Smart Homes: HomeKit, Nest and other “Smart” Products

In our last post, Controlling Smart Homes with Smart Devices, we discussed the recent trends in smart homes, with many new ideas from the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  The show featured announcements by Samsung, and it’s CEO, BK Yoon, about what he has labeled the “IoT”, or Internet of Things.  Basically, everything electronic in our lives will be communicating together to create a better standard of living for everyone.

To accomplish this, Samsung has developed a subscription service, and is touting it’s “SmartThings” application; which requires a SmartThings hub, and connects all your devices to the SmartThings cloud for integration.  So, besides Samsung, who else is developing the future of Smart Homes products?  Tony Rossetti, a project manager here at Hendricks Architecture, describes this in better detail….

Apple, (which doesn’t attend the CES) is always looking to upstage the CES show.  They launched HomeKit, which lets iOs customers control lights, locks, video cameras, doors, thermostats, wall outlets, and switches with their iPhones.  The HomeKit can be operated by voice through “Siri”, who Apple and iPhone customers are already very familiar with.

Smart Home, Device, HomeKit. Apple, iPhone

A Smart Home Device/Remote – The Apple iPhone

Google is the third titan of the Smart platforms, with its “Nest”, which includes;

  • August Smart Lock can set your Nest thermostat to “away” or “home” settings when you lock or unlock your door, and can automatically switch your washer and dryer to quiet mode when you’re home.
  • Mercedes tells Nest you’re on your way home, so the thermostat will be at a comfortable temperature when you get there.
  • Ooma VOIP home phone service knows when family members come and go, and can send an alert to your phone if your child doesn’t return home from school on time.
  • with Dropcam you can see what’s going on when your smoke alarm goes off.
  • Jawbone wakes you up and your thermostat.

Quirky is developing a product called “Wink”, an open technology platform that will link and control numerous household items, and is partnering with GE and Home Depot for product integration and distribution.

A few others of note:

  • Netatmo Welcome is a facial recognition camera that notifies you if a stranger enters your home.
  • LG unveiled a fridge that responds to simple text commands.
  • Keen Smart Home Vent, connecting to smart thermostats, opens and closes vents automatically by using built-in sensors that track a room’s optimal temperature.
  • Edyn is a solar powered smart garden sensor that keeps track of plant hydration and soil nutrients, then provides users with data to help their plants thrive. Multiple Edyns can form a network across a larger garden, and even connect to water valves and automatically water the garden when needed.
  • Nest has launched it’s “Thread Group”, partnering with Samsung, Silicon Labs, Big Ass Fans, and other home technology companies, to integrate their products together.

All this is fine and dandy in theory, but what potentially stands in the way of easy integration?  A couple of things cloud the otherwise bright future of Smart Homes and Smart technology advances.

One, a potential standards battle looms, between developers, companies, and providers.  How to connect ALL devices, including competing companies, so they all communicate seamlessly?  Some of us may remember BetaMax vs VHS, or more recently, Apple vs Microsoft.  Samsung is pleading for a completely open architecture for all products, but will that plea be heeded?  History tells us that most companies prefer to develop their own technology as they see fit.  Consumers would benefit from the competition, but suffer from the headache of operating systems not in sync; and products that may be hard to program and control.

The good news is Samsung and Google are two of the biggest names currently working together to solve this, at least between their products.

The other question is; how to retrofit all the existing homes that also wish to have the technology?  This remains a very cost prohibitive issue, that is not easily solved.  Perhaps someone will step up with a wireless device that will allow any appliance or system to be controlled, without requiring re-wiring the item or the house itself.

As of now, the vision of IoT (Internet of Things) and of Smart Homes, is best suited being pre-planned into a new home, with the base and potential wiring in place, and with the ability to expand upon it, as products are released.  It remains to be seen if true “open’ architecture is used to develop these future products, which is in the best interest of the consumer, but may be ignored by product developers eager to create proprietary devices that lock you into their line.

Who knows, perhaps that user friendly “app” that connects all devices seamlessly and wirelessly, will soon materialize to make it all work like it’s envisioned?

That, would be a very “Smart” idea indeed.

Tony Rossetti, Project Manager

Hendricks Architecture designs custom “smart home” residences (and dumbed down), from small beach houses to large estate homes.  

