Modern Architecture vs. Artful Shelter

(Originally published on Facebook, 01/30/2015)

“Painting is dead.” That’s a saying that’s been going around for some time now—since the first daguerreotype in the early 1800’s actually. But the claim really got some teeth late this past century. And why shouldn’t it? By then, what hadn’t been explored on a canvas?

I’m speaking of the Avant-garde of course; that ‘front line of Art’ bent on finding truth via color, shape, metaphor etc…. The only problem is, once a new way of seeing the world is defined, it’s easily copied. And what was at one time fresh and honest, quickly becomes counterfeit. This is why High Art must always be on the go. It will never land. It can’t. Because fad and fashion are quick on it’s heels ready to turn any recent headway for authenticity into a sham. —Nutshell.

So what’s this got to do with Architecture? Architecture, in the most contemporary sense of the word, has been following a similar path to that of Art—always on the go; always requiring fresh new interpretations of the form in order to be successful, as if Art and Architecture are synonymous.

Here’s the rub: The canvas has no practical purpose. It’s purely aesthetic. Without the constraint of pragmatics, the range of expression is vast. Now consider, if painting, with all it’s possibility and seemingly infinite opportunity for uniqueness, can be argued ‘dead,’ how reasonably can it be proposed that Modern Architecture, in it’s relentless pursuit for uniqueness (while being shackled to functionality) is clearly exhausted. It is after all, quite limited by actually having to do something.

The consequence of holding on to the idea, that Art and Architecture are the same thing, is an expensive one. Pervertedly so. All of the frugal options that once brought a degree of balance to the duties of both purpose and expression are gone. What remains, simply put, are gigantic abstract sculptures with doors attached; flat-pack reenactments of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ plus some cabled railings. There’s a special kind of hubris required to justify the cost of building in distortion; it’s a hubris that requires a hubris cape, with an exposé of special hubris sized, ego inflated hubris gonads in hubris tights.

And I’m not even saying there’s not a place for this. After all, I love to paint. Shouldn’t it be spare though; especially when it comes to forward thinking, higher education? This said, 9 out of 10 Departments of Architecture at the University level are strictly Modern. That’s conservative—it’s probably more like 98%. And let’s face it, I’ve been on the juries, students are required to create models that only a fraction of a fraction of graduates will ever have the opportunity or resources to bring to the table much less see to fruition.

Meanwhile, on a smaller scale; that scale we all interact with everyday; that ‘human scale,’ our built environment dilapidates. Structure is defeated in advance. And who’s been on watch while ‘building’ as we know it has been economized to nothingness? Is the Academia not the gate keeper; are the Architects not the holders of the keys? What has been your purpose? What has motivated you? The cape? What will be said of the vacancy in the timeline, when historians come to our place, our moment?: “Here, they appear to have built themselves tents?!”

Because, in short order, some 80% of all our structures will need to be rebuilt, and when the time comes for our grandchildren or their grandchildren to do it, there will be a lot fewer resources to work with in a world that is much more complicated.

We have a shelter problem.

So rather than squandering away most of our young talent on the myth of Howard Rourk, .. a suggestion: Change the way you define uniqueness. Find uniqueness in developing not only universal designs but the way those designs are implemented so our buildings will last longer. Then find a way to make them last longer than that. And after that, find a way to make them last a bit longer.

Then find something else to do.

Because after a century of enjoying plenty of food, water and clothing, the shelter problem will also be solved, our natural resources will have a chance to recover, and (being freed from the concerns of our most basic needs) we can get down to the business of being better at being human.

All this to say, there is an enclave of Architects and other professionals that have taken on the mantle of New Urbanism. They have shifted their focus away from individual buildings as the dominant form of architectural expression to the architecture of community. In essence, rather than building subdivisions, they strive to build self sustaining neighborhoods and ‘towns’ from scratch. New Urbanism is not perfect. It’s especially not perfect if the barometer for success is based on a pristine centuries old village comparison. Is it pretending to be that? Maybe. What’s a strip-mall pretending to be? You might say it’s a pretty damn authentic stack of crap. So when defining what’s wanted and not wanted based on pretense and authenticity, it may be worth noting, “mighty few people think what they think they think.”

