Universal Design

Universal Remodeling and Design

As we grow accustomed to our homes we find that our needs change in the spaces that we have been living in. Windows are not as easy to open, doors seem a little too thin, and stairs just keep getting steeper.

It may be time to think about Universal Design, a concept by which the home can be remodeled to be easier as we mature. It may be time to move the master bedroom to the first floor. Is there a room (or rooms) that can be converted? Do you need to add on for the space? Is there a bath accessible or do you need to add one? There are lots of ideas and directions that you can go to fulfill your needs. Spending time to answer a few simple questions can lead to a world of satisfaction.

  • Access to kitchen
  • Access to bath
  • Access to the exterior
  • Access to bedroom
  • Dealing with stairs
  • Wheelchair or scooter access
  • Low or no threshold showers
  • Door handle-sets

Consultation with an home designer who has had these questions asked of them before can help to guide you in your future needs. Universal Design is not all about making the house look like an institution. It is about wedding different aspects of accessible and adaptable design. It is oriented around all age groups in a family being able to comfortably live in a home together.

Why Are Homes Expensive?

Among the obvious reasons are commodity, material, and labor prices as well as the run up in number of homes that where built and the availability of money. Among the lesser known reasons is the building code, minimum lot sizes, and expected amenities.

I have two 150 square drawings that I like to show clients. One is 10 x 15 has four corners and a 50’ perimeter. The other has an 86’ perimeter and 22 corners. We used to build them quick and inexpensive now we build them complicated and expensive. In the first 20 years I have been building it was rare to see a concrete pump truck visit a job-site. We used wheelbarrows and our backs. Now I’m not one to impede progress but that is a $500 item tacked onto every house. Granite was reserved for the well-to-do. Now it is in homes down in the $200k range. Irrigation systems are becoming normal, jetted whirlpool tubs, three and four bathrooms, and on and on and on. There is a point when the cost of a home outweighs the value of the home. That is part of what we have been seeing in this housing downturn.

The building code is designed for the safety and welfare of the homeowner. While it seeks to create a balance between cost and safety it generally errs on the side of safety. The most recent major change concerns an item known as Braced Wall Panels (BWP). More engineers and the plywood industry are making a bundle because of these regulations and for the most part the requirement is superfluous at best. But this requires additional work on the part of the home designer, the builder, the masonry contractor, the framing contractor, possibly the drywall contractor, and the building official at both the plan review stage and conducting inspections of the home during construction. Permit fees and construction time has increased because of this which leads to additional finance and carrying charges.

Many factors contribute to the cost of a home and most will ask for a cost per square foot. This can be terribly misleading and difficult to pin down because a lot depends on the choices of the homeowner. Most commodities that do fluctuate tend to not change the cost structure by too great a degree but a home owner never has a hard time finding a $600 sink that they just can’t live without.

Conditioned Crawl Space

Conditioning a crawl space along with air-sealing the exterior envelopes are two items that should be implemented by all homeowners and builders that would like to bring “Green” construction to their project. These two items alone can account for the most energy saving benefits that you will see as a homeowner.

One thing is true especially in older homes: There is a forced air heating and/or cooling system that was either added 30 years ago or placed when the home was built and it is in the crawl space or the attic. Either way one of two things is happening. 1. The system’s ducting was never insulated or was built using duct board. (If it’s duct board run away!) 2. The duct system was held together using Duct Tape, now called Duck Tape because it did not work on ducts and this tape has failed and the ducts are leaking air all over. A third option especially with 30+ year old systems is mechanically fastened galvanized ducting that is not sealed in any way but also is not potentially coming apart. Trust me this stuff would stay together in a tornado. This latter type of duct is a great candidate for a conditioned crawl space. It is already leaking enough air to keep the crawl space pressurized therefore keeping ground borne pollutants at bay. And it’s easier and better to condition the crawl than it is to mastic seal and insulate the duct. Create a conditioned space around the duct; allow it to be brought into the building envelope that is already full of conditioned air much as a Mechanical Room inside the building envelope is.

