was produced by rooftop solar panels, what's to hate? The environmental movement has been around for a while and has a lot of momentum; I just hope that when the time comes, we can redirect that momentum to the next challenge. (Isn't this the problem with fossil fuel companies? They have momentum in one direction, which was useful for a while, but the world has changed. They aren't changing that quickly, are they?)

On a related note, I read this article a while back in Bloomberg Businessweek. If you don't feel like reading it, I'll summarize: some scientists are able to grow leather and meat in a laboratory. Now, before you react with how gross it is, think about why they're doing it (besides to make money): the process uses 90% fewer resources than traditional production, and no animals have to die. It's not a perfect system yet, but in five to ten years, you may be seeing these artificially-grown products being produced at a commercially-viable scale.

So, this got me thinking: does the availability of these products change the way vegetarians think about meat? Aside from the health reasons, does this change things? No longer are animals being killed. Is this a way for those who are against the killing of animals for food to come back to our thousands-of-years-old cooking traditions?

Source: Reuters

What about wearing leather? Can members of PETA wear this lab-grown leather proudly? (Hint: Yes. If you read the Bloomberg article, you saw that Ingrid Newkirk, president of PETA, said "The impact of cultured leather will be phenomenal and wonderful.")

I realize that there is something of an "ick" factor here. But think about it: conventionally-raised meat involves thousands (millions?) of animals living together in unpleasant conditions. They are subject to disease, and are often pumped up with hormones and medicine. Even naturally-raised animals are inevitably killed. What if it didn't have to be that way? (Not to mention that 90% savings on feed, water, land, waste disposal, and greenhouse gas emissions.) Lab-raised meat has the potential to be much more sanitary than current options, which often carry disease-causing bacteria that wouldn't be present in a more controlled environment. That means more confidence in the food supply, and fewer tasteless, overcooked dinners. 

Currently, I am a meat eater. But part of that is my consicously choosing to ignore many of its impacts. Same goes for driving a car. And using natural gas to heat my home (lots of fracking in PA, right?). And wearing clothes made in places with poor safety standards.

All this goes to priorities. Instead of focusing solely on energy conservation, being a vegetarian, giving up my car, lowering my thermostat, and making my own clothing (all good ideas, for now), I can choose to go farther up the chain and think about solutions that get at the root of the problem. How can we have cleaner power and more ethical food? Are these solutions good ones?

It's a design problem, really. Sometimes I meet a client who has it all figured out. They've got a problem and a solution. Usually, I can take that solution and make it work. But the best thing to do is to understand the problem first. Then, many solutions may become more obvious. This is the "genius" of design; finding multiple, viable solutions to a problem, and then being able to decide which is the best one.

So, what technologies are making you rethink your priorities?



Greenbuild Wrap-Up

This year I visited the Greenbuild Conference, which was held here in Philadelphia. It's the annual event for all things related to "green" construction. It was held at the Philadelphia Convention Center, and it was enormous. The building takes up four city blocks, and the main exhibition hall is over 560,000 square feet. It was full of exhibitors (over 800) and had two stages as well as refreshment booths and rest areas. The stages had constant presentations going on, and there were seminars in the conference rooms in the rest of the building as well, plus tours of Philadelphia and the surrounding area.

I didn't attend the seminars (see here for part of the reason); my experience was limited to the exhibition floor. Even at a brisk pace, it still took two hours for me to get through everything. Here's the map of the exhibition:

Many of the exhibits were creative and informative. Of course, with topics ranging from Acoustics to Plumbing to Waste Management, there was something for everyone. I was most interested in the building materials and systems manufacturers, and also stopped by the Passive House booth.

The two biggest highlights for me were:

Several manufacturers of SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels). This is an approach to construction that uses prefabricated panels to speed on-site construction time. The manufacturers take your building plans and break the design down into manageable pieces, then build those pieces in a factory. Everything is delivered on a truck, and goes together according to their assembly diagram. The result is a well-built and well-insulated building that goes up faster than if you built it from scratch on site.

