Around the World in 8 Designs: Part 5

This week’s column is special to me because it’s about my first home in New Hampshire, USA. The house was built in 1782. I bought it in 2000. Locally, the style of the home is called a Centre-Chimney Cape Cod. Cape Cod is a peninsula extending into the Atlantic Ocean from Boston, Massachusetts. Summers on the Cape are brilliant, but winters can be brutal. Early residents built their homes around a huge chimney containing up to four fireplaces. (You read that correctly.)

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As the first half of the name implies, chimneys were located at the geographical centre of the home, surrounded by living spaces. Put another way, the fire(s) were specifically located as far away from external walls as possible. Put simply, this is good home design. It is so obvious, in fact, you may wonder why I bring it up at all. Apparently, some time between 1782 and the present day, architects forgot where to place fixed heating devices. Every week I see a dozen homes with poor heater placement. The classic example is the flued gas heater in the lounge at one extreme end of a long rectangular house. Meanwhile the bedrooms at far end of the home are frigid and more than likely mouldy as well. A somewhat misguided solution to this situation was to put an unflued gas heater in the hall between the bedrooms. Screen shot 2015-05-19 at 7.30.01 AM While on the surface the location of the heater may seem appropriate, there are two flaws: 1) unflued gas heaters release 1 litre of water per hour into a home often contributing to the mouldy walls in those far flung bedrooms; 2) a hall may be central to a home, but it is not a living space. Another brilliant aspect of the design of my 18th Century home is that it had no hallways. Just four rooms around a central chimney – elegant simplicity and a lesson for today’s architects. Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 12.47.38 PM Special Note: Last week I departed from what was meant to be the 4th example of good home design from around the world (today’s column) to discuss the issue of indoor moisture caused by rising damp. Because of the rain we’ve had recently, I’m afraid that rising damp will be a huge problem for our region for the rest of this winter. Soils are saturated everywhere and it will be summer before they are dried. If your home has been especially damp lately, please ring me at the number below.

Dealing to Damp Indoors

Editor’s note: Another weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, cold and damp homes have considerable impact on many aspects of our society. The good news is that every home can be made healthier with careful thought and directed effort. A few dollars doesn’t hurt either.

Often times, sorting the warmth is easier than sorting the dry. In other words, there seems to be much more confusion about managing moisture than managing heat. I have received a number of emails recently regarding indoor humidity, so this seems like a good time to address the topic.

The best way to minimize indoor humidity is to manage the sources of moisture themselves. In many homes, there are four to five major sources of water vapour: cooking, showering, airing laundry indoors, and using an unflued gas heater. For homes with raised floors (piled), rising damp can be added to this list.

Steam from cooking and showering can be effectively managed by using extractor fans vented to the outdoors and not into the ceiling space. For bathrooms, it’s a good idea to put a 10-minute delay timer on your extractor fan.

Moisture coming off of wet clothes and unflued gas heaters is best controlled by avoidance. Put another way, try not to do either if at all possible. Whenever you are able, try to dry your clothes outdoors on the line. If the weather does not cooperate, airing them in a shed or under a deck or waiting for a sunny, windy day would be preferable.

For homes that are built on piles, rising damp can be the largest source of internal moisture by a country mile, accounting for 40-60 litres per day depending on the size of the structure, soil type, drainage, and subfloor ventilation. Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 3.38.24 pm

Dealing to rising damp can be as easy as laying a ground vapour barrier (aka damp-proof membrane) or – in my case – improving drainage around the perimeter of the structure, increasing subfloor ventilation and then installing a ground vapour barrier.

Over the last six months I have spent hundreds of hours and dollars on all three of these. I finished the work two days before the recent deluge arrived. Ironically, the lowest moisture reading ever recorded inside our home (so far) was the day 88 millimeters of rain fell on our roof.

The combination of drainage work, builder’s polythene and more vents has reduced the indoor humidity from a very unhealthy 85% when we arrived to 64% – a level just within what is considered healthy. There is no sign of mould and we can literally feel the difference in the air.

Dehumidifiers are brilliant, and we have used one up until recently. It’s there at the ready should we need it, but like a positive pressure ventilation system installed in a roof cavity it only removes the damp that is already inside our home. Like modern medicine, treating causes is better and more cost effective than treating symptoms.

The following tips come from “Reducing Moisture and Condensation” available free at: http://www.ecodesignadvisor.org.nz.