Most old homes (and a lot of new ones) are leaking air around windows, doors, walls, electric outlets, light boxes, overhead fixtures, at wall corners, thru plumbing penetrations, floor joists at the exterior, attic access stairs and doors to attics, fireplaces, chimneys, kitchen and bath exhaust fans, dryers, what did I miss? Because of this the home is essentially one big chimney where hot air rising creates a need for cool air to fill this void. Conditioning the crawl space is one way to help plug this chimney and keep ground pollutants out of your living space.

Crawl Space

Most homes have them some do not. You may have a basement or be on an on-grade slab. To a certain extent this will pertain to basements that were built say 30+ years ago. Not so much now as there are very good waterproofing systems and methods that are required to be implemented when building new homes.

As a homeowner you need to inspect your crawl space at least once maybe twice a year. With a basement this is much easier in that you can walk around as opposed to crawling and possibly slithering in a crawl space, and basements usually have overhead lights which make this inspection easy. Crawl spaces should have lights installed there also to aid in this inspection over and above the required service light for mechanical equipment and such. Inspection may reveal a water intrusion from the exterior that is not readily visible because of plantings and mulch built up over the years through landscaping. Gutters can get clogged or broken. The yard can potentially slope back to the home instead of away. A hose can be left on to slowly drip drip drip without you knowing it. In the extreme this water can cause erosion of the footing under the foundation causing cracks and the foundation and interior wall surfaces. A small crack in the house may lead to a larger problem that could easily have been found early by just looking.

Less likely would be a pipe coming loose. Water pipes are usually pretty quick to find since you will hear water running or waste pipes too as there will be an odor associated with this disconnection. Slow drips or slight leaks are the ones to look for. Having the crawl space covered in a 20 mil or thicker poly will aid in this since puddles will form instead of being soaked up by the ground below. Kitty litter can be an affective way of cleaning up bulk waste (we had the kitchen sink pipe come loose after a clog was cleared by a drain snake and noticed an odor several days later after many a grind of the disposal sending leftovers to the waste facility) that may have escaped.

Other items may include running another phone line or outlet for Grandma’s newly acquired tiffany lamp and having a well lit crawl may keep your cost down because it makes the job easier.

Don’t forget the crawl space it is part of your home just like the exterior that everybody gets to see.

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Mechanical Space

When I started writing this I was using the acronym HVAC for Heating, Ventilating, and Cooling. Since none of the equipment ventilates the areas that it conditions I am going to just call it HaC for Heating and Cooling

I prompted my Wife that the home we now own was the right one to purchase partially because the heating and cooling equipment is within the building envelope. It was built in 1954. Is full masonry construction and has old leaky windows. Having the HaC equipment within this envelope is a situation that rarely happens in new construction. Something that I discovered later and to my dismay I had abandoned is that each room of the home had a supply and a return in it. Interestingly the supply is in the center of the home and the return was at the exterior wall. Both of these are at floor level which is not generally accepted these days but we often still feed from the floor and return under a staircase which is generally low in the wall. Or in the case of second floors is fed from the ceiling and returned from the ceiling.

Today we supply over or below exterior openings since these are usually cooler or warmer depending on the season and through a process called the stack effect the warmer air moves to the top or the cooler air moves to the bottom creating convection in this area that helps to mix the air. (I would assume this is fairly localized and does not mix all the air in the room well.) In my case we abandoned the floor returns and placed a sealed duct return in the attic to the HaC equipment in the mechanical room. This allows for the air to be moved from floor to ceiling thus helping to even the temperature throughout the space. New construction HaC equipment is relegated to crawl spaces and attics. Generally this unconditioned space is either extremely hot or relatively moist in relation to the surrounding environment.

In the former the air-conditioning has to cool that 140 degree attic air before it can cool the air in the home. On top of that cooling is a process of removing moisture from the air, so unless the system is sized right and allowed to run for extended periods of time it will not remove latent and occupant moisture from the air and therefore not cool. The crawl space system may have an easier time of conditioning the air in its environment but it has the unenviable task of keeping all that dirt, grime, and possibly mold associated with crawl spaces out of the air-stream. This in and of itself is the best reason to seal duct work in the crawl space.

Conditioning the crawl space helps with the ducting problem and goes a long way to mitigating moisture and other contaminants in the crawl space environment. This also will allow the equipment to generally only work with conditioned air and will have an easier, read equipment sustainability, time of maintaining the temperature set at the thermostat.