Cold Hot Cold Days

Temperature swings. Otherwise known as Springtime in Florida. Cold nights that require you to cover or bring inside your sensitive plants and wrap yourself in a sweater and blankets inside. Followed by soaring daytime temperatures which find you switching the thermostat from Heating to Cooling. Until sunset when the temperature drops again.

Did you know that a well-insulated house doesn’t have those temperature swings with the weather?

Most people understand that insulation keeps you warm in winter. But it helps you stay cool in summer (or a Florida winter), too. We can all picture the pink, fluffy insulation that comes in rolls and is installed in attics, but there are other types of insulation. And just because your house was built with some insulation, the science and therefore the newer Energy codes have increased those requirements since your house was built. So, your house is probably in need of more insulation.

Before building science research disproved it, many concrete block homes were insulated this way, and, unfortunately, some still are. Injected foam insulation is the best way to remedy this.

Up in the attic, take a look at what you have. If your insulation looks like a golf course, with high mounds and low spots, you are not alone. Years of wind coming through the attic, critters nestling inside, people storing boxes, and maintenance people crawling through the attic have disturbed the insulation. If your old insulation is wet or dirty (if it looks dirty, it may have gotten wet), remove those portions.

Most of you have fiberglass insulation. A few of you might have perlite, which is loose-fill lightweight pellets installed in homes before the 1950s. New fluffy blown-in fiberglass insulation can be added on top of both of these.

A rare few of you may have vermiculite, which looks like irregularly shaped and variegated colored pellets – this needs to be tested for asbestos. If it tests positive, it needs to be completely removed by a professional.

Looking up inside this home remodel, the ductwork is connected to the ceiling wood framing, while the white spray foam beyond is on the underside of the roof. To the right there is rigid insulation board glued to the concrete block wall with greenish wood furring strips over it. This house achieved 2 energy certifications. (Project #09-09)

Today’s building code (FBC v7) requires attic insulation with an R-value of 38 in most of Florida except Miami-Dade and the Keys, and the next code revision will increase that to an R-value of 49. The code applies to new houses only, so in old houses, the goal is to fit as much as we can. For fiberglass and perlite insulation, that means about 11 to 16 inches is the ideal total (old plus new insulation). So try to attain that where you can, although you will likely have much less near the attic edges where the roof comes down to meet the attic floor. Maintain at least 1-inch clearance between the insulation and the underside of the roof deck to allow airflow between your soffits and your ridge vents.

If you really want the most R-value, you can always add rigid insulation board, which comes in panels like plywood, on top of your roof, too. This is typical for cathedral ceilings, where there isn’t always enough space between the rafters for insulation. The “extra” insulation is glued to the top of the roof plywood, then covered with more plywood and the roofing underlayment, followed by the shingles, tiles, or metal roof covering. This type of roof still needs soffits and ridge vents for airflow.

What about adding insulation to walls? Well, start with the attic first. You will get the most savings on your energy bills from starting there first. Then consider the walls.

Many of us live in homes with concrete block walls. You might not have any wall insulation! But if you do, it’s a rigid insulation board, and is about 1/2 to 1 inch thick. The R-value is about 5 or 6, which is Code minimum for this type of wall. Originally, the insulation was attached to wood furring strips, and the insulation was cut to allow wiring and electrical outlets to be installed (insulation with holes in it!). There may be a plastic vapor barrier nailed under the drywall, too, which is required Up North, but can grow mold in Florida. Today, due to updated building science, the insulation is glued directly to the block before the electrical wiring is installed (no holes!), then covered with drywall (gypsum board, also called sheetrock) or plaster.

Concrete block walls properly and continuously insulated with rigid insulation board glued directly to the block. Wood furring strips on top of them allow drywall and electrical wiring to be attached. (Project #09-09)

The best way to update this wall is to use injected foam insulation. This is similar to sprayfoam, but lighter weight, and doesn’t harden as much. Since concrete blocks are empty (except the places with concrete and rebar), it makes sense to fill these with insulation. The insulation will fill all the cracks and holes, making the wall airtight, blocking humidity, drafts, and sound. It’s also treated with insecticide and termiticide. To install, the worker will drill 1-inch diameter holes on the outside of your house at about chest-level. Then they will use 2 hoses to combine 2 different liquids and spray the mixture into each hole. They use a pressure gauge to determine when each hole is filled. The liquid expands inside and dries. The resulting R-value is about 20, which is 3 times what the Code requires!