The point is some folks are trying; with degrees of success they’re tacking towards something better than where things were going.

Cheers

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HFA3: Progress Update

(Originally published on Facebook, 12/30/2014) 

We laid the first brick for HFA3 on November 20th, and this is our progress as of December 21st in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma. The implementation of several new systems has increased the rate of production significantly along with integrating masonry and carpentry stages together as the building comes up. In the past, we’ve focused on completing the masonry massing independent of all carpentry assignments, but it has become apparent that the current strategy is much more effective in terms of efficiency and grace.

I say grace decisively. When dealing with uncharted paths of construction, figuring out ‘how to do it’ can often be cumbersome. This is what makes custom work (even high end stick framing) difficult and time consuming. So discovering techniques that eliminate ‘the struggle’ is a big part of what we’re doing. This is not to say that hard work can be something other than hard work. The point is — it doesn’t necessarily have to be a fight. As a design/build professional, I’ve come to realize something very important over the years, and it’s as simple as this: If you’re struggling with the work, you probably haven’t put the time into fully understanding the task at hand.

All this to say, introducing floor, window and door systems to the construction mix as those elements are reached by the structural masonry massing has proven to be quite effective, and right on the heels of the custom, stick frame production timeline.

By the time the masonry massing is completed, all floors will be framed and secured in place, all buck nailers will be ready to receive windows and doors, and all we will lack before ‘dry in’ is the roof which will be framed and decked in a matter of days.

On arriving in Oklahoma, we were fortunate enough to quickly find and enlist a masonry crew out of Tulsa to help with the bulk massing of the structure. It’s important to point out again, that with each iteration of the HFA initiative, we’ve employed ‘veneer’ masonry subcontractors unfamiliar with the common bond, triple wythe, structural masonry process. This shores up the notion that the HFA building model has handles; it can be taken to almost any region and executed using the resources provided by the local conventional trade pool.

Typically, as the masonry workers reach critical areas of detail, Apprentice Patricio and I often take the baton allowing the crew to focus efforts elsewhere. The goal is to keep the crew moving at a production rate. In this regard, one fairly skilled mason can make a huge difference in creating real architecture by guiding common ‘brick layers’ in the heavy lifting and selectively intervening at limited points of intricacy.

Again, it’s important to distinguish between a mason and a brick layer:
A ‘bricklayer’ has only few arrows in his quiver and performs rotely.
A ‘mason’ on the other hand, while having complete motion of the masonry skill set, is also able to improvise with unpracticed combinations of the craft, problem solving in the moment within the full spectrum of masonry possibility.

So far so good folks. Hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season and thanks for your continued support. And remember to follow us on Twitter: @1000yearhouse

Cheers from all of us at Hope for Architecture!

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View 01. Just beginning to rise above the first floor system.

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View 02. A detail of the carriage bolts that marry the floor system to the brick envelope.

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View 03. Window bucks in place and awaiting brickwork to secure them in.

HFA3: Masonry Leads

(Originally published on Facebook, 12/01/2014)

Town Founder and Patron Grant Humphreys laid the first brick at the HFA3 build site in Carlton Landing, Oklahoma on November 20th, 2014. It is with great enthusiasm we begin this third iteration of the ‘Hope for Archotecture’ alternative building concept based on affordable, multi-century lifecycle.

Apprentice Patricio and I established masonry leads at the corners of the building prior to the arrival of a full crew. With this head start, a 5 man team out of Tulsa was able to lay 9000 brick in two and a half days bringing the envelope massing up to floor joist height.

At ground level the walls are quad wythe. This will allow an ornamental skirt to corbel in 4″ at water table height before assuming the overall triple wythe, nominal 12″ massing.

As mentioned earlier, while brick mortar is setting (a 24 to 48 hour period) the work should not be exposed to overt freezing. Weather is the biggest challenge this time of year so we’re pushing hard to complete the masonry massing before winter really sets in.

