Friday, December 9, 2011

Link to good advice on roofs

Have a look at "Martin's Ten Rules of Roof Design", over at Green Building, for some solid, practical advice on how creating durable, functional shelter.  I especially like numbers 2, 4, 7, and 9, and the section titled "A preemptive comment directed at indignant designers". 

A roof is, after all, the most essential component of a house.  Why risk compromising it?

I'll add one point to those in the link above.  The roof on this pictured building is superior to most of the roofs in your neighborhood in at least one way: nobody is under the impression that this roof is forever.  Anyone can see that it will need regular maintenance.  Unfortunately, too many people I know get a roof, they think it's a done deal, and they never think about it again.  Until it fails, sometimes catastrophically, thanks to lack of maintenance. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Water management, big and small

Last Saturday, Jackson and I participated in a workshop focused on water management that featured presentations by several area experts on urban planning, hydrology engineering, environmental science, and building science.  

Ramiro Diaz of Waggonner & Ball Architects described the work their firm is doing to imagine and plan for a wholly new way of handling and living with the enormous quantities of water that surround our city all the time and fall on us in storms both small and -- cross your fingers -- large.   They are developing the concepts that resulted from the Dutch Dialogues, a partnership of "Dutch engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners and soils/hydrology experts and, primarily, their Louisiana counterparts."  The gist of Dutch Dialogues, and Mr. Diaz's subsequent work, is to find ways of increasing the city's capacity to detain water and remove water and reducing the long-term costs of drainage, all while using the drainage system as an asset to the community, rather than their current status as invisible or ugly. 

Louis Jackson of CDM described the work he is doing under contract with the City to assess and propose ways of increasing the capacity of the current drainage system.  A major part of his project has involved mapping the city's existing drainage on a block-by-block level and modeling how it would perform in storm events of various intensities.  The long and short of his conclusions thus far, paraphrased: bigger pipes, more pumps, lots of money.

Jennifer Roberts of Bayouland RC&D presented the environmental impact of drainage water on the Pontchartrain Watershed as a whole (it's polluted, but progress is being made), highlighted major sources of pollution in drainage water (oily & littered streets, soil runoff from construction sites, pet- and human-related bacteria), and described how citizens can help improve our watershed in their own homes and neighborhoods (keep storm drains clear, and don't dump your trash/paint/crawfish boil down them; reduce or slow down runoff from your property).

Steve Picou of the LSU Agcenter discussed some of the primary ways of reducing and slowing runoff, as well as a few other water management issues for homeowners: keep water away from your foundation and out of your house; reduce impervious surfaces like large, circular concrete driveways; include gravel in your landscaping; and plant rain gardens.

A local organization called Groundwork NOLA specializes in helping people set up rain gardens, as part of their larger mission for "sustained regeneration, improvement, and management of the physical environment by developing community-based partnerships that empower people businesses and organization to promote environmental, economic and social well-being". 

This Old House magazine offers a variety of tips and plans for installing your own rain management system: link.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hire EPA-Certified Contractors

There are numerous reasons to think carefully when hiring a contractor.  Liability issues.  Reliability.  True knowledge of a craft.  Real value versus initial cost.  Proper tax filing and employment policies. 

This morning's Times-Picayune points out another reason: 60% of New Orleans homes and yards have dangerous levels of lead.  Link.  When you prepare to remodel or repair your home, be sure to ask your contractor whether she has been certified by the EPA to protect your family and your neighbors from the dangers of lead poisoning. 

Learn more at the EPA's web site for the Renovation, Repair, and Painting law : Link.

By the way, it is a federal law that your contractors follow these regulations.  Add it to the list of laws being skirted or broken by that cheap guy with a pickup and a couple tools.  Please, think carefully when hiring a contractor. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A New Kitchen, Nearly

Now with cabinets installed, Simone & Michele's kitchen awaits quartz counters, appliances, and a custom range vent surround.  Jackson is modifying an old, salvaged, cypress door casing and mantelpiece into a retro-fashionable focal point.  The piece will also serve to hide unsightly but beneficial ductwork for the range vent. cabinets. 

The salvaged trim details in this new kitchen came from The Bank Architectural Salvage on Felicity Street in New Orleans.  We'll have them painted with a faux finish to approximate the finish on the cabinets.

The window on the left takes the place of a door to the former upstairs apartment on this house.  Now the cased opening by the mantel, which used to be a wall and bookshelves, is one of two pathways to the stairs.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Update on Master Suite & Kitchen Remodel

Keen readers may recall Michelle & Simone's remodel project, a combination kitchen overhaul, master suite creation, and unification of two apartments.  I've been remiss in not posting updates on that project more often: the last photos on this page are of bare studs, but believe me we haven't been idle.  Here are some more recent images, soon to be followed by current ones.

