choosing an architect

Things You Should Know Before Building A Home: Part 1: Land

I am hoping to add a series of posts about things you should know before building a home. I am trying to keep a list of "things I don't know you don't know" I know that sounds silly, but when you've been doing this for awhile, you forget what other people know and what they don't. I have a current client who has been very helpful in tracking the things they "wished they would have known or understood" and making a list to help other homeowners through the process.Today I want to talk a little bit about land and the initial legwork when picking a place to build a house.

  1. Have a survey done on the property
    • We always recommend having a property survey done. We love working with Main Land Development Consultants who have done everything from surveys, environmental testings and septic design. It is extremely helpful for the architect, builder, excavation, septic and concrete installer to understand what the topography of the site is. It is also important to call out featured items that you would like to keep or highlight on a property. In the inverse, some property lines are tight and it might be critical to understand the footprint of your lot, where your lot lines are, and exactly how much space you can cover. And it is absolutely critical when building on the water. Anything within 250 feet of a major water body is subject to different DEP rules. Most towns will not accept a building permit for a lot adjacent to a waterbody without careful consideration of the impervious areas, lot clearing, distance to the water body, and flood plane elevations.
  2. Always get title insurance
    • Our friends over at Cumberland Title offer great videos for first time homebuyers on some of the pitfalls or information you'll run into when buying a house. Their recommendation to us, for owners looking to build, is to always get title insurance. It's their job to dig into the history of the property to make sure you are getting exactly what the property states. You don't want to find out, after you have built, that there is some kind of discrepancy or dispute on your property. It can be a very important step when someone is subdividing a property or purchasing a property that used to be part of a larger parcel. On lakefront properties we often find old deeded right of way access or septics on others properties. It's important to understand all the impacts on your property before moving forward with a sale agreement.
  3. Zoning: Just because you own it, doesn't mean you can do whatever you want on it
    • This one can be tough to understand, but every town has rules about what you can do in certain areas of the town. For example, in the city where we live you can not build a house in the Ag zone unless you make 50% of your income from farming. Some zoning regulations like this one are set up to preserve land mass. In towns with lakes you can only build on a small percentage of your property in the shoreland zone to help prevent water runoff from contaminating the lake. In other areas, you may not be able to have certain types of business uses (like an auto body shop) no matter how large your piece of land is. In other zoning districts you may not be able to have an in-law apartment or multiple dwellings. And further still, in some towns or developments, you may be required to follow aesthetic regulations, energy criteria, or adhere to things that are not allowable (like modular homes) in your neighborhood.
  4. Orientation: How and Where the house is placed on the lot
    • You might be thinking "what do you mean by orientation" so let me give you a few examples. First, the cheapest thing you can do to improve the efficiency of your home is to orient it the right direction. Back before we had so much technology, it was ingrained in our building senses to point ourselves towards the sun (namely South). But what happens if you decide to buy a piece of property on the lake that faces North? You end up with a very cold house, because you end up with too much glass on the wrong side of your home. But if you intend to use it year round, it can be a real drain on your energy and your finances to have so much North facing glass. Or you buy a piece of property in a neighborhood where all the houses face the street, but the front of your house should be one of the more attractive sides of your home. So if it faces north, you have the same issue I mentioned above, or maybe it's a busy street and you want to try and cut down some of the street noise. Sometimes we fail to consider the impacts of owning a lot and placing the house further off the road. Initially it sounds like a great idea for privacy or maybe to get to the view on the property. However, the further you are from the utilities the more the site work will cost. Two major factors are the cost of a long driveway and the cost to run electricity from the road (above ground with poles and wires) or (below ground with underground power). If you have a tight budget, what was a 10K site budget can grow to 40K in no time. I don't want to steer you away from those larger land properties, but just a thought or a reminder that there is cost savings to density. To get to the right location for the house to sit you end up having a really long driveway or having to clear too much of the lot. Orientation and placement on a lot can be very challenging. I have to laugh because one of my clients recently said to me "You and the builder couldn't have sited the house more perfectly, even though we were standing in the middle of the woods and couldn't see anything at the time" It was a challenging site, a triangle. But the owner had a clear vision of what they wanted and the builder and I had a pretty good idea of the land layout, even if you couldn't see the forest through the trees.
  5. Be sure you'll understand what your taxes will be
    • And last, but certainly not least: Taxes.  It's tax season, so this one is on our minds. It's critical you understand, before building or buying land, what your tax rates will be. You might find the perfect piece of property only to discover that the mill rate on taxing your home is very high. Some areas have desirable school systems or better community services. If this is something you plan to take part in, it might not matter to you. But it can drastically affect your monthly payments if your taxes are $1000/mo vs $150. This is something that many people fail to take into account. You may be able to build in the next town over for a much lower amount, but you may also be sacrificing services that you would like to have. It's something that I think should be factored into the financial decisions as you consider where you might build.

We hope that some of these tips will be helpful as you are out searching for land! Having a plan can make all the difference when building a home you love.

"If you haven’t lived in an energy-efficient home, you don’t know what you’re missing."

"If you haven’t lived in an energy-efficient home, you don’t know what you’re missing."This is the opening line in an article written on October 1st for the Portland Press Herald by Marina Schauffler.I thought this article hit on a few high points and I thought that it should be shared. First, we love "The Pretty Good House". We are, of course, happy to help you achieve your dreams to make Net-Zero or Passiv Haus a reality, but what if you just want a house that performs better and doesn't come with a label.I loved how Marina put it in her article "Yankee thrift" it kind of makes you pause, but what everyone should know is that there are simple "hacks" that don't cost more money, but make a world of difference between building a standard code house, and building a pretty good house.