1421209_817594951616961_622253767920231686_oView 01. Grant Humphreys laying the first brick.

10626217_817594801616976_7798099773066783411_oView 02. The first led set up on the south eastern corner.

HFA: 3 Foundation

(Originally published on Facebook, 11/27/2014)

We arrived the evening of Monday, November 10th, and while boxes were still waiting to be unpacked at our new home, we began excavating footings for HA3 that Thursday (November 13th). There’s a bit of a time crunch to say the least. With the oncoming Oklahoma winter, we have a small window to complete our mass walls because masonry is sensitive to freezing during the set time of the mortar.

So there’s been no time to loose. The footings were excavated in a couple of hours that Thursday morning with a small backhoe. There’s a lot of rock in this region and our’s is one of two foundations in the Carlton Landing community where boulders were not encountered. A stroke of good fortune we are happy to receive!

After the initial excavation, the open footings had to be cleared of roots; pruning shears are perfect for this. Then the troughs were cleaned and shaped by shovel. We began this process immediately and completed more than half the work before the first day’s end.

Images below show the before and after of this ‘grooming.’ It’s important that all organic material is removed from the area where concrete is to be poured, because this ‘living’ material is constantly changing, and where foundations are concerned, a consistent, stable stasis is desired.

The following morning (Friday, Nov. 14th) we continued cleaning and bringing the roughly excavated footings up to speed. After this, rebar was placed in the bottom 1/3 of the area later to be poured in cement. Rebar (reinforcement steel rod) when coupled with concrete, introduces a tension addressing counter action. Concrete alone, as with masonry, is limited solely to ‘compression’ structurally speaking.

Rebar is always placed near the face of the concrete where cracks and failure would occur first in response to pressure from the opposite side. This explains why rebar placed in the middle of a concrete mass will have low effect, while rebar placed opposite of the side receiving pressure will have optimal effect; hence the bottom 1/3 of the footing receives the reinforcement to counter the thrust of the massive building sitting on top of it.

There are several techniques for keeping the rebar off the footing floor and at the desired height. This involves what are referred to as ‘chairs’ and they can be bought specifically, or made by hand using reinforcing wire mesh. We chose the latter. ‘Ties’ are then used to firmly attach the bars to the chairs and hold the complete system in place in such a way that it will withstand tons of concrete being poured upon it.

After all was said and done, we poured four concrete trucks worth of material (60+ tons) on the second day of construction, but left the job site much later than the sun did.

By Monday morning, an inch of snow was on the ground and we were happy to have pushed through and gotten the exposed ground buttoned up with a new foundation.

Tree Removal = $1000
Excavation $75 per hour = $200
4000 psi Concrete $100 per yrd = 3600
Rebar = $700
Hourly Labor = $500

HFA Total Footing Foundation Cost: $6,000

 

1801339_815923071784149_1509599147665345875_oView 01. Initial rough digging of the foundation footings.

10680086_815923075117482_3470256496702452826_oView 02. Detailed view of #4 rebar laid out for the concrete.

10473899_815923201784136_515072285139722971_oView 03. Footings firmed up just before the snow fell.

 

HFA3: Moving to Oklahoma

(Originally published on Facebook, 11/20/2014)

Happy to report, we made it to Oklahoma a week and three days ago, and have been settling in nicely. HFA arrived to the New Urbanist town of Carlton Landing (Eufaula, OK) seven souls strong, i.e. the Chapman family of five and apprentice Patricio and wife Danyelle. It was quite the caravan, and the 800 mile journey was made without incident.

We are renting a new prairie cottage, one of 80 or so dwellings already built or under construction within the community. The Carlton Landing design philosophy is based on contemporary interpretations of the farm house motif, much in the same way Seaside and Rosemary Beach focus on a beach house theme. And, as with these 30A communities, the master plan for Carlton Landing was designed by DPZ.