First, the exterior.  Nearly midway through the interior projects, we increased the scope of work by removing vinyl to reveal the house's original siding.  After making repairs to squirrel-eaten cornice returns and re-glazing windows, we and our painters, M&R Painting, removed all the old lead paint (being as much in compliance with RRP rules as possible in a Louisiana July).  The house is in the final stages of prep for a new coat of paint and the addition of operable shutters on the front.  Oh, and we also removed the door on the right hand side, replaced it with a window, and added another window above it. 

Jackson and I are adding the final pieces of tile on the tub deck.  The orange on the floor is a ballyhooed, possibly over-sold, possibly genius material called Ditra-mat.  ( We've used it on numerous tile jobs, putting faith in the material because it is both German and expensive.  Therefore it must do its job, right?  I should confess that I suffer a form of neurosis regarding tile floors.  I'm not comfortable with standard practice.  We added a plethora of  reinforcing blocks in the framing, a layer of cement backer board, a high-end Swedish leveling cement, plus the Ditra-mat.  I hope to report in two hundred years that the tile is holding up just fine.   I'll admit there is an unfortunate consequence to all those layers.  The tile floor is now an inch taller than the floors in adjacent rooms.

This is the shower, nearly tiled, and undergoing a second water test before having the tile finished.  We plugged the drain, filled the shower floor with water, marked its level, and left it alone for a day.  Tiled showers too often develop leaks, which quickly causes the need for major, expensive repairs.  We like to be extra-sure that leaks aren't present from the beginning.  Then, when completing a project, we bombard the homeowners with reminders to check regularly for cracks in the grout, and to deal with any cracks immediately -- just in case.

This is a view from the hallway into the master bedroom.  The differing floor color is a result of us re-laying the section of floor on the right.  Where the lighter colored floor on the left is used to be the hallway wall, which we removed to add about forty square feet to the bedroom. 

Finally, the kitchen-slash-storeroom.  It's an embarrassing mess in this photo, but I include it for the sake of contrast.  We had the cabinets installed yesterday by Sexton Cabinets. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

After wind and rain

Now that Tropical Storm Lee has passed us by, it seems a good time to urge all you homeowners to be prepared for the next time we see one of these close up. 

First, clean your gutters out.  They're sure to have a lot of debris that will lower their effectiveness in the next rain. 

Second, consider your windows.  Any leaks?  Rattles or loose pieces?  Panes that need to be reglazed?  (Hint, if the glazing is missing, dried up, cracked, or generally looks ancient, it should be addressed.) 

Third, are your shutters in good, operable condition?  If you don't have shutters, do you have plywood already cut to cover your windows in the event of a big one?  And is it accessible, or buried under a thousand paint cans or a compost pile? 

Fourth, how is your roof?  Check your ceiling, attic, and rooftop for leaks, loose shingles, floppy flashing, exposed nails, missing or dried and cracked caulking.  Even if you didn't have leaks during Lee, investing in some maintenance work by a roofing contractor could save you from spending a lot more money with roofers and a lot of other contractors in the future. 

Finally, back to the windows: can you open yours?  If not, will your central air system work if the next storm knocks out power?  Air conditioning has convinced many people to caulk their windows shut -- a terrible idea if you ever lack power.  Plus, Lee seems to have blown in autumn, a time of year when a one-time investment in window screens could allow you to turn off that central air machine for a couple months. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

Please allow me to introduce 2020 Baronne Street, the new, very old home of Kerby & Co.  This spring Jackson and I encountered a small housing crisis when our longtime landlords suddenly announced they intended to sell, preferably without us in our apartment.  After a scramble, a few lucky breaks, and a frenzied month and a half, we moved in to a home of our own.  During the next eight years of renovation, we'll be posting pictures of it like a first grandchild.  Here are a few:

The front foyer ceiling boasts the only surviving medallion.  Three others have already fallen.  We hope to eventually make replicas. 

A view from the back yard looking forward.  We have work to do!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A More Efficient Attic

My last post (posted an eon ago) focused on the drawbacks of having central air equipment in an uninsulated attic.  Here are a couple photos of the attic in another house we're working on.  This attic has had open-cell spray foam applied to the underside of the roof deck and rafters.  The central air equipment will, therefore, be operating in a much less hostile environment.  The equipment should run less, last longer, won't collect condensation, and if any ducts leak, no problem: they'll still be leaking into the house they are conditioning, rather than into an attic that's vented to the great outdoors. 