If you live in a house with wood frame walls (those Bungalows of the 1900s to 1920s, Ranch homes through the early 1950s, and the upstairs of many houses are wood frame), you might decide to update your insulation when you add or remodel the house, or if you need to replace the siding or stucco. Adding insulation to this type of wall is intrusive, and you may want to update the electrical wiring at the same time. Options include adding fiberglass batts in between the wood studs as well as adding rigid insulation boards to the outside of the wall. In both instances, you should cover the outside of the wall with a WRB (weather resistive barrier – the white, green, or black wrap material) especially if there wasn’t one before, and then re-side or stucco.

This 1950s home has new fiberglass batt insulation in its walls when extensive termite damage required replacing the wood siding, sheathing (plywood), and some of the wall framing. Note that hurricane straps were added and the windows were also replaced, but the plaster inside was not touched. (Project #21-03)

Wood frame houses often have crawl spaces, many of which have never been insulated. The easiest way to insulate is with fiberglass batt insulation between the floor joists, then cover with plywood to keep out critters. Make sure you keep the crawl space floor or dirt level with a slight slope towards the outside, so water doesn’t pond under the house. And keep crawl space vents clear of mulch and plantings so humidity isn’t allowed to build up under there. Or you will find your house floors will get wet, stay wet, then attract mold (and you won’t know it until it’s too late).

Remember to check the insulation between your garage and your house, whether your garage is separated by a wall, or your garage is under your house. Because the garage is not heated or cooled, you should have the same insulation as you do on an outside wall or floor/ceiling.

Insulating the garage ceiling for a second floor addition. (Project #16-09)

Although the Code doesn’t require insulation for a Garage or Porch, we usually recommend it anyways. It will help keep the heat of the sun out of either space.

Your other option for insulation in the above situations is to use spray-foam insulation, which is a different approach. Sprayfoam insulation comes in open-cell and closed-cell, which refers to the air bubbles in the foam. Open-cell is like a sponge, where the air bubbles are connected to each other, while in closed-cell, the air bubbles are separated. Closed-cell has a higher R-value per inch (about 7). We use it for walls and in crawl spaces, where it keeps out burrowing critters. Up North, it is also used for attics (* see note below). Open-cell has an R-value similar to fiberglass insulation, and is used in attics in Florida. Both types are very good at keeping the humidity outside and minimizing drafts.

A slightly blurry photo showing an attic with ductwork inside and sprayfoam insulation on the underside of the roof. (Project #14-12)

However, sprayfoam insulation can be tricky to install in an attic without removing the ceilings. It also requires a slightly different approach – instead of venting your attic with soffits and ridge vents, you will close those and the insulation will be applied to the underside of the roof. This gives you an attic area that is insulated but not necessarily heated or cooled (it will travel through the ceiling). And it’s much more efficient for your heat pump if the ductwork runs through an insulated attic.

* We use the research papers from the Florida Solar Energy Center to recommend only open-cell sprayfoam insulation for attics in Florida at this time to avoid a build-up of humidity at the attic peak and to allow the roof sheathing (plywood) to dry out.

Upgrading your insulation is a great way to pay yourself back! It is a small investment with a big return that you will notice with every energy bill. We have upgraded the insulation in our attic (fiberglass) and walls (injected foam insulation) and hope you will, too.

Flat Roof Considerations

Have you ever stopped to wonder why almost every house has a sloped roof – gable, hip, etc – and almost every business has a flat roof – often hidden behind a parapet with a big sign on it? If you have, you would wonder why so many homes have problems with flat roofs. Let’s discuss that from a homeowner’s perspective.

Front view of 10 houses showing 9 with sloped roofs and 1 with flat roofs.

