Why a Booth is Better

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   Booths are some of the most delightful and hardworking square footage you can design into a home. The New Urban Guild’s Project:SmartDwelling initiative, as you’ll recall, is all about building dramatically smaller and smarter. Nothing accomplishes this better than a booth. Here’s why:

   If you want to seat 6 people comfortably in a conventional dining room, you need about 180 square feet. If you want to accomplish the same task using a booth, you need about 36 square feet, or 1/5 as much area. Yet ask yourself this: when you go to a restaurant, which tables do you notice filling up quicker? The booths, of course! They’re cozy and personal, whereas a table in the middle of the room is... just a table in the middle of the room. Not so special. So a booth delivers what most people prefer, but in only 1/5 the space... what’s not to love about that?

   But there’s more. The booth pictured above is in the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House in East Beach Norfolkwhich Wanda and I are designing. The booth is at the heart of the house; the wall of glass to the left looks into the Great Room, the Kitchen is just above, and the windows just below the booth look out into the Hearth Garden (more on that in a later post.) As you can see, it’s an L-shaped booth, rather than the conventional booth with two benches facing each other. By itself, it can seat 4 people comfortably. Pull up chairs to the two open sides, and it can seat 8.

   It’s not just a dining booth, either, as you can see. It doubles as the kids’ homework station, where they can spread out and work in the evening, just across from the kitchen so they can get help from Mom (or whoever the cook is in the family.) It also makes a great home office workstation as well, where you can set up with your laptop and work in an airy, light-filled environment with a view to the garden. Just below those windows, in a band of trim just above the top of the booth’s back, is a row of several plugs to accommodate whatever you or your kids might need to charge as you work.

   And it doesn’t end there. SmartDwellings don’t waste space. There’s a little space in the seat back against the Great Room wall to the left, so we’ll carve into that for some narrow shelves. Below that, under the seat, there’s much more room, so we’ll slide some cool-looking wicker baskets under the seat from the Great Room side. We’ll also slide a long basket under the garden-side seat from the Garden Entry.

   Like it? Keep checking back... there’s lots more where this came from. 

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments


Love it. Talk about making that space earn its keep...!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 10:23 PM

Alternating Tread Stairs

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   OK, here’s what these blog posts are all about... Wanda and I are designing the 2011 Coastal Living Idea House. It’ll be located in East Beach Norfolk. I can’t scoop Coastal Living, of course... you’ll have to read the magazine to see the entire house for the first time, but I’ll cover many of the ideas here over the next few weeks as the house breaks ground and gets underway.

   One really cool thing about this Idea House is the fact that it’s shaping up to be the very first SmartDwelling to be built. Project:SmartDwelling is a New Urban Guild initiative to redesign the American home to be dramatically smaller and smarter. You can’t just shrink the house, of course, because nobody wants to see their life put in a vise. But we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, either, because McMansions are getting to look an awful lot like dinosaurs. What to do?

   The New Urban Guild believes that if houses get smarter as they get smaller, then people may do what they did with the Katrina Cottages we designed... they’ll say “I could live there... matter of fact, I’d rather live there!” So a house can be small, so long as it lives large. The goal of Project:SmartDwelling is to design houses so smart that they live as big as houses twice their size.

   The 2011 Coastal Living Idea House will paint this picture with great clarity. Until now, idea houses built by almost any organization have typically been behemoths, tipping the scales at 6,000 to 10,000 square feet. This one won’t even top 3,000 square feet, but it will house three generations of your family in very creative ways, plus your home office. There’s lots more to talk about over the next few weeks, but for now, let’s look at the “alternating tread stair,” or if you’d like a less technical name, the “Jefferson Stair.” That’s because Thomas Jefferson was always inventing new ways to travel from floor to floor without taking up so much space.