  • Keep beds and furniture at least a hand-width from external walls.
  • Wipe condensation from windows as soon as you see it.
  • Leave wardrobe doors slightly ajar to allow air circulation.
  • Regularly check for mould behind curtains and furniture, and in corners.
  • Spray a mixture of 70% white vinegar and 30% water on mouldy surfaces, leave for 15 minutes to an hour, and then scrub. Be sure to rinse off the vinegar afterward with a sponge. This is extremely important as mould will grow back on the vinegar residue if not rinsed properly.
  • Wash or dry clean affected curtains.
  • If there is no extractor fan in the bathroom, open windows when showering or bathing.
  • Flush your home with fresh air once or twice each day for 10 to 20 minutes by opening windows and doors. During winter months the best time to do this is around mid-day when outdoor temperatures are highest. It is better to fully flush the home with fresh air than to leave windows ajar all day and night.
  • Only consider a positive pressure or dilution ventilation system as a last resort. They are not suitable for all houses and can cause more problems than they solve.

Peace, Estwing

Slips – Sliding Away

We have been on our land for 10 months – not enough time to stabilise the vulnerable hillsides. Last weekend we had 140 mm of rain fall in 36 hours. From one spot I can see 9 slips – mostly on the neighbours land, but overall a humbling experience.

This is across the valley on the edge of our land.

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This is the large slip on our land.

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This is across the creek in a patch of native bush.

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This minor slip was arrested by two large poplars.

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Up close.

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Humbling.   Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 5.40.28 pm

Across the valley on the neighbours land.

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We have hundreds of trees ready to plant on the slopes to hold the soil. This is the right time of year to be planting.

Anyone is invited to our place on Sunday 5th July 1-5 PM to plant trees on the steep slopes. BBQ and Texas Chili Cookoff to follow.

 

Peace, Estwing

The Pope and the Flood: Whanganui, 2015

Pope’s Encyclical: “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home.”   With the publication of his encyclical last week, Francis’s status as rock star Pope has been elevated to rock icon Pope. The 183-page document, titled “Laudato Si (Be Praised), On the Care of Our Common Home,” will more than likely become remembered as the definitive writing of the 21st Century. I have praised Pope Francis in the pages of the Chronicle before and I will almost certainly praise him again. If there are two things I admire in this world they are courage and positive leadership. The courage and leadership Francis has demonstrated in the past turns out only to be a prelude to that which he demonstrates with this encyclical. Drawing on the best research in economics, science and sociology, Francis identifies the two most pressing issues facing humanity: climate change and income/wealth inequality. For anyone who has followed the research in these areas, the content of the encyclical is no surprise. Even avid Chronicle readers should be well aware that 98% of climate scientists worldwide agree that climate change is influence by human activity, and that wealth inequality exacerbates social problems and drags down economic growth. While these findings are based on the best data examined by the best researchers, they have proven to be politically unpalatable. The fact that Republican candidates for the American presidency are squirming in their seats in response to the encyclical is a sign of the times. Closer to home, we get the expected responses from National, Labour and the Greens, along with Paul Henry’s patented, “I don’t care.” Let’s pause for a quick reality check: Wellington, Dunedin and our own River City have experience historic flooding – ok, let’s call it Biblical flooding as long as this is a discussion about the Pope – in three separate rain events in the course of one month. Call me Noah ‘cause I’m building an ark.

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Was this flood event unexpected? No. Our community should be aware that Horizon’s Regional Council has halved the timeline for major flood events for the Whanganui River. In other words, what was the 100-year flood is now the 50-year flood, and what was the 200-year flood is now the 100-year flood. In light of this, ratepayers are right to wonder why our District Council has poured millions of dollars into developing the riverfront and moving an art gallery directly into harms way. Claiming it did not see this coming would beggar belief given what Horizon’s has advised along with over 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific articles on the topic of climate change. This would truly be the weakest possible response from our local government body to this crisis. If we wanted a non-response we could tune in to the Paul Henry Show. Floods happen, and data from around the world indicates they are happening more frequently and with more severity. Our ‘Katrina moment’ was never a question of if but of when. The Pope knows this. What amazed me was how gently and gradually it came upon us. There were no gales, thunderstorms or lightening. Quiz Night went on as usual Friday at Stellar and the River Traders Market took place Saturday morning across the street. The devastation came to us literally drop by drop, much in the same way wealth and income inequality has gradually widened over the last 30 years, hitting epic proportions – ok, let’s call them Biblical proportions – in the last seven years. The Pope knows this too.