A flat roof can be easy to build if you just need to put a roof over a patio. Install 4 posts (columns) in footings, then form a roof-ceiling with 2x12s and lay a plywood underlayment over them. The most inexpensive roofing material for a flat roof is roll roofing (also called “modified bitumen”) – essentially, very large, long asphalt shingles that are nailed into the roof plywood. Any handyperson or homeowner with a ladder and hammer can assemble this. It’s fairly cheap to install and gets the job done. It’s a great choice for sheds, porches, carports, and barns.

Until you are the next homeowner, and it becomes a problem. The first place to leak is usually where the flat roof meets the sloped house roof. While you are up there applying goop over the seam, you may discover the flat roof surface has become discolored or even has water sitting up there. We call this ponding, and it is not what you want on your roof. The roof is so flat, that the water doesn’t run off it, so it stays, creating a small pond less than an inch deep, but the extra weight causes the underlayment to bow between the rafters. Which causes more water to stay, which is even heavier, and takes longer to evaporate.

Roll roofing is installed like large asphalt shingles on a flat roof surface. Edges are nailed or heat sealed together with a blow torch.

Not every flat roof with roll roofing will leak, but there are better options out there, which require a more skilled installer with closer attention to details.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider what “flat roof” really means. It could actually mean a roof with zero slope, as level as the floor. But in roofing terminology, it also means roofs with very slight slopes, like a sloped walkway, but not as steep as a driveway apron (where a driveway slopes down to the street across a sidewalk). Building a “flat roof” using wood framing (lumber or trusses) is actually easier if the rooftop has a zero slope because the ceiling will also have a zero slope. So how do you make sure rainwater runs off that?

We call it “tapered exterior insulation” and it’s just what it sounds like. Insulation made into boards that are slightly thicker at one end than the other are laid over the roof plywood. This is how many flat roof commercial buildings are insulated – with the insulation on the outside, instead of the fluffy insulation inside attics that most houses have. Then a roof membrane (a large, smooth sheet of roofing material, usually white, and made of rubber or plastic blend) is laid over the insulation. The sheets are heated or glued together, which makes the entire roof watertight. The edges are secured to the roof with a system of clamps and clips.

Roofing membrane – sheets are laid over the roof then the seams are heated together.

PVC and TPO are the most popular choices for roofing membrane over tapered exterior insulation. Skilled installers are familiar with the details required to make this type of roof watertight and long-lasting. There is a wide array of manufacturers of these roof membranes, with slight differences between them in installation, details, and the thickness and proprietary blend of materials. However, all of them should last 20-30 years, similar to the asphalt shingles on a sloped roof.

Look for a roofer who specializes in or is familiar with these types of roofs. You will want to pay a little extra for an experienced installer. And enjoy the sound of the rain falling on your roof, without the stress of wondering where it will leak next!

Up-set and Dropped Beams

No, this isn’t a post about the emotional intelligence of structural beams. Instead, let’s consider the different options for removing a wall, and how those choices look and feel in a finished room.

When your Architect has determined that a wall is a structural or load-bearing wall, what does that really mean? Usually, it means that the wall is holding up either the roof or the floor above. The easiest way to see this is to look at an overhead garage door. The skinny piece of wall above the door and below the ceiling is actually a beam. We call it a lintel if the wall is concrete block, and a header if the wall is wood frame. Nevertheless, the beam is holding up that part of the house above the garage door. Either the ends of the roof rafters or the ends of the upstairs floor joists actually sit on top of that beam.

Garage doors have beams to hold up the house above them. And so does each window pictured here.

So, if we wanted to remove a load-bearing wall, we would have to replace it with a beam. This is where the aesthetics, or the look and feel of the room, comes into play. Installing a beam that is below the ceiling line, like the beam over the garage door, is called a dropped beam. It is dropped below the ceiling line. It does a perfectly good job at holding up whatever is above it. But, it has the tendency to act like a divider. You are either in a room on one side of the beam, or on the other. In fact, it would probably feel uncomfortable if you were sitting directly under the beam. So, not the best option if the beam is over the center of a large new room.

This dropped beam gives the feel of dividing this dining area from the seating area, even with no wall between them, and the same flooring.

