One last thing before you head out on vacation

Have you a taken a break this summer?  It's that time of year, when everyone I know is either out or leaving soon before things get crazy again and life has to go back to routine after school starts!  I just got back from a much needed vacation with my family.  And while it's fresh on my mind, I thought I'd share the one precaution I take before I lock the house and head out the door.  If you are going out of town this summer, be sure to take this simple measure to safeguard your home and avoid coming back to a bad situation.

Prevent catastrophe, avoid costly damages

I'm generally not a worry wart. I don't have a pre-vacation checklist that's as long as my arm.  But more than a decade of homeownership and working in the home building industry have made me cautious about the two things that are catastrophic when it comes to your home - fire and water.  Everything else can be easily fixed.

Let's talk about water damage

As I mentioned in a previous post about water damage to buildings, "most of the water damage and moisture damage in buildings occurs from ‘bulk water intrusion’ - rainwater being the #1 external source and plumbing failures being the #1 internal source."  This is corroborated by the fact that a majority of homeowner's insurance claims are related to water damage as a result of burst pipes, or leaks due to wear and tear.

I've been in that situation where we got back from a weekend trip to a flooded kitchen, because the dishwasher broke while we were out.  I know a friend who lives with warped wood floors because their faucet connection burst open in the middle of the night.  I've worked with clients who've had to demolish their house (or what was left of it) and build new, after a fire or flood caused irreparable damage.  I've worked on remodels where the water heater blew up through the garage roof . There was also that time when a braided hose (the flexible pipe connecting the sink faucet to the shut-off valve at the wall) tore open in a brand new house, flooding the second floor just after my clients moved in.

Perhaps, it's better if these accidents happen when we are out of the house!!  But the damage can be extensive if left unchecked.  These events are so common that we started building in cautionary details in our new houses - like floor drains near toilets, floor recesses with drains under dishwashers and washing machines.  Over the top? Maybe! Maybe not!

Depending on the amount of water, length of time, and location, the destruction can affect framing, drywall, electrical wiring, light fixtures, flooring, baseboards, cabinets, furniture and other stuff.  I for one would like to avoid spending thousands of dollars in water damage and repairs, not to mention a large water bill and the hassle.

Vacation Precaution

That's why I make it a point to shut-off the main water supply* to the entire house when I leave town.  This is my non-negotiable.  This and turning down the thermostat on the air-conditioner.  My husband worries about the other 25 things!


#1 If you do shut the water supply off, be sure to think about your water heater as well.  Without a continuous supply of water, your water heater tank is at risk.  Depending on the type and setting of the water heater, the heat source, and how long you're gone, the damage could be as minimal as a burnt heating element or more severe with a pressure build-up issue.  Since my house is all-electric (i.e. not a gas/propane/oil fired water heater), and it is the middle of summer, I turned the water heater off at the breaker and that was that.  If you have a fuel fired water heater, set the water heater to 'vacation' mode or 'pilot'.  Turning off the gas supply is not generally recommended, unless you are an expert at reigniting the pilot light, which you will have to do when you get back.

#2 If you have a pool in your backyard, see if you the pool water supply is isolated and only shut-off the water to the house.  You probably want the pool pump running and the filter keeping things clean.

#3 If you are gone for more than a week, you're probably going to want to run your irrigation/ sprinkler system or else your lawn and plants will bake in the summer heat.

#4 If your house has a fire sprinkler system that is tied to the house water-supply, then obviously, turning off the water main is not for you.


If shutting off the main water supply is not an option for any of the reasons listed above, simply shut-off the water supply valves at each appliance and plumbing fixture. That includes the dishwasher, clothes washer, icemaker, all sinks, and toilets. Yes, that's a lot of valves.

And don't be tempted to run a last load in the dishwasher or washing machine when you leave.

Where is the shut-off valve?

This depends on your water source and plumbing set-up.