However, I cannot unequivocally endorse this spray-foam approach.  There are a few drawbacks.  First, because the foam creates such an impermeable barrier between the interior and exterior of a house, any moisture released inside the house -- from breathing, showering, cooking, laundering -- is trapped inside.  This has been known to cause mold problems and deterioration of drywall and wall, floor, or ceiling finishes.  Thus, in addition to the relatively expensive foam insulation, extra money needs to be invested in ventilation systems, and a more sophisticated central air system. 

The second drawback, from my point of view as a remodeler, is that spray-foam is far more difficult to work with than other types of insulation if a home needs an addition, or routine repairs. 

My third concern about using foam on the underside of a roof is this: a tiny leak in shingles over a conventionally insulated attic will appear as a stain on the ceiling below it, but a roof leak over a foamed roof may not be evident until an entire section of your roof's framing and decking is so rotten that it sloughs off to the ground below.  That is no doubt a paranoid, worst-case scenario, but it ought to be considered. 

Much more about the missing months of posts coming soon. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

A reason to spray foam insulation

The attic and central air system on Jackson's current project.  Note the old attic fan.
A while back I dropped an ongoing discussion of various types of insulation -- too complex and important a topic that I quickly discovered I have much more to learn about.  Without plunging all the way back in, let me point out the above photo as a reason to use spray foam insulation.

The photo is of the attic in our largest ongoing project.  The air handler, plenum, and ducts for the upstairs' central air system was (and will remain) located in the attic.  Between the attic and the living space below was some old and intermittent batt insulation.  In south Louisiana, an attic like this, under a dark-colored asphalt shingle roof, reaches unbearable temperatures, even if it is vented.  That means the central air system is pushing cold air through the really hot attic, air that gains temperature before it even reaches the rooms it is meant to cool.  Which means the central air system has to run as much as 20% more than if it weren't in a hot attic.  And all that entails: 20% higher bills, 20% sooner repair or replacement costs...

But here's a problem with a system like this that truly worries me: the hot, humid air in that attic stands a good chance of reaching its dew point on the machinery or ducts, condensing, then dripping into the insulation, framing lumber, or drywall of the ceiling below.  The threat of damage from this condensation increases greatly if any cold, conditioned air leaks from the system into the attic, but it only takes a little drip to ruin insulation, paint, or attract termites.

Spray foam insulation, whatever other drawbacks it may have, can solve these problems by allowing the attic to stay at a temperature and relative humidity close to that inside the living areas.  The central air system doesn't need to work as hard, and damp air is kept outside the building envelope by the foam.

Monday, April 18, 2011

“Properly licensed and qualified contractors…It’s the Law!”

Here's an email bulletin sent to us by the State Licensing Board for Contractors, reminding us to conform with the law.   We'd like to remind ya'll that the law applies to homeowners as well.  You are required by the state and by the city of New Orleans to hire contractors who are licensed and insured, or else be licensed and insured yourself.  It isn't just a matter of hiring people who have passed state tests on their competence in the trades.  If you pick up a day laborer from a parking lot, you are liable for all relevant employment taxes, unemployment insurance, and worker's compensation fees.  

BULLETIN:  11-04
  April 15, 2011

 Requests for Proposals— “RFP’s”

The professionals of the construction industry in Louisiana, architects, contractors, engineers, project owners, and awarding authorities, must remember that “quotes” or “proposals” are subject to the Louisiana Contractor Licensing Laws. According to the definition of a contractor as found in LA RS 37:2150.1(4) (a) a contractor means any person who undertakes to, attempts to or “SUBMITS A PRICE OR BID OR OFFERS TO CONSTRUCT”.  Given that by definition, the law makes no distinction between performing work or merely proposing to perform work, it is the LSLBC Compliance Division policy that we treat both as equal. To submit a proposal for work that requires one to be licensed to actually perform the work, one must also be licensed to submit the proposal. Submitting an “RFP” without possessing a license is a violation of our law and the contractor will be cited for 37:2160 A (1). 

The Licensing Board has been consistent in the handling of any such matters, while they may take in to account the fact that the contractor received no payments when deciding what penalty to impose, the Board has found the violators guilty without distinction. The only exception to this would be if the RFP is submitted out of state, in that case we would not have jurisdiction, but regardless of who is requesting the RFP, contractors must be licensed to legally submit a response to an RFP.

“Properly licensed and qualified contractors…It’s the Law!”