"These houses have sensible design features, orienting primary living areas on the home’s south side and placing spaces like pantries, mudrooms and mechanical areas to the north. Rather than having trendy, pricey building components, they rely on proven elements – like Energy Star kitchen appliances, a tankless water heater or an air-source heat pump."

Here at Mottram Architecture we put a lot of focus on orientation and "daylight planning" which takes into account how you use your house throughout the day and where those rooms land in the layout. We also try "hacks" like putting vintage windows between rooms to allow natural light into smaller rooms without adding windows the the building envelop. It adds character and reduces consumption and doesn't cost much.And I really loved the way she closed the article

"The year-in and year-out savings are welcome, but it’s not just the economics that make energy-efficient homes so appealing. A green-designated broker, Marc Chadbourne, recently asked a builder of highly efficient homes who buys them and what reasons they offer. The answer he received is one I would echo: “It’s a combination of everything.” Whether you value a healthier living space or reduced energy costs, a smaller environmental footprint or a higher resale value, the promise of greener houses is clear. We all desire and deserve a “pretty good” place to call home."

The savings, they are welcome. Who doesn't love to save the money. But aside from saving money, what I hear from my clients and the people who visit their homes is how awesome the space feels. "I could have sold this house 15 times in the first year. People would just stop in and say: That's so cool" said Patrice Miller of Live Solar Maine. So as we pursue our goal of bringing energy efficient homes to the market in a soulful and creative way we love hearing that others are doing the same and people are starting to ask for it, if not demand, pretty good homes.We hope you'll check out this article by Marina and read more about the Pretty Good Home

Comfortable, Happy, Healthy Homes: How To Get To Net-Zero

Cost-effective zero energy homes start with the design. Don't skimp on design if you want the performance without excessive cost.  Nobody, I mean really, nobody, wants to live in a house that they spent hard-earned money building (or buying) and then shell out more money every year just to sit around in three sweatshirts because you refuse to turn the heat up. We want to sit in the warm sunshine, maybe drinking our coffee, reading the newspaper, and not worry about the dollars that are flying out the door. Did your mom ever yell "Do you live in a barn, close the door". Well we don't live in barns, and we don't want to live in drafty uncomfortable spaces either. We want to live in warm, cozy, happy, healthy homes.  So how do we get there?One of the ways we do that is through energy modeling. During the design phase we always run our projects, especially net-zero bound projects, through our energy modeling software. I won't get into the weeds on all the data that goes into an energy model, but I will tell you what we use it for. Doing the energy modeling during the design phase allows us to evaluate different building techniques, heating systems, and performance data to come up with the best solution for your individual needs. The industry calls this technique, cost offsetting. If we can add more insulation to your walls, we can reduce the need for a central heating system. If we can reduce or eliminate the central heating system, the costs of construction go down.  We like to use the term "house as a system" which means your house is a series of inter-related parts. When you change one part, if affects others. By using energy modeling software we can compare different construction techniques to come up with the best combination of different parts.Another cost offsetting technique that we love to use is orientation! So simple, and absolutely free. If we look at history, the ancient Romans knew which direction to face their buildings and how to use mass to absorb heat. Use the sun for passive solar gain, brilliant! Modern day building practices have almost completely ignored this one simple solution. In addition to orienting the house the right direction (south) we also take time to place windows to take advantage of the view while at the same time, eliminating windows where we don't need them. If we can cut down windows on the north side of the house, the performance of the home skyrocket. That doesn't mean we live with dark spaces. One of my favorite solutions to fewer windows is interior windows. A great way to add character and style to a house is to pick an old window and install it in an interior wall between a room with lots of natural light and one with low or no daylight. This is especially effective for lighting interior stairways without adding skylights to the roof. If you've been following my blog or know me in person, you've probably heard me say "windows never pay for themselves". So why pay a lot of money for a poor performing building material instead of spending time during the design process to pick and place the right window in the right location. Should you order triple pane windows from Poland? Maybe? Should you take the time to maximize windows in the best locations and eliminate them where not needed? Absolutely! Can you hit Net-Zero with builder grade double pane windows from a major window manufacturer? Yup! Are you starting to see the forest through the trees? Getting to 0 from 100 is all about design.To get all the way down to 0 though, you have to produce as much energy on your site as you use. We can super insulate the building, eliminate thermal bridging, reduce air infiltration, orient the house the correct way, but what we can't do is completely eliminate energy use. So we need to produce energy on site to offset the usage. If we oriented the house the correct direction, adding solar panels is usually the quickest and easiest on site power generator available.  Some people, depending on location, may be able to harness wind power or hydro, but the average homeowner should be able to take advantage of PV. With the government subsidizing solar installations it's getting more cost-effective to add your own power generation to your home. Between off the grid battery banks and grid-tied net metering, there is a way to harness the power of the sun to produce electricity.If you're reading this article and thinking "but all these super efficient houses are ugly" you should go back and read one of my previous blog posts on selecting the right architect. We all have different taste, and if you select the right architect for your project it can be cost-effective, efficient, and beautiful. And here you thought building a house was simple, little did you know it's one of those giant jigsaw puzzles, that until you get all the parts lined up just right, you just have a pile of building materials that may or may not turn into a happy healthy home.There are lots of different ways to get to zero energy. So like I said at the very beginning, spend time during the design to get all the details right.  You can simply monitor your actual energy usage for a year and prove that you made more energy then you used. Or you can take advantage of one of the certification programs out there for meeting the zero energy threshold. Here are a few:ProgramsLiving Future Institute: Zero Energy Building CertificationDepartment of Energy: Zero Energy Ready HomeNYSERDA Net Zero Energy Homes Low Rise New Construction ProgramLEED Zero Net Energy HomesIf you read this article and you're disappointed I didn't tell you exactly how to get to net-zero with all the tech trade industry specifics, feel free to reach out to me via email. I'm always happy to get into the weeds on how the technologies work and how they can be combined. All you need to do is run into one of my past students to know, I love to talk about this stuff! So reach out, leave me a comment, send me an email, start a discussion with me on Facebook. I promise, I'll respond!~ Emily Mottram, Mottram Architecture