Diagrammatic view of a house built with SIPs; image from

There was another type of panel manufacturer there, too, who builds with steel framing. This system is interesting because it combines insulation between the studs (as is usually done) with continuous insulation outside of the stud space. This continuous insulation is more efficient than insulation between the studs. The system comes in panels just like the SIPs, and can even be used for basement walls. This is definitely something I want to find out more about.

Lots of high-performance windows. Windows are one of the weakest points in a building's envelope. While a code-compliant wall has an insulating value of R-13, a code-compliant window is only around R-3. If you have large windows, you're probably losing a lot of heat through them, even if they're good ones. These high-performance windows, though, typically have R-values starting at around 6, and go up to R-14 or higher. They do it by using three layers of glass (called triple-glazing) with special gases in between, and by carefully constructing the frames so that they don't transmit heat from inside to outside (or vice versa).

An energycore insulated window from QuanexI also picked up information on insulation, ventilation equipment, bamboo siding, and some really cool structural connectors. I'm glad I was able to attend. Next year the conference will be in New Orleans.

So, did you or anyone you know attend Greenbuild? What did you think?



The End of the Suburbs?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The event was hosted by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and was held at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, which is featured in the book as an example of one type of neighborhood that people are choosing over suburbia.

About one hundred or so people were in attendance, including neighborhood leaders, real estate brokers and developers, designers, and even our City Councilman. On stage were Ms. Gallagher and Inga Saffron, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who covers architecture, design, and planning. Prompted by questions from Ms. Saffron, Gallagher gave a brief synopsis of the book and then took questions from the audience.

The two main points of the book, extremely briefly:

  • The suburbs--with open space, cars, and single-family home ownership--defined the "American Dream" for a period of nearly 70 years. This definition of success was directly opposite from the image of city life.
  • In recent years, the housing crisis exposed problems with the suburban style of development, exacerbating long-running economic, societal, and demographic issues. The nuclear family is no longer the dominant social structure, rising oil prices and long commutes have turned the younger generation away from cars, and cities are experiencing a renaissance that has led to the smoothing over of their rough edges.

Gallagher does not argue that the suburbs are going away, but she does make the point that recent data show a change is happening. Cities are getting healthier. People are tired of commuting for work and play.

Of course, it's not all roses in the city. In particular, the issues surrounding public education are overwhelming, and Gallagher acknowledges that a lack of quality public education might be the biggest thing holding most cities back. There may be a "sweet spot" in the middle--older "streetcar suburbs" with their own downtowns (for example, Media, PA, where Gallagher is from) offer many of the benefits of both the city and the suburbs.

Some questions I thought about during and after the presentation:

  • If the more affluent leave their suburban homes and move back to the city, improving (gentrifying?) neighborhoods and raising property values, where do the poor, who were originally left behind in dying cities, going to go? Those with limited financial means are the least equipped to re-populate the suburbs, with their dependence on cars, large plots (=higher taxes per home), and lack of adequate social services.
  • If the suburbs are left abandoned, what happens to the homes and infrastructure that's left behind?
  • How will cities react to increased population? What vestiges of their old suburban lives will those new transplants bring with them? Will they be able to make themselves comfortable with less space, less stuff, and fewer cars? Or will the city begin to take on some aspects of suburban culture?

Do you have a story about moving from suburbia to the city, or vice versa? What was your experience?



What to do With the Parkway?

Image from the report "More Park, Less Way" by PennPraxis and the Department of Parks and Recreation

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.  For those of you who don't know, the parkway runs diagonally from Love Park (near City Hall) northwest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (location of Rocky's famous celebration).  It serves as the city's cultural corridor, and thus connects Center City with Fairmount Park.

