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The Better Home Primer

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A simple guide to starting you in the direction of creating a better, more sustainable home.

We do not have all of the answers. I come to this conclusion, because I feel that there is a disconnect between the reality of building a home, and the how we plan out what is best for our house. In the end, we often forget how a home is used is an incredbily vital factor that often is left out of the planning equation. Surveying a variety of industry publications bothered me, since we seem to be suggesting that the advice you have been receiving up till now was bad or useless, so ignore it. There was also the implication that maintenance was not going to occur. For me, part of sustainability involves the homeowner maintaining his home. The homeowner may not physically do these repairs, but they will have them done. For example, sealing gaps in the exterior walls which could pose moisture problems has been mentioned as a bad idea, because homeowners do not know how to do it properly. Would not teaching them the correct method be a better answer?  From my own consulting practice, I feel that there is a trend amongst homeowners to better understand their houses, so teaching seems to be the better route to me.
    I was also considering how the advice of industry experts fit into the fact that many of us will be moving into existing structures. There is the concept of a deep energy retrofit, which is wonderful, but how feasible of a plane is this for most homeowners. This retrofit involves renovating the house in such a way that it can meet current standards of energy efficiency. I would love that for my old home, yet most of us cannot accomplish this goal on a quick time scale. The general advice that is given often involves homes that have perfect locations, with no advice on how to relate these concepts to our own homes. Considering these factors, I wrtoe this primer to have some talking points at a sustainability festival here in Houston, and I thought that I would share them with you.


Most suggestions for how to plan out your landscape make the assumption that you have a good amount of land available around your home. You want larger plantings away from the structure to prevent possible damage to the surfaces. In this plan, you would want evergreen trees in positions along the eastern, western, and northern sides of the home. This helps to shade the house from the sun as well as blocking winds. The southern exposure would have deciduous trees. Sun would be blocked during the hot summer, but sun light could heat the home during the winter.

Issues to consider:

  1. You want to plant a tree away from the home by the same measurement for the mature tree. A twenty foot high tree should be planted away from the home by twenty feet. A better judge of distance away from the home is the distance the limbs will grow from the trunk. The leaves help direct the water down to the roots. If a trees branches are over your home, the roots are trying to grow beneath it.

  2. Why not use edibles? The pecan tree is the state tree. Fruit trees can be quite ornamental. We often use ornamental versions of kale and cabbage for plantings, whereas edible versions are just as ornamental. For flowers, we can use edibles such as impatiens, nasturtium, and calendula among others.

  3. Mulch is often forgotten. Two inches of mulch near the home controls moisture levels. Thicker mulches can be used away from the home. If you do not want to put out new mulch each year, you may wish to consider a rock mulch. To avoid, moisture and some pest problems, leave your foundation exposed.

  4. To prevent damage to the surfaces of the home, a good rule of thumb is to have tree branches away from the roof by ten feet. Plants should be kept away from wall surface by a foot.

The Reality of Landscaping

We may have little space between our property and our neighbors. Town homes probably have no area to landscape to very little. Also, water impermeable surfaces may dominate the land around our home. Using the ideas of evergreen and deciduous tree and bush placement may work for us still. Non-landscaping solutions may be a solution. Awnings for windows and doors can help, but finding architectural features to shade the walls can also help.

Issues to consider:

  1. You will want to consider the items above, but let us start off here with gutter and drainage systems. I often find that gutters are not maintained, which causes damage to the home. We also have to consider that rain water should flow away from our home. Many of us accomplish this through drainage systems. The biggest problem that I see with drain pipes is that cleaning is not performed. Clogged drain pipes obviously cannot drain.

  2. Debris left on the roof. I was on one roof where there was a mat of leaves two feet thick. The homeowner said this was alright, because she had a special twenty year roof. This mat held moisture and pests, which were helping to deteriorate the roof.

  3. Maintain even moisture around the home. Many people water front garden beds, but forget about the others. Uneven moisture can effect the structure of the home.

  4. During droughts, not watering can prove dangerous. Do you want a large limb from a dead tree falling on you or your home?