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Insulating Existing Roofs and Attics

We sometimes remodel existing residences and have found that a high percentage of them are under-insulated, sometimes lacking viable insulation at all. If this is your case, you can upgrade fairly easily in most situations, particularly in insulating the roof and attic spaces. Tony Rosetti, a project manager here at Hendricks Architecture, provided the following post.

When deciding to install, add to, or replace attic insulation, a little thought must be taken in advance such as choosing the type of insulation, and to what levels of heat retention you wish to achieve.

You will first need to decide if you would like a “Cold Roof”, or a “Warm Roof”.

Cold Roof vs Warm Roof
A “cold roof” has insulation at joist level, just above the ceiling, which helps prevent heat from escaping from the living spaces directly below. The attic can be used for storage if heat extremes are not an issue (i.e. very cold in winter, extremely hot in summer).

cold roof, insulation

A “warm roof” has insulation tacked into the roof rafter bays, thus allowing heat into the attic space, but not beyond the roofing above. This is generally warranted if you are converting the attic space into useable storage (and are concerned about temperature extremes of stored items), or other heat regulated uses.

Warm roof, insulation, roof, attic

Insulation Types
The most commonly used types of insulation are lay-in fiberglass insulation (batt or blanket); loose-filled insulation (bagged or blown-in) insulation; and sprayed-in (spray foam). Batt/Blanket insulation comes in easy to work with rolls, but requires protective clothing and gloves to handle as it consists of fiberglass. It works well in the traditional ceiling joist space installation, and especially if wanting to tack into the roof rafters for a “Warm Roof”.

Loose-fill blown in or bagged insulation is typically made from cellulose, which is shredded newspaper treated with fire retardant, or recycled paper, a green product. Both are non-itching, and easy to handle. Another product used is mineral fibers, material similar to batt insulation that works much better in the blown-in form than in batts. Since these products are loose, they are suitable for installation in the joist spaces just above the ceiling, achieving the “cold roof” scenario.

The third major type of insulation is urethane spray foam. The main advantage of spray-in foam is that you can insulate at the roof rafter level; thus insulating the attic space as well. This allows additional energy savings if you have hot water pipes, and an HVAC system with ducts running through your attic. They would therefore not need additional wraps or insulating to hold their heat.

Spray, foam, insulation, roof, wall

Spray foam insulation at roof and walls

If you don’t have HVAC and ducts in the attic, spray foam in the roof rafters isn’t really necessary. I’d blow insulation on the attic floor. The big disadvantage with spray foam is cost. It can be three to four times what you’ll pay for blown cellulose or fiberglass. It also gets very hard and is a burden to remove, should you ever need to.

Prepping for Install
When preparing to select and buy your insulation, measure your attic surface area accurately. Check local building codes, and order for at least the minimum depth required for your area. Increase it if you wish to achieve greater “R” values, or heat retainage.

To prep your attic space for insulation, first clear all joist spaces of debris. A shop vac is very handy for this. If the ceiling drywall has no vapor barrier, it is recommended to install one. To do this, cut lengths of vapor barrier sheets for each bay, wide enough to staple each side to the sides of adjoining joists. Cut openings in the barrier around electrical fixtures and other hardware.

Installing Fiberglass Batt Insulation
If using fiberglass batt insulation, roll out the insulation between the joists, but do not compress it. Make sure sections of batt are butted securely to each other. Cut holes in the blanket @ electrical components to prevent overheating. Lift cables & wires above the insulation. Make sure to maintain a 2” air gap at eaves for attic air flow. Plastic baffles are typically used for this.

If you require more depth or layers (by code or preference) to increase heat retention, you can add a second layer by laying it perpendicular (at right angles) over the first layer. You can also do this at problem areas, such as rooms that are susceptible to being colder, or above rooms with a heat source, such as wood stoves.

Installing Loose-Fill Insulation
If the attic is awkwardly shaped, has numerous joist blocking or inaccessible voids, or if you just want an easier alternative; consider loose fill insulation. If a DYI install, consider bagged insulation; it is easy to transport, and easy to handle. Blown-in insulation is recommended to be installed by a professional. Before installing loose fill, cut small 8”-12” wide sections of batt insulation, and use in each joist bay as an outer barrier, where the joists meet the roof rafters (at eaves). This will keep the loose fill out of the eave space. Remember to maintain a minimum 2” gap between the batt and the roof sheathing, to allow air flow from eaves into attic space.