*If you are on city water like me, your main shut-off is the big gate valve at the water meter in the yard box buried near the street.  If you can locate where the main line enters your house (in the garage or basement), you might find a ball valve at the entry point, either inside or outside.  I don't have this set-up at my house, so I shut the main at the street.

If your house is supplied by a well or rainwater cistern, then the main shut-off is most likely at the pump-house.

If you are building a new house, discuss these scenarios with your plumber or builder or architect.  You might want separate shut-off valves that isolate each separate use. This is highly unusual, so I provide a diagram (shown below) to let the plumber plan his installation accordingly.  This set-up also allows for easy installation of a water softener or water filter in the future.

How to turn it off?

Simple!  Turn the valve clockwise to close, and counterclockwise to open.  Remember, righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.

Yes indeed, the list of things you need to take care of before you can take that break can be long and tiring.  It's ironic how stressful those days before heading out on vacation can be!  But whether it's a long-weekend jaunt, a 10 day getaway, or a 4 week trip overseas, do one last thing.

Turn your water off!



p.s. think I'm paranoid? Let me know if you do the same.


How safe is your house from water damage?

My neighborhood listserv is ablaze with people asking for help with repairs due to water damage. The recent rains are a good reminder that Austin gets an average 32.5" of rain every year, which is to say that our buildings are pretty susceptible to rainwater damage. It's common sense, yet, everyday I see houses built using risky construction details and building designs that ignore this significant element of our weather. How you deal with bulk water* at the roof, walls, and foundation (near grade) is very important to the durability of a building. If you are in the process of building your house, pay close attention to the weak spots identified below.

Water Intrusion at roof:

Most people recognize that roof and grade are obvious areas of weakness, when it comes to water intrusion. You've probably lived in a house that has had a leaky roof, most likely leaking around the chimney during a storm. Even if it's not literally dripping water from the ceiling, but just a wet patch or a watercolor stain, you've got a problem on your hands.

Water Intrusion at or below grade:

Perhaps, you live in a house that got flooded in the recent torrential rains. Yes, that was a lot of rain. But, if storm water accumulates outside your house in a downpour and gets precariously close to coming inside, then you may very well have a drainage problem on your lot, or your floor/ slab is not high enough. I've lived in that house and it's not fun.

How about the crawl space under your house that is a pond in a rain event. What about your damp musty basement?

But walls?

Just think of all the people who walk out in the rain with a small umbrella and rain boots to protect them from getting wet. They've covered their bases - doesn't matter that their leggings are getting sprayed a little. Now imagine that you're wearing an expensive suit or a special outfit to dinner. Or you're going to be out in the pouring rain for a long time. You'd make sure you wear a trench coat and use the biggest umbrella you've got, wouldn't you?

The one good thing about the drought that prevailed over central texas for over 3 years was that our buildings didn't age as much. Because unlike human skin, which ages faster in the absence of moisture, building skins age faster in the presence of moisture. So if you are wondering why your house that was built in 2012 looked great for 3 years and now it looks like @*&#, then you've probably got unprotected walls that are aging from getting wet.

Water intrusion at walls:

The most commonly used exterior building materials such as stucco, brick, and stone do not repel water, but instead they absorb and hold water like sponges. That's why you see growth of mildew, algae, lichen, moss, fungus, etc on masonry walls that are exposed to rain. Not only is this a high-maintenance situation from an aesthetic standpoint, it's recipe for water damage to the innards of the wall.

Notice in both examples, that the part of the stone veneer that has water damage is at the base - the part most unprotected by an overhang. The umbrella isn't big enough. The taller the wall, the bigger the umbrella has to be. Also notice that these walls are more exposed because of their slope/ angle i.e. they are not vertical.

A good power-washing will take care of the mildew and unsightly discoloration on the stone. But if there is any wood framing behind that stone, it needs a good weather barrier and flashing at the base to protect from rot. You need a good trench coat.

In the pictures below, it's very clear what areas of the wall get the most water - it's where the water runoff from the roof hits the wall. Gutters that direct the water away from the wall are highly recommended. Also, the larger the roof area, the more the runoff - so size the gutters to handle the amount of water.