Updates on the Modern Solar Farmhouse with Live Solar Maine

Happy Saturday! We just can't help ourselves from throwing out info on the Modern Solar Farmhouse! If you've been following the blog you know this is a partnership that we created with Live Solar Maine to bring zero-energy homes to the market in a really soulful and creative way! It occurred to me that you might be interested in knowing about the solar this winter! You guys, even in the winter we make power! This little gem produced 374kwh in November, 285kwh in December, and 375kwh in January! We started with 2 rows of panels, we have room for 3 rows and ran a line for a car charger in the garage.  If you haven't been following the news, Tesla is going to introduce the Model 3, aiming for a car in the $35,000 range and making an all electric car more accessible for everyone! But I digress, this prototype home isn't just being run through a simulator (which we did during design to estimate our usage) it's being lived in! Three bedrooms, two and a half baths, we are tracking everything. So if you're new to zero energy and you want to see what it means for an average person, keep in touch! Join our mailing list, send us your comments and feedback, or ask questions! We are happy to answer anything you want to know!

Before & After - Master Bedroom and Closets In A Timber Frame Remodel

Thanks for checking back in with the updates on this beautiful timber frame home remodel we recently did! Last week I mentioned that the bathroom dormer "grew" during the design phase.  While talking with our clients we try to listen to all of their concerns. One concern this homeowner had was storage.  They had plenty of space, but it was cut up funny and they had this odd room adjacent to their bedroom that was collecting things that didn't seem to have a home. Because the wall between the bathroom and this room fell right in line with the timber frame we were able to expand the dormer another six feet and provide a walk in closet for this homeowner.  Adding another six feet to the dormer centered it on the rear elevation and allowed us to bring light into the closet. We also replaces a series of dressers in their bedroom with this custom built dresser. It takes up the unusable eave space and takes advantage of super deep drawers for storage. A big shout out to East Shore Builders for making this homeowners dreams a reality!
Just like last week, stay tuned to next week's last addition (and probably my favorite part of this whole remodel)!

Before & After - Full Bath Remodel In A Timber Frame Home

As you saw last week, we are super excited to show you some before and after photos of a recent timber frame home remodel.  First we updated the first floor 1/2 bath to include a shower so that the homeowners could have a fully functioning bathroom during the major remodel of the upstairs bath. Timber frames can be tricky, often having dramatically sloping ceilings.  Although beautiful, not always practical, especially when you're tall!  In this weeks "sharing" I'd love to show you what we did with this particular home.  With a standard six foot span between timbers, we could add a dormer in the bathroom that covered 3/4 of the headroom. This allowed us to fit a full shower, tub, toilet and vanity into the space and have enough head room to walk around.  Like in the downstairs bath, we added a window in the shower to get light into the bathroom.  As you can see below in the before pictures, the only light in the original bath was from a skylight. Again, cool and classic tile selected by the homeowner give this new bathroom a classy feeling and the light color brightens the space in what can often be a dark house style.
Stay tuned next week to see how the bathroom dormer extended into the closet area and finally gave these homeowners the walk in closet with built in dressers that they really deserve!

Before & After - Taking the 1/2 bath to a Full Bath

During a recent remodeling project at a 3 bedroom/ 1 1/2 bath timber frame home, we took the first floor 1/2 bath and transformed it into a full bath with some creative reworking of the space. This allowed the homeowners to use the new full bath while the upstairs bathroom was gutted and put back together. The clean and classy tile selection by the homeowner makes this bathroom feel larger then it really is. And the builder was able to re-purpose some leftover timbers from the original build that were just hanging out in the basement waiting to be used. You can see them here in the shelves above the toilet, and if you stay tuned, you'll see them again in the new upstairs bathroom sink vanity that was custom made just for this home. Take a look at these before and after photos and let us know what you think!
Stay tuned for more updates on this timber frame remodel and to see the phenomenal main bathroom renovation complete with built-ins, sliding barn doors, amazing tiled shower, and so much more!

What's The Process For Working With An Architect To Design My Home?