This relocation has been in planning for almost two years now, and it’s been with both resolve and mixed emotions that we’ve left extended family and friends to begin this new season of life and growth for HFA. There were many goodbyes and a few farewells gifts (some esteemed more highly than others), that sent us on our way, and we’re very much looking forward to the new friends, relations and experiences that will follow this fresh beginning.

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View 01. The Caravan about to complete the final leg of the journey.

 

 

HFA2 Field Trip with Andres Duany

Andres Duany‘s  visit to the HFA2 build site several weeks ago was affirming on multiple levels.  It was a great opportunity to get unfettered feedback from one of today’s most influential figures in New Urbanism and Classical Architecture.  The conversation focused more on design than model, and while unexpected, an aesthetic nod from Duany goes a long way.

All this to say, building authentically without apology or cosmetic diversion is extraordinarily forgiving when it comes to beauty.  But in addition, it’s critical to focus on the way so many things fall into place (not just design) when we determine to actually build again.  This is to say, build in a time proven manner that we know will last century upon century and “… long into an uncertain future.”  It’s one thing to say we have evidence as if holding some fragment of a thing long past.  But in this case its like verbalizing a belief in oxygen with the very air required to speak.  This isn’t about ‘idea land’ or theory.  There are 2000 year old buildings still performing today.  We know this; we see these buildings; we travel far to touch them.

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View 01. Harvi & Anna Sahota of Hampstead, Scott Ball with DPZ, Dekalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader and Scott Doyon of Placemakers (not shown) also attended the HFA2 outing.

So why is disposable building so prevalent and tolerated in America?

Less than 200 years ago, sawmill technology entered the North American scene, and with it, along with our vast forest resources, came the advent of light framing.  Before we understood the full implications of this quick and ready, stripped down form of construction — before we had the mindset or faculty to grasp the many gross shortcomings,  it became familiar and normal, and part of our social and economic fabric.

Only after stick framing was a defining part of our building culture did we begin to realize flaws.  Not all at once, and this is important to note, because it explains how we incrementally backed ourselves into the current proverbial corner.  One by one, we began to address issues as our ability to understand them matured; in each instance adding ‘resources— energy— man power’ to shore up what is, essentially, shack technology… and each time, backing up; adding uniquely designed products, highly manufactured composites and even language like ‘renewable’ to soothe the collective green conscience; all the while, backing up.  Each instance has been marked by a discovery of some new hole in convention needing to be filled until we now actually put more into the practice of disposable building than we would building authentically and for the ages. 

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View 02. “This fails and it just becomes better.” — Andres Duany on the nature and character of the mass wall aesthetic.

This is the dilemma:  We’re now tightly lodged into this current position and we’ve walled ourselves in with a world economy dependent on the construction of pretend buildings — If we could only build with walls so well raised as this one now blocking common sense and common good.

We, in the industry, need only give folks a competitive choice — the vacuum for authenticity in America will do the rest.

HFA2 Current Status : April 7th, 2014

Where We Are…

Of the 75 work days now logged at the HFA2 build site (which at a scale of 20 days per month amounts to 3.75 months baring weather), the time and progress may be roughly accounted for as follows:

16 Days — Excavation/Footings/Foundation Walls/Slab/Waterproofing/Backfill                                                     23 Days — Exterior Stairwell/Fireplace & Chimney Column/Production Masonry Preparation
11 Days — Secondary Footings/ Porch Slab/Granite/Site & Material Logistics/Rough Grade/Misc.
25 Days — Mass Wall Production (Implementing Masonry Sub-Contractor — 100K Brick to Date)

The HFA1 field-test in Columbus, GA was a 3K square foot building requiring some 80K brick to construct.  The mass wall envelope was completed after 63 days of masonry.  With the second iteration of the concept, in Decatur, GA/Oakhurst Village (HFA2), we are now building a 5.3K square foot building requiring some 120K brick.  Note: the same 26′ x 42′ design is being constructed with additions.  All this to say, as indicated above, 100K brick have already been applied in only 25 days — a remarkable increase of pace though only the second go at wrapping our heads around the HFA process.  There is still significant fine tuning to be done which will continue to streamline production as we move forward with the concept.

