A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for Technologies for the home

Personalizing your time on the web

Should I give up on newspapers? This past Sunday morning I could not sit back and relax to read the paper. Life happens, and half the paper is sitting on my desk unread. My favorite diversion is my daughter deciding that she needs to reading the paper instead of me. You try telling a one year old that she cannot read.

I do log onto the web through the day for business. I found that I could set up igoogle as a page that would have all of my interests collected in an easy to scan form. Tabs for art, business, music, and so on let me go to see what is going on in different interests in my life. I created my own html page for my home page for the browser, so that I have quick access to some information that I need for my business. I placed a link to igoogle on the landing page, so I could go over to quickly scan the stories that are out there.

The Google search bow is still on the top of this page, so I can look items up, but I found a good way to personalize my search further.  Surf Canyon has developed a great little plug-in to help me focus in on my search. The program reorders the lists provided on Google, MSN, and Yahoo based on what websites that I am visiting. A good way to get rid of the chaff during a search. Surf Canyon is not intrusive, so it makes for an easier search.

It is nice when our lives can be made easier, but I do not think that I can give up my Sunday morning paper. I enjoy the paper in my hand, whether it is from a newspaper or book. Sorry Kindle.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Passive Designs for the New Home: saving energy by not needing it in the first place

Where do our inspirations come from for the style of our homes?
Palladio studied the features of ancient temples for his homes, and Wright turned towards nature. When I want to spot a trend, I examine commercial buildings. Bank branches will use many of the new fashionable materials first, but strip shopping centers are not far behind.

We turn to the past again to develop residences that will use less fuel to power them. Traditional techniques used the method called passive design. The sun’s heat was used to heat the home in such a way that nothing actively had to be done. Part of passive design did involve some activity though; opening and closing windows to catch the breeze to cool the home is one example, but these places were laid out to take advantage of this element. In some areas, homes are being built closer together, so they can shade each other. Two roof systems are being used to help cool the home. One roof resembles a roof used for a patio, while the home is built underneath it. Tents are being used for this purpose too.

Driving along, I tell my son to pull the camera out of the glove box to take a few pictures of office buildings. I noticed that a means to control the heat of the sun has been employed on these structures that appear as a decorative element. Here are the photographs (courtesy of my son, who wonders about his father at times):

Walls jutting out from exterior wall.

Same building as the first.

Variation on a theme.

These extending walls are strategically placed to prevent direct sun from shining into the window. In other cases, they just help recess the window back into the building to help control the light coming in. I have seen this idea carried out with canvas walls. I have only seen it used on one house, but their may be more around. I will have to look. Awnings for windows are coming back into fashion to provide much of the same effect, but these pop out walls also cool the exterior by shading more than the window.

Maybe this will be a new decorative feature on a home. Walls coming out for no other purpose than to control the heat of the sun. I think that I need the second roof idea for my home. Maybe a tent? Would the neighbors be alright with it? More importantly would my wife allow me such a flight of innovation? She would not. Good fences make for good neighbors, so maybe a really high fence to block that setting sun. We will see.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Marching Along: Columns on a Home

The graceful columns of Greek Temples found their way into our residences in the Renaissance. We no longer adhere to the Greek orders, but I noticed that there are so many variations of this simple design feature of a home. When inspecting a small apartment complex, I saw that the porch was held up with a metal pole, visually unappealing. It occurred to me that a more dramatic column feature could be built around these poles to create a nicer exterior. With that thought, I realized that a homeowner could change out their columns to change the look of a home, or they could add a feature to make the column arrangement stand out more.

Driving through my neighborhood, I saw these variations on columns. The basic version seen on most homes is a circular type. In the first photo, you will see that this is not a simple tube. The Greeks discovered that a slight widening was needed to make the column more appealing.A straight forward round column

You could easily build a square column over this type. Here we can see that some lines were routed out of the face of the column for an interesting effect.The next house down uses a square column for a more formal appearance

A simple project that could be done with plywood, but I would use poplar is creating these slight curves from column to column at the top. I think that provides an elegant effect for the eye.These arches were added by the homeowner

In this case, the owner used arches to replace the columns. I think that
I would have added more of a design element with the brick work.
Columns replaced by arches

You could add elements to your columns for visual appeal. Trim work at the base and top could be simple to add while giving visual appeal. This trim may not be seen from the street, but visitors will be drawn to these elements. Your trim is probably plain, but looking at different trim pieces in the hardware store that are meant for interiors, I see some good options for these columns.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Oh, For A Beautiful Exterior, Part 2: Looking at some design elements of exterior walls

How do I look today? She asks if her makeup is alright, before we enter the doctor’s office. First impressions are important. My wife has also been contemplating the image that our house presents. She has decided that we need a paint job of the wood elements to our home. Most of our exterior is brick though, but we could color that too. We talk this over while waiting for the doctor. I mention that I want the garage doors painted the same color as the trim, because they stand out now as a focal point, and I want the eye to be drawn away from them.