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At the end of the day, what is significant about Francis’ encyclical is not its content. We already know that climate change and wealth inequality are bad for society and bad for the economy. What is significant is the person who has delivered that message with unprecedented courage and conviction. Would it be blasphemy to say this Pope has some serious huevos? For as long as I have lived in The River City, climate change and income inequality have been non-starter issues. Politically, they are perceived as no-go zones, yet we have seen their impacts on our community on more than a few occasions. Because of our unique location and economy, we suffer their effects to a greater extent than other communities. The longer our Council ignores them the greater our problems will become. The Pope even knows this. More than anything, Francis has issued a challenge of courage and leadership. Who in our community will answer the call of Care of Our Common Home’?

More on Housing and Garlic in NZ

 

Editor’s Note: This is my weekly column in the Wanganui Chronicle.

 

I narrowly missed my chance to be “World Famous in New Zealand” last week because I was busy planting garlic.

On Wednesday morning a producer for Duncan Garner’s Radio Live Drive programme invited me to speak with Duncan on the topic of warm, dry, healthy homes. I did not see the email until after Wednesday afternoon’s programme was done and dusted, and by Thursday the topic du jour had changed. So much for my 15 minutes of fame…

Anyone who has been following the news over the last fortnight would be well aware that a number of deaths linked to cold, damp houses has sparked a national discussion about the other housing crisis in New Zealand. I call it “the other housing crisis” because we hear much more about The Housing Crisis in Auckland and to a lesser extent in Christchurch.

As is the case with many important issues, a quantity story often outweighs a quality story. Quantity stories are easy to understand: just do the maths. But quality stories are nuanced and require more research, more careful consideration, and are best presented from a holistic perspective.

On Monday, Chronicle Editor Mark Dawson asked the question: “How many bad houses in our city?” Leave it to a seasoned journo to get both quantity and quality into one headline!

At the end of Dawson’s editorial he ruminates “about the condition of Wanganui’s states houses,” and “how many of them are substandard.”

The second of these is the easiest to answer: in all probability 100% of all state houses in our city are “substandard.” If the current New Zealand Building Code minimum is “the standard,” then by definition anything not built to that level is “substandard.”

The bad news is that the NZBC minimum would be considered by many nations as substandard in and of itself when it comes to warmth and energy performance. In other words the code sets a low bar for insulation, windows and design.

The other bad news is that Housing NZ homes are probably better than the majority of rental properties in Whanganui, and better than hundreds if not thousands of privately owned dwellings. Put another way, Housing NZ is one of the better landlords in our city. Depending on your perspective, this may be good news or bad news.

In the guts of his editorial, Dawson addresses the concept of a rental housing warrant of fitness. Last May, the Wellington based He Kainga Oranga released a report on a pilot WOF scheme that assessed 144 rental properties in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Tauranga and Auckland. Eight passed.

The takeaway: we have a large quantity of low quality homes in New Zealand.

As would be suspected, there is significant pushback from property investors and landlords against the WOF scheme. There is also the question of who would administer the scheme and who would pay. Central government would benefit from the scheme, which would lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings to the health system, but local governments would be the most likely bodies to shoulder the burden.

The takeaway: not likely to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, the best thing for tenants to do is their homework. Seek out information from the EECA EnergyWise website and ecodesignadvisor.org.nz.

Don’t take landlords’ or agents’ word when they say a property is “fully insulated.” Look for yourself.

Ask the agent to bring a hygrometer to measure indoor humidity when you go to look at a potential rental.

Don’t rent a property without one of the following heaters: flued mains gas; heat pump; wood burner; pellet burner.

Don’t use unflued LPG heaters.

Make and install window blankets and/or secondary curtaining.

Draught-proof doors and windows.

The list goes on.

I’ve been thinking carefully about what renters can do to improve their living conditions for over four years – ever since veteran journo, Paul Brooks, challenged me on the issue. I gave him a handful of suggestions at the time, and now have a bucketful. That’s one reason Garner’s people contacted me.

I may have missed my chance to be World Famous last week, but at least I’ve got an early crop of the World’s Best Garlic in the ground.

 

Peace, Estwing

Around the World in Eight Designs: Part 3

 

Last week I expanded on the concept of passive design using the example of Earthships in the desert environment of New Mexico, USA. The point of the article was not that we should all start living in Hobbit Homes made from old tyres filled with earth, but that passive design is a great approach to housing all around the world, including right here in the Manawatu.