The article addresses some of the issues with the Parkway's current design, including traffic and lots of underutilized open space.  While the walk is beautiful in some ways, it can be intimidating.  The road is very wide, and contains many lanes of traffic, all moving chaotically through two traffic circles, an island parking lot, and a highway connection.  While the city has recently delineated bike lanes and clearer pedestrian crossings, the whole thing still feels too car-oriented.

Can I get some people with those cars? Photo from

This summer, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation created The Oval, a large beach-themed park in the middle of the Parkway.  It serves to highlight the area, offer a place for neighborhood residents to escape the summer heat, and show one possibility for how to re-imagine the area.

Food trucks wait along the edge of the new, temporary park in Eakins Oval. Photo from

This is a great design and a wonderful asset to the city, even if it's temporary.  But that's the problem: we need a long-term solution here.  It will require a combination of urban design, landscape, and architecture.  

Urban designers need to re-imagine how we use the Parkway, and how we should use it.  How much car traffic should be directed through?  How much sidewalk is enough?  How often should the two-mile stretch be broken by a point of interest?  

Landscape architects will need to continue focusing on the opportunities to tie the large, set-back buildings into the pedestrian experience.  We shouldn't just admire these buildings from afar--we should feel invited in.  Where smaller pieces of land sit empty, we should consider whether more constructed parks, such as Sister Cities Park, are appropriate.  Larger areas can be dedicated to athletic fields or event spaces.  

Architects can be called on to help infill some of these larger spaces as well--not everything on the Parkway needs to be a large museum or hotel.  The cafe at Sister Cities Park is a perfect example.  Why not offer more opportunities to sit and enjoy a snack or drink as visitors make their way from museum to museum?

Obviously, all this takes time and money.  It also takes effort and cooperation.  The city can't do it alone--donors will need to step up financially, designers will need to work together, and the public will need to make its needs known.  

So what do you think--any ideas?



A Teeny, Tiny Green Roof

I was walking around Center City recently, when I came across this bus shelter.  Notice the green roof on top?  When I first spotted it, I had to check to make sure this wasn't one of those situations where plants were growing out of a building due to neglect.

Hey there, little guy.On closer inspection, it was clear that yes, this is an actual green roof.  I'm interested in this idea; even though the potential for this green roof to help with the heat island effect or to soak up much rainwater is limited due to its tiny size, it does serve as a reminder that green roofs can go just about anywhere.  It might serve as an inspiration to a building owner to learn more about green roofs.  And, it's pretty cool to live in a city that would think about things at this scale.

I did some research online and came up with a few articles written at the time the roof went up.  Here's one from the local news channel.  There's also a good one at the Water Department's website that describes green roofs--and their benefits--more generally.  Unfortunately, the material dates back to when this roof was installed, in June of 2011.

I contacted SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, for those of you from out of town) to find out more.  I quickly found out that SEPTA doesn't own the bus shelters; they're owned by the city.  I gave a call over to Patricia Ellis, a Transit Advisor at the Mayor's Office of Transportation & Utilities.  She told me that that green roof was a pilot program, but for numerous reasons, there haven't been any more since:

  • This first roof was very expensive, and there isn't currently money in the budget to do more.
  • They investigated the idea of corporate sponsorship, but there wasn't enough interest to fund the program.  Ms. Ellis theorizes that the roofs may not be visible enough for sponsors to want to invest in them.
  • In center city in particular, there isn't enough sunshine reaching many of the streets for the roofs to thrive.
  • The existing bus shelters are aging (many are approaching forty years old), and will likely be replaced in the next few years.  In the meantime, each one would need to be evaluated by an engineer to ensure that it could handle the weight of a green roof.

 So, don't hold your breath on this issue.  Personally, while I really like the idea of greening wherever possible, I'd be more excited if they'd use some money to put in more shelters in more neighborhoods.  It's no fun to get to work with wet legs because you only had an umbrella to protect you on a windy, rainy day.


