Friday, April 17, 2015

Drawing interpretation and Communication

Not long ago, we engaged one of our trusted trade partners to fabricate a steel rail for a staircase. Due to the speed of the project, we met on site, drew sketches in the field, turned over a final CAD drawings, and they proceeded with the fabrication. The installed rail was not detailed as had been drawn or discussed. Their project manager agreed to reconfigure the design as intended. We are pleased to work with trade partners who exhibit our same dedication to “getting it right”. However, issues as this one in the design and construction process strike me as peculiar. Does a fabricator not see the same thing as drawn on the page? Or what designers find even more discomforting; does a fabricator take it upon him/herself to change the design? Lesson learned: even when fast-tracking, work closely with trusted trade partners and always have the fabricator produce shop drawings. By the way, the finished rail looks great.
Original rail drawing
First iteration in field
Revised rail under construction
Final rail complete
Final rail complete

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Baby Luck and Culture Clash

I'm writing this at about 35,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico, flying from Managua, Nicaragua to Atlanta. The International Builder's Show in Las Vegas was the first leg of this trip and San Ramón, Nicaragua the second. Hence, culture clash. I'm not sure that I could have selected two more different places but both were worthwhile destinations.

I was inspired by information and product and material ideas at the Show. While the volume of vendors and education sessions is overwhelming, I walked away with a few powerful take-always for our client's and for our business. Highlights include pet washing stations, water and space efficient and reasonably-priced wall hung toilets, CNG trucks that arrive as original equipment from the manufacturer, beautiful glass aggregate counter material, luxurious composite and wooden freestanding soaking tubs, solar roof shingles (might be good for that pesky HOA), autoclaved aerated concrete, and spectacular and affordable "full wall" door systems.

Seminars included everything from design trends from Houzz ( to working in the rental market. Starting at the International Builder's Show, I am now a charter member of the National Green Building Standard Advisory Board and am looking forward to help shape that standard and it's use (

After the show, I met my wife (Lori) in Atlanta and we set off to Nicaragua to plan a Rotary service project for our South Granville Rotary Club in partnership with the Sister Communities of San Ramon, Nicaragua ( We started in Granada and Pantanal, checking on past projects (schools and a medical clinic). The students are on their break - school starts on Monday after a 6 week break. So, we did not see schools in use, instead we saw schools being readied for the next session. The schools look good but well used, just what we would hope. As always, the medical clinic was enjoying very heavy use. We did visit with the contractor and welder (Luis) that we have worked with on two prior projects. His children attend the Jose de la Cruz Mena school in Pantanal. He commented that the school is serving its purpose and that it is well attended. Another notable item is that the electrical infrastructure in Pantanal and in the neighborhood around Escuela Ruben Dario has been completely rebuilt and looks great.

A school we completed years ago
Real electrical service (as opposed to pirated power which has been the norm).
We headed next to Finca Esperanza Verde (FEV) outside of San Ramon. On the way, we saw millions of pounds of coffee harvested, dried, and processed. This is an amazing season to be in the mountains of Nicaragua, especially for a coffee lover.  We had a delightful afternoon at FEV and shared a meal with the owner (Vivienne) and we identified a possible future school project in this tiny rural community. We highly recommend a visit to FEV if you are in this neck of the woods.

Coffee Harvest from the highway

Tuesday and Wednesday were planning days filled with photographing and measuring the school project that we will complete in March (block making for a future school and rebuilding the electrical system of a large existing school), meeting school staff, meeting the SCSRN crew (, meeting local contractors, attending a Rotary meeting, and checking out hotels and restaurants for our group. A busy and satisfying duty. The staff at SCSRN are a friendly, productive, and extraordinary group. The Matagalpa Rotary Club changed their meeting date to accommodate Lori and I and we had a very good meeting with this amazing and delightful group as well. They are ready and willing to partner with our Rotary Club on future projects. On Thursday we found our way to the sweet town of Leon for fun and for continued logistics planning. Stops along the way include Cascada Blanca and a weaver’s cooperative in an astonishingly beautiful area on a mountain ridge (
Cascada Blanca
I never cease to be fascinated by transportation modes and Nicaragua is a colorful study. There is still a tangled mass of motorcycles, old US school buses, horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians, hand carts, and livestock. Hazards abound. Lori photographed an over loaded and unbalanced hay truck right before I passed it in the highlands outside of Sébaco. After the semi, I passed another slow van. I looked in my rear view as the hay semi was also passing this slow van. Just as he got past the hay tipped. It was like a hay bomb, complete with a mushroom cloud of grass and dust. Just a little too close for comfort.
Safe load?????
We have been fortunate to never rent a new truck in Nicaragua. I’m more comfortable with a vehicle that has been around the block. The diagram below shows the pre-rental inspection results: dings, scratches and dents. Mind you, usually a different person checks you in than out.
Just a few dings
Friday we visited the Central American Rotary Project Fair in Managua. This was a well organized event designed to build partnerships between clubs to complete international service projects. We met Rotarians with whom we felt comfortable and will plan future projects; exactly what we hoped! We met up with three Folks from Gig Harbor, Washington, that have partnered with us on prior projects (Gig Harbor Morning Rotary Club). We took a spur of the moment trip back to Granada to see projects that they helped fund and, of course, to have a cold beer in town.
Prior school project
Prior school project
One of these Rotarians, I think it was Tom, commented on baby luck. On other words, how lucky he feels that he was born in the states. When you compare the things that we have and take for granted to the same for Nicaraguans, there is a stark contrast. Even if you only consider safe water, a complete sanitation system, and access to education and health care. Regardless of the context or contrast, we consistently find that Nicaraguans are warm, friendly, fiercely entrepreneurial, and just simply decent and good.
The smiles that bring us back.