During the construction of the HFA1 envelope, there were never more than 3 masons working at a given time. At HFA2 we’ve had as many as 10 trowels going at once.  Having more certitude now in the methodology, we’ve enjoyed a degree of ‘letting go.’ This has been a required transition given more tradesmen than can be consistently micromanaged — a good thing.  In addition, we haven’t had the concentrated filming of the project going on as before, and this along with the added work force has obviously played a big part in accelerated production.

And I must say, our client/Patrons Marc & Shelby Brennan have entrusted a level of autonomy that has played a huge part in the general morale of the project, not to mention speed of production.

 

Triple Wythe, Clay Brick, Mass Wall Envelope Progress 

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View 01:  Completed North and East Gables — 12′ and 14′ spanning, structural arches.

 

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View 02:  East gable from cellar level.  Note hardwoods beginning to leaf out suddenly — from nothing to this in one day (March 31, 2014).

 

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View 03:  Signature vaulted entry hood at front door.

 

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View 04:  Structure from East.  This vantage gives some insight why passerby stopped to ask if we were building a church.  ‘As a matter of fact…’

 

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View 05:  Signature batterings at primary four corners of dwelling — tapered, radius, relief columns represent some impediment to scalability along with a few other masonry elements requiring significant technical proficiency, i.e., fireplaces, entry hood.  But these design indulgences are fractional compared to the gross massing of the building.  The handicap to scalability they represent can be ‘designed out’ and foregone for production’s sake, preserving HFA’s competitive, lifecycle objective for new constructions.

 

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View 06:  Lead crew mason and contractor, Thomas seen through firewood vault of main level fireplace.

 

 

 

Notre Dame : HFA Lecture & Mass Wall Workshop

‘Great promise.’ —  These words come to mind when reflecting on the past weekend spent with architectural students of Notre Dame.  Friday evening, I spoke to a full gallery of students and faculty about affordable, multi-century building.  It was a warm reception and a humbling experience presenting HFA to the top school of Classical Architecture in the country.

Almost 30 minutes of Q & A followed the talk.  Both students and faculty made detailed inquires that delved into the heart of what we’re doing and what we want to do further in terms of research.  I’ve had a number of occasions to speak to audiences about the HFA Initiative, but two instances in particular stand out: Partnering with Steve Mouzon at ‘rogue’ CNU Salt Lake last Spring and these few days with the Irish.  In both instances, they got it!  Rather than preaching apologetics to undo the mainstream, ‘Mother Earth News’ regard for all things alternative, there’s an energy with these folks and you can feel it spooling up — a zeal that believes we can make better choices and that it’s going to take a lot more than conventional opposition/fear to stop this conviction from coming to bear.

The following day, we were scheduled to have a 2 to 3 hour mass wall workshop in front of Bond Hall.  We put trowels in the hands of more than 30 students and the event ended up lasting some 6 hours.  Students and faculty alike participated in building triple wythe, common bond mass walls in the same fashion implemented by HFA.  It’s difficult to express the satisfaction of seeing these young people, who’d never handled trowels before, interacting with the process and building effective structural walls.  ‘They’re doing it!’ I kept saying to myself. ‘They’re really doing it!’

Chance would have it that a dear friend of mine lives within an hour or so of the school.  Fred Nowicki, a 40 year mason from the Chicago area, has been  instrumental to HFA.  As a Master Mason, Historian, Vietnam Vet, the list goes on,…  Nowicki is truly singular and brings to the table a level of knowledge, wisdom and generosity rarely found in one person.  I asked Fred to participate in the workshop, which he whole heartedly agreed to do, and the day’s success depended on his contribution.

I found particular kinship with professors Douglas Duany, Lucien Steil and Alan DeFrees.  When I consider the role these men have played in these gifted student’s lives, their support and active participation in both the lecture and workshop is telling.