What do I get for my money? Are you worried about working with an architect but have no idea what to expect? Well here is a detailed layout of how a typical project can be structured when working with Mottram Architecture. What do you get for your money? Value! Sure, I’m trying to sell you something that doesn’t exist and below is a list of the meetings and items I will provide to you during the course of a project. But what am I really providing?You might ask yourself:Do I need to hire an architect?Nope! Homes are built every day without an architect. Building a home is a complex problem and we (as architects) thrive on those challenges. Isn’t your dream home a space that suits you exactly? Do you live in a home that you have been trying to reconfigure for your family's specific wants and desires? These are custom solutions that we can help you solve. Hiring an architect is about managing your risk through a complex construction project, and increasing the quality of your experience during the process and for years after as you live in your home.A project typically takes a natural progression that almost all architects follow. We work in a similar manor and this is the breakdown of how we work. Every client is different, however, and we give you the opportunity to take advantage of as many phases as you’d like. We also realize that this process is based on the average client and we may spend more time with you in different phases. Every client is unique and we adapt our proposals to meet your needs.Phase I is an existing conditions survey, or it's schematic design if you are building new. What happens in the schematic design phase?We meet to discuss your goals and establish the project requirements including the Project Scope, budget, space requirements and aesthetic preferences.Based on the requirements established at the first meeting, we sketch out a design comprised of up to three proposed solutions for the project. Solutions usually include floor plans and exterior building elevations to illustrate the home.After discussion of the first three design concepts, we have an additional meeting to present and discuss the combinations of all of the design solutions into one solution moving forward. Usually we provide two revisions to the selected schematic design solution.  More than two revisions during the schematic design phase could be considered additional services and can change the overall cost of the design proposal. Again, this process is based on your average customer.At this phase we provide a “design” budget using square footage cost estimation and the schematic design solution will be signed off on prior to moving to the next phase of design.Phase II, What happens during the design development phase?With your approval of the schematic design we get a lot more detailed! We will develop the floor plans, exterior elevations and prepare additional details to fix and describe the character of the project.You will now need to start thinking about and seleting hardware, finish plumbing fixtures, appliances, kitchen cabinets, tile, stone and decorative lighting fixtures. Depending on the project we typically prepare interior elevations as necessary to describe the locations and arrangements of fixtures and finishes that you have selected.As a rule of thumb, we usually meet once at the beginning of design development and once during the process. This translates to 2 design revisions prior to heading into construction documents where we tell the builder how it all goes together.Phase III: What happens during the construction document phase?Based on the approved design development drawings, we prepare construction documents consisting of drawings and specifications that will describe the scope of work and be suitable for filing with the building department and for construction by a qualified contractor.This is the part where we, as architects, spend a lot of time at the drawing board putting together all the details. We meet less frequently, and what is provided is a substantial set of construction documents that can include, but not be limited to:

    • Architectural Floor Plans delineating the existing construction, demolition, new construction, and the cross referencing of details and sections on subsequent drawings.
    • Power and Data Plans showing electrical receptacles, telephone, cable and internet locations.
    • Finish plumbing fixture locations.
    • Reflected Ceiling Plans indicating placement of ceiling-mounted, wall-mounted and recessed lighting fixtures, with associated switching arrangements, and locations for required smoke and carbon dioxide detectors.
    • Building Elevations at each exterior facade showing the existing residence with the proposed new construction including notes indicating finishes, materials and any special conditions.
    • Details, Sections, Schedules and Notes communicating, in detail, different aspects of the design relating to construction and/or code requirements. These details are essential in conveying the design concept to the General Contractor, the subcontractors and to the Building Department.

Engineering Note: Basic Architectural Services do not include mechanical, electrical, plumbing, fire suppression, structural or civil engineering. Phase IV: What happens in the pricing and permitting phase:We should qualify that we will help with putting a project out to bid as noted below, however, we find that our clients are more satisfied with the overall construction project when they select a contractor during the design phase and bring them into the process creating a truly integrated design. This almost always saves time and money for the homeowner.Contractor SelectionWe will assist you in interviewing (3) contractors of your choosing or if you need some contractor referrals we know several people in different geographical locations that would be happy to talk with you about your project.We coordinate with the contractor during the design development and construction document phase to reduce design fees and meet the clients scope and budget. We work closely with the Contractor to value engineer a project to meet within the constraints of your scope and budget and revise the design accordingly.Bid CoordinationIf you choose to put the project out to bid we will assist you with assembling, distributing and evaluating the bid package, which includes things like preparing and distributing the Construction Documents to each contractor. Addressing contractors questions and issuing clarifications and/or addenda (as required). Assisting you with the evaluation of the bids, as it needs to be reviewed to be sure each contractor is bidding apples to apples.Building Permit AssistanceWe will assist you in preparing the application for the Building Permit as required by the local zoning code. We will make sure the drawings include all the necessary elements for permit along with any other paperwork you might be required to submit. Fees associated with the Application for Building Permit are the responsibility of the Client.Phase V: What happens during construction administration?Based on the signed contract between you and the contractor of your choice, we can provide a number of services during construction!We prefer to start construction off with a project coordination meetings just to be sure the client and the contractor are on the same page! This helps to provide clarification of construction documents.If you need us to, we will visit the project site at regular intervals to observe the progress of the work and answer any questions the contractor might have. When you are dealing with renovation projects you should know that something always comes up during construction.On larger projects we review subcontractors’ submittals such as shop drawings, product data and/or samples. Sometimes that means we might prepare supplemental and clarification drawings during construction to meet the requirements of your project.At substantial completion, the Architect shall prepare a “punch list” of work to be corrected and review the corrective work to completion. It's always that last 5%.We give our clients a proposal after our first meeting that details these steps with our understanding of their scope of work. At any time a client can choose to move forward to the next phase, or only complete the current phase.  We like to think we make architectural services available to everyone. We think we add value to every project, so we'd like you to give us the opportunity to prove our worth!~ Emily Mottram, Mottram Architecture