Monday, January 19, 2015


We are in the process of renovating the Oakland Plantation. The home is a treasure, standing tall since 1784.  BuildSense is currently transforming the cellar into a wine enthusiast’s playground. It has been a challenge uncovering building techniques that are 231 years old, and shoring up that the house may stand another few centuries.

Renovation work like this is impossible to fully figure out before construction because you don’t know what lies hidden beneath the surface. Proper planning and design drawings are still required, but one must be able to tweak and/or adjust the plan where required when uncovering the unknown. Each day brings exciting new problems to tackle with new design solutions.

The project is far from completion so check back soon to see how the space finishes out.
Oakland Plantation Original House
The old basement was a hodgepodge of materials and chaos
 Before we can build up we must strip down, setting a new concrete slab floor with a proper foundation, insulation, vapor barrier, and water drainage.  Many old homes not only omitted a wide concrete footing, they placed the first coarse of stone foundation directly on soil.  These homes were built to move as the red clay expands and contracts.  It is very different than modern building practices but after 231 years I’d say this house has done all the settling it is going to do and is just fine.
New drainage was set prior to the new floor slab
New vapor barrier was set prior to the new floor slab
The best way to showcase aged rustic materials is by creating a uniform clean edge separating it from the new.  A curb can serve many purposes including a supporting element for the stone walls as well as an additional entry stair.
New floor slab with new edge curb. In this area the curb allows for a final step.
The edge curb uniformly supports the wall and cleans the edge where  the 231 year old foundation wall previously met grade.
The curb cleans up the base of the old fireplace as well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If These Walls Could Talk

What is it about old becoming new that evokes such intrigue? The repurposing of materials has always been favorable as a sustainable practice, however now more than ever the reuse of materials has emerged as an aesthetic choice. There’s something undoubtedly cool that happens when salvaged wood, brick, concrete, etc find new life in modern applications… But why you ask? Perhaps it’s because aged materials have a story to tell. With more efficient means available for supplying structure for a building, the option to use salvaged materials for finishes, flooring, and furniture has gained popularity. 

Reusing materials can be viewed as a showing of respect for the material’s ability to endure. Reclaimed wood salvaged from abandoned barns and factories from the early nineteenth century has weathered the weather, now mature, full of character, and ready for the next phase of its life. Perhaps that salvaged wood will find itself celebrated as an accent wall full of texture and juxtaposed by the sleek finish of neighboring walls. How interesting it is to have feelings of nostalgia evoked by rustic reused materials and yet be energized in the present by contemporary design. Maybe it is simply the opportunity to experience this unexpected relationship between old and new within the same structure that is so intriguing.

So instead of looking upon old abandoned buildings such as those seen above with sympathy, we should try to imagine the possibilities. In what ways could this material be repurposed? Whether it’s a rustic door, shelving, flooring, or custom furniture pieces, it’s sure to be admired.

An old barn may be up for some new tricks

Salvage is a lot of work, but the materials have unmistakable character.

Reclaimed siding from one old barn was cleaned and coated and reused on a new storage facility in this new barn. The ladder was reclaimed as well from an old silo.

This farmhouse addition makes use of beams from an old outbuilding as new structural collar ties in the cathedral ceiling. Yes, these are not fake or for aesthetics only. Besides looking great, these beams are actually holding the roof together. Additionally, reclaimed wood is slatted on the far wall for more texture in the room.

These stairs were constructed by laminating and bolting together the rough 2x10 roof joists from the same renovated building.

Friday, December 19, 2014


The roof is a very important part of any house as it is the first line of defense against the elements. Whether you are designing from scratch or replacing an existing roof, some things to think about with roof system are the slope of the roof, the complexity of the roof (gables, hips, and valleys), material of the roof, and the surrounding environment.

Often times the slope of a roof is driven by the style of the house, but it can be affected by the environment and cost. Generally a steeper roof costs a little more, but can give more room inside. Also a high slope roof is used in areas that get a lot of snow, the steeper roof keeps the snow from accumulating on the roof that could cause structural failure. Lower slope roofs use less material and therefore can be a little cheaper. They are easier and safer to work on, but may require more maintenance, as leaves and debris can accumulate. A flat roof is a little different animal. They generally cost more due to the materials and system used to make it function properly.