   The Jefferson Stair in the idea house leads to the attic, which could eventually be finished out for many uses. By alternating the treads, you get a full-depth tread for each foot, but you ascend twice as fast because each foot only needs to step forward 10” rather than the normal 20”. You don’t climb any higher with each step, so it’s arguably an easier climb. And unlike a stepladder, you can go down this one facing downward because each foot has a full step to step onto.

   Cool, huh? Stay tuned... there’s lots more to come.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments


Wonderful idea!  Do you have the floor plan sketches for viewing yet?

Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 05:45 PM


Be careful with these in terms of NFPA 101!

Thursday, June 2, 2011 - 02:12 PM

Conditioned Crawl Spaces

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   Here’s a great idea Eric Moser introduced me to. Crawl spaces are normally the dark underbellies of houses where the dirt floor is always damp if not downright standing in water in wet times of the year. Mold and mildew often abounds there, and if cancer-causing radon gas gets into your house, it usually gets there by coming through the crawl space.

   The crawl space is as cold as the outdoor air in winter, because you have to ventilate it in order to remove at least some of the moisture so that your floor joists don’t rot... and sometimes, they rot anyway. And so you have to insulate the floor system, almost always with fiberglass batts. Problem is, anytime a plumber or other service person is in your crawl space, it’s really easy to dislodge some of the fiberglass, giving that unconditioned air direct access to your floor.

   Plumbers aren’t the only creatures in your crawl space. Most crawl spaces are teeming with all sorts of vermin, from feral cats and squirrels (sometimes having a fight) to rats, bugs, and other creeping things. And all of those unwanted critters probably do more to dislodge your soggy floor insulation than the plumbers do.

   When Eric introduced me to the idea of a conditioned crawl space, it sounded at first like the latest way to spend more money, which is unusual, because Eric is normally so practical. But the more I listened, the better it sounded. Here’s what you do:

   A. Insulate the foundation walls with rigid closed-cell insulation, rather than insulating the floor system. Unless your house is on a steep slope, there’s probably a lot less surface area of walls to insulate than the area of the floor. So you may actually save money on the insulation.

   B. Skip the foundation vents; you won’t be needing them. Savings are minor here, but every dollar counts, right?

   C. Use a really good vapor barrier (at least 20 mils thick) and seal it tightly to the top of the foundation wall. Cover the rigid insulation on the foundation wall, and extend it all the way across the floor. Make sure all the joints are taped securely. You’ll need to insulate the band joist above the top of the foundation wall with rigid insulation, but don’t cover this with the vapor barrier, as the band joist needs to be inspected from time to time in order to satisfy termite inspectors or property inspectors if you’re selling the house.

   D. If you really want to do the best job, install a 2” thick “rat slab” over the vapor barrier on the floor of the crawl space. This slab doesn’t need to be troweled, nor does it even need to be particularly level... just make sure that it’s not thinner than 2” in spots.

   Building a crawl space this way has benefits beyond the elimination of mold, mildew, vermin, rot, and diseases for your family. Your plumber will thank you profusely whenever he has to service something in the crawl space, but it doesn’t stop there. You won’t have to worry about pipes freezing under the house anymore, because you’ll actually be piping a bit of conditioned air into the crawl space. It might be 10 degrees cooler than your living room, but it’ll be much warmer than the winter air outside. This also means that ductwork running through the crawl space isn’t subjected to summer heat or freezing temperatures in winter, so your equipment will be more efficient. You can also put your airhandling unit in the crawl space, where it can be serviced in a clean and dry environment. Like the attic units I blogged about earlier, this can save a couple thousand dollars or more in finished space, because you won’t be needing that HVAC closet next to the great room anymore.

   Bottom line: you’ll likely spend a bit more money upfront on a conditioned crawl space. Estimates run as low as $1,500 if you do all the work yourself (without the rat slab) up to several thousand if a contractor does everything for you. But you’ll clearly save that money back before long on service and operation costs alone, and that doesn’t even begin to count the health benefits. What’s your family’s health worth?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Jay Wilson

Only way we will construct one these days. We just do not have any maintenance or long term health issues & it does increase Energy efficiency. The other thing we do as standard practice is line all footer trenches with 6 mil vapor barrier, which eliminates any wick effect of the concrete and extends useful life dramatically because water can't get to the re-bar and rust it.