 Water intrusion at openings:

The condition is worse when there is an opening in the wall, such as at a window or a door. The picture below shows a very common condition - where roof runoff hits the corner of a window. How long until there is water damage behind that path of water? Even if the window flashing is done well, this is condition that tests the limits of the materials and installation. It's risky.

Water damage at openings

Best Practices:

There is no single solution, but mainly to acknowledge that rainfall is part of our climate and design for it. Include redundancies. Design a large roof overhang, avoid flat roofs, install correctly sized gutters, avoid large expanses of walls and unprotected windows, a good weather barrier installed shingle style, coupled with through-wall flashing and flexible flashing membranes around openings. If you can afford to, cover the wall with a material that sheds water - materials like metals or other large panel products.

*Bulk water - water damage vs. moisture damage

Most of the water damage and moisture damage in buildings occurs from 'bulk water intrusion', the main source for which is rainwater. Other sources being plumbing failures.

'Bulk water' implies large amounts of water, whereas 'moisture' implies trace amounts of water.

When left alone, both can cause significant damage in wood frame buildings. It's the rate of damage that varies. Depending on where the intrusion occurs and how much water enters, it may manifest immediately as a leak (as in dripping water) or wetness, OR it may take years to manifest. Typically, the longer it takes to manifest, the worse the damage. As we all know, we take immediate action when there are extreme conditions such as a leak, whereas a stain on the ceiling takes less priority in our busy lives.


No matter how well built your house is, you need a maintenance plan to keep things from getting out of hand. Question is, would you rather have a low maintenance house or a high maintenance house?




5 Fantastic books on details

Designing and drawing good details is an essential skill required of architects.  And there are so many great books on the topic.  I only list here the ones that I have used, and think every architect should review, not including the code book.  And for a book to make the list, it has to meet these three criteria:

  1. More illustrations than paragraphs of text.  In that regard, architects are like a 3-year-olds - a drawing speaks a thousand words.
  2. I regularly use(d) the book as reference. That it was not just sitting on my shelf, for show, collecting dust.  More often these days, I use it as a teaching tool.
  3. It specifically applies to residential architecture. And even more specifically, they apply to work in North America, specifically the US.  Because here, everything is opposite to the way the rest of the world does it.  I'm slightly exaggerating, but from electric power supply and units of measurement to the direction of locksets and a sense of space, it's opposite way once you are stateside.

I should prelude by saying that I grew up in India, where I earned my B.Arch degree.  I was accustomed to reinforced concrete and masonry construction and oh, using the metric system!  Imagine my surprise when I learned that most buildings in the United States were made of sticks and stones.  And that there was hot water running in the pipes.  In my world, that was quite a contradiction.  I knew I had my work cut out for me.

I was fortunate that my first second real job out of graduate school was at a small architecture firm that devoted a lot of time thinking about the way you detail a building. There was a steep learning curve in the first few years.  But these books, along with patient colleagues and old project drawings, were extremely helpful.  Now, it all makes sense.

As I celebrate 15 years in the US, it seems appropriate to reflect on how much I have learned.  But also humbling to admit that I continue to learn - as new materials are added to the market, technologies evolve, construction methods change, our understanding of building science grows, clients want something new that you haven't done before (like an old-fashioned brick pizza oven or an observatory).  The important thing is to know how things go together and what to account for.

That said, here are my fantastic five.

1) Thallon, Robert, Graphic Guide to Frame Construction: Third Edition, Revised and Updated (For Pros By Pros), Third Edition, Taunton Press Inc., 2009

This book is a very useful resource for professionals as well as do-it-yourselfers.  It was a savior during my early years of professional practice as an architectural intern in an American office.  I would refer to it as I drew wall-sections and roof overhang details in AutoCAD.  I would take it with me to the job-site. I learned the correct terminology and conventional methods used in light wood frame construction that is typical in North America.