I did help to create more of a focal point by applying a stucco finish to some of my brick. I have a small courtyard created by a low wall in the front entryway of the home. I used a cement based stucco to highlight the window sills and the top of the half wall. It helps focus the eyes on this section (with some help from some flowering vines). I like my brick, so I have no intention to completely cover it up.

There are paints which can do a great job at making brick exteriors look better. In the past, painting bricks was not something that I would have recommended, but new epoxy paints are said to last. There are even paints that are said to help with energy efficiency. In the picture below, the homeowners bumped out a room from the house, using a light colored stucco wall. This is a fresh coat of paint on the exterior brick. The color contrast appeals to me. This is when painted brick can look at its best.Painted brick with stucco

Letting features standout is pleasing to see, but we do not always consider how we can create an effect. I remember looking at these gorgeous cedar window trim pieces in the stucco homes on Bermuda. The rich looking wood caught my attention. I do not see that consideration to detail on many homes. I am sure that the tradition on Bermuda developed due to practicality. Creating trim pieces from stucco is difficult, and cedar was available. Now, many stucco homes will have a cement stucco for the body of the home, but they will use a synthetic stucco called EIFS (pronounced ee-fus) for trim elements. Look at this photo.

Stucco with EIFS trim

You can see a line framing the window, ending with a keystone below it.
Keystones actually are meant for arches; they are the piece that keep arches in place. In this case, the trim is made from EIFS, and it was intended to add a little drama to the surface of this townhome. I found it close to a home that I was inspecting today, and thought it was good for illustrating my point. The trim helps the window pop out at you, but I think that this element should have been painted a different color. Your eye would have been immediately drawn to that feature of the home, but looking at the entire house, my eyes wandered a bit over the surface.

A brief view of some elements to be sure, but I hope that you will ponder on where you want the eye to focus when someone is looking at your home, and how you can use elements to make your house stand out. EIFS is not really a bad material. It can create some fascinating sculptural work for a stucco home. As for using it on the main body portion of your home, make sure that it is installed well. Most problems with stucco and EIFS have come about due to poor installation. If you are stuccoing over brick, make sure that moisture can escape by not covering the weepholes in the brick wall. These are the holes running along the base of the wall. Good luck with your home.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A New Look Below: paving over a cement patio/walkway

My home was probably quite fashionable when it was built in the mid-sixties. Times change, and the need for a new appearance comes to light. Like many homes (even ones built today, as I see on the job), there is a cement walkway and patio. These surfaces are not as stable as a foundation, since they are not too deep. Cracks begin to show, and the cement is pitted. A good pressure cleaning would make it look nicer, but still something fresh is desired.

It would be feasible to resurface with cement, but I could go for another material. In fact, other surfaces are becoming quite fashionable. Paver designs really can jump out at you. If you remove the old concrete base, pavers provide a way to help reduce flooding, by allowing the water to sink into the ground of your yard. However, this removal can be quite a task. I am opting for covering the old with the new. Placing flagstones or tiles over existing walkways or patios is simple. Construction adhesive could be used for fixing the stones in place, and then grout could be used in the joints. Here is a home that used large flagstones for dramatic effect:

Flagstones over a cement patio

I was at the house for a home inspection. The owner noticed that moisture was on the carpet in several spots. Usually, the suspects will be the plumbing or air conditioning system, so that is where we would investigate. I noticed that the flagstones were two inches thick. On the front paths, this did not cause a problem, but on the patio it did. If you can see in the photo below, the stones cover part of the brick of the exterior wall. There are holes in the brick wall, which allow moisture out from behind the brick. In this case, the water can flow back into the home. Rain falls from the roof to seep back through these holes.

Weephole at the level of the paving

There are two solutions to this situation. For my project, a thinner tile will not come up the wall, so weepholes would not be covered. Exterior tile can be beautiful, and it is just as easy to install. The other solution applies to the flagstones above. The old holes should be covered/plugged, and new weepholes should be made by removing the mortar from between another set of bricks.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

A Pile of Tiles: What about that tile for my floors

I was packing my equipment away after an inspection, when my client approached me. She had a question about the home. Nothing to do with my report, but would I mind answering some questions. I think that my report is not always as important to new homeowners as is questions of decorating, and it turned out to be queries into tile.