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"Stronger Than the Storm"

I spent last week on vacation in Stone Harbor, NJ.  Sitting on the beach and observing the results of Hurricane Sandy's power--and the Borough's reaction to it--got me thinking.  How do we choose when to fight the inevitability of nature?  Who should pay for it?  When, if ever, do we admit defeat and treat our coastline as a fluid, rather than rigid, boundary?

As you can see in the photo above, the water has really scoured the beach, causing almost cliff-like conditions at the high-water line.  Higher up on the beach, the large and well-established dunes were eaten away by the hurricane.  It's fortunate for property owners on the island that these dunes have been the subject of a lot of focus in recent years.

Natural dunes often occur in a double-humped configuration.  That is, there are two rows of dunes running parallel to the beach.  Because of this, four distinct microclimates are created; the primary (outer) dune facing the beach, the back of that dune, the outer face of the secondary (inner) dune, and the back of that dune.  Dunes serve many purposes.  They create several microclimates where different flora and fauna live.  In the photo below, you can see how the sides of the dunes facing the ocean have more grasses, while the back side has larger plants.  If these dunes are allowed to progress naturally, larger vegetation, including trees, will develop as you move away from the ocean.  This is determined by how much wind, blowing sand, and salt spray each area is subjected to.  (For a more thorough description of this process and a list of the plant species involved, see Ian McHarg's Design With Nature, in the chapter entitled "Sea and Survival".) 

When I was a kid, there were almost no dunes.  Over the past several years, the towns along this stretch of the coast have been developing dune projects, putting in snow fencing to trap sand and planting grasses to hold it in place.  As the wind blows more sand onto the dunes, the grasses extend their roots, creating a dense mat that grips the sand.  It is this network of roots that held most of the dune mass in place during the storm.  The dunes were able to absorb most of the power of the storm, and kept the sea back (mostly), reducing the storm damage to flooding, but not destruction.

Now, the beach is being rebuilt.  The dredging barge has moved in, and large equipment stands at the ready on the sand.  The barge will suck sand from offshore and blow it, along with whatever else is down there, through a three-foot-wide pipe up onto shore.  The sand will be spread into place and will bring the beach back to where it was the last time this process was done (three years ago, I think).  The total sand to be moved will be about 700,000 cubic yards, or the equivalent of 46,667 standard dump-truck loads.  

Fortunately for local property owners, the beach fill project is entirely funded with Sandy relief money, costing the Borough nothing.  But it begs the question: Who should be paying for this beach reclamation, and should they get a vote?  There are strong arguments on both sides.  On the one hand, the Jersey Shore is a vacation destination, filled with memories for those who go there.  On the other, the vast majority of the homes on these islands are second homes, so why should the government pay to keep them safe?

This isn't just a problem that occurs after major storms.  The islands along this part of the coast are barrier islands, made of sand and, in their natural state, constantly forming, changing, and reforming.  It's only been in the last hundred years or so that people have decided to "stabilize" them, putting up barriers to the sea and periodically taking sand that has drifted away and putting it back.

I don't have any clever answers here, but it's food for thought.  In the wake of the storm, there's been plenty written about why we need to replenish these beaches and rebuild.  There are also articles like this one (written in 2004), questioning whether it should be the federal government that foots the bill.  Fortunately, in the case of this storm it seems like people were generally able to put these argument aside and help those in need of immediate assistance.

As Jimi Hendrix said, "And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually".

If you'd like to keep up with the dredging progress, you can do so here.

If you want to be part of the larger discussion, Philadelphia's own WHYY is hosting a series on it entitled "Ready For Next Time?  Rethinking the Jersey Shore After Sandy".  Read more and see a schedule of events, starting July 15th, here.

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AIA Suburban Pro Con Follow Up

This past Friday I had the pleasure of making a presentation about the Prefab on the Main Line project at the AIA Suburban Pro Con in East Norriton, PA.  It was a joint effort, along with homeowner and Pete Maruca of Orion GC, the general contractor for the project.  Actually, the homeowner did most of the work, with Pete and I chiming in and filling in details as she went.  It was a great experience, and thank you to everyone who came out.  An extra thanks goes out to the people who asked such great questions at the end, and to Pat Gourley at AIA Philadelphia for putting it all together.