2) Lstiburek, Joseph, Builder's Guide: Hot-Humid Climates - A systems approach to designing and building healthy, comfortable, durable, energy efficient, and environmentally responsible homes, Energy Efficient Building AssociationBuilding Science Corporation/ US D.O.E., 2002

Also available for 4 other hygro-thermal regions in the US, the guidebook, by the building science guru, provides climate-specific recommendations on building for improved performance.

3) Architectural Woodwork InstituteArchitectural Woodwork Quality Standards Illustrated, Eighth Edition, AWI. 2003.

This book will take the guesswork out of anything you want to know about wood and wood products for interior finish carpentry, including cabinetry and finishes.

The last two need no introduction.  No list of books on well-illustrated detailing would be complete without them.

4) Ching, Francis D. K., Building Construction Illustrated, Fifth Edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York. 2014.

While D.K.Ching has several publications to his credit, BCI is a particularly useful reference for detailing.  I can safely bet that every architect and architecture student around the world has seen Ching's work.  If you love architectural free-hand sketches, and who doesn't, his blog is worth following.  Seeing.Thinking.Drawing. is where he uploads his current work.

5) American Institute of Architects, Architectural Graphic Standards for Residential Construction, Second Edition, John Wiley & Sons, New York. 2010.

For all those occasions when you don't have to reinvent the wheel; AGS is the architect's handbook. It is a one-stop-shop resource for industry standards on sizes, materials, components, assemblies, installation, building systems, etc.  It has the information in all the books mentioned above.  And more.

Note that links provided are for the latest edition, even if that is not the one I possess.  There is much overlap in the content of these books.  But I think it is a good idea to look at the same thing from different angles to fully understand it.  If you want to spend under $20, go with #1.  If you want to spend $200 for a more comprehensive book, get #5.


Rain, rain, go away, I've got a flood today

It has been raining cats and dogs over the past couple of weeks in Austin, totaling 9.8" of rainfall just in the Bull Creek watershed. Last Tuesday, we got 4.76" of rainfall. That is about how much is normal average for the entire month of May, our wettest month.  And it all came down overnight.  All the low water crossings in the belly of the watershed were flooded, with water gushing over the roads for well over 24 hours. I regularly check for updates.

I love the rain. I love the bright green clean look that is a result of a good shower. I love cloudy days as much as I love blue skies.  After the drought we've had since 2011, you probably love it too.  And if you harvest rainwater as your sole source of water supply, you are probably jumping with joy, singing "let it rain". But if your site has drainage issues, you are probably worried, and thinking "rain, rain, go away". Whether it is a flat lot or there is topography (i.e. slope, as is common in some parts of Austin and the hill country), site water management is critical for the building's durability and worry-free home-ownership.

I used to worry. My first house was a garden-home with a yard that had all the right ingredients for a flooding recipe.  It was built in the late 70's in a zero-lot-line development, after the whole area was razed to the ground and compacted with caliche (crushed limestone). Although a good base for roads and driveways, and a cheap stabilizer for concrete foundation, caliche is bad for ground water seepage. (And gardening! Hardly ideal for a garden house!  The yard had about 4"-6" of soil before you hit caliche. Needless to say, it wasn't a very lush garden. Or you had to work hard for it. Of course, many trees and hardy plants have grown in the neighborhood over the last 30 years.)  Adding to the nonporous nature of the soil, the yard was flat as a pancake, and locked in between adjacent houses and their yards.  Hint: A depressed, flat, impervious area, bound on all sides is sometimes called a pond!  Let me just say, after having owned this house, "courtyards" have lost all their appeal.

When it rained, all the water from my roof and the neighbors' roofs would pour into the yard. Roof runoff was (and almost always is) by far the biggest contributor of water.  Runoff from the patio and entry walkway was the second. All this water would collect in my "pond" to a depth of 6" to 8" and then start creeping into my garage, and soon after, my neighbor's house.  You see, the lawn in front of the entry gate created a small berm, that trapped the water in the yard, preventing it from draining into the street. The whole neighborhood has grading and drainage issues. In a really heavy downpour, the cul-de-sac would collect so much storm-water that the street gutters would fill up to the curb and flood the sidewalk.

