A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Houston Architects: O Russell Worley, AIA

Looking at homes comes naturally for an inspector. My walks through Houston neighborhoods leads me to analyze these structures out of professional curiosity. However, I love the design of the buildings as well. I began to realize that I really do not know the names of some of the architects working around our community though, so I decided to take a journey to discover some of the people working in this medium around town.

An internet search brought up several names. The first person on the list was O. Russell Worley. When looking through his portfolio, I recognized some of the homes. In fact, I had observed some of the work on them. Since I had this connection, I delved further into the portfolio. There were elegant touches in his homes that brought out some features in a striking way. I would love to look more at his interiors, because they seem the most intriguing.

I wanted you to see this lay out. There is a thoughtful element in this building which greatly appeals to me. If you notice, there is a lawn courtyard surrounded by the edifice before heading to the pool and backyard. I think that looking at this landscaped feature from the windows would be so much nicer than the pool. Pools are nice, but they are not as visually dramatic as this space could be.

Most home designs seem to focus on the interior in recent years. No one really wants to differ from their neighbors by too much. This interior uses an alignment to bring your intention all the way to the end of the room. The ceiling beams help with this effect. From a few other photographs in his portfolio, you can see where Mr. Worley has an expertise in creating these visual elements in his work.

I will have to pay more attention on my journey around town to see if I can spot more of his work. Look through his work, and you may find that there are features that you may be able to incorporate into your home. Well, he does do additions. Sometimes architects are worth it; even for our more simple homes.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

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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

Playing in the Rain: Creating Garden Spaces

As my wife and I are speaking to my son, my daughter comes running past in a determined way that toddler’s have. My wife calls out to her, so she stops to look at us with a mischievous grin. She is heading for the water heater again. There is something about the knobs that fascinate her. I tell her to come back toward us, so off she goes running to the back door.

Outside papa, outside? The rain is pouring, but she loves playing out in the garden. No flower is safe from her grasp or demand. Since I have been spending so much time in the back yard, I have been putting more effort into creating spaces for family. My daughter is constantly in the sand, but she has created a cathedral for herself in some hibiscus bushes. I have different seating areas for reading and relaxing, but lying in the grass suits me.

To make the scene more pleasing to the eye, especially because of the flowers not being safe, I have been looking for plants that have interesting leaves, particularly ones with color. At the nursery, I discovered the aftershocks of the drop in housing sales: plants without a home. Garden centers typically try to sell the flowering shrubs when they are in bloom, since they appeal more to homeowners at that time. I found a large selection of azaleas which had not been sold, so now they were on a 30% discount. There were other plants at lower prices too. You will not have the blooms till next year, but they still will look nice till then.

This picture is not yet complete, but I thought I would share it with you anyway. My daughter\'s play gardenWe have this old tree casting a great deal of shade in this corner of the garden. We decided to set up a playhouse for my daughter. The garden around the house consists mainly of ferns, but we have some hostas, hyacinths, azaleas, impatiens, as well as some indoor plants. We used rocks for a mulch. I am going to create a porch for the shed with white limestone, and I still have to fix up the seating area. We have a fence, but we bought a bamboo screen for this section to help create a nicer effect. I am still working on the sculptures for this area, so we will see what happens. It is not much yet, but I think it will be a nice spot to hang out.

Check your local garden center, and you may find a deal too. I am planning for my project in the backyard to continue, so I will not have the expense all at once. By doing a little each week, you come to be attached to this space, and then you will use your property to its fullest.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Realtors are a Quarter of a Penny a Dozen?

I wish that I could fathom the human mind better. I do not understand an aspect of human behavior where others need to show disdain for those around them. Ego or a power trip? I feel that there are good and bad practitioners of every profession, including my own, but Realtors seem to take offense at this idea.

There is one Realtor in my area who writes posts on Active Rain. I wish that I could have provided you with a link, but he makes his posts members only. I guess this is a wise move, since he is always complaining about clients or those who work in other real estate professions. Yesterday was my profession’s turn to be the target for Mr. Nino’s little pout. An inspector that he was dealing with wrote estimates for repairs in his report, so the buyer asked for the price to be reduced to cover these costs. According to this esteemed Realtor, this practice is against the Standards of Practice in Texas. It is not. I have lost jobs because Realtors have wanted me to do this, but I prefer to provide a better estimate by making an informed decision than giving off the cuff prices, so I provide this estimate the next day. What the inspector did was his business decision to meet a need of his clients. Mr. Nino stomped around his playground like a boy who had his toy taken from him, since these deductions were asked for during negotiations. The seller could have accepted or declined at that point, which would have meant an end to the deal or re-negotiating.

I then looked over the comments to this fine post to find Realtors criticizing inspectors. There were all the typical complaints. Mainly that we inspectors kill deals by being to thorough. If we are hired by a buyer or a seller, should we not provide them with the most complete information? Apparently not according to these Realtors. Most Realtors that I know personally are very good at their jobs, and they appreciate me being good at mine; however, I run into Realtors every so often who have a complex that they are wiser than everyone else. They end up showing disrespect for their clients and others, and I wonder how they can manage to perform a good job for their clients with this attitude.

One comment stated that inspectors are a dime a dozen. Based upon the number of Realtors compared to the number of inspectors in Houston, this would mean that Realtors are only a quarter of a penny a dozen, so worth far less than an inspector. In fact, inspectors are required to go through many more hours of training than a Realtor to obtain our license (in Texas). However, I would not adhere to any statement that puts Realtors down. I respect the abilities of the people that I work alongside, and I understand that purchasing a home will be the greatest expense/investment that a person can make, so being condescending is no way to behave. Realtors are starting to leave the industry since it is a very difficult time for the market right now. I would hope that these bad apples would leave first.

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