Enter the up-set beam. She is actually quite happy to disappear into the ceiling and not be seen again. In this case, the beam is also holding up the house above, but you could only see it in the attic. The ceiling is flat and flush. This makes for a wonderful, open floor plan with a continuous ceiling plane.

However, the up-set beam can cause trouble if it’s not thought out in advance. Because if the up-set beam is very long or very tall, it might want to bump up through the roof. And we can’t allow that. So we carefully plan the addition to allow for the entire beam to be hidden up in the ceiling or attic. We also check that the air conditioning ductwork has enough space to maneuver around the beam in the attic.

One last consideration before choosing an up-set beam is how it will hold up the house above. Because the roof rafters or upstairs floor joists used to sit on top of the old wall, they are now too long if we put the beam up there. So, we typically saw off the ends of each rafter or joist, and then attach them to the side of the beam with hangers. They used to sit on the wall, and now they will hang from the beam.

Erasing the beam quickly shows the effect of an up-set beam hidden in the ceiling.

Finally, you may be wondering what kind of material are these up-set and dropped beams? Well, they can be many materials, so let your Architect choose, with some input from the Contractor. In residential projects, we typically stay with wood, as it is less expensive and not as heavy as other options, and easily fastens to rafters and joists. We may specify regular lumber, like several 2x12s joined together, or an engineered lumber like an LVL, made of multiple layers of wood laminated together. For concrete block walls, we typically use pre-cast concrete lintels, which are formed at the factory with an empty middle for the steel rebar and grout to be placed. Lastly, a steel beam may be required because of the weight it needs to support, the long length it needs to span, or other reasons. Steel is more expensive, and a little more difficult to install and attach to, but can be the best or only option.

So, once you understand the options, don’t hesitate to ask your Architect about knocking down a couple of walls.

Visitability

None of us are getting any younger. Some of us have trouble maneuvering steps or seeing in dim lighting. Kids and grandkids come in strollers. An injury or surgery can make everyday living more challenging. Sickness or new medications can make you unsteady on your feet.

Visibility means allowing everyone to be able to visit your home. Getting in and out of your home. Using the bathroom facilities. Things that benefit both the visitors and the homeowners. It focuses on the low-hanging fruit for long-term solutions. It can be applied to your home now, and it can be taken into consideration when you remodel, add, or build a new home.

Let’s start by welcoming your visitor into your home. Provide a walkway with a solid, smooth, flat surface (concrete better than pavers), clear of vegetation and overgrowth, from the sidewalk or their car to your front door. Low path lighting is helpful and can be solar-powered. Outside lighting above or next to your door should not shine in your visitors’ eyes. If there is a step or staircase, install handrails on at least one side. Even one step should have a short railing or grab bar. Replacing a single step with a sloped walkway is helpful. Remember that close friends and family might find a side or rear door to be easier to access.

New front porch: The original design showed shallow brick stairs with handrails on both sides leading up to the porch.

New front porch: The driveway was raised slightly to be the same height as the new porch, which is the same level as the floor inside.

Once inside, remember that throw rugs and a cluttered entry tend to be tripping hazards. Install coat hooks, wall shelves, and organizers to corral your items! Turn on lamps inside if your house is dark compared to the bright sunshine outside. Offer a range of seating types, including chairs with backs and sofas with arms. Seats that are 14 to 16 inches above the floor or higher can be easier for some people to stand up from. Make sure lamps don’t shine into people’s eyes, and pull the blinds or curtains across any windows with direct sun or glare.

Finally, make one bathroom easy for your guest to use. A door wide enough you don’t have to turn sideways to go through it. A light switch next to the door, with a light bright enough to cause shadows. Again, avoid any clutter on the floor or vanity counter. A grab bar may be installed next to the toilet. A second roll of toilet paper may be left out on the vanity to avoid twisting to reach an awkwardly placed toilet paper holder. Replace the sink faucet handles with large, lever-style handles that are easy to use. And make it obvious which soap and towel your guest should help themselves to.

Visitability solutions can be part of an overall aging-gracefully-in-place strategy or a more advanced accessibility renovation. Make small changes now that will make visiting your home easier and more enjoyable for all your friends and family.

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