Can you see daylight along the edges of your door? Does your window rattle? And what exactly is happening with that fireplace? Studies have shown that a typical home has air leaks which are the equivalent to leaving a window open all year long. Dampers in fireplaces are either left open; made so that they will not close; or the dampers do not work. Sealed fireplaces are becoming the norm, which would be better for our environment. Weatherstripping does not last forever. Movement in the home can cause doors to shift in their frame. The movement can also cause windows to not sit well in their frame. Windows are meant to be the way to vent moisture in older homes, but many forget to use them.

Issues to consider:

  1. Air sealing gaps on the exterior of the home which are not meant for moisture drainage help efficiency. Weatherstripping on windows and doors should be checked ever so often. Check the damper in the fireplace. When not using the fireplace, the damper should be closed.

  2. Updating to a sealed fireplace is better for our climate. Simply placing a board in the fireplace opening is not enough.

  3. Window screens should be in place, and windows should be operable. Air quality inside the home can be a problem. Opening windows is a good way to improve the air in the home; rid the home of moisture; and on cool days, reduce your reliance on air conditioning.

  4. Moisture should still be able to escape from behind the wall covering. Brick exteriors should have weepholes (gaps in the mortar creating a hole) about every three feet roughly. Stucco walls will have a gap at the bottom of the wall for drainage. Cladding materials also have a gap on the bottom course. These holes and gaps should not be sealed. 
  5. Sealing the home is great, but you have to combine this with the idea of ventilation. You are keeping moisture out, but you are also keeping moisture inside. The main moisture problem areas in homes are the utility room, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. Range hood vents should vent to the exterior. Bathrooms should have operable windows that we ope when bathing, or they should have a vent to the exterior. The same applies to utility rooms. Dehumidifiers are also great for ridding homes of moisture.


People like their space, but the trend may be going back to less square footage. Think about your dining room. The room takes on different roles during the day in my home. We eat our meals there (the breakfast are is a reading/play nook for us now, which also has other uses). After school, the room is the homework station. In the evenings, we may have a family get together in that space. We can do with less space, if we use our current space wisely.

Another aspect of living in the home is what do we have in our homes? Carpets hamper indoor air quality. The type of paint that we use could off gas. We frequently store items on the floor, but we can hang items on the wall (my musical instruments are displayed like artwork on my office wall, instead of on stands taking up floor space).

Issues to consider:

  1. Allergy sufferers may want to go to hard surface floors instead of carpet. Tile is easy to clean.

  2. If you analyze your family’s needs, you may find the rooms can be multi-purpose.

  3. Materials that you bring into the home can effect your health. Low VOC paints can be used instead of other options.

  4. Storage is a big issue. An investment in a good storage system can help you declutter your life. However, you may find that going up may be a storage solution too.

Greywater/ Blackwater/ Wasted Water

We become acquainted with the eccentricities of our home. We stop using one bathroom, because we know it leaks. We know how to adjust the handle on the shower to stop that dripping. New low flow toilets can work so well, that the issue of not having enough water to fully clear the bowl is not a problem. We can look at our fixtures to find ways for the water that we use once in the home, can help us with a different task. Grey water is the reusable water from washing machines, showers, and sinks. Black water is waster water from toilets that we do not want to use again.

Issues to consider:

  1. The drought in Houston caused many to think about water usage in their homes. Grey water systems can be retrofitted into older homes to make use of some of our grey water for our plants or for our toilets. There are rules concerning grey water usage, so check with your cit building department on what you can do.

  2. Fix leak or fixtures. This is sometimes easy to do. Having a good home repair manual can save you a good deal of money. Over time leaks may not just cost you in the price of water; the leak may be causing damage to your home.

  3. New appliances and fixtures can save you water and energy. New toilets use less water than that 1980s model that you may have. Dish and clothes washing machines are becoming more efficient in their use of water and power. Older fixtures can be updated though. There are kits for toilets to become dual flush. There are kits to turn sinks and showers into low flow devices.

  4. How you use water in the home can also be a factor. Some studies suggest that using your dish washer can reduce you water usage. Using your dishwasher at night after 9:00 pm can reduce your energy usage. One area that is often overlooked when it comes to water usage is properly programming your lawn sprinkler system controls.