Our presentation was an overview of building a prefab residential project.  Specific points we covered were:

  1. What sort of client is looking for a prefab project?
  2. What situation lends itself to prefab?
  3. What are the possibilities, limitations, and benefits?
  4. Who are the team members?
  5. What are the basic steps in the process?

We used our project as a case study.

1. What sort of client is looking for a prefab project?

In our project's case, the client actually led the prefab idea.  The clients were well-educated about the process and saw it as a way to build affordably given a situation they hadn't expected facing.  This affordability sometimes comes from a reduced construction cost (I'll talk about this more later), but more reliably comes from a reduction in construction time.  This reduces the amount of time that the homeowner must cover the mortgages, taxes, and upkeep for both their current and new properties.  There are many times when the idea of prefab won't even be on the client's radar; in this case it is the contractor or architect's turn to introduce it if it's appropriate.

2. What situation lends itself to prefab?

The client's situation also drove the prefab decision.  They are a three-generation family who wanted good schools within easy reach of Philadelphia.  Both parents work in the city, and the grandmother takes care of the children during the day.  Houses in the clients' chosen school district are large, but most were either too expensive or needed too much renovation to make them work.  They did, in fact, find an existing house that met many of their needs.  However, some extenuating circumstances led to the desire to do a more extensive remodel where incorporating modular construction made more sense, for several reasons.

The factory-built modules would be of very high quality, meaning that the new structure would be just as solidly built as its neighbors.  And the reduced on-site build time meant less noise and traffic pollution for everyone, including the nearby elementary school.  In fact, the main bulk of the house was erected in just six days.  Finally, by starting with a pre-designed floor plan, the clients could save time and money on design.

Inside the factory

Inside the factory

3. What are the possibilities, limitations, and benefits?

Many people think of prefab as just Dwell-magazine modern.  However, there is no limitation to the possible styles.  In this case, the clients wanted (and got) a Tudor-style home.  You can visit the websites of many manufacturers to see what they offer, and remember that many of them will do custom work.

You can do more than just modern. From

As far as floor plans go, the sky's the limit.  This home was closely based on a stock plan from the manufacturer, but small tweaks were made.  In particular, this house needed to connect to the remaining portion of the previous house--a small stone building that was likely the first home on this property--via a breezeway from the breakfast nook.  The main limitation is the size of the modular boxes.  They are limited, of course, by the highway.  The largest units are typically 16' x 45'.

In the existing house, the old stone building was buried within many additions.

Now, the original stone portion is exposed and is connected to the new prefab home by a site-built breezeway.

The benefits of prefab are numerous.  The majority of the building is constructed under climate-controlled factory conditions.  This means that the interior is never exposed to rain, a source of squeaks and, sometimes, mold.  The modules are very sturdy, since they have to survive a road trip.  Because the whole thing is built inside, there are no work delays due to weather.

From a green standpoint, the number of worker miles driven is greatly reduced over the course of the project.  Factories also tend to be built where they have easy access to materials, so large quantities can be delivered to the factory over shorter distances, thereby reducing those miles.  Module sizes are optimized to reduce cutoff waste, and scraps are saved and used as needed on future projects.

The cost savings for prefab are hotly debated.  Some claim that a stock plan modular house will cost 10%-15% less than its site-built comparison.  Others say it actually costs more, given the inevitable upgrades, tweaks, and additions.  However, when it comes to schedule there is no comparison.  The ability to construct the modules concurrently with the demolition, site preparation, and foundation construction greatly reduces the overall project schedule.  The optimized, assembly-line style factory process is also a contributing factor to time savings.