I had to fix it.

Our HOA (Home Owner's Association) wanted us to build a concrete flume along the side of the property.  In my estimation, the flume would only serve as a ditch for water to collect and stagnate against the neighbor’s foundation till the rain subsided. This was the only predictable outcome as the elevation of the flume would be lower than that of adjacent grade and the street it was supposed to drain towards.

Instead, I took a more comprehensive approach.  First line of defense was to carry the roof runoff away from the yard and discharge it at the street.  I sized the roof gutters and downspouts for each section of roof area.  I replaced my dinky 4" gutters (which overflowed all the time) with 5" gutters that were big enough to handle the volume of water running off the roof surface. Then I added a few downspouts.  I connected the downspouts to corrugated PVC pipes that were buried below grade, going out to the street.  I installed clean-outs at the transition between the downspout and the pipe.  (No, I did not get leaf covers for the gutters, as they were beyond my budget at the time). Because of the lack of slope, I had to do pop-up drains at the end of the lines.It works like a charm. In a rain event, the water pressure in the underground line forces it to pop-up and spill over at the street.

To handle the surface water at the grade level, I installed a french drain all along the length of the property from the back corner to the front, also tied to a pop-up drain.  The HOA cut a swale into the berm at the front lawn.  They didn't want to spend the money to pave the swale, but had to come back later and do it anyway, as a grassy swale is not a very effective one.

And voila, that fixed it.  2" of rain in an hour and no flooding.

Now, I just need to keep my gutters clean.  Ugh!  I should have invested in the leaf covers.



Why designing a custom house is like having a child

For starters, you cannot know before you start what you are going to end up with.  You might have a girl or a boy!  He might have your beautiful eyes, she might have your partner's bulbous nose.  Regardless, you will love your child and not ever regret having this little bundle of joy that you created.  From nothing to a whole new living breathing person who leaves an indelible footprint in your life - it's rather amazing!   Likewise, if you have made the decision to go through the effort of building a custom-house that fits your family, your personal needs, and your lifestyle, it's quite a responsibility, and it's worth it.

Your child's skin color, eye color, hair color, sleep habits, personality, talents, it's all a toss.  Well, maybe some characteristics are predictable within a certain level of accuracy based on the two people involved in the pairing.  Every child is unique and a direct result of the people involved.  Similarly with building a custom-house - the major players involved in the project have a direct bearing on the end result.  This includes the architect, the builder, and you (the client).  The hereditary gene pool for the project is established by this unique combination.

You bring your site, your aspirations, your requirements, your budget.  No two architects will produce the same design for the same set of criteria.  That's the beauty of working with an architect, isn't it.  Architectural design is a creative process, and the resulting product will be as unique as the individual doing the creating.  Heck, the same architect will come up with a different design if they sat down to design on a different day, but I will ponder on that in an another blog post.  Architects come in all sizes and shapes - that's why selecting the right architect is crucial to the outcome of your project.

Design is one thing, building is another.  Yet, the same principle is true.  Given the same set of drawings, specifications, and instructions, no two builders will produce the same building.  Most seasoned builders assemble a team of sub-contractors that they like to work with.  The process of building is still considered a craft.  While the framing might be done by any number of framers per drawings and specifications, we depend on the artistic eye of the mason installing the stone veneer, the carpenter doing the trim work, the iron guy welding the ornamental railing, the tile guy laying the floor tile, just to name a few.  Some would argue that there are talented plumbers and electricians too.

And then, there is the nature vs. nurture conundrum, which also directly applies to the collaborative work involved in designing a custom-house.  Your project develops a personality and characteristics that are dictated by conversations that reinforce or alter a hereditary trait.  At the end of the day, one cannot say whether nature or nature played a more vital role in the outcome. It just takes a life of its own.