Monday, November 29, 2010 - 08:19 PM



We've been doing this in our project of Warwick Grove for several years now.  Being in New York State we needed to get a variance to exclude foundation vents and had to install rigid insulation that met the fire exposure requirements.  Our mechanical systems are installed in the crawl space and we also supply "conditioned" air into that space.  The results have been considerable savings in energy costs.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010 - 09:52 AM

Insulated Attics

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   Insulated attics are emerging as an excellent new way of building a better home. Insulated attics possible because of the development of spray foam insulation, which allows insulation to be installed between the rafters and not fall out. Fiberglass, which is only friction-fit, would fall out almost immediately and therefore has to be installed on top of the ceiling, which holds it in place... so long as nobody ever goes into the attic and disturbs any of it.

   You might say “Wait, but now you have more insulation, because you’re having to run up the slope and back down again, and you’re conditioning more space (the attic); doesn’t that cost more to operate?” The answers are “Yes,” and “No.” Here’s why:

   A. It’s definitely true that you’re using more insulation because there are more square feet on the roof than there are on the ceiling, because the roof is on a slope.

   B. You would think you’re spending more on utilities because that extra area of insulation on the slope will lose more heat, right? That would be true if everything else were equal, but it’s not. Spray foam seals tight around framing, pipes, wires, or whatever else is in the way. Fiberglass is notorious for leaving gaps and holes everywhere. So the performance of the spray foam is better than the fiberglass, meaning that you’re spending less. And that’s only the beginning.

   C. Ever been in an attic on a sunny summer day? The heat is stifling. Matter of fact, it’s a huge heat trap. Attics can easily heat up to 140 degrees or higher; in hotter parts of the country, they sometimes reach 180 degrees. So that less efficient fiberglass insulation has a much taller order to fill: insulating against the 140 degrees or higher in the attic, rather than the 80 to 90 degrees outdoors. Because spray foam only has to insulate against the outside air temperature, an insulated attic might only be 10 or 15 degrees warmer than the inside air, and somewhat cooler than the outside air... a far cry from the 70+ degrees of difference between inside air and attic air in a heat-trapping uninsulated attic.

   D. Uninsulated attics are ventilated, but only just enough to supposedly allow moisture to escape. But that ventilation is problematic... you’ll never convince me that rain doesn’t blow in the vents during a bad storm. Spray foam, meanwhile, doesn’t require the attic to be ventilated because it installs tight to the roof deck, leaving no air space for condensation on the unconditioned side of the insulation. Eliminating attic ventilation doesn’t just keep out a blowing rain. It also lets you avoid those unsightly ridge vents that crush so easily every time someone is on the roof for maintenance.

   E. There are other benefits as well: Horizontal-flow heating and cooling units in the attic save a lot of money, because at $200 per square foot (a common price in many places) a closet in your floor plan for the air conditioner can easily cost $2,000 or more. Putting the unit in the attic lets you actually use those square feet for living rather than equipment. But units in the attic are problematic if the attic is 140 degrees or more through the summer. How insane is it to try to make cool air in the hottest part of the house? Try putting your icemaker up there and see if it makes any ice. But if it’s an insulated attic, then the problem is solved, and you save money from now on with equipment that runs more efficiently.

   F. Here’s another one: Water pipes run through an uninsulated attic must be heavily insulated, and still run the risk of freezing in winter if any of the insulation is improperly installed or damaged accidentally by humans or other creatures. Anyone who has had frozen pipes knows the repair costs only begin with the plumber.