4. Who are the team members?

For this project, the main team members were the modular company (Simplex), the homeowners, the local general contractor (Orion GC), the site engineer, the structural engineer, and the architect (me, of course).  

The modular company provided the initial house design and its foundation requirements.  They were responsible for specifying all the materials to be used in the house, and of course for manufacturing it.  They delivered the "boxes" and set them in place.

Setting the fifth module of the main house.

It was the site engineer who first alerted the client to the idea of marrying a portion of the existing building with the new, which made the site requirements much easier to deal with.  This engineer also helped manage much of the permitting process with the Township.

My initial role was to help determine which parts of the existing house could be saved and how they could be integrated into the new house, which was based on a pre-designed prefab floor plan.  As the project progressed, I became more involved in tweaking the prefab design to meet the clients' needs.  I also designed the links between the old and new portions and between the house and the garage, and documented the basement and foundations.  The structural engineer assisted as needed.

Stone house and breezeway concept views.

Construction drawings for the stone building and breezeway.

The general contractor did demolition, site preparation, and foundation work before the modules arrived.  After they were set and connected (by the manufacturer's crew), the GC did the exterior finish work and completed the interiors.

Existing house demolished, stone house exposed, and foundation poured. Ready for prefab unit delivery.The prefab units arrive on site.The modules are set into place and connected.The Client and Orion GC's Foreman Irv Morey standing inside newly-set units. In the doorway, the joint between the units is clearly visible. Notice, also, that the unit arrived with finished trim and paint.

Last, but certainly not least, is an active, engaged homeowner.  But isn't this important for every project?  We were lucky in this respect--being active and engaged seemed to come naturally to these clients.

5. What are the basic steps in the process?

  1. Identify a site, and determine whether modular is the right decision for either an addition or new construction,
  2. Select a layout to start with, customizing where necessary,
  3. Kickoff manufacturing / Prepare the site and foundation,
  4. Deliver the “boxes”,
  5. Complete the finishes (interior & exterior), HVAC, final plumbing, etc.,
  6. Move in (in our case, 3 months after box delivery).

I could go on and on about this project, but these are the basics.  Contact me if you have other questions; I'm happy to talk more!  In the meantime, here are some more photos:

Rear of house.Front of house just after modules were set. It took six days to set all of the modules.The finished product. From the time the modules were set (previous photo), the house took three months to complete.

Interior view of the stone house.



Getting Ready for Winter

I looked at my thermostat last night, and it read 75˚.  To me, it means we're officially getting away from the last bits of the summer weather.  I live in a rowhouse with neighbors on either side, so it takes a while for the weather to really change my indoor temperature.  In fact, my heating and cooling bills are significantly lower than my friends who live in detached houses, despite the fact that my old house has little to no insulation in the walls.

A major source of heat loss in any house, however, is through the roof.  Many of us have too little insulation up there, or poorly installed insulation.  The current energy code requires insulation levels of R-38 in attics, and it may be higher depending on where you live.  You can achieve this by using 12" of fiberglass batt insulation (the yellow or pink cotton-candy-like stuff), 13" of loose-fill insulation (the loose, cottony stuff), or 6"-10" of expanding foam insulation (the rigid stuff that fills cracks).

(top) Fiberglass batts; image from
(middle) Loose-fill; image from
(bottom) Spray-foam; image from

Now, I could go on and on about all the reasons why you'd choose one of these products over another, but I'll just give you the main reasons and leave the details for another day.  The main factors you'll consider are:

  • Accessibility of the space that needs insulating,
  • Space available to accommodate the desired insulation thickness,
  • Cost.

 The most important thing, in any case, is to make sure that the insulation is installed properly.  Otherwise, it's a waste of money and effort.  The goal is to have a continuous layer of insulation, with a minimum of gaps and breaks where heat can escape.  A major culprit is recessed lighting, so I want to give a brief description of the ideal situation.  

