Common sense combined heat and power.

So why do we build enormous fossil fuel gulping/burning power plants to distribute electricity to run electric domestic water heaters? And the domestic water heaters are providing water at about the temperature the power plants condensers are sending plumes of hot moist air into the atmosphere?? It takes more than twice as much waste heat at the power plant to give us a hot shower. Look at the difference:

Nearly twice as good! Combine that with the advantage of distributed generation with all the transmission line losses (which I think understates loss since it originates with a consortium of power companies):


So the future should look like this (not too sure about those guys in the “central control”:

And to say nothing of the “National Security Aspect” (too many power plants, not enough planes or bombs!)

This is all about the second “C”, Combine, from an earlier post. (But if we don’t “C”onserve first, the whole network will be oversized and not affordable.


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Commonsense Denial

Many issues arise in the design,  construction and maintenance of buildings because of our firmly rooted habit of Denial. If we don’t see (know about, ask about, wonder about) it, it isn’t really happening. You may not believe some of the obvious mistakes a candid observer can see. As Yogi Berra said, (perhaps, he is also known for saying “most of the things I said, I didn’t say’), “you can observe a lot just by looking”. And another couplet of my own, “If you swim long enough in De Nile, you will get eaten by a crocodile”. Up to our ears in alligators probably had the same origin. So what have we seen?
  1. Water in the basement/crawl. I was called by a homeowner who
    had been living in a five year old home in New Hampshire and
    was sure that the carpenter who had been re-hanging his basement
    doors was incompetent. They would work fine for six months and
    then have to be re-trimmed. He never looked beneath the floor.
    A quick excursion to the crawl space found a main carrier
    that was like moist shredded wheat. You could pull a handful
    off wherever you chose. Along a similar vein, my partner, Greg
    Trotter of Commercial Building Consultants, walked through an
    apartment complex that had just been blessed by an engineering
    due diligence firm as A+ with less than $1000 in immediate needs.
    One look beneath the floor sheathing (which had been conveniently
    removed because it was moldy and rotten, and you saw as much water
    as the underground cistern that fed the Topkapi Palace in Iatanbul, 
    (also forgotten over the years until someone wondered why the
    locals were pulling bricks up in the back yards and fishing)!
  2. Whole beer bottles in the sewer line.Impossible. Even when the
    last piece of sewer line at a close elbow was removed and the 
    object discovered, there were those who said it couldn’t be
    there. Students on the roof, drinking beer and dropping the
    empties down the vent stack to hear the satisfying clatter of
    breaking glass managed to drop one during an (un)lucky flush
    the bottle floated around a couple of long radius bends until
    encountering a close bend.
  3. Reflective cladding on Disney Hall. Who would have thought of
    this one:

    The building features Gehry’s trademark steel cladding —this time on polished concave surfaces that acted like parabolic mirrors to overheat nearby buildings and streets. Additional expense was incurred in the already expensive project to resolve the problem. ( copyright © 2001–2011 Lee W. Nelson)

    Once again reminding us that making things foolproof is difficult because fools are so clever.  There are plenty of new mistakes to make, so let’s stop repeating the old ones!

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Commonsense would dictate that structure would have to be adequate to support us and our things against the pull of gravity. There is one notable exception in regions prone to earthquakes where all those physics formulae have to revisited and terms like acceleration and mass, not to mention Alquist Zones, but for today let’s just look at a commonsense way of looking at building structures:

  1. The predominant direction of force of building weight and its dancing occupants and stuff is downward. Through the finish floor to floor sheathing, to joist, to beam, to post, to foundation wall, to footing, to well compacted subsoil, to mother earth. This being said, the aforementioned earthquakes and stormy winds can produce such a significant uplift as to counteract the weight of materials in place and throw them into the neighbors yard or street. Seen it. Beautiful Deck House, roof system in place, windows in on the lee side. Comes a gale and the roof flips over the shrubbery to the neighbor’s lawn. Fortunately no one was nearby. So we tie our structures down through an uninterrupted series of tension members to something weighty enough to prevent flight; usually the foundation.
  2. If the path downward lines up the structure can be most efficient. Posts are way strong in holding up weight. Beams, not so much, so if posts land in mid-span of the beam below, prepare for a super-sized header. Post over beam over post is ideal. If the architects can’t make up their collective minds on floor plans, we assume the worst and put the point load at mid span, because if we don’t, that’s where they will want to put the post. Seen it.
  3. This load transfer paradigm applies to all situations, Had to provide a triple top plate on a building where the constructors couldn’t land the roof trusses directly on top of the 16″ o.c. studs. Usually happens when someone decides to frame the walls at 16″ o.c. and the roof at 24″.
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Commonsense Sustainability

Everything is interconnected. My interest is linked to everyone else’s. Our survival and future are linked. Therefore the destruction of your so-called enemy is actually the destruction of your self….Daily Dalai Lama quote for 7/24/2011.

So it is almost a week later and I am wondering how I can tie a Tibetan holy man’s idea to building technology.  I think I will concentrate on the first part: creating shelter of necessity creates a system. A system that can be synthesized on a spreadsheet. If my insulation is twice as good, my heating and cooling systems may be half as large. More true in the heating than the cooling because a really well insulated building may not need any heating. An early active solar building I designed in the ’70’s was being (over)heated by a stuck 250 watt bathroom strip heater! Sprayed polyurethane combined with 6″ fiberglass. But remember:

  1. If the envelope is twice as airtight, the ventilation system has to be twice as good. Leaky old envelopes didn’t need make up air. New tight envelopes need controlled fresh air, usually with some sort of Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV).
  2. If the envelope is twice as tight, irritants are twice as irritating. (See #1).
  3. High performance glass can be wonderful thing in the winter, but mind the overhangs lest they cook you in the winter. This architects office had a plethora of vent fans in the great room/office.