Building Envelope– this term sometimes seems hard for homeowners to understand. One way to define this idea is that all of the spaces in your home that have air conditioning are inside the building envelope. The unconditioned attic would be outside the envelope. Current thinking suggests that homes in Houston would benefit from having conditioned attics. Retrofitting attics may be hard, so there are other options, such as appropriate insulation; radiant barriers under the framing for the roof; super-insulated ducts, and sealing of air leak points.

Insulation– I see insulation not covering the framing for the ceiling belowduring many of my inspections. This allows for thermal bridging. Wood has an insulating value, but heat will eventually transfer through the wood to the living space below during our hot summers. Insulation should cover these framing members.

Sealing the attic– points where hot air from the attic could effect the conditioned air during summer are a few: the vent pipes for plumbing; the attic door; sometimes ducts are placed in shafts going down through the home (since these are open in the attic and do not have insulated walls, these transfer heat over a greater surface area- this is can be a shaft down to the room below from the HVAC system); and recessed light boxes, which often are not rated to have insulation on them ( a new solution is to build an insulated box to cover them in the attic, although I do not believe any equipment manufacturers have approved of this idea.).

HVAC ducts– these present a few problems for the homeowner looking to improve energy efficiency. Older ducts are not well sealed, so you could be sending conditioned air into your attic. Once sealed, you will want to ensure that the ducts are insulated. Having an R value of 8 is considered to be good, but there are new thoughts on this topic. In some areas, such as California, building code encourages you to bury your ducts into the insulation. This does not work in Houston, since the temperature of the duct coming into contact with the warmer air of the attic causes condensation. Super-insulated ducts may be an answer. These ducts would have insulation that might meet R-30, but they are sealed from the attic air to prevent the condensation that would occur. One area to also remember to seal is where the duct connects to the vent register. Often this point is forgotten when new ducts are installed.

HVAC– Most of us have a split system with some of the components in the attic. If these components were in conditioned space, your system would not be effected by the attic temperature. Problem areas here mainly involve simple maintenance. The blue door on some units is a high efficiency media filter. Some suggest that this filter should be replaced every three months; most filters state six to twelve months. Builders have forgotten to put these filters into place in new homes, and homeowners forget to change them. The other spot would be the evaporator coil. Over time, poor filter maintenance could lead to this coil needing to be cleaned.

Water Heater– the attic is a great place for a water heater in our climate, but these appliances also need to be serviced yearly. With the attic location, homeowners forget to drain the heater or check the temperature pressure release valve every year. This effects the performance of the unit, reducing efficiency and safety.

What exactly is happening with your wall insulation?

The idea of insulating walls did not occur until the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1960s, this was a standard practice, but so little insulation was used, that there was not much benefit. By the 1990s, builders knew to fill the interior wall cavities with insulation, but they often did a poor job of completely filling the space. These gaps greatly reduced the R-value of the wall assembly. One problem that many homes have is that insulation has fallen off of the walls in attic spaces, or builders forgot to place insulation into certain spaces, particularly when they felt it might not be necessary, like on a closet wall.

Issues to consider:

  1. you can help the insulation/sealing of older homes, by placing foam insulation designed to be behind outlet plate covers.

  2. Filling in the empty voids in the insulation can help. This can be done with blown insulation, where smaller holes are made in the wall, so you do not have to take down parts of the wall.

  3. Check wall spaces in attics. Current practice is to have some material, like thermal ply, covering the insulation and framing to hold insulation in place and limit thermal bridging. If insulation has fallen down, find ways to hold it in place.

  4. Repair holes in walls. Holes pop up in walls for a number of reasons (door knobs hitting the walls is a common one). Repairing the wall helps maintain the wall assembly, allowing it to perform the way it should.

I have seen different definitions for a sustainable home, so I want to throw my own thoughts into the mix, so the reader will understand the basis for this primer. First, you should be actively maintaining your home. This means checking on its condition to make a repair before something breaks down. Second, your home should nourish you. This may be by providing some food from the garden, but it should be by giving you a space to invigorate yourself at the end of the day. I think many people do not sit in their gardens, because there is nothing there to please them or their family members. Thirdly, the home should not be a burden. I do not know how to better phrase this one. You do not want a home designed to use high amounts of water of energy. You do not want a home that has to be constantly repaired to fight the elements. You do not want a home that does not meet your needs. That is my thought process when writing these issues to consider. How do you view your home?

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