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The second problem with windows is their many edges. The older the windows, the more edges they tend to have, and each edge raises the probability that winter is coming into your house.

(The first problem with windows, as we learned in a recent post, is that they allow architects and others to work indoors, where they forget about things that could interact negatively with their constructions, such as the Sun.)

But this cold day reminds me that windows often get a bad rap for the wrong reason.

Many people think an old, single pane window is a gaping wound in a home’s “envelope,” bleeding heat into the frosty world. And they’re right: The basic window glass has a R-value of 1. One. Uno. Next to null.

The horror!

So swap that antique out for a vinyl double-hung unit!

Except: The is the R-value of a vinyl replacement window is perhaps R-3.

Yay, you tripled your insulating power across those 18 square feet.

Boo, the current standard for roofs is usually R-38. So you’ve just spent a boatload of money for a nearly-inconsequential improvement in a tiny percentage of your home’s envelope.

When I had an energy auditor go through my windy bungalow, he showed very little interest in my windows. He groaned over the vent pipe for my gas fireplace. He crawled into the upstairs crawl spaces, where I could hear him growl with disgust. It was gusty in there, where the roof met the walls in only a casual fashion. He backed out, shut the cute little door, and held a lighter up to the door frame. He scowled at me as the gusts flattened his flame.

Infiltration ranks above insulation, in the efficiency world. Insulation is great, if it’s in a sealed cavity. But air that can slip around insulation just hauls its frosty molecules straight into the house. “Filterglass,” the auditor called my insulation. It wasn’t stopping the cold air, it was just straining out some of  the dirt.

So back to windows. Each edge, where wood meets wood offers an opportunity for leakage. As wood frames age, they shrink, no longer fitting snugly into their sashes. Wind finds these failures, and exploits them.

If you would like to feel really, really good about your windows, without buying replacement ones, assemble two items: a roll of cling wrap; and a small, metal putty knife.

Wait for a windy day, and address your first window. (Cold storms typically come from the west and north, so you might concentrate your powers there.)

Moisten the back of your hand, in the interest of not burning things up with a lighter. Slowly move your damp skin around the wooden edges of the window. You’ll know it when you find a leak.

Pull out two inches of cling wrap and tear it off. Collapse this two inches to a loose “string” of wrap. Place one end where the leak begins, and use the putty knife to work it into the narrow gap between the two pieces of wood. It will disappear. So will the wind. You will feel powerful like Zeus. Adding two layers of “window treatment,” such as venetian blinds and a curtain, will amount to a replacement window.

Repeat as needed, around the frame and where the upper and lower sashes meet.

There are a few things cling wrap can’t cure. On my north-facing windows, too much water and not enough sunlight had frankly rotted the wood. Panes of quaint old glass dangled in thin air, held to rotting wood by an antigravitational force yet to be named.

Those, the auditor said, I could replace. But only those. And then I could crawl into my crawl spaces and spend every cent I might scrounge up to unite my roof and walls.




Does your décor say, "Saved by science," or "Saved by nature"? It's an interesting dichotomy, and perhaps a false one today. But an intriguing paper suggests that decorating with natural objects and colors is a form of protest.

The setting of the study: "Socialist apartments in generic modern buildings," in Hungary.

When: Before and after the Cold War.

Variables under examination: Décor

The observed trend line: From man-made plastics and concrete toward wood flooring and high quality roofing tiles.

Researcher's conclusion: The "organicization" of post Cold-War apartments was "a critique of the modernist project and its “unnatural” attempt to dominate nature and engineer human souls."

I like this! When I think about the evolution of American interior design, I think of our own post-war (WWII) infatuation with scientific marvels like polyester drapes, formica, and vinyl, and bubble-gum pink, and turquoise, and plasticized everything. It was an Exuberation of Miraculous Man of Materials!

Which got old. As rivers caught fire and fish bellied-up, a rebellion not unlike Hungary's slid over the walls of American homes. Brown paints and green carpet strove to create a homegrown forest. Macramé, perhaps the crowning achievement of this return to natural forms, spread like a sinuous fungus across the domestic landscape.

Where are we now, décor-wise? Divided, perhaps.

A few years back American researchers cataloged the contents of dorm rooms, noting the arrangement of each article. Based on their results, they found they could predict with fair accuracy the political inclination of each inhabitant.

Liberal kids had more art and  music in their space. Conservative kids had more organization and less clutter.