Ideally, your recessed lights are IC-rated.  You can find out whether they are by looking at the sticker inside the light (see below).  If the sticker has been removed, it's best to assume the fixture is NOT IC-rated, and contact an electrician for verification.  "IC-rated" means that the fixture is designed for "insulation contact".  This is good, because it means that the insulation can come all the way up to--and over--the fixture without creating a fire hazard.  Non-IC-rated fixtures require a three-inch gap between the fixture and any surrounding insulation, leaving lots of room for heat to move.

Recommended lamp table with IC requirements; image from

The other thing to see is whether your fixture is gasketed.  The gasket is a rubber ring or fin that goes around the fixture (under the trim), closing up the gap between the fixture and the ceiling around it.  It acts the same way weatherstripping does on a door, keeping air from passing through the gap.

The final culprit for energy loss is the attic access itself.  In my house, I have a hatch that I lift and slide over.  The top of the hatch has fiberglass batt insulation glued to it.  Not a perfect solution, but better than nothing.  If you have a pull-down stair to your attic, you can get an insulation cover like this one on  If you have a stairway up to your attic, you should have insulation in the walls and weatherstripping around the door.

If you find that your attic insulation is sub-par, you can often remedy it yourself by heading to your local home improvement store.  Many insulation products are easy to install yourself.  When it comes to lighting, it's best to leave it to the pros.



Prefab Progress

Well, I was out for the first "set day" on the Main Line Prefab project I wrote about in the last post.  It was a fun day.  The units arrived on Sunday, and were scattered around the project site.  There were also a few units parked around the corner.  I arrived at 9:10 am, and the first box had already been placed.  By 9:30, the second one went down.  The crew worked very quickly, attaching cables to the box, raising it and then lowering it into place, removing the cables, and securing the box to the foundations and to its neighbors.  I stuck around until about noon, and by that time five boxes were in place.

 Cheryl Allison, a reporter from the Main Line Times, attended; you can read her article and see the paper's photos and video here.  The video features Pete Maruca of Orion General Contractors.

Below is a gallery of my own photos.


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Prefab on the Main Line

Recently, I had the opportunity to work on a residential project that involved a high-end modular home on the Main Line (Montgomery County, PA).  The project site was a 1.2-acre parcel containing an existing house and three outbuildings.  When the homeowners contacted me, they had already nearly completed the design of the prefab house.  The plan was to demolish all the existing buildings and replace them with the new one.  However, they had run into an issue with the local stormwater regulations, and needed some help.  

After reviewing the regulations and consulting with Rob Lambert of SITE Engineering Concepts (the project's Civil Engineer), we found that keeping part of the existing structure would help us avoid the most onerous parts of the law, while still allowing us to be good environmental stewards.  My part of the project, then, was to work on rehabbing the existing portion we planned to keep and to develop a connection between it and the new house.

I visited the existing house and was immediately intrigued.  The building had been added on to over the years, starting with a mysterious one-room stone building.  This was the part that really caught my interest.  We decided to keep the stone portion and create a breezeway connection between it and the main house.  As the project developed, I worked on other areas, including a basement and foundation plan for the new house, the connection between the house and the prefab garage, and general design review and coordination.  All in all, a very interesting project with great clients.

If you're interested, you're welcome to visit the project site on January 11th & 12th to watch the prefab modules being delivered and installed.  See the press release for more details on where and when the event will take place, or visit the project's Facebook page.  You can also see images of the project below.

p.s. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention

Orion General Contractors, who is responsible for on-site work, and Simplex Homes, builder of the modular units.

Some views of the project:

Site Plan: Existing stone building shown red, Breezeway shown blue, Prefab house shown yellow, Existing outbuildings to be demolished shown gray, Existing house to be demolished shown dashed.

The existing stone building with the rest of the existing house stripped away.

The restored stone building with new breezeway.

The restored stone building with new breezeway.

Restored stone building with breezeway and prefab house in background.

Restored stone building with breezeway and prefab house in background.

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