Fill all bays with the loose insulation to a min. uniform depth as recommended by code, or to a higher depth if you wish to achieve better insulation values.

The photos below show an attic being insulated with blown-in cellulose. Notice when complete, you don’t see any of the ceiling framing. You also don’t see any gaps down to the ceiling drywall. Blown-in insulation is great at filling gaps, thus providing a good, complete layer of insulation.

Installing Spray-In Foam Insulation
Spray foam insulation is best left to insulation professionals; it is fairly demanding to apply and the over-spray can be harmful to the lungs. If you attempt to apply yourself you’ll need to wear disposable coveralls with a hood, and gloves, a face mask, and eye protection. It takes some practice to spray foam evenly and, because it expands so dramatically, to control its depth; 2 inches is all you need to seal the joist cavities. You need a clear area so that you can work without interruption; any pause longer than 30 seconds will clog the nozzle and require putting on a new one. It’s also critical that the air temperature stays between 75 and 85 degrees while spraying.

During application, spray a consistent, even amount throughout the attic space. This is important, as any lack of coverage or an uneven application will result in significant heat loss through these areas.

One simpler and less expensive approach for do-it-yourself applications: Cut some 2-inch-thick rigid-foam insulation and glue it to the subfloor between the joists or support it with nails driven partway into the joists. Then fill any gaps between the edges of the foam boards and the joists using the canned spray foam sold at home centers or hardware stores. Again, protect yourself from dripping foam and possible inhalation with a full face shield, gloves, and a hat.

Alternatives
There are various other materials and systems to insulate your attic, including:

If you have existing batt insulation, you can combine with blown in insulation for a better insulating value. Or, combine the two products if putting in all new insulation. In this case batt insulation would be laid into the joists, and then covered with the blown-in type of insulation.

Another system is the structural insulated panel (SIP); a sandwich of rigid foam insulation and plywood or OSB (oriented strand board). This system is typically used in new construction, to insulate throughout the house.

Finishing Up
If water and/or other pipes are exposed above the insulation, you should insulate them as well. Custom sized tubular pipe insulation is readily available, and is typically pre-split down the length to allow easy installation over the pipes. Secure in position using tape or clips. Butt sections tightly together and tape together if possible.

If the insulation is not higher than the joists, plywood can be put down over them to provide platforms for storage. If insulation is higher, deeper joists may need to be added, to increase the height needed to clear the insulation. Do not compress any insulation, as it will decrease its heat retention capabilities.

To insulate the attic access panel, cut to fit a batt section, gluing it to the topside of the panel. This will help complete the coverage.

Your attic insulation is now complete!

Tony Rossetti, Project Manager
Hendricks Architecture

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Architecture for Specific Sites 3: Sun Orientation and Control

Sun orientation and the ability to control it are important in looking at specific sites.  Whether it’s by architecture or other means, the power to harness the sun’s energy and limit the detrimental effects can make a huge difference between a good site and a bad one.

The Climate and Microclimate

 

Before going into detail on controlling the sun, it’s important to know the effects of different climates and microclimates.  In general, a big reason you’re choosing an area to live is you may love the climate of the cooler mountains, the warmth of the desert, the smaller temperature variations near oceans, the low humidity, the fact that it’s in a “Banana Belt”, etc.

Land near large bodies of water such as oceans and big lakes typically have smaller temperature variations than inland locations like Colorado and Montana, both yearly and daily.  As an example, the City of Seattle on the Puget Sound varies from an average high temperature of 76 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 46 F in winter (a 30 F difference), while the average daily temperatures are often only a 10-20 F degree difference.  On the other hand, Jackson, Wyoming has an average high temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 28 F in winter (a 54 F difference), while the daily highs and lows differentiate by 45-60 F.  However, some in Seattle might long for the truer four seasons (or more sun and being closer to ski areas) that they would get in Jackson (where some may tire of shoveling snow).

Seattle architecture skyline in winter. Not much sun.