But whether adults could be thus distinguished, I don't know. If contemporary American décor says anything about us as a people, it is...?


hannah holmes, real estate, environment, walkability, sustainable, realty, real estate, writer, science, nature, pedometer, car culture"Walkability scores" have permeated real estate in recent years, as Americans make the gradual, glacial, oceanlineresque turn toward a less car-centered lifestyle. But our onboard pedometer is not impressed. A new study of walking patterns shows that the brain is counting steps, and that its motto is: Less is best.

It's a simple, real-life study: Researchers monitored walking patterns in shoppers as they navigated mall walkways, both in China and the U.S. They tallied the turns people took, and the evasive maneuvers they made when on a collision course with a fellow human.

There was no spooky tendency for humans turn right when faced with a choice.

There was a strong tendency for humans to keep right in the U.S and mainland China; and to keep left in Hong Kong, presumably due to habits acquired while driving.

And there was a strong tendency among all humans to conserve energy.

When people encountered an obstacle took the minimum number of steps possible to avoid collision.

And that is the problem with "walkability." We inhabit bodies that have spent hundreds of millions of years honing their efficiency for life in a world where acquiring calories was a treacherous undertaking. We're good at saving calories. It's a no-brainer. Hence, a walkable neighborhood is only as good as the walker's motivation.



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The problem with windows is that they allow people to stay indoors.

Prior to windows, if a human being wanted to see what she was doing, she had to work outside. With the invention of the window came an increased tendency for humans to perform their labors removed from the immediate forces of Nature.

"So what," you might say. "One can grind grains into flour just as effectively indoors as out."


But one, as demonstrate so ably by architect Rafael Viñoly, cannot design skyscrapers as effectively indoors as out.

Viñoly, a famous architect, got even more famous this week when his London skyscraper became a solar oven and casseroled a couple of cars parked nearby.

The tower is a brickish thing that Frank Gehry might design if he were a tepid and uninteresting architect. One of the glass sides is slightly concave. This probably looked great indoors, sculpted from foamcore and ringed with Q-Tip trees and miniature... Minis.

Ah, but Viñoly had forgotten about the Sun, the center of our solar system, of which our planet is inextricably a part. When the Sun interacts with this shiny, concave surface, its energy is concentrated and redirected. This architecturally enhanced sunbeam has cooked substantial elements of a Jaguar and a delivery truck this week.(So I guess that's another problem with windows. Sometimes they reflect, rather than transmit.)

I had to look him up, this man who forgot about the planet on which he plants his giant structures.

"My design philosophy is rooted in the development of architectural ideas that are powerful, distinctive, and relevant to the specifics of both program and context." That's what Wikipedia says he says.

"Architecture that is relevant to the specifics of context," you say?

Context. It's hard to hold onto, isn't it? It is so easy to lose the forest for the trees. A million builders a year place houses in a way that fights the Sun instead of working with it. A billion humans a day leave open curtains that would cool their sweltering houses, were they only permitted to. We all lose track of the Context from time to time. Windows just make it that much easier.

Oh, this reminds me of one of my favorite places on earth: In Cappadocia, Turkey, people once carved cathedrals underground, where they could worship without interference from Infidels, Heathens, Persecutors, et al. They carved "windows" into the soft rock walls of these cave churches, and then applied "stained glass" made of fresco. The whole point of a window was subsumed, overwhelmed by the point of "pretty places where you paint Biblical Things." Check out the row of "windows" high in this arched room.



Just over an hour from Portland, at the end of a quiet road, lies this newly finished four-season home. During the day, sunlight sparkles off the clear waters of Dyer Long Pond; and at night the stars shimmer to the calls of an owl, and a family of loons. Three bedrooms, three baths, four sweet seasons. $300,000.




PRESENTING: THE LEWIS HILL PLANK HOUSE, 109 Lewis Hill Rd., Newcastle, ME 04553.


Plank House MicroDocumentary: HERE





And more below!


22 April 2013


r-value, wood, gypsum, thernal mass, radiant, radiative, convection, infiltration, fiberglass, celluslose, polyiso, foam board, insulation, blown-in, efficient, efficiency, green, building, pilgrims, physics, plank house, box house, plank construction, trees, old growth, tree farm, balloon, sheetrock, plaster, horsehair, wooden peg, nail, thermal bridging, I've been studying the R-value of wood. Specifically, how does an inch of wood compare to an inch of fiberglass or foam insulation? I ask because my brother is preparing to sell his "plank house."

What is a plank house, you ask?

It's old, for one thing. Gordon Bock, with whom I worked at Old-House Journal Publishing, tells me the plank house's heyday was mid-to-late 19th Century, although settlers built them from day one, as did their European ancestors until they ran out of trees. Plank houses were quick'n'cheap, which is just what a cold'n'homeless Pilgrim needed.

For another thing, a plank house is simple. For settlers not schooled in the finer points of geometry and physics, a plank house was a reliable way of constructing a box that was unlikely to fall in on you.* (Plank houses are also known as box houses.)

And it's... woody. Trees were more burden than blessing, once upon a time. Slabbing them out in three-inch planks, and then standing them shoulder-to-shoulder in solid walls, disposed of many irritating trees. The rough planks were covered with plaster inside, and clapboard outside, and voila: a solid house.

Like, solid. Musket-ball and arrow-proof.

When my bother polished up this single-family fortress, he added two layers of foam-board to the exterior, and clapboard over that. Inside, he re-plastered below the chair-rail, and left the planks visible above.

What, then, is the resulting R-value of these walls? I ask because I'm an e-freak — efficiency in all things.

Presumably the foam-board delivers at least the standard minimum for walls, R-13. (I'm not sure which version he used. Polyiso is R-7.2 per inch.) Wood clapboards add another 0.8. But those three inches of solid wood are harder to assess. And the low air-infiltration delivered by two solid materials should be substantial.

First, the solid wood: Hardwood flooring checks in at R-1.2 per inch. But that is young wood, still holding some of its earth-given water. The plank-house walls are perhaps 200 years old, and dry. Modern R-value tables simply don't go there. After all, modern houses are simply not built with old-growth timber. But supposing an ancient 3-inch plank equals a modern, three-inch, tree-farmed plank, then it might deliver R-3.6.

(Is this getting long? I'm still TOTALLY interested, for whatever that's worth.)

So: Perhaps the "wall system" of this updated plank house is in the 15 to 17 range.

But R measures only one thing: the amount of time it takes for heat to migrate through one inch of a material.

Heat that goes around that material is not factored in. If outdoor air can migrate through your soffit and the bajillion gaps in your vinyl siding, then through the rips and window gaps in your Tyvek, and past the joints of your fiberboard sheathing, then: It is freeeeeee as the breeze to proceed through your fiberglass ("filterglass," efficiency freaks call it), then around an electrical box or window molding, and into your living room. Insulation is kind of pointless of you leave a million little ways for air to slip around it. R-values assume an outdoor wind speed of zero.

But the Plank House leaves fewer little ways for wind to enter. Its modern insulation is an air-proof variety; and its ancient insulation is, too. What's more, its modern insulation eliminates the ookzillion "thermal bridges" that convey heat right past the insulation in modern construction.

(Thermal bridges: In most walls, the insulation is broken every 16 inches by a wooden stud. Hence those walls are R-13 for 15 inches, then R-5 at the stud; R-13 for another 15 inches, and then R-5 at a stud. Doorway and window framing makes thermal bridges you could drive a truck over. Someone slightly more maniacal than I could calculate what percentage of a building's envelope is made up of these "thermal bridges," and make us all feel quite dismal about our true R-values. My true hero would calculate the thermal bridging provided by steel nails, and contrast that with the wooden pegs that hold together the Plank House.)

And finally, we must — must — consider the issue of "thermal mass." Heat, according to Physics, sinks into things; then begins to sink back out of them. The heavier the mass, the longer that cycle takes. A modern wall isn't very massive. Heat sinks in and out of drywall and fiberglass and floppy pine boards pretty quickly.

But how quickly does heat sink into, and then radiate back from, a three-inch slab of slow-growth, dry, old wood? People who live in log cabins report that this process is slow, that the temperature is remarkably steady in those massive buildings.

Science isn't so vocal on the subject, presumably because energy efficiency must always contend with time efficiency: Today, trees are scarce, and sawmills are surgical. Today, it's more efficient to build an airy frame, and stuff it with lightweight materials.

But back when trees were plentiful and sawmills were crude, erecting a box of planks was the speediest way to build a shelter. Back when trees cast shade over your hungry cattle, you did not mind throwing a few more of them on the fire if the cold came creeping through the planks.


*Gordon Bock notes: "Believe it or not, there is also a horizontal-plank house construction method, where they simply stacked board after board on top of each other, flat side down, like logs. It's a pretty inefficient use of wood (and not that stable), but where wood was cheap, it was done. I saw a garage built like this near Jackson, Maine."


17 April 2013


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Freedom Lawns are not a novelty where I come from: They result anywhere that people forgo the fertilizing and herbiciding and pesticiding of the mowed area around their house. They’re low-fuss, resilient, and cheap — like Mainers.

