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Grumpy Architect Time

I'm irritated by fiberglass batts, bad air sealing details, and unnecessary radiant floor heating systems

I’m not normally a grumpy architect, but when I am it is usually because of something on this list.

1. If your house is adequately insulated there should be little temperature differential between the ceiling and the floor.

2. “Adequately” differs from code. Remember, a house built to code is the worst house you can legally build.

3. If you choose not to build an Energy-Star-certified home, please give your poor starving architect the $2,000 (the value of the Energy Star incentive) that you obviously have to spare.

4. Does anybody with any real knowledge of building use fiberglass batts anymore? (Probably not anyone who reads this.)

5. Air sealing, folks! Do it correctly! Not by installing a 6-mil poly vapor barrier. That was the 1990s. We are so over that. There are some great products available (check out 475) and lots of great information is available here on GBA.

6. Why do people want to build a superinsulated house and then put in a full-on radiant floor heating system in? (See #3 above, about where to send all that extra money.)

7. Why do people want to build a new house that looks old? I think it’s just a phase this country is in. I see signs that the retro-anachronistic architecture phase is fading.

8. But I do it anyway: gotta feed the family, and I enjoy it. Quite a lot sometimes.

9. Bright side: the science of how to build correctly is settling out in favor of simplicity. That is what draws me to the Passive House approach.

10. On a very bright side, I live and work in southeastern Vermont, home of the Sustainable Energy Outreach Network. SEON sponsors a monthly meeting (often moderated by Peter Yost) of builders who enjoy building science discussions on an impressively high level. So I’m the lucky architect who gets to work with these builders.

11. Why do people have so much stuff?

Robert Swinburne is a part-time architect and full-time homemaker living on 49 acres with his wife and two young children in Halifax, Vermont. He was a carpenter for several years after architecture school and is now a licensed architect and passive house designer with over 100 completed projects in the Northeast. Bob maintains a blog (primarily for therapeutic reasons) under the moniker “Vermont Architect.”

18 Comments

  1. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    I figured that item #7 would generate discussion
    James,
    It's hard to debate taste. But I'm with you.

    Some modernist buildings are well designed and beautiful. But experiments with all-glass walls and flat roofs -- concepts that seemed good to an architect, but which performed terribly -- were a blot on the modernist idea, and reinforced the preferences of those who favor traditional designs.

  2. Steve P | | #2

    Prize-winning rant
    Yes, this man has used Passive House and the word "simplicity" in the same sentence, and in a non-ironic way. I am awed :-)

    In tropical Maine, getting a builder to actually use any sort of air sealing (forget about attention to details) is often a struggle. And we still see plenty of new-build (less than 10 years old) construction failing from rot and water ingress.

  3. User avater
    Robert Swinburne | | #3

    #7 is worth expanding upon
    into another blog post perhaps.
    #7 is a good conversation starter but no more than that.
    It's tough to drive around and see that the default style for this country has become a new-retro-fake and ill-informed version of traditional. Think: gratuitous gables, complicated footprints, fake stone veneer and horrible proportions. This is so pervasive that people often don't know any different. That's the impetus for #7.

    I consider myself a purist and don't really care about style as long as it's done well. Connor Homes in Middlebury, VT does amazing work in New England traditional and I often find myself visiting their website for ideas and inspiration. Flat roofs and all-glass are a very narrow version of modernist architecture. The house in the previous blog is different example of modernist architecture as is my own barn.

    The big lesson I take from my (many) readings of "A Pattern Language" is simply to do what is good and works and is lovely. That attitude takes from regional tradition and style, modern lifestyle and modernism, aesthetics (my own, the client's and the context), geometry, proportion, scale, building science and a whole host of ideas without necessarily boiling it out into a particular style - or sometimes it does. This is the conversation I like to have.

  4. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Robert Swinburne
    Robert,
    I certainly agree with you about the current plague of "new-retro-fake and ill-informed versions of traditional -- gratuitous gables, complicated footprints, fake stone veneer and horrible proportions." A few months back, Greg Labbé wrote a funny GBA blog on the topic called Pastiche Architecture.

    GBA would be delighted if you shared your thoughts on the topic in a future blog.

  5. Trevor Trainor | | #5

    Comment on #4
    Let's not dismiss fiberglass batt insulation completely. When used in conjunction with adequate exterior insulation and proper air sealing, fiberglass (or mineral wool) batts can be used to create a cost-effective and very durable high-R wall system (or unvented roof for that matter). Like any product, it needs to be used properly, as a part of well-designed system.

    Trevor

  6. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #6

    I'm with Trevor
    Air sealing

    I'm with Trevor

    Air sealing and batts I prefer over spray foam as of 2015. Cellulose too of course. Limited rigid foam use too.

    Always super insulate and air seal well. Yes yes.

    Vent the roof in the north country. What? Always vent roofs in the north country. Joe L. you too.

    Flat roofs leak. I do not know of one that does not.

    Unvented cathedral ceiling roofs have internal condensation dripping back to the interior problems.