Seattle in Winter. Sun and snow are often scarce.

Each site also has its own microclimate.  Sometimes they can be quite pronounced even from one neighbor’s property to the others.  For example, spring arrives earlier on sloped sites facing south.  Because of the solar radiation and optimal sun angle, they will be warmer, and snow will melt faster. In the summer these sites will be cooler than flat sites when the sun is directly overhead.  Thus the more exposed and closer to 90 degrees a site is to the sun, the warmer it will be.

Trees are also a big factor.  Trees blocking the sun will help keep homes cooler.  Fir trees will provide this year round, while deciduous trees will block heat in the summer, but without the shade of its leaves will warm the house in the winter.  Trees can also provide wind breaks from cold winter winds. I’ll describe wind affects in more detail in a later post.  Trees may obviously be planted, but might take some time to grow to become efficient.

Similar to cities next to large bodies of water, a house next to a pond or pool can also moderate the temperatures.  The same can be said for soil type.  Softer soil with more air pockets freezes more often, whereas hard soil can moderate the surrounding air temperatures similar to concrete.

Sun Orientation – The Angle of The Building

 

All things being equal, houses facing south are optimal for facades with more windows.  With large overhangs these will be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.  Those facing a little more to the southeast are more efficient than facing southwest, as more solar radiation is gained in the morning, versus the warmer afternoons.  Homes in all climates are more efficient when elongated along the east/west axis than those on the north/south axis.  In cold climates, the less elongated the better.  If a home is lived in only a part of the year, note that southern exposures are more important in the winter than in the summer.  It’s also typically more efficient to place living areas facing south, with the bedrooms facing north.  However, it seems like views and other factors tend to be more important to most owners.

Sketch of optimal building orientation to sun

Optimal house orientation to the sun

Another thing to note when buying a property – make sure that there is no danger of homes or other buildings, now or in the future, that will block your views of the sun.  You might want to check (or have your architect check) into the zoning regulations on adjacent lots.

 

Architectural Means

 

As I mentioned, larger roof overhangs will let in more winter sun and less in summer.  Trellises are also helpful, and have the same effect when designed correctly.  The most natural way is to plant, or nestle up to some existing deciduous trees.  The trees in the winter are bare and let in lots of sun, while in the summer they’ll block the sun’s rays.  Blinds inside the house help as well, but aren’t quite as effective as those elements located on the exterior.

Recently we designed a home on lakefront property.  The owner wanted a big glass wall with a gable roof facing the lake, where the best views were.  This would help in the winter, but in the summer had the potential to rack up some enormous air-conditioning bills.  We made the gable overhang a little larger than normal, added a trellis, and also specified some performance glazing.  In this case, Cardinal LoE-366 glass was used.  This has a slight tint to it, rejects more solar heat and provides more insulation than typical window glazing.  See photo below of the home in construction.

Architectural means to control the sun

Lake home facing south with performance glazing

See our post relating to energy efficiency for further information on harnessing the sun’s energy.  Energy.gov also has a good article relating to the topic of passive solar home design.

 

Daylighting

 

Another positive impact of the sun is providing natural daylight into the home.  This not only can create a mental uplift (unless you enjoy living in dungeons), but also saves on your energy use.  We designed a home on a property that faced north of a mountain, with the best views facing north over a lake.  This home has great views facing north, but little privacy (a road) and sun exposure.  We added as many windows as we could on the south side, while keeping them high for privacy.  We also added a cupola with windows, which along with the others, provided plenty of natural light, while reducing direct glare.  The owner has given us permission to show her house in the past.  One or two potential clients have asked me on our way out why I didn’t turn off the lights, to which I replied, “I didn’t turn any on”.

Other ways to increase daylighting include:

  • Reflect or filter light as it enters the space to more evenly distribute the light.
  • Slope ceilings to bring more light into a space.
  • A building that is more spread out will allow for more windows.

See also Architecture for Specific Sites 1: Personalities and Views and Architecture for Specific Sites 2: Restrictions.  I hope to continue on with other site selection aspects in future posts.

John Hendricks, Architect AIA

Hendricks Architecture has designed homes throughout North America of varying styles.  We do our best to design beautiful and practical homes, while at the same time educating our clients on the benefits of good site selection and energy efficiency.