    No southern overhangs!

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Commonsense Hurricanes

Here I sit on the coast of Maine waiting for Hurricane Irene to come calling:

Applying common sense is sometimes difficult in the face of adversity, but let’s apply it to insure our own temporary sustainance and sustenance:

  1. It’s not the structures, it’s the missiles. Throw the patio furniture in the pool. Get rid of the stacks of extra studs and plywood. Batten down the hatches.
  2. Avoid low ground. People still drown in underpasses. Trucks won’t run underwater and when they quit, it is always at the worst time.
  3. Don’t go out to “Watch the storm come in.” ! Over a hundred spectators were drown in the storm surge standing on Point Judith during the 1938 hurricane. “Oh boy, I got a picture!”, is usually followed by other unrecorded expletives from the drowned observer. There were great shots of the tsunami in Thailand recovered from camera chips separated from their departed owners.
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From Bauhaus to Wowhouse

Tom Wolfe wrote an interesting little book years ago called from Bauhaus to Our House. Decrying the loss of ornament and “homey-ness” of our ascetic architectural style in modern buildings. (“O beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, has there ever been another place on earth where so many people of wealth and power have paid for and put up with so much architecture they detested as within thy blessed borders today?-from Tom Wolfe). Enter the NAHB with their cover story “Homes of the Year”. Multi-gabled, bloated, and proud to call themselves MacMansions. Everyone has to have one. It is the American Dream! Remember:

  1. Stuff expands to fill the space available. Even in the budget busting great rooms of palatial “Homes of the Year”, which first looked like intergalactic space with sparse furnishings, lest you have to get a second mortgage to afford enough furniture; eventually furnishings and ephemera accumulate to fill the void. Nature abhors a vacuum. Empty closets demand more clothes. Full basements and barns can act like black holes attracting all those things too good to throw out, or to be saved for the grandchildren. Believe me, I know, I just went through five families accumulation in an old Maine barn. I could hear the sigh of relief as the barn rose from its gravitational oppression. Remember:
  2. You mean we have to heat and cool this space? Even though we have made strides in envelope insulation, double the R, double the area and you are back to square one.
  3. It takes a lot of paint to paint a jumbo home. And wash all those windows. Maintenance can exceed mortgages five years into a large, badly detailed, complex MacMansion. ‘Nuf said.
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Chief Commonsense

Well over a hundred years ago, Chief Seattle 

is believed to have said these words:

This we know.  The earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth. This we know.  All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.  We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand of it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves . . . .

  1. We don’t need to save the planet, it is the species that is in jeopardy.
  2. Everything we do affects something else.
  3. We need to work together. Peace
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Commonsense Engineering

You probably know by now how I try to find parallels (love that word, remember the parallel “l”s are on the inside, for those who have trouble with enunciation: go to Llewellyns and get a parallel ruler, ask for Lloyd!) in other fields to make my points. So this morning I thought: Medicine. Oops. Exactly the problem, not the solution. There used to be master builders who wrapped the whole mason, structural engineer, contractor role into one being. Not as many possibilities for foul ups. Now I just got referred by my GP to the dermatologist to the oncologist to the allergist to come up with a definitive diagnosis: non-specific dermatitis. My skin itches! So there is an unfortunate parallel. My son the general contractor called with a question about a foundation crack. There is an architect on the job, who will call the general contractor, who will call the structural engineer, who will call the civil, who will call the geotechnical, who may call the testing labs and the end result. There is a crack in the foundation, bridge it, patch it and find that the time and professional work involved amounts to many times the cost of a commonsense solution. At least they didn’t do a CAT scan and MRI on my itch! (We often do.) [So, very parenthetically: I think medicine is leaping ahead of building science. I just got a call from my medical provider, you remember all the brouhaha about human rights and insurance and health care? They have gone off line- no insurances accepted. Cash only. Now there is a master builder! A master healer??]


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Commonsense Common Sense

Why is common sense uncommon? There is a brain chemical, anandamide, (N-arachidonoylethanolamide!) that helps us clear the clutter in our brains. It is sometimes called the bliss molecule, because it is the chemical eraser that allows us to tolerate situations by forgetting past trauma. Mostly. But it seems to allow us to forget everything else. Experience. This is largely why we makes plans and write down specifications. Otherwise we forget to install the dryer vent until after the sheetrock is on. What to do today?

  1. Keep the plans and specifications available on the jobsite. A large book of specifications is easy to throw in the back of the truck cab, never seeing the light of day until there is an issue. Oh, and look at them.
  2. Don’t assume that copying something you saw happening on a job five years ago, or an idea from last night’s news should be adopted as standard operating procedure. I saw two carpenters debate whether sheet of 2″x2’x8′ styrofoam should be installed horizontally or vertically for an hour because 60 minutes had shown how two sheets set up to form an eight foot chimney could be lit with a single match, and therefore the horizontal configuration is “safer”, (even though the stacked courses amount to eight feet vertically!)
  3. Meet. Never for longer than an hour. Make it an open forum, where the only dumb questions are the ones which were not asked. Peace.
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Common Misteaks

Okay, I know they are mistakes! But in the age of most importantly and secondly, how long will it be before that looks right? Remember, there are plenty of new mistakes to make, let’s not keep repeating the old ones. So I was driving along Route 1 in Maine and a truck laden with galvanized steel trusses drove by. Uneasy feeling about the compressive strength of those bottom chords:


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