We can have passive design without tyres, and as a matter of fact it can look very much like the homes we already inhabit.

A well-designed passive solar home in Palmerston North could easily cut its winter heating budget by more than half compared to an equivalent home poorly design and laid out. That is a significant savings on power along with increased comfort in the home. But staying warm in winter is only half the story of passive design.

We know that summer temperatures can get on the uncomfortable side here and that many homes overheat due to poor design and inadequate ceiling insulation. The good news is that in many cases we can take a lesson from the tropics and use cross-ventilation to cool our homes without the need for air conditioning.

I have traveled to Nicaragua on a number of occasions and was surprised at first to learn about passive design in tropical regions. Instead of orienting homes on an east-west axis to maximize solar gain in winter as is the practice in most places on Earth, homes are built along a north-south axis to maximize the cooling effects of cross breezes. Of course this also means that ample windows allow those breezes to pass through indoor living spaces and cool the occupants.

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A distinctive design feature in Nicaragua’s colonial architecture is a slatted wooden vent above the front door. This allows constant cross ventilation through the structure – provided there are open windows opposite the door – while maintaining security by leaving doors closed at times.

Wide eaves, high ceilings and light construction are also aspects of tropical architecture. But in my opinion the main lesson we can take is cross ventilation. Most homes in the Manawatu can benefit from cross ventilation that is either passive or active.

Passive ventilation works well for homes with windows on opposite walls and few or no obstructions between them. It also works well when the wind is blowing.

But some homes are long and L-shaped, or have curving hallways, or abut another home one on or more sides, or are sheltered from the wind. In these cases, active cross ventilation means opening windows at opposite ends of the structure and using an electric fan to push air out one window, which draws cool, fresh air in through the other.

Yes, you read that right. Using the fan as an exhaust is the best strategy for active ventilation for cooling. In many countries there is a product you can buy called a “window fan.” But any fan will do providing it does not fall out the window!

 

Peace, Estwing

Good Design & Great Garlic

When it comes to housing and garlic, good design is more important than hard work. In both cases, the core decisions that ensure quality can be counted on one hand. Everything else are details.

In the case of housing, we can look around the world and observe examples of low energy and high performance homes. For the most part, the design principles are universal with the exception of the tropics where important tweeks must be made compared to other regions.

For example, the main goal of good tropical house design is passive cooling that relies on cross ventilation. From this perspective, homes should be rectangular with the long axis running north-south to catch breezes. For almost all other locations around the planet a home should be rectangular with the long axis running east-west to catch the winter sun and exclude the summer sun. In all cases the basic design objective is a passive structure that heats and cools itself as much as possible using natural energy flows.   Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.12.51 pm

Beyond passive design, another wise choice to make with housing is to place fixed heaters on internal walls rather than external walls. Placing a heater close to the centre of a home and surrounding it by living spaces would appear to be common sense until you take a trip around Whanganui and see the preponderance of chimneys built on one extreme end of long rectangular and L-shaped homes. It appears there was an era in our city where both common sense and good design were sorely lacking when it came to home building. Some would argue it continues.

Fixing bad design is more expensive than engaging good design from the start, but the good news is that in Whanganui it is far more affordable to buy an existing home and do it up rather than build a new home. For example, our renovated villa ticks the boxes for good design for less than half the cost of building new.

Similarly, growing great garlic can be more a matter of good design than hard work. Again, the principles can be listed on one hand: good seed; great compost; plenty of moisture; minimal weed competition. Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 8.12.59 pm

Like racehorses and livestock, genetics matter with garlic. Buying high quality seed garlic is the best place to start. I was in a big box discount store recently and noticed the so-called “Garlic Seed” they were selling and had to stifle laughter at both its size and price. The best seed garlic is local and organic.

Compost provides multiple benefits to garlic while it is growing, including feeding, moisture retention, and microbial activity. High quality living compost is always better than a sealed 40-litre bag that probably lacks helpful aerobic soil organisms.

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Garlic, like all alliums, grows better with more moisture. A combination of generous compost and heavy mulch can ensure soil moisture remains high even trough extended period without rain. Mulch also doubles as a weed suppressant and encourages worms to be active closer to the soil surface.

For more information on Growing Great Garlic, come along to a workshop on the 21st of June at 3 PM. Registration essential. 06 344 5013; 022 635 0868; theecoschool – at – gmail.com