She had seen tile at $1 a piece at the home center, and she wondered if it was any good. Most manufacturers produce a certain style for twenty years, and then they discontinue it as they move onto new versions of the product. To clear out the backlog of goods from their warehouses, they offer these items to home centers at bargain prices. Home centers will sell them at low prices to bring the customers into the store. There are two issues that you need to be aware of: they cannot order more of this tile for you, so big jobs cannot be done on most occasions; or years later when you break a
tile, and you need it replaced, you will not be able to find an exact match.

She wondered if one tile is better than another. Once installed, there really is not much difference in tile performance. You mainly want to pick a tile that fits your style. One problem that I have is with abuse from my children. Tile that has color only its glazing will have its base color show through when chipped. I did mention some facts to her. Larger pieces of tile will make your room feel larger, consequently smaller pieces make the room feel smaller. Darker colors for floors seem to be popular with designers; I think they make the room stand out. Setting the tile at a diagonal invites people into the room. Think of Japanese prints or Impressionist paintings, which use this effect to bring people into the art. Lastly, have the grout mixed in one big batch for color consistency. (A grout’s color can be changed with the amount of water added to it).

Tile floors have long been popular in Latin America, and more people in the United States are laying down tile for their homes. This mostly has been done for practicality. Tile is easy to clean. Another trend in tile is coming from Europe, and that is inlaying another trim tile piece into the floor to create a pattern. Sometimes a simple runner of tile one foot in from the wall can make a room stand out in appearance. Home centers will have good deals, but you can see more options, and obtain better advice, if you go to a store that specializes in tile.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Leaving the Light On: Pilot Lights on Your Gas Fired Appliances

Would it not be lovely if our homes could be set on autopilot? Windows opening to catch the breeze. The air conditioning system adjusting accordingly. Appliances that really do not need the power when not in use, going fully dormant, but somehow recognizing when they need to power up a bit, so we can use the remote. Maybe computers will be handling more of these tasks in the future, but our homes need our interaction for now.

Today I climbed into my attic to turn off the pilot light for my heating. For most of the year, Houston is far too warm to have the heater come on, and I have not needed it for the past month, but I do like to wait. The nice thing is that I will not be paying for that gas which
is constantly being burned. Saving money wherever you can certainly helps.

During a recent home inspection, I realized that not everyone is familiar with this tactic, so I thought I would share it here. Not all air heating systems rely on a gas pilot light, but older gas fired units will have those lights on, burning gas, waiting there for your need. My need is not coming for another six months at least, so why pay for the convenience? I am not sure if it has been calculated, but I wonder what the expense might be. Since I deploy several tactics from using a programmable thermostat, insulation, to leaving the system off, I would have to take a closer look at the savings generated by one act. However, I imagine that over six months time, the savings are good.

Each unit is slightly different, but the procedure is the same. There will be a tag on your unit in the attic that describes how to turn on and off the unit safely, so bring a flashlight to read this. To turn off this light, you will be turning a knob on a box from the on position to off. This box is a control valve for the gas coming into the burner compartment, and the knob will be marked with the words on, off, and pilot. On this unit, turning to the off position is all that you have to do. For extra safety, follow the gas line back, and you will find another valve . Turn this one off as well. Usually, they have a lever handle. If the lever is parallel to the line, it is on. Perpendicular to the line means off. That is it; you are done.

You do have another pilot light inn a typical home that uses gas, in the water heater. Since you need hot water year around, you will not be turning this one off, but the procedure is the same. If you are going on vacation, you can turn the thermostat to its lowest temperature. By doing so, your heater will not come on to really heat up the water, while you are away. You will need to turn off this pilot light, when draining the water from your heater. You should drain the water once in a while to flush out the mineral deposits. To drain a water heater takes some time, but it really improves performance, which saves you money. Here are the steps: turn off the pilot light and gas to the unit; turn off the water; attach a garden hose to the heater at the bottom hose bib (like your exterior water faucet); run the hose outside, in a garden bed is fine or the grass (why waste the water); turn on the bib; and let it drain over night. You will not have hot water in the morning, so do this on the weekend.

I cannot wait till computers will make saving money in the home easy, but till then, try this savings tip.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck