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Mister Science

by admin on April 24, 2014

A few years ago my uncle called me from Oklahoma to ask if it was a good idea if he set up his bathroom exhaust fan to empty into his attic, instead of running through a duct all the way to the outside like is usually done. He thought maybe the extra warmth added to the attic might benefit his house in winter.

Not good, I said. The problem comes when the warm moist air from your bathroom meets the colder air in your attic. It will cool and, since cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, the moisture will condense onto adjacent surfaces and make the attic wet. Then comes mold and even rot. He seemed surprised to see his good idea shot down so thoroughly, but was impressed by my argument and decided not to go ahead with his idea. I was quite pleased with myself, applying all that good high school science to make the world a slightly better place.

Most of the science that architects need to know is on the “soft” side. Like digging a foundation an extra foot deep in clay soil to minimize its movement during the wet season when that soil swells. Or planning an overhang at a window to block the steep angle of the summer sun, but allow the shallower angle of the winter sun to come in. I still have a “sun angle calculator” leftover from a class in college that has plastic inserts and a nifty little sliding guide that I can change depending on how far north my building is on the curve of the Earth.

In 1988 I spent six months in Mexico down in the tropics finishing the construction of a house for my parents. With each passing month the sun got higher and higher in the sky until one day in June I noticed that the sun was directly overhead. I had no shadow. It was directly under my feet. I was actually pretty excited to notice that. A sort of “science geek” bucket list goal was achieved in that moment.

There was a time when architects were Renaissance men. Leonardo and Michelangelo were our standard bearers. These were men who were on the cutting edge of both science and the arts. Today it’s difficult enough to master one obscure specialty, much less all of them. These days we have building codes that fill multiple binders. Most architects don’t even do the structural engineering for the their own buildings, a tendency becoming ever more entrenched, and one that a few of us have managed to buck. I think it’s a good thing to know how to ideally position the earthquake resisting elements in a building as I’m laying out that building.

It’s beneficial for architects to at least know about things like acoustics. Why, for instance, good acoustics are achieved when the surfaces of a room are not parallel or at right angles (not always easy to achieve!) This prevents direct “ricocheting” of the sound waves back at you at the ninety degree corners and diffuses the sound more, sending it caroming onto other surfaces before it makes its way back to your ear creating more resonance. Designers of concert halls understand this sort of thing very well.

I know that trees don’t block sound. Many people think they do, and there’s no real harm in getting that wrong, unless you are a design professional getting hired to provide real solutions for real problems.

If stopping sound transmission is a goal of yours, even internal noise like when a bedroom shares a wall with a home theater, you should know there is a type of drywall available today that has a denser core in the middle that blocks sound as good as if eight pieces of drywall were mounted on the wall. Check out if you want to know more.

Another concept to understand is radiant heat, the kind of heat that works without having to warm up the air in a furnace and then blow it around your house. Heat energy passes through space to warm objects. The sun does it to the earth, and radiant heat panels can do it for objects in your house. Radiant floors are much loved by anyone who has experienced them, especially in bathrooms. Alas, we don’t always love the extra cost involved. Nor do we love it if the wrong kind of hardwood floor is installed on a radiant slab and dries out and starts to cup. Use engineered hardwood to prevent this.

And there is the “Low-E” film built into windows these days (“low emissivity.”) This film blocks radiant heat from passing through the glass and is valuable in both winter and summer for keeping heat either in or out.

Houses built in the last ten years have been required to have this energy saving Low-E glass. If you’ve ever been walking through Farmer’s Market in Benicia on the way to your favorite strawberry vendor and suddenly felt extra warmth on your cheek, that was caused by a window on the other side of the street reflecting sunlight with extra heat in it because the glass reflecting it had Low-E film in it. That much less heat is making its way into those rooms!  Impressive stuff, if you ask me. In winter, it will reflect heat back inside. My own Farmer’s Market moment helped make a believer out of me regarding the heat reflecting capability of modern windows.

If you are into earth science, you’ll like the next factoid. Buildings in California are now required to be attached to their foundations with bolts that have extra big strong square washers because the 1994 Northridge earthquake taught engineers a lesson. (That’s right, the lowly washer got promoted to something important.) The Northridge earthquake occurred above an unknown horizontal fault line that didn’t just shift sideways like vertical faults do, but slid a big plate of earth across the top of another, causing an up and down motion like a jackhammer. Much of the damage could have been avoided by extra big strong square washers. So now all buildings in California get such washers.

Whenever I walk my dog on a night when the moon is full, I almost always make sure to check the coastline as I round the corner of West K and Tenth to see if the tide is either way in or way out. With a full moon (or its opposite, the “new” moon) tides become extreme because the alignment of the moon’s gravity with the sun’s gravity will pull a little bit stronger on our oceans and cause them to bulge a few extra feet, thus creating bigger tide effects. These tides don’t directly affect any building I’ve ever done, but I mention it here because I like understanding how the world works and the feeling of connection that results. Think about it. Orbiting celestial bodies many miles away can create something as immediate and tangible to us as ocean water rising up to tickle our toes and wipe smooth our footprints.

Being curious is the best, wouldn’t you agree?



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