Your House is a System

BlogHouseAsSystemI think it’s time for me to introduce my readers to one of the most important concepts of building eco friendly homes.  House as a System.What do I mean when I say your house is a system?  It is a combination of inter-dependent parts that make up a whole building.  As an energy professional and an architect, that means, if I chose to change one part, I am affecting other parts of the system.  This may be in a good way, or it may be in a harmful way.  With the emergence of building tight homes, we also need to be aware of what we are trapping inside that previously exited though drafty or leaky areas in the home.  I was going to write “older homes”, but my experience as an energy auditor has taught me that it has little to do with the age of the home.  There are just as many leaky, drafty, inefficient new homes as there are older homes.It is extremely important today to understand the impacts of building more efficient homes.  This rule applies to architects, builders, and energy professionals.  The chemicals found in our building materials can be very harmful to your health.  Many products are made with formaldehyde or high volatile organic compounds (VOC’s).  Maine also has high levels of radon due to the rocky ledge that makes up our soils.  By building tighter homes, we must be sure we are not trapping harmful gases or compounds within the home.Building tighter homes isn’t just about air sealing with caulks and spray foams. Adding dense packed cellulose to your walls increases the insulation value of your home, but it also reduces the air infiltration.  When we reduce the air infiltration we can cause our atmospherically drafting heating appliance to blow exhaust fumes back into the home instead of out through the chimney.  We can trap moisture within the home, propagating mold growth and moisture damage. Many building professionals believe that houses needed to breath and that is simply untrue.   Houses do not need to breath, the occupants do.  And we need to be sure that the air our homeowners are breathing is both healthy and adequate.Houses that breathe draw in outdoor air from anywhere there is a hole or crack in the building structure.  This often times means that air is coming in from your basement.  When you think about the principle that hot air rises, you can imagine the cool air being drawn in from your basement and leaking the heated air out through your attic. Now if you think about your basement, you may be thinking about a dirt floor, all the chemicals you store there, or your heating system.  All that air that is being drawn in through your basement is introducing those chemicals into your living space.   We have a tendency to think of our basements as outside of our living space, but they are very much connected to every other part of your home.  Although the things you store there may be out of sight, out of mind, they are definitely not out of the air you breath.Before the emergence of energy efficient and airtight building, homes were able to dry out due to the air movement through the structure and the lack of insulation in the walls.  The homes would dry during the wet seasons of the spring and fall, however, these same homes would become very difficult and expensive to heat during the winter.  The energy community knew they needed to button up the homes, but at the time, they did not know that they needed to provide mechanical ventilation for healthy indoor air quality and they created several sick buildings.Now we talk about passive house building where there are less then 15 quarter-size gaps, cracks, or holes in a building structure and the sun heats the home virtually eliminating the need for a heating system.  These inter-dependent parts create a very efficient design.  In passive house standards, it extremely important to provide mechanical ventilation to the space. Providing fresh outdoor air to the occupants of the home eliminates harmful byproducts from the construction materials and excess moisture from cooking, breathing, and showering. Because the home itself has very little air infiltration, mechanical ventilation is often provided by a heat recovery ventilator or energy recovery ventilator. This allows the system to provide fresh air directly to the locations of the home that need it, like the bedroom, where you spend most of your time while you are at home.  Providing air directly to the locations where it is needed instead of drawing it in from wherever there are cracks in the foundation allows for the system to perform with precise calculations and reduces any loss associated with providing healthy indoor air quality.The increased levels of insulation from the code minimum help to keep heat within the building envelope.  Large south-facing windows can take advantage of the sun and heat the home through heating thermal mass, often a concrete floor.  All parts of that system have to work precisely together to make the house as efficient as possible.  If a new homeowner came in and decided to throw a carpet over the concrete floor they would reverse the effects of the solar heating system and require a larger heating system to be installed.  Tighter homes often do not have large gas cook stoves with 300 to 600 CFM ventilation hoods because there is simply not enough air infiltration to provide adequate supply to the ventilation system.  Without that adequate air it causes the ventilation system to “suck” on the house and will quickly burn out the motor in the fan.These are just a few examples of how the components of your home work as a system. So as you are building your home and thinking about making something that is more efficient, make sure you consider hiring a professional who can provide you with the information you need to save money, but also provide you with a safe and comfortable home.  It may sound daunting to build an energy efficient home, but the comfort level it can provide you and the energy it can save you is well worth the added considerations during the design or renovation process.

7 Things You Should Never Do When Improving the Efficiency Of Your Home

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Tighten a home that has moisture issues

Energy efficiency can be directly related to the warm air leaking out of your home.  So most of us understand that air sealing and tightening our homes will make them more energy efficient.  That is correct, but it is extremely important to eliminate moisture problems before we do so.  Moisture trapped within the home creates condensation, structural damage, mold growth, and poor indoor air quality.  Sources of moisture can be dirt basements and crawlspaces, un-sealed concrete slabs or walls, fish tanks, cooking with gas, cooking without lids on pots, shower areas, excessive amounts of plants, greenhouse open to the living space, standing water, bathroom or laundry vents not vented to the exterior, uncovered sump pumps and many other sources.  The best course of action is to eliminate the moisture source before air sealing the home.  If you can’t eliminate the source, encapsulate it.  If you can’t encapsulate it, try to diffuse it.

Replace the windows first

Windows are very costly.  Rarely do windows pay for themselves in energy retrofits before the lifespan of the window is considered over.  Who wants to wait 25, 35, or 45 plus years for their windows to pay for themselves?  The current energy standards only require you to put R- 3.3 windows in your home.  That’s hardly better then the R-2 double hung window that you currently have.  The most cost effective solution for window retrofits is air sealing the window during installation, not the actual window itself.  So before you replace those leaky windows, see if you can remove the trim and air seal around the window.  If you have a broken window, or a window with condensation between the panes of glass that would be an appropriate time to replace the window.  Also, if you have a very old home with weight and chain windows, it might be in your best interest to replace the windows.  The weight and chain cavity of a window allows significant air leakage into the home and cannot be effectively sealed without changing the operation of the window.

Not have a qualified energy professional evaluate your home

Many contractors will tell you that you don’t need to hire an energy professional to evaluate your home.  However, energy professionals are trained in both evaluation and safety.  A good energy auditor will not only evaluate your home but provide diagnostic testing to locate the worst performing sections to tackle those first.  In addition, an energy auditor should be checking your home for air quality issues like back-drafting furnaces, poorly performing ventilation systems, leaky gas lines, and excess toxins and moisture.  They should be able to provide you with a prioritized list of energy improvements, and come back to test the air quality and heating system safety after the work has been completed.  Simply adding more insulation to your attic without addressing potential problems is a waste of your time and money.

