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...