The complexity of a roof refers to its shape, from a simple one plane shed to a roof that has hips, valleys, and dormers. Obviously the less complex the roof, the cheaper it is to frame and roof, some roofers charge per cut they have to do on site. Also each time the plane of the roof is interrupted (valley, dormer) is a potential place for water infiltration, although there are products and systems available that help minimize this risk. The amount the roof overhangs the sides of the house is another factor to consider. The cost and complexity increase as the overhang increases, but a larger overhang protects the siding and windows, prolonging their life. Also large overhangs can offer shading from the sun to help lower energy cost.

The most commonly used materials to choose from when it comes to cladding a roof are asphalt shingles, metal, and membrane. Asphalt shingles are probably the most common and the cheapest of the materials. They are easy to work with which is important when you have a complex roof. Also they are easy to repair. We always recommend keeping an extra pack of shingles when putting on new shingles so if a repair is needed the shingles match. Metal is the next most commonly used material. Metal is more expensive, but is more durable and can last much longer than shingles. Metal roofs are ideal for lower pitch roofs because the smooth finish allows debris to slide off.  Metal is more difficult to work with on complex roofs and not as easy to repair. Membrane is one of a couple materials that come in a roll and are glued down. Membranes are most commonly used on flat roof systems, but can also be useful in unusual situations where the other two won’t work. This material requires some special skills and tools to install and repair correctly.
Metal and membrane roofs are ideal for rainwater catchment systems.
Lighter colored roofing material can enhance reflectivity and reduce energy costs.

The environment the structure is exposed to is another factor to consider when thinking about a roof. Things like weather, snow, and the amount of trees over the structure can all affect the performance of a roof. It is important to maintain your roof by, keeping it clear of debris, checking for damage and wear, and checking around any penetrations to assure flashing and sealants are in good shape. The roof is a critical component to any building, and it is essential that the right choices are made to assure that the roof performs properly.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Pocket Doors

When trying to take advantage of every square foot in your home, pocket doors can really make a difference. Generally, this space saving technique is used when doors start to impede the flow of traffic or as a means to facilitate greater storage capacity or space for furnishings. They are ideal for doors that will remain in the open position the majority of the time (or could remain open the majority of the time). Perhaps your closet doors stay open or you’d like them to stay open for general access, but are only closed when you may be straightening up for company. Does your bathroom or laundry room door swing in and block part of the vanity or counter space? Wouldn’t it be nice to free up that space and not have to swing the door open and closed around your actions?

The majority of the work for pocket doors is done during the framing phase of a home. The door slides on a metal track with wheels along the top of the doorframe. Once the drywall is hung, this technology is hidden and easily forgotten about. Below are some behind the scene pictures of what pocket door hardware actually looks like.

Top 5 Preferences and Tips:
5) Pocket doors are very easy to install in new framing conditions, yet require a tremendous amount of demolition and reconstruction to place in an existing home.
4) Pocket door systems will cost more due to time and complexity of installation.
3) Though pocket door kits are available for 2x4 wall framing, our experience is they tend to fail more easily over time. We prefer to layout 2x6 walls for all our pocket door locations.
2) Cheap hardware and parts generally fail more easily leaving you with a more difficult repair as the system is hidden in the walls.
1) And the #1 Pocket Door Design Tip: Pay particular attention to your electrical layout as switches and receptacles cannot go in the wall where the door takes up the space behind that wall.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Designing Within The Lines

BuildSense was happy to recently complete the design and build of a custom home on the last remaining lot at Durham’s Solterra Co-housing Community. Our client and the neighborhood shared the common goal to build an environmentally friendly house.
Our client came to us as a custom home veteran. She had already designed and built two homes in Austin, Texas before moving to Durham. With this experience she knew what she wanted and what she could live without in order to stay within her budget. She provided clear parameters for the project including a fixed budget, high-energy efficiency goals, a passive solar assisted design, and to have an open floor plan with two entrances, one to the street and one to the back path that connects to the community house.
Unlike many neighborhood associations, Solterra welcomes diversity in the style of homes with a greater focus on issues of site and solar orientation. Allowable eight-foot setbacks are shockingly narrow between houses but further enhance the connection among neighbors. With such tight distances between the houses, the neighborhood wants to make sure that the solar access is maintained when a new home is built. Solar models and documentation were submitted to the association in order to illustrate how the home would not inhibit solar access to neighbors.
The client and BuildSense explored design options to achieve a high performance home on the desired budget. A concrete slab floor surfaced with ceramic tile was desired for its thermal mass qualities of soaking up sun from large southern windows. This in turn made sense for the flat site.
The client wanted a well-insulated home with the intention of using insulating concrete forms (ICFs). While ICF construction suited many goals of the project, it was determined it would cause cost overruns in other areas. As such, an advanced in-line framing system was chosen with exterior 2x6 walls filled with open cell spray foam insulation and an exterior spray applied house wrap. This combination of systems reduced air infiltration to less than 0.6 ACH50 (which actually meets passivhaus standards).

The last major way the client was able to save was by choosing finishes, fixtures, and appliances that had a good level of quality without going over budget. Using splashes of color, standard cabinetry sizes, mid level appliances, and accent tile were excellent decisions to stay on budget.