Insulate your attic without air sealing first

As I mentioned above, adding extra insulation does not mean that you are adding energy improvements.  Attic spaces tend to have several openings between the living space and the cold attic.  That air movement from the living space into the attic increases heat loss in your home and also transfers warm moist air to the attic.  That warm moist air will often condense on the roof sheathing and cause premature roof failure and mold growth.  Insulation is not meant to retard airflow; it’s meant to reduce conductive heat flow through the ceiling material.  So if your insulation isn’t in full contact with your sheetrock or plaster ceiling it is not an effective thermal barrier.  This can happen due to strapping on a ceiling or insulation that fits poorly within a space.  Air is constantly flowing between the surface of the ceiling and the surface of the insulation taking heat with it.  The areas around penetrations in the ceiling are drawing air, because heat rises, up through those holes with little resistance.  Fiberglass insulation becomes a filter for that air, but does not stop it.  Cellulose insulation can reduce the flow, but also does not stop it.  So the first course of action when adding insulation to your attic is to air seal around all penetrations [pluming, electrical, mechanical, chimney’s, open wall cavities, etc] prior to adding a layer of insulation.  Then be sure that the type of insulation you install will fit fully against the ceiling surface below.

Forget the attic hatch

As little as a 7% void in insulation can cause up to 50% of the heat loss through your attic.  Having an un-insulated attic hatch adjacent to your R-49 attic space can result in a significant amount of heat loss.  Your heating system will work hard to continue to heat that hole in your ceiling.  The attic hatch will be constantly giving heat to the attic and requiring heat to stay warm.  Sometimes there is a fiberglass batt positioned on the top of the attic hatch, but the first time someone goes up through the hatch the batt is moved to the side and rarely replaced.  Even if your attic hatch has insulation on it, the hatch is rarely air sealed allowing a significant amount of heat to enter the attic space around the board or sheetrock that acts as your attic hatch. So, even if you do have a fiberglass batt on top of your attic hatch, if it is not air sealed, that insulation is doing nothing.

Pretend the basement does not exist

Basements are an integral part of a building envelope, and although we like to pretend they do not exist they are some of the leading contributors to energy loss in a home.  Concrete has virtually no R-value, so any section of above grade foundation that you have is continually leaking heat to the exterior of your home.  You may notice that your flowers bloom early in the spring, and the snow melts directly against your foundation sooner then other areas.  Basements also tend to be the place where we store our chemicals, firewood, paints, and install our heating systems.  If you have poorly installed ductwork in your basement you can be transferring all of those indoor air pollutants directly to your living spaces.  Any holes between the basement for plumbing, electrical, and mechanical directly introduce the moisture and toxins from your basement into the rest of your home.  And insulating the basement ceiling isn’t going to stop that airflow, and often times can lead to frozen pipes and performance issues with your heating system.  So before you say you want to do an energy project, but you don’t want to address your basement, remember that you could be creating a new issue that you did not have before.

Ignore the air barrier between the garage and living space

And last, but certainly not least, is ignoring the reasons why new construction codes require you to have a separation between your living space and your garage.  For code purposes, several of the requirements relate to fire hazards.  However, we have also learned in recent years, with the influx of tighter homes, that contaminants in the garage often leads to poor indoor air quality.  Your car continues to give off carbon monoxide for hours after it is turned off.  Similar to your basement, your garage is where you tend to store chemicals and gas for your lawn mower.  For these reasons, it is very important that you have a continuous air barrier between your garage and living space.  This includes attached garages and tuck under garages where the garage is below with a living space is above.Remember, your house is a system.  Every part is directly or indirectly related to some other part.  So hiring an energy professional to help you create a safe, comfortable, and energy efficient home isn’t just important, it’s critical.

72% Of Individuals Polled Were Unaware That Architects Apply For Planning Permission

Sadly, I have neglected my blog over the last couple of weeks as mud season rolled into road construction season here in Maine.  I have, however, kept up with some of the interesting articles that are floating around my inbox.  One that caught my attention stated a number of facts that the average person doesn't know that an Architect does! Architects are notoriously bad business people. How can we run a successful business if the majority of individuals who would hire us have no idea what we do!This topic reminds me of the statement that I make to my students at the beginning of each semester. "I don't know what you don't know!” Quickly followed by: “I don't remember what it was like when I didn’t know, now that I know it.” As an Architect, I guess I get caught up in the excitement of the design of the project, and I forget to explain all the important things that need to happen behind the scenes as a project develops.According to Vitruvius who wrote The Ten Books On Architecture for the emperor Augustus: “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to the test.” The foundation for which all architects study asks them to be the linchpin for every project. In simple terms it requires the architect to hold together various elements of a complicated process:  To be involved in every aspect of design and construction because an architect's knowledge base extends to every discipline.I am currently writing a class for the fall semester and I have to put together, in detail, a worksheet of all the information that an architect would be required to figure out during each phase of the design and construction process. It has been an exhausting list including zoning, watershed, ADA compliance, wall detail sheets, sections, schedules and so much more. Maybe you don't need the Architect to hold your hand and pick out paint colors, but are you aware of all the other things you should be asking your architect to do? How about a few ideas to get your mind thinking about how complicated this process is:

  1. Check the zoning, because what happens when you can’t do what you wanted to do on your site?
  2. Check for watershed restrictions, how much extra is it going to cost you to find the right location for the septic on this site you wanted to build on?
  3. Phosphorus plans. Did you even know you might need one of these?
  4. Planning requirements for submission, every town is different and you might need stamped engineering drawings or a site plan with 2’-0” contours.
  5. Help the builder work out any unforeseen issues, because there will always be issues
  6. Coordinate with trades, when you have no data jacks on the first floor of your home and you can’t connect to the internet without a wireless router you’ll wonder why no one said anything. It’s not like you were supposed to know, and the electrician was just doing whatever was necessary for a certificate of occupancy, it's really not their job to ask you how you are going to use your space.
  7. Lighting, because even the most beautiful space can be dark and under utilized if a proper lighting layout hasn’t been established
  8. Check to make sure the building envelop is tight and continuous, the days of energy efficient structures are becoming more and more important.
  9. Verify the electrical is in a usable location, because there are twenty light switches and not one of them turns on a light when you enter the front door.
  10. Heating or cooling is in a usable location, because it was easier to run ductwork right behind where your couch will go, and now it doesn’t heat the space.