For any questions or further information, please refer to the website at or contact our Public Information Officer at 225-765-2301 Ext. 213 or via email at

Friday, April 8, 2011

Updates on the master suite

A couple more photos of this project, now that the master bath layout and framing has been finished, and the rough plumbing nearly done.  To the left is the alcove where the soaking tub will be, surrounded by marble tile and to be lit by a purple chandelier, TBD.  We're thinking of doing something fancy with the glass in that window -- any ideas? 

To the right is the entrance to Hers and His closets, flanking the shower door, which will be trimmed to match the others. 

The existing plumbing in the house is a mixture of cast iron and galvanized drain pipes with galvanized and copper supply lines.  Our plumbers, Garon Plumbing, are connecting their new PVC drains and vents to the existing drain lines with heavy-duty rubber clamp unions.  The new supply lines are PEX pipe, a plastic pipe that's been used for a while in Europe and is finally establishing itself as the supply line of choice in this area.  It's faster to install than any of the alternatives (galvanized, copper, pvc/cpvc), much more resistant to freezing, and cheaper.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clothes make the man

True to form, Mark Twain is reputed to have followed his profound observation that "Clothes make the man" with the more profound but also hilarious "naked people have little or no influence upon society." 

I'll testify that the first line is at least partly true of builders: the tools make the carpenter. 

Recently, in the course of working on some small upgrade and maintenance projects for a client, I removed a section of his backyard fence.  Since the painter would also need access behind the fence, I re-installed the section to approximately the same degree of sturdiness and durability it had before: not much.  While reviewing the work done with the homeowner, I told him this, and said, "that section of fence is less than-". 

Laughing, he pointed out, "don't say too much, I built that". 

"Missing tools?"


It had been an effective and noble effort for a busy dad with a hand screwdriver and a sweaty afternoon, no question; but having the correct tools for a job can be nearly as important as having the knowledge to carry out the job. 

I should be careful saying such things: in a cavity-filling contest, a dentist with blacksmith tools would probably draw less blood than a blacksmith using dentist tools.   But quality tools, the right ones for each particular task, enable a higher quality of finished product at a better price than inferior tools.  This isn't to say that, with a sufficient investment in fancy tools, the average homeowner should attempt to remodel his bathroom, or that a sufficiently talented carpenter could not, in time, build an incredible Queen Anne-style home with only a handsaw, a chisel, and a hammer.  What I meant by "tools make the carpenter" is that the tools help represent the carpenter's attitude about her work and the quality of her finished jobs.

A craftsman working on your home with a beat-up, cheap-looking, aluminum spirit level and a dollar-store miter saw with a dime-store blade clearly has little interest in the finished appearance and longevity of his work.   Conversely, a craftsman whose tools are both expensive and flawlessly neat may be spending too much of your money coddling his precious specialty saws and clamps. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Where I grew up in eastern Oregon, there are thunderstorms -- incredible to watch in the sagebrush-covered mountains and plains because you can see so far -- and there are what we called "thunder-busters".  The colloquialism conveys the suddenness and severity of those certain storms that make you want to hide under the bed.  Well, last night New Orleans had a thunder-buster on a scale unimaginable by Oregonians:  Three inches of rain, inch-round hail, several tornadoes, street flooding, and at least two cases of hiding under the bed that I know of. 

An opportunity for me to lecture all you homeowners who:
-have water seeping in under doors or around windows this morning
-have rivers or puddles underneath your house
-have not cleaned your gutters recently
-parked near a street drain
-keep putting off signing up for that termite contract, or checking that your existing termite company is doing their job regularly
-habitually leave tools, crawfish pots, old leaves, or debris sitting around outside
-have not examined the underside of your roof recently
-have not checked the flashing around roof penetrations like chimneys and plumbing vents
-are not planning for / saving for an eventual roof replacement
-I repeat, if you have not cleaned your gutters recently, DO THAT PLEASE!

In this climate even small leaks and seeps can stay wet all summer.  Termites won't take that long to cause thousands of dollars in damage to your house, and if I'm not mistaken, it's almost the time of year when jillions of those little devils swarm the night air looking for mates and new homes of damp wood in and under our homes.

So unless your house is built like the old Pitot House above -- large overhangs and porch all around, masonry columns and patio on the ground floor -- please take last night's thunderstorms as a warning to address any water-related issues your home may have. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The beginnings of a master suite

Having done most of the demo and framing downstairs, we've moved on to the upstairs portion of our current big project.  What used to be the kitchen, laundry, and back balcony in the upper apartment in Simone & Michelle's house will become a master bath and a pair of walk-in closets.  A bedroom across the hall from the former kitchen is getting expanded to incorporate the hallway.  Here are a few "before" pictures:
The former kitchen.  A tub will go under the window.

The same kitchen, facing towards the master bedroom.

The existing master bedroom, facing towards the previous photo.

The hallway dividing the kitchen (L) and bedroom (R).

And now a few "afters":
The hallway from the other direction, bedroom (L) and bath (R).

The former kitchen, half removed.

From the bedroom, looking through the former hall into the former kitchen.

Looking back the opposite direction into the enlarged master bedroom.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spring Weather

Jackson beginning work on an entry restoration last spring.
Ours is a dirty job, a sweaty, dusty, messy, smelly, chilly, noisy, sticky job.  Some of those things aren't always bad: sometimes the smells are of aromatic cedar sawdust, and sometimes the damp dirt under a house is the coolest place on a hot day.

But this time of year, when the forecast predicts a straight fortnight of sunny days, highs near eighty, lows just under sixty, we forget all our complaints.  We pity every working person who doesn't have our job.  Take your conditioned air, your clean workplace, your swivel chair.  Ours is the best job.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The beginnings of a new kitchen

Now that the hard work of planning and administration has been done, we have started the dirty work on a large remodel project for Simone and Michelle, former clients whose house is featured as the "Portico Addition" in our Project Gallery.  The house has been divided into separate first-story and second-story apartments.  This project involves joining the two into one family's home, making a master suite to envy, and giving the kitchen a much-needed expansion and update. 

The original kitchen, ca. 1940, featured built-in cabinets, a ribbed tile counter, and three layers of linoleum floor under a thick mud-bed tile floor.  
After protecting unaffected areas of the house from dust and damage last week, Monday we donned dust masks and began disassembling the old kitchen.  In this corner we are expanding the kitchen into the hallway. 

Dante, the newest member of Kerby & Company, applies leverage to remove the subfloor.

Once the old subfloor was removed, we installed blocking to give the floor added rigidity (the floor joists were spaced too widely at the time of construction, so that now the kitchen floor sags in the middle somewhat -- a challenge we'll deal with later), and installed most of the new subfloor.  We'll leave a hole to the underside of the house as long as possible, so the electricians and plumbers have easier access. 

In the photo below, Jackson and Michelle discuss placement of the range and fridge while Simone looks on and Jeff documents Michelle's superior balance. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A paean to salvage yards

Salvage yards are a staple destination for any contractor working on old homes, both for shopping and donating.  They are a source for original architectural details like brackets and doors; they offer more authentic alternatives to home-center building supplies, which are invariably imported and visibly cheap; they gladly accept donations of house parts we can't use on a particular project but can't stand to see thrown away and hauled off to the dump.

Shopping the salvage yards takes a lot of patience, flexibility, or both.  What they have in stock varies daily, as do the prices and qualities of the items for sale.  We keep a list of things that might serve some need for any of several clients, and we try to visit often to browse for items on the list.  Often we come away with nothing.  Or we modify plans for a particular remodel project based on what we find available in the salvage yards. 

This week, while walking out of The Green Project with two partial quarts of blue and yellow oil-based paint I was using to protect a client's new (salvaged) back door ($.50 each), I spotted an old farmhouse drainboard sink.  Another client had mentioned wanting one a month or two ago.  A quick measurement and consultation with notes on that client's laundry room, then I loaded up the perfectly sized and styled sink (after some scrubbing) for under $50.  Buying a similar sink new from the internet could easily cost $1,000 with shipping.  I'm hoping that the included faucet will need only some new gaskets and a polish to save our client the additional $250-$800 she'd spend on a new faucet. 

The caveats, though: first, for every great find like this one, I've made a dozen trips to numerous yards and found nothing, or brought something home that didn't work out.  Second, salvage materials often require far more investment in labor to prepare and install than items bought or custom-made new.  And third, old materials often carry lead paint with them. 

Here are the salvage yards in town that we visit most, and a few notes on each:

The Green Project.
The Green Project is the most proletariat salvage yard in town: they accept almost anything -- from bricks to toilets to outlet boxes to screen doors -- in any condition and sell for almost nothing.  Items in good condition go very quickly.

The Preservation Resource Center's Salvage Store.
Recently opened next door to The Green Project, the PRC's Salvage Store focuses more on finer, wooden architectural details, usually in decent condition.

Habitat Restore.
The Restore carries a slightly different collection, including furniture and books as well as doors, lumber, and hardware.  They used to have mostly surplus from commercial projects, but they seem to have more recently come across much of the architectural salvage from the VA and LSU hospital building projects.

Ricca's Architectural Demolishing Corp.
Ricca's has a great selection of doors, brackets, and cast iron, many items either restored or reproduced.  They are especially helpful with period hardware, both antique and reproduction.

The Bank Architectural Antique Sales.
The Bank means doors.  Plus mantels and shutters.  The Bank differs from the other salvage yards because they don't just resell donated materials, they strip paint, repair damage, and sand their items first, then sell a nearly finished product.  Worth a visit just to awe at the size of their collection, and the overwhelming smell of cypress.

Strip-Ease of New Orleans.  (504) 484-3040.
Strip-Ease is an up-and-coming version of The Bank near Bayou St. John.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Holistic Budgeting

I never tire of repeating a concept of mine, that everyone knows a bargain at the grocery store because everyone visits one weekly for decades; not everyone recognizes a good deal when they purchase or renovate their home because most people don't get much practice at buying or renovating houses.  In unfamiliar territory, people are more susceptible to making rash choices, failing to foresee the consequences of even their most rational decisions, and being outright scammed.  Plus, if you pay too much for milk, or don't to notice that some eggs in the carton are already broken, or if you fall for the junk magazines and candy at the checkout aisle, what have you lost?  Twenty dollars and rolled eyes from your significant other.  Mistakes in a remodel project aren't so easily shrugged off.  Making a holistic budget before you think of starting a project -- and sticking strictly too it -- will help you get the most from your home and keep money-related stresses at bay. 

Now, let's be clear: I'm the last person to suggest that people should not invest in renovation projects, or that homeowners should not allow their vision of the project to evolve as the project progresses.  The first puts us out of business, and the second removes much of Jackson's and my joy (and strategic advantage over competitors) in our craft. 

But it is not at all in our best interest to sell clients more renovation than they can really afford, test their credit limits, or end a project with their expectations unmet.  We'd like to leave them with money left for curtain rods.  And a rose bush.  And the home maintenance they ought to invest in on a regular basis.

Thus, if you're considering a remodel project, I encourage you to think very carefully about all the things that make your house a home now, and include them in your vision of the finished remodel.  Then, when you speak with us and other contractors, don't tell us "my budget is $45," tell us:

"My budget is $45, less the costs of some landscaping, some updated furniture, towel rods, my bank's financing fees, some to invest in a professional designer's help, the amount I'll pay my accountant to find tax credits for this remodel, the additional restaurant meals I'll eat while you're tearing my house apart, and the amount I'm setting aside now for hiring a gutter cleaner at least once a year and buying HVAC filters on a regular basis." (Italics added to not-so-subtly emphasize a separate point.)

Thinking like this is a lot less fun than "well, I have $45 and the contractor said it'd cost $42.99, so I'm going to splurge on that crystal chandelier."  But it'll be worth it.  Plan well, plan ahead for ALL the costs of a remodel, and you'll be able to afford having us back for another project. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Better Men's Words

Well, I'm ashamed to admit that I have recently discovered that blogging is a commitment.  Allow me to fill the breach with some thoughts on the meaning of "house" and "home" from some favorite writers.

From Don Juan, by Lord Byron (1788-1824):

’T is sweet to hear the watch-dog’s honest bark
  Bay deep-mouth’d welcome as we draw near home;
’T is sweet to know there is an eye will mark
  Our coming, and look brighter when we come.

From Imitation of Horace, by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):

For life, six hundred pounds a year;
A handsome house to lodge a friend;
A river at my garden’s end;
A terrace walk, and half a rood
Of land set out to plant a wood.

From Out of the Old House, Nancy, by Will Carleton (1845-1912):

Fare you well, old house! you’re naught that can feel or see,
But you seem like a human bein’—a dear old friend to me;
And we never will have a better home, if my opinion stands,
Until we commence a-keepin’ house in the house not made with hands.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What your bath fan is really for

The second crucial difference between insulations leads us into a Gordian knot of building science problems.  The closest thing I've found to a solution is a book at this link:

Consider this image: as you, your movie-star husband, and your two over-achieving kids enjoy an Independence Day barbecue on your patio, your ice-filled julep makes a puddle on the table.  The glass isn't leaking, humid air is condensing on its cold surface.  There's a good chance you've seen this happen on your home's windows as well.  This phenomenon doesn't just make rings on coffee tables, it can cause serious damage where you don't see it, in your walls, under your floors, and in the attic. 

Condensation occurs when water vapor in the air comes in contact with a surface at or below the dew point.  The dew point temperature varies according to relative humidity.  Water vapor enters your home in a variety of ways, for example:
-from outside air that is more humid than the air inside the house;
-clothes dryers;
-human breathing.