   G. Finally, there’s some really cool stuff that becomes possible on your top floor that’s impossible with an uninsulated attic. I’ll blog about it later; it’s worthy of several blog posts, actually. These are ideas that I’ve been developing for several years. Recently, I’ve discovered that some of my colleagues have independently been developing these ideas as well. One of the leaders is New Urban Guild architect Eric Moser. Eric has promised to start blogging on these developments shortly; I’ll link to his posts when he does, so you get his perspective as well.

   Stay tuned!

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments

Carl Seville

Steve - Excellent points about insulated roof lines vs. ceilings.  I have been a strong proponent of spray foam rooflines for many years, but as I continue to learn about sustainable building, I find that my opinion has evolved.  Spray foam is a petroleum product and does contain many toxic chemicals that can do harm to installers and occupants.  Fiberglass, mineral wool, and cellulose, while none are perfect provide alternatives to consider, although none provide the air sealing of foam.  As to conditioning the attic, this makes sense, particularly if there is HVAC equipment there, but that in itself can be considered a design flaw.  If you don't put stuff in the attic that needs to be heated and cooled, then you don't need to condition it.  I recently saw the results of a study showing that the interior space below a well insulated and air sealed ceiling did not suffer measurable temperature changes from unconditioned attics.  This does require, however, that the ceiling be perfectly sealed and insulated and avoid recessed lights and other penetrations.  Most applications of ceiling insulation are very poorly installed, if they were done properly, they would perform much more closely to spray foam, but they would probably cost much more.  Basically, there is no single answer to the question of where to insulate the top of a house.  It depends on the design, budget, mechanical design, and other factors.  To me, the great thing about construction is that it's complicated.   I get bored with simple solutions.

Monday, November 29, 2010 - 04:50 PM

Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

Like Carl, I'm also a big advocate for insulated rooflines. I built a house with one and have been involved in many home performance jobs where we sprayed foam on the roofline, too. 

In addition to spray foam, though, it's possible to insulate a roofline other ways. The house I built had structural insulated panels as the roof, which, in addition to the air sealing benefits, also reduced the amount of thermal bridging because the 2x8 splines holding the panels together were every 4' apart instead of every 16" or 24". SIPs also save a step because the framing and insulation happen at the same time. You can use fiberglass or cellulose as well, but you have to have a rigid sheathing below, as you do in vaulted ceilings.

Regarding the temperatures, they're not quite as high or as low as you said, though. The Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) found that ventilated attic temperatures get up to around 130 degrees F, not 140 or higher. There's also significant stratification, so the temperature near the top of the ceiling insulation will be even lower.

Also, the temperature that the foam sees will be higher than the outdoor air temperature. Without insulation, the bottom side of a roof deck can get up above 150 degrees because of heat conducting down from the shingles. That's the temperature that the foam will see.

Here's a related article I wrote about shingle temperatures based on a study from FSEC called "Literature Review of the Impact and Need for Attic Ventilation in Florida Homes."


Monday, November 29, 2010 - 09:34 PM

Michael Anschel

I'm inclined to agree with my curmudgeonly brother from another mother on this one. Unvented attic assemblies have been around for some time and I am generally a fan. I've installed more than a few, even my own home, ignoring state codes to do so. However, sealing and insulating across the lid allows for greater R-value at significantly reduced cost and less volume to condition. (Recessed lights in insulated ceiling should be illegal, and sure as heck won't make it into one of our projects.)

Where unvented attic assemblies really shine are in vaulted, scissors truss, ceilings and existing 1 1/2 story homes. That upper half story is a nightmare waiting to happen with current code requirements for insulating. They are the perfect candidates for spray foam insulation to seal the many penetrations, get around that birds mouth, seal up that shiplap subfloor, and get decent insulation levels on the sloped ceiling and tiny section of collar tied ceiling.

Petroleum is a resource. Using it for insulation and air sealing doesn't bug me, but using it in the right location at the right time rather as a catch all is important. Blown place fiberglass is less toxic, less damaging to the environment, and achieves air sealing at levels similar to foams. Permeability is another story, but I've already chewed up enough space here. Nice post.

Monday, November 29, 2010 - 09:34 PM

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