I assume it was drummed into my mind as a young architect that our clients don't need to know all the nitty gritty of what we do behind the scenes.  However, it has become abundantly clear, that our profession is marginalizing itself because clients now assume that the builder figures out things that architects should be doing. Whose fault is it when we agree to lesser services and the project doesn’t go as planned? Just because the structure can be eight feet apart, doesn't mean that the geometry will look correct when it's finished. Or that removing one window will save you $500, but now every time you drive into your driveway you see the two eyes and mouth because the front of your home looks like the painting "The Scream" by Edvard Munch. It's like trying to run a project, without a project manager. Just because it might save you a little money, doesn't mean it's always a good option.  The architect has spent hours getting the proportions just right, so if you need to save money, or make a change, they need to be able to evaluate how that change will affect all other parts of the structure. Not only does the architect design buildings, we manage the process from the beginning site analysis through commissioning.  You need the architect to be fully engaged through the entire process, so let us tell you why you need us!  

Connecting To The Outdoors

Connection to the outdoors has become a topic that I talk about regularly with my clients, my students, and other architects.  More often then not, a client comes to you with a site.  There is something about that site that they love, and it is our challenge as architects to listen, understand, and encompass that design feature.A large part of sustainable design is connecting with nature and using what you have on the site to create a better project.  I was reminded of that last week as my students did their final presentations in their sustainable design class.  I picked a challenging site where they had to decide to keep the existing building, or tear it down and start new.  The view to the ocean was on the north facade, which is an extreme challenge for sustainable buildings.  It was important for me to remind them that sustainable buildings must also be lived in, and it will be very difficult to convince a client to turn their backs on the view for increased energy performance in their home.  Maybe i'm waxing nostalgic as the semester comes to an end, but I love to think that I get as much from my students every semester as I give them. I learn new things, I learn new ways to research, and I become a better architect as they learn to become architects themselves.In the first single family home that I designed, I spent hours with google sketch up, photos of the site, and a layout to figure out exactly where each window went.  Every window capitalizes on the view, the style of the home, the correct proportions, and a maximized energy efficiency per the clients budget.  If I had to do it over again today I would change the type of insulation, but I would change very little about the geometry of the house.  Learning to take advantage of what the site has to offer is one of the most rewarding parts of a project.  Not every house fits in every location, but houses that become one with the landscape allow clients to take full advantage of the site. Living in Maine this is a particular challenge.  Maine is known as the "Vacation State" and for a lot of good reasons.  We have the ocean, the mountains, and the lake.  If you are a winter person and love skiing, you may find yourself in a chalet on the side of one of our ski mountains.  If you love the ocean, you may find yourself on one of Maine's unspoiled coastlines, and if you love the lake, there are plenty to choose from.  But what happens when you're on the wrong side of the lake, the wind is freezing as it whips across the surface in the "it's still winter" season.  That is the architects challenge, to blend the home to the landscape, use what is there to our advantage, and block the unwanted site characteristics.Every design project should start with the site, and end with a beautiful home that both uses the landscape, and blends in.  Farmers for years have been using technology that we consider "new and exciting".  They used the landscape for what they had, their houses faced South to absorb the sunlight during the daytime hours, and if you lived in New England, the barn connected to the house so you didn't have to brave the tough winter weather to feed and care for your animals.  Sure, today we don't cut wood from the back 40 acres and keep our homes warm with a fireplace (or we shouldn't) but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still use that pond for micro-hydro or the south facing sun to heat our home without a heating system.  Technology is changing, and so is the way we use our sites, but the basic principles are still the same.So ask yourself: Before I select this plan from a book and hire a contractor to build it, should I consider contacting an Architect to help me through the process?  Can they help me situate the building on the site, review the plan for functionality, and give me a better project?  I know that people perceive Architects as being expensive, or something that only wealthy people can afford.  Can you afford not to spend the extra 10% on the biggest investment you are likely to make? 