Building materials have different degrees of resistance to penetration by water vapor.  Glass and sheet vinyl have very low permeability, whereas wood and drywall have fairly high permeability.  What happens in a worst-case scenario?  On a muggy summer day, the inside of your house is air-conditioned real cool and pleasant.  Hot air leaks inside, say through the hole where your cable comes in.  It gets in your wall, carrying that sticky humidity, moves through the insulation, gets cooler as it permeates the drywall, then runs into that handsome, semi-impermeable wallpaper in the kitchen.  It condenses into liquid water, over time growing mold, making the drywall soft and crumbly, attracting termites to the framing lumber, and saturating the insulation.  The reverse of this happens in winter, when warm, more humid air in your house moves through your walls towards cold, potentially condensing surfaces outside.

Fiberglass and cellulose are very permeable, and they are rendered useless as insulations once they've been wet. Closed-cell foam is impermeable, while open-cell foam has low permeability.  More on this next time, when I'll get to what you can do about it while renovating your house, especially in regards to insulation.

For the moment, some things you can do to keep water vapor from causing damage:
-Reduce it and control it.
-Modern central air systems do a lot of the work for you.
-Using your range hood fan while cooking helps immensely.
-Clean your dryer's lint catcher, and shorten its vent duct if possible.
-Ensure that your doors, windows, and weatherstripping are in good working order.
-And please, use your bath fan to remove the steam from showers and baths!  It is not there for smells, it is there to remove excess water vapor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Last time I brought up three crucial differences in the merits and faults of various insulations: air movement, water vapor, and installation.  Air movement can lower your insulation’s effectiveness.  It develops from at least three conditions:

One is simple leakage.  If the wind is blowing, or even if there is no wind but there is a difference in temperature between inside and outside – insulation’s raison d’etre -- air will get into and move through any cracks or holes in a house's wall, floor, and ceiling assemblies.  The threat of a windy day ruining your coziness is apparent, but the more insidious leakage will happen on a calm day.  Remember elementary physics: warm air rises, and it expands.  Your hard-earned warm air will find its way out through cracks in the closets or around the holes cut in your ceiling where light fixtures are installed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, we’ve heard, so up comes cold air from under the house.  On cooling days, of course, the process reverses.  This is sometimes called the “stack effect”.  

The second type of air movement is created by induced pressure differences.  Running a range hood or bathroom vent tends to create negative pressure inside a house, because they exhaust air to the outside.  Again, we have a vacuum effect, which means air will be sucked in through any holes or cracks in your home’s walls, floors, or ceilings.

The third variety of air movement is a convective loop within an assembly.  Even within a well-sealed cavity between two wall studs, warmer air will rise, pushing cooler air down in a constant cycle. 

Since insulating materials gain their effectiveness from the tiny pockets of still air within them, if the air in these pockets moves, the insulation loses effectiveness.  Imagine blowing on a spoon of hot oatmeal, versus just waiting to eat it.  This is sometimes called “wind-washing”.

Your first reaction should be “isn’t that what insulation does, stop cold/hot air from getting in?”  Well, kind of.  Many insulation materials don’t stop the flow of air, they only slow it.  Knowing that moving air is far more penetrative than water, would you fish in a bass boat made of cellulose or fiberglass insulation? 

Spray foam insulation would make a perfectly serviceable boat, and is therefore superior to other types of insulation on the issue of air movement.  Being quite solid after installation, the foam keeps its insulating air pockets trapped and is therefore impervious to the loss of effective R-value caused by wind-washing.  Plus, it penetrates and seals shut any cracks or holes in a wall assembly.  

But, even though fiberglass and cellulose are susceptible to air movement, I haven’t been convinced that this makes spray foam worth the amount it costs. 

Fiberglass and cellulose don't have to suffer from wind-washing. Carefully planned and installed floor, wall, and ceiling assemblies can resist the first and second types of air movement.  An airtight drywall installation, caulking cracks and holes before insulating, and having an air barrier on the exterior of the wall assembly should greatly reduce, if not eliminate air movement through fiberglass or cellulose insulation.  The third type of air movement mentioned above I suspect is too minor an effect to be a deciding factor in the choice between insulations, under ordinary circumstances.  Moreover, I have yet to see a trustworthy report on what percent of its advertised R-value a fiberglass batt will lose to wind-washing.  Does it retain 85% of its effectiveness?  Only 10%?  Personally, on a blustery January night, I’ll choose a shelter with fiberglass insulation over one without any.  

On the issue of air movement, I am at the moment inclined to favor cellulose or fiberglass because I fear the cost of spray foam isn’t worth its superior resistance to air movement.

But that’s only one of the three major issues.   

Friday, January 14, 2011

Which Insulation?