Many thanks to Rose Brick for providing us with materials and delivering these to campus, and, as always, thank you Bryan Light of the Brick Industry Association, for donating a significant number of tools for the occasion.

Bond Hall Architecture Building
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View 01.  Apprentice Patrick Lemmon, Clay Chapman and Videographer Mark Pennington in front of ‘Bond Hall’ Architecture Building.

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View 02.

Bond Hall Architecture Gallery
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View 03:  Clay Chapman speaking on HFA to students and faculty in Bond Hall Architectural Gallery.

Post Lecture Tradition
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View 04:  Supper at local South Bend Pub with Architecture Students and Professor Douglas Duany.

Mass Wall Workshop 
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View 05:  Master Mason and natural teacher, Fred Nowicki opening the days Mass Wall Workshop in front of Bond Hall with brickspeak.

Good Books, Good Gifts, Good Friends
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View 06:  Books for Chapman from Nowicki — “What you think about, you bring about.”

Owning It — to the Last Brick!
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View 07.  Architecture Students, Sara Bega of Atlanta and Madison Hagen of Pasadena building structural mass wall!

Getting in Touch with Mortar
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View 08:  Architecture students Miles Doyle of El Paso and Patrick Alles of Portland hand mixing lime based mortar with apprentice Patrick coaching nearby.

Throw a brick at me … make that two … and at the same time!
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View 09:  Architecture students throwing loose pairs of brick to gain working knowledge of material logistics and team work.  HFA Apprentice, Patrick Lemmon of Clover, South Carolina in the fore.

Too Many States Between
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View 10:  Chapman and Nowicki talking shop and catching up.

Goodbyes
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View 11:  And a very special ‘hats off’ to 5th year Architecture Student and Secretary of SCA, Sara Bega who contacted us almost two years ago, and has continued to stay in touch until we were all able to make it happen!  Thank you Sara!

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HFA2 Days 8 — 10 Foundation Walls

Hey folks,

At this point we’re 47 days into the project with not near enough to show for it.  It’s been one of the wettest, coldest winters here in the Atlanta area since I can remember, and we’ve really had to cope with the poor masonry conditions.  Many of the days logged have been cut short either by late starts (waiting for safe mortar temperatures) or early rain outs.  We’ve built temporary shelters to adapt to the wet conditions, but there’s nothing to be done with extended freeze periods — gotta have that 38º and rising for ‘the days work’ to store enough latent heat to make it through falling night temps (even with coverings).  The situation is complicated further by our experimentation with lime based mortars which have a longer set time than conventional, ready mixed, portland based mortars — which is to say, lime mortars, while being a life line for multi-century lifecycle, do not stabilize quickly and remain vulnerable to freeze longer requiring significant precautionary ‘tending’ during inclemency.  Despite all this, I’m quite happy with the progress we have made — primarily with the rather extensive double grand fireplace, pseudo inglenook, twin barrel vaulted wood boxes, 48′ tall chimney system.  The true masonry Fireplace & Chimney are both asset and handicap to the HFA concept, and we’ve been coming to terms with how to address this.

This said, the ‘getting out of the ground’ period could’t have gone better.  We began excavating on the 2nd of November and backfilled the foundation walls on the 16th under the best of conditions.  So we take the good with the bad and push on — keep telling myself another month or so and we’re in the clear, … but that late March blizzard of 93 seems like yesterday.

If it’s gonna snow though, lets do it … at least a foot!

Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings

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No Small Matter

When colleague Frank Burdette sent me this SPAB link over the Summer, I read over the recent UK study with a glance.  Then there was that classic double take where I was falling over myself in mental slapstick to get back to it, and confirm that I had in fact read what I thought.  “In some instances, it now appears that heat loss through vernacular materials can be up to three times lower than expected.”  But 3 is such a very small number. So lets change that to something we can really sink our NRG teeth into — like 300.  As in 300% better performance than established industry base lines have published.

Wow.  This is such huge news for what we are doing with the HFA concept and how mass wall masonry may reach deeply into the broader scope of truly sustainable building solutions.