    Beams. When one buries a valley or ridge beam in a cathedral roof, you have made a huge error. Architects are you listening? The beam is a cold path. The beam will collect condensate. The condensate will drip back into the home. The homeowner will have the roof redone but that is not the problem. The homeowner then pulls out his hair or goes stalking the builder. The scene gets ugly. The lawyers get rich. And then the architect and builder build another house with dumb beam locations. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat,

    I am only referring to cold weather country. Zone 6A for me.

    aj

  7. Nate G | | #7

    #11: Why do people have so much stuff?
    Because they've spent a significant fraction of their lives earning the prodigious amount of money necessary to buy all that stuff, and getting rid of a large amount of it would amount to admitting that most of that time was wasted.

  8. User avater
    Robert Swinburne | | #8

    coupla notes
    If you want a most perfect fiberglass batt installation, get the OCD architect to do it. (been there, done that)
    +
    The opening image. Fairly accurate except that T-squares are so old school. Parallel rules are so much faster.

  9. JAMES KREYLING | | #9

    Response to #7: "Why do
    Response to #7: "Why do people want to build houses that look old?" On the other hand, why do so so many architects want to build ugly modern sterile cubes and boxes that don't even evoke the feeling of a house?! Christopher Alexander et al really did "nail" a lot of worthwhile archetypes. #117-"Sheltering Roof." 116-"Cascade of Roofs,: etc. Many if the aesthetics of "Old Houses" are warm and beautiful, and enveloping, not disdainful of the human lives within. The beauty of the homes of the Arts and Crafts movement will endure for a long time, and with good reasons. Page through many architectural journals and magazines and you will find many homes that might not be so pleasant to actually live in. And yes, some that are indeed beautiful to experience.

  10. Brendan Meyer | | #10

    #11. Human nature
    It is a force of nature to expand to whatever limits are present, whether it's an ecosystem, house, pants, or the planet. It is human nature to hit that limit then change the limit.

  11. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #11

    #4 indeed
    Sure people use fiberglass batts- even crummy R19s, just not so much in exterior assemblies. It's a cheap & easy way of isolating heating zones when using radiant floors/ceilings.

    And yes, people DO get more comfort out of radiant floors & ceilings, than from feeding the architects! :-) (And they are more willing to pay for that.)

  12. Richard McGrath | | #12

    Radiant Floors
    are so 20th century . Ceilings offer so much more and at a lower than you think installed price . Imagine no oversizing and no short cycling , it is being done while many are still trying to wash the bad taste of a price driven poorly designed and installed radiant floor from their face .
    Water is after all the predicate device every manufacturer still compares their tech against . Did you see Mitsubisshis newest system design ? Monitors mean radiant temp at the exterior walls and windows . Wonder why that is .

  13. Dave Richardson | | #13

    Flat roof v.s. retro.
    AJ's seen many flat roof problems. My arch. firm has over 40 years of low sloped, membrane roofs that usually outperform shingled roofs.

    But also I happily worked on a craftsman farmhouse w/ R40 walls and R50 roof, (shingles) that is heated with 2 logs in the morning and 2 logs in the evening. HERS 39.

  14. Alec Shalinsky | | #14

    #4 Batts
    I'm with Trevor and AJ. Let's not go crazy on dismissing fiberglass or rock batts. Installed correctly and properly air sealed they function beautifully. $30000 in foam vs $10000 in batts will make anyone pause to consider. I have excellent results from batts. In our almost passive home in Europe ("almost" only because we never certified it) we used Knauf fiberglass (Ecobatt in Canada and US) to great effect. The house, after 3 years, continues to function beyond expectations.
    The next one we will do a hybrid (flash and batt) system.
    I will concede number 6. We screwed the pooch on that one. Lots of $$$ and never been turned on!

    Alec

  15. John Mattson | | #15

    Old Houses
    Retro and modern can be done well, needs good architect. But if you want and old style house... why not START with an old house? Yes, it would have been easier and probably cheaper to tear down and re-build my 1903 Victorian, but I cannot believe it would be nearly as nice. I just wish GBA and other sites and other products were found/available when I started (way too many years ago). I would do SO many things better were I to start today. But the same will probably be true five years in the future. The rate of research, development and innovation is amazing. So, yes, I have fg batts in my INTERIOR walls, it was cheap, quick, it cut noise and slowed heat migration, and was better than nothing. I found foam for the exterior walls, thank goodness, but wow was it more expensive back then. Wish I had known the whole story on air sealing back then. Still working on achieving a good seal, much harder ex post restoro. Thanks to everyone on GBA. This is an ever developing field, and a great time to be here.

  16. Wes Stewart | | #16

    Numbers 10 and 11
    #10 If I hear the word "sustainable" one more time I think I'll puke. Can anyone even define "sustainable" in this context? I didn't think so. What is hip, mod and cutting edge today will be just as old fashioned and subject to, "what were they thinking" in a few years as technology marches on.

    #11 How can a guy living on 49 acres, question other people having, "too much stuff"?

  17. User avater
    Robert Swinburne | | #17

    My stuff
    Here is some of my stuff. I have lots of trees.
    I also have a dog, a family, a barn, a small house with a bathroom, three bicycles, lots of xc skis and snowshoes and an old truck. Some of my neighbors with much more land have much less stuff.

  18. Donald Endsley | | #18

    #7 again...
    With new technology and skills comes new architecture. I'm still waiting on architects to figure out solar panel architecture. There are some pretty weird examples out there, but the closest I've seen to beautifully using them in the design is the house featured in the FHB article Zero Energy, Infinite Appeal, even though that particular house is closer to Parkitecture than it is to solar panel architecture.

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