How Much Does It Cost To Hire An Architect

Building, buying, or renovating is one of the single most expensive purchases you will spend money on in your lifetime.  Shouldn’t you expect to pay more for something that great? It is a very common misconception that architects are expensive. So what are you paying for when you hire an architect?  Experience.What does experience cost?  In the beginning the American Institute of Architects (AIA) required that architects all charged the same amount.  They felt that this would keep people from undercutting the market and offering the same services for free or less money.  The AIA however was accused of violating federal antitrust laws, which promote vigorous and fair competition, and provide consumers with the best combination of price and quality.  Therefore, architects are now discouraged from discussing fee structure and job costs.Yet you, as an owner, buyer, or builder still want to know what the cost of hiring an architect will be. Typically fees could include a percentage of the cost of construction, or an hourly wage with a set amount of hours and a maximum cost not to exceed, or an hourly rate with no cap.  It varies by architect, by location, by experience, and by type of project.One of the very first questions an architect will ask you is “what is your budget?”  So take a look at your budget, see what you could afford as a monthly fee, roll that into the next 12 months, and start designing your project.  You could also apply for a construction loan and pay the fees of your architect out of your loan. The simple best way to discover the cost of hiring an architect is to do your research and interview a couple of architects that fit your needs based on the issues I discussed in my previous blog post.Although there is always a deal out there, in general, you get what you pay for.  In lowest bidder work you are provided with a bid for the least amount of work possible to complete the work, not a dime more, and when there is any confusion, they ask for more money.  Let’s be honest, you can only do so much for so much money.  If you buy a $100 laptop, you should expect it to be a $100 laptop, not a $2000 MacBook Pro with the latest in graphics cards and the fastest processor on the market.   The same concept applies to the built environment.If the contractor tells you that they can build you a house without an architect, that may be true, but when you want to move the bathroom from the left to the right, or you decide to move the garage height up four feet, are they going to be taking into consideration the proportions of the building.  A professional designed even those plans that you pick out of a magazine and took into consideration the proportions that make it look and feel correct.  But is same building perfect for every situation?  We don’t think so, so why should you?  Even the ancient Romans knew about building the right geometry,  facing the right direction, taking advantage of the natural pattern of the light, the wind, or the flow of water.Building a takes a long time, planning for it should take even longer. There are a million decisions that need to be made when designing a project.  Everything from what can you afford, size, program, light, heat, even what color will you paint the walls.  It is a process that needs to be managed every step of the way to maintain schedule, cost, and finished product.  Do you have the time to manage your project full time?  So many of my clients become overwhelmed with the details and lost in the weeds.  So ask yourself,  “Can I Afford Not To Hire An Architect?”Until we meet again, Happy Holidays!Emily Mottram, AIAOwner, Mottram Architecture

How do I choose what Architect is best for my situation?

Alright, so you have decided you want to hire an architect, or at least you have considered the possibility enough to do a little research.  Now you want to know how you are supposed to decide on an architect, when you don’t know anything about architecture, which is why you need to hire an architect! Whew…First things first, how do you find an architect to work with?  I have a few recommendations, first, ask all of your friends and acquaintances if they have worked with an architect, know an architect, or can recommend one.  Word of mouth is the single best way to find someone you are willing to trust with a project as personal as designing your home, building, or space. If your friends are unable to provide you a name or two go on to your local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  Or simply Google: Architect, your location, and whatever you want to build.How will you know if they can meet your needs and give you everything you want?  Maybe you have done some research and you have found, as is often the case, that several architects in your location build beautiful homes or buildings and have great pictures on their website.  Maybe some are your style, maybe others are not, but now you are confused because if all architects design beautiful spaces how do you know which one is right for you?Maybe selecting an architect should be like selecting a puppy.  Before you get a puppy you do research, you find out what type you want based on how they look, what exercise requirements they have, what certain personality traits are common with that breed, what size they are or will grow to be, how far away are the located to go pick one out, and then when you finally get there you pick the one the grabs your attention.  Maybe it’s the cutest one, maybe it’s the quiet one that plays by itself, or maybe it’s the spunky one that shows off and is very friendly.Similar to selecting a puppy, selecting an architect that will meet your specific needs is based on a lot of different factors.  That doesn’t mean that every architect is for you, or that you can work with every architect.  So here are the key points you need to know and consider when selecting an architect to work with.

  1. Research – just like buying a puppy, the more research, the better the outcome will be. If you are looking to build or remodel a house, try looking for architects that specialize in residential design.  All architects specialize in something, here at Mottram Architecture we specialize in residential structures that emphasize energy efficiency.  All architects are not good at all things, so steer away from the architect who is trying to be all things to all customers.
  2. Look at the work the architect has done, just because they aren’t showing that mid century modern home you want doesn’t mean they can’t provide it for you, it just might mean that other clients didn’t want that. But you’re selecting an architect who is going to best suit your needs, so you want them to be able to adapt to your style. If you notice that the architect seems to only do hospitals, and you want to design a home, then they may not be the architect for you.
  3. Find out what are the requirements for working with the architect. Do they bill monthly, or at the end of the project?  Are their fees fixed?  What kind of contract will they require you to sign? Do they do renovations, or only new construction?  Do they work primarily your area? Some of this information will be available on their website, but giving a call to the office will often gain you the information you need.  If you are not sure what questions to ask, have the architect explain to you what working with them will look like.
  4. Ask for referrals. Working with anyone can be a challenge, so ask previous clients what their experience was working with the architect.  Ask how the project went and if the architect was quick with responding to questions.  Does someone answer the phone when you call, or did you have to talk to the automated system?  Did they finish the project on time and on budget?  Did they follow the project all the way through from design through completion or did they hand the project off to the contractor after design and permitting.
  5. And lastly, set up a meeting to introduce yourself to the architect and ask who will be part of the team.  Your personality and theirs need to be compatible so you know that you can work together.  You will be sharing some very personal information with your architect, so be sure to select someone you feel comfortable with.

Everyone is worried that the architect only wants to design some showpiece and charge a lot of money.  This is a very big misconception. Architects are trained to understand space.  We spend years developing the skills necessary to provide as much as possible in the least amount of space and make it work so well that you never know how complicated it was to get that last closet in between the bathroom and the kitchen.   Architects are often able to find space in your layout or your budget that you never thought of, but you need to know that the architect you hire can meet your needs.  Be willing and open to listen to their suggestions, because sometimes they do know better, but be upfront in stating what your budget, timeframe, and expectations are.If you hire the right architect, at the end of the project you’ll be rewarded with a truly beautiful space that they created with you.  We like to leave our clients with a sense of “place”.  A feeling that the spaces they created not only function, but enhance their lives, allowing them to do the things that matter most to them.If you’re still not sure about hiring an architect, tune back in over the next couple weeks where we will elaborate more on working with an architect.Until then, happy planning!Emily Mottram, AIAPrincipal, Mottram Architecture