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Hydronic Radiant Heating

When designing a home, it is important to consider early in the process what type of climate control system the home will be using. Mechanical systems used for heating and cooling work best when they are properly sized, thoughtfully laid out, and have adequate space for all the components.

There are many options for heating and cooling a home. Many homeowners these days are opting for hydronic radiant heat systems, and we get a lot of questions from our clients about radiant heat systems and how best to configure them.  Radiant heat is a great, energy efficient choice for homes where heating is the primary concern and cooling is secondary.

Unlike forced air heating systems, radiant heating warms the objects in a space, not just the air. Because of this, the space will feel warmer and the ambient temperature can be kept lower than it would be in a space that is heated with warm air.  Other benefits of radiant heat are the lack of moving air that can transport dust and allergens, and the ability of radiant heat to maintain an even temperature without noticeable fluctuations.

Hydronic radiant heating uses a central boiler to heat a fluid that is then circulated through piping concealed in the floor system.  The choice of floor system is a major determinant in the performance of a hydronic radiant system, but the choice of floor system should not be based only on what type of heating the house will utilize.

The best radiant heat systems use a concrete floor slab as a thermal mass (see related concrete slab vs. wood framed floors).  Heavy duty plastic tubing is embedded in a slab that is insulated both on the perimeter and on the underside. The amount of insulation depends on the local climate, the level of efficiency desired, and the budget.  The biggest advantage of this system is the substantial thermal mass of the concrete slab, which will store and radiate heat over an extended period of time.  The slab will also double as a collector and storage medium of any passive solar gain. On the flip side, the slab will take a while to heat up, so this type of system does not lend itself well to turning the heat down during periods of inactivity or absence.

Leaks and damage to tubing that is encased in a concrete slab can be costly and difficult to fix, but thankfully they almost never occur.  Problems due to tubing failure can be mitigated by making sure the tubing is thoroughly leak tested and the slab subgrade is well compacted granular material.

When a concrete slab floor is not practical, radiant heat tubing can be embedded in 1½” or more of lightweight concrete or gypcrete poured on top of a wood framed floor.  This is often done on homes that have hydronic heat on upper floors or where a crawl space and wood framed floor is necessary.  Since a 4” concrete slab is too heavy to be supported by a wood framed floor, a thinner, lighter slab is used.  It has significantly less thermal mass, but does provide some heat storage capacity and also helps dampen floor vibrations common with wood framed floors.  Floor framing has to be more substantial for this type of application than it would be for a floor that doesn’t have to support as much weight.

For radiant heat applications where a wood framed floor is preferred or required and gypcrete overlayment is not used there are a few different options.  Warmboard manufactures a plywood subfloor sheathing that has integral channels milled into it that allow radiant heat tubes to sit below the top of the subfloor.  The channels are clad with sheet aluminum that radiates heat upward into the living space and makes for rapid warming of the floor above.  In this sense, it outperforms the concrete embedment systems, but it lacks the thermal mass and ability to moderate temperature fluctuations.  Warmboard is relatively expensive, but by most accounts it functions well and is a viable alternative when concrete or gypcrete is impractical.  Misplaced nails or dropped tools can easily damage the tubing, so pressure testing is required before covering and after flooring has been installed.

The staple up radiant tubing application is the least expensive and easiest system to repair or retrofit.  As a trade off,  it is also the least efficient and easiest to damage.  Staple up systems involve installing the tubes on the underside of the subfloor between floor joists.  The tubes are held in place by staples and sometimes backed with foil faced rigid insulation or installed with integral metal heat transfer plates.  In order to be reasonably efficient, a staple up system needs to have more than code required insulation in the joist bays, and shouldn’t be used where floors are cantilevered out beyond heated space below because of the potential for condensation.

For more on floor system options to use with hydronic radiant heating, see our article on concrete slab vs. wood framed floors.

Tom Russell, Project Architect, LEED AP

Hendricks Architecture specializes in custom mountain style homes.  Our homes have been featured in Timber Home Living, Mountain Living, Green Building and Design, Cowboys & Indians, Cabin Life and other publications.  We’re located in Sandpoint, Idaho.  Subscribe to Hendricks Architecture’s Blog

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