For those of us who have lived, or do live, in a leaky old uninsulated shotgun house -- it's a rare 31 degrees in New Orleans today, and about 33 inside our office -- the easy answer to "which insulation" is ANY insulation.  But when faced with choosing an insulation, one finds that there are many options and they are not coequal.  Moreover, the differences between insulation materials aren't simply a matter of costs and qualities.  They perform differently, derive from various sources, are installed differently, and are affected differently by water vapor, air infiltration, and time.  Oh, and cats.

If you've come here looking for The Answer about insulation, my apologies.  I'm going to relate some of my confusions, worries, and discoveries.  If I find Truth, I'll let everyone know.

Here's one of the problems: one of our projects is nearly ready for insulation, so over the past few days I've had four insulation contractors over to discuss the project and give us an estimate for the work.  Each has been an experienced professional; yet I've received four conflicting reports on the relative merits of fiberglass (blown or batt), cellulose (blown dry or wet), and spray foam (open cell or closed cell).  Most insulators are true believers in one or the other type.  (Occasionally you'll find one who will install whatever you want, no opinions offered.)  So who knows best?

Let's begin with a critical point: closed cell spray foam is the most expensive option to have installed, followed by open cell spray foam, cellulose, blown fiberglass, and fiberglass batts.  The reason most people are most familiar with fiberglass batts is because they're last on that list.

Next, what is insulation for?  It's meant to slow heat transfer.  We've all heard about R-value, which is the usual measure of a material's resistance to heat transfer.  The higher the number -- R-20 vs. R-3 -- the more insulating value a material has.  If I can be forgiven a gross simplification, the aforementioned insulations all give an R-value of approximately 3.4-3.8 per inch, amounting to similar insulating values in your average wall.

Here come the crucial differences, which I'll discuss as best I can in several subsequent postings:
1) there are at least three different varieties of air movement that can affect the insulation value of a material.
2) water vapor, from a muggy day outside or from your hot morning shower wants to travel through building assemblies.  If vapor is moving through a wall and meets a cold surface within the wall -- say, the back side of some refreshingly air-conditioned sheetrock -- it will condense.  Insulations affect and are affected by vapor in different ways.
3) quality of installation can vary.  Batt insulation, in particular, has to be notched around obstacles such as electrical outlets, which affects its ability to resist heat transfer.

Other factors to consider are: loss of R-value over time; resistance to insects, pests, mold, or fire; off-gassing of chemicals used in manufacturing; sustainability of raw materials; suitability for location.

Note: I don't want to give the idea that the insulation types mentioned above are the only options.  We could discuss the merits and flaws of rock-wool batts, rigid foam boards, soy-based spray foam, straw bales, recycled cotton batts, or grown-not-manufactured mushroom insulation.  No kidding:

Some helpful sources:

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Welcome to the Kerby & Company blog.  If you've had a look around our web site, you've already seen that we value a friendly, relaxed relationship with our clients, current, past, and potential.  Our aim for this blog is to enhance these relationships by encouraging potential clients to get to know us a little better, by making it easier for past clients to keep track of us (so far we're not hiding from any of them!), and by allowing current clients another perspective on their own projects. 

We believe that efficient, quality renovation projects, like good friendships, are characterized by honest, open communication between participants.  Also like good friendships, renovation projects are not always smooth sailing under sunny skies.  Renovation projects are an adventure, and sometimes they are a real struggle.  It would of course be unprofessional (and foolish) to broadcast to the world wide web each daily gripe and slip-up from the job-site.  But we do hope that readers -- past, present, or future clients -- will appreciate a more candid account of a renovation project than they'll find in a sales brochure: we make mistakes, forget things, and overestimate our speed; homeowners suffer crises of indecision, miscalculate costs/values, and find conflicts with their spouse's priorities or within their own; materials and products let us down; it rains; plumbers go haywire; well-intentioned thoughts are misspoken or left unsaid; and termites -- nemesis termites! -- are discovered in the worst possible places at the worst possible times.

Doubtless conventional wisdom dictates that we should never admit these things aloud, but we've never wanted to take a conventional approach.  Here's the difference: most renovations are sold to homeowners as a product, whereas we believe they are in fact a service.  Unless you are a very special type of homeowner (wealthy and detached), you probably won't ever hire a renovator to tear apart and reassemble your home, leave on vacation, then return, satisfied, to a successful, completed renovation.  You're more likely to be deeply involved with the project -- mentally, emotionally, physically, and of course financially -- from start to finish.  We think that is as it should be, and we want to help.

So we hope this blog might give clients some valuable insight into the process and into our company.  Along with updates and photos of ongoing projects, we'll throw in some links to information on licensing, regulations, home ownership, some reviews of products or services, some discussions of issues relevant to our business...