This particularly scary analysis of Lake Erie’s recent algae catastrophe suggests: As Maine goes, so (we had better hope) goes the Nation.

Some observations:

Algae generally love warm temperatures. It lets their chemistry proceed at a faster rate.

Climate change is causing warmer temperatures.

Algae love fertilizer. Phosphates are the meat-and-potatoes of the algae world.

When you dump fertilizer on your lawn, some of it always goes downhill with the next rain.

Climate change may cause rain to fall more often in some areas.

You can see where this is going: Downhill.

Down in Lake Erie in 2011, plentiful phosphate washed into the water. Moreover, the weather was particularly warm and calm. The phosphates drifted lazily at the surface, instead of mixing and dispersing throughout the water column. Algae like the surface of water: It gets more sunlight.


In the resulting bloom, the crop of micro-plants in 2011 hit three times any previous record. It’s not the kind of record one hopes to break. When algae die, their decomposition pulls dissolved oxygen out of the water, causing many other forms of lake life to suffocate.

If you have never had the pleasure of viewing a Freedom Lawn, you may see one at the Nation’s Capital. Both the Mall and the White House lawn have been set free of chemicals. The resulting diversity of their plants, as I noted in the book SUBURBAN SAFARI, makes a lawn into a gorgeous medieval tapestry. I find this much more interesting than the “1970′s shag carpet” lawns standard to neighborhoods outside of Maine.




3 April '13

For the visual learners in the crowd, today’s post is just an illustration from an article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Whaddya make of it? 

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Urban trees don't always feel the love. Their roots can make mischief with sidewalks and foundations. Their fruits (I'm talking to you, ginkgo) may smell like dog crap. And wind and ice sometimes topple the big ones onto cars, power lines, and roofs. Well, climate change may solve these problems.

This study found that the insects who prey on trees like nothing better than a nice, hot city. Humans excel at making such cities.

Urban trees tend to be vulnerable from the outset. All plants have weapons of defense at their disposal. Some can add nasty chemicals to their leaves to offend or even poison chewing insects. Some can release airborne chemicals to summon the natural predator of whoever is eating them. And in a natural ecosystem, a diversity of plants attract a diversity of insects and birds, so that no one tree-eater gets the upper hand. Plants aren't helpless sticks.

But urban trees tend to be weakened by their environment. Dirty air and insufficient water, a surfeit of dog pee and a shortage of sun, all keep them always a bit under the weather. They have less fight in them when a leaf-chewer alights.

And the warming trend that we're in appears to make at least one leaf-chewer a more formidable foe.

Researchers who sampled willow oaks in Raleigh, NC, found that a scale insect was 13 times more populous in the hottest parts of the city than in the coolest parts. Thirteen times! Imagine facing thirteen times the normal number of mosquitoes when you stepped outdoors! Thirteen times the fleas on your cat! Thirteen times the squirrels on your bird feeders!

Times-thirteen is a big number, when it's enumerating your predators and parasites.

The answer, of course, is to add more plants. More plants will increase biodiversity, preventing any one species from running riot. And more leaves will also lower urban temperatures, both by preventing sunlight from sinking into cement, and through their cooling breath.

So... less? Or more?


Excerpt from my third book, THE WELL-DRESSED APE: A Natural History of Myself. I was pondering the size of the territory that various animals try to control in their quest for a life-sustaining patch of ground:


From Chapter 5, "A Dog in the Manger: Territoriality"

"...A third major improvement to my territory would be an inflation of its size. In my current culture, a bigger shelter (and to some degree the territory around it) advertises greater economic strength.

Mind you, my domicile is already enormous when measured in the global standard of “humans per room.” My mate, his two offspring and I enjoy a ratio of about one-third of a human per room. This is about half the density in typical Western European shelters, and one-fifth the average in Poland, where humans live at about 1.5 per room.

The other common measurement is equally stunning: My shelter offers 600 square feet per human. This is on a par with the average of Washington, D.C., which is the most space rich of about 50 international cities measured in one study. (Other shelter-rich settlements include Melbourne, Toronto, Oslo, and Stockholm, although D.C. is still about one-third roomier than these.)

But now compare my shelter to those in poor nations. The Bangladeshis of Dhaka live at an average of 40 square feet [3.7 square meters] per human — that’s smaller than a king-size bed. In Nairobi (Kenya), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Antananarivo (Madagascar), humans squeeze into 55 square feet per human. At that rate, my shelter would be shared by 26 humans.

I have indeed won a prize territory."