View into Jeld-Wen

I was invited to tour the Jeld-Wen plant in beautiful Bend, Oregon, which is where they manufacture their custom series of wood and aluminum clad-wood doors and windows.  This used to be the Pozzi window company since 1978 before Jeld-Wen bought it in 1992. As an architect, this factory tour and their spiel was particularly inspiring because they showcased many custom designs and talked about their capabilities that compete with really high-end wood window manufacturers like Marvin or Kolbe-Kolbe.  I was also very excited to see innovation in a 100-year-old industry and a can-do attitude. Having toured the Andersen window plant in Stillwater, Minnesota many years ago, I knew what to expect and could immediately see some similarities.  As at any manufacturing facility, work flow efficiency and quality control are stressed upon; all the moving and heavy lifting is handled by machinery; measuring and cutting is computerized. One would think that a lot of the repetitive tasks involved in putting the windows together are automated, but not so!  Window assembly is a labor intensive process. I was surprised to see that many of the parts are put together manually - men and women working with hand-held tools. From cladding the wood frame to joining the window frames together, from sealing the glass in the sash to setting the sash in the frame, how many hands touch one window before it is ready to ship, I'm sure they have the numbers. Perhaps because this is a much smaller facility and most windows are custom sizes and shapes, a Jeld-Wen veteran checks each and every window at the end of assembly.

It was also interesting to witness the testing performed on the windows and doors. A window/ door was installed in a sealed chamber that simulated real-world conditions like wind-driven rain to verify the unit's performance, and check on status of the weather-stripping, joints, etc.

Much like other wood window and door manufacturers, Jeld-Wen started as small mill-work company in 1960 in Klamath Falls, Oregon where timber harvesting was booming. They have since grown to be one of the top, holding a large market share in a very competitive industry, offering a diversified portfolio of products that cater to various budgets.

My personal experience is only with the Jeld-Wen Siteline EX aluminum clad-wood series, mostly casements and fixed windows.  I would be loath to specify a window with wood on the exterior, but that's easy for me since I don't do historic preservation type projects. Wood on the exterior of a window is just asking for trouble, even if it is treated wood such as Jeld-wen's proprietary AuroLast wood.  I also only specify windows with an integral nailing fin, so that it installed and flashed according to best building practices.  Anybody who installs a window using a "block frame" so that they "don't have to disturb" existing exterior finish such as siding, stucco, or stone, knows nothing about infiltration and water management in building envelope. If you ask me, they should not even be selling this option.

Jeld-wen offers many features and options that let you customize their product for a sophisticated client - upgrades in glass (they buy from Cardinal Glass), screens (Phantom Screens), finishes (pre-finish options, wood species, exterior colors, kynar finish, etc).  But if you are looking for a window of an unusual size or shape with unique features, I think you will find that the custom Jeld-wen plant in Bend, Oregon will not disappoint.  They look at your request, and the design team will meet to review, do research, and get back to you with an answer. It could cost you a lot, but if there is a way to do it, they will build it.  They make a prototype of every unique window, test it in-house for wind pressure, water and air infiltration.

The highlight for me was the curved glass windows and the copper clad windows.  They can clad the sash with copper but since it is a roll-formed product (not extruded like aluminum) it cannot be used on the (structural) frame of the window.  They had several examples with black aluminum frames and copper sashes, which looked pretty neat.  Keep in mind that copper is a living finish, and will patina over time, the end result being different from New York to Austin.  I have a love affair with vertical grain Douglas Fir (something about all the grain lines aligned so tightly makes my heart sing) and copper.  My eyes got to feast on many examples of both materials.

Other products I was excited to see were the large-opening folding window and door systems - 4 panel bi-parting doors, multi-slide stackable pocket doors, zero-corner doors.  If money is no object, then the options start to open up, no pun intended.

I firmly believe that innovation at the customizable (uppermost) level trickles down to the mass market as demand will drive the cost down. What is expensive and high-end today, will become commonplace tomorrow.  What was considered luxury yesterday is a standard today.  We've seen it in the food industry, the car industry, all types of technology, and the building industry is certainly no exception.


Sharon George.