One or Two Story – which is the better choice?

by Engineer Designer on February 3, 2011

Which is more desirable - a single or a multi story home? This is an intriguing subject which I am frequently asked. The reply is, as is typical with many such debates, " It depends". There are pluses and minuses to each. Let's inspect the pros and cons of these two choices and then weigh the outlay to build each type. Plus-points of a Single Story:
  • Easier to build. - Framing and other structural requirements are usually less.
  • No stairs - Stairs can be beautiful to view but sometimes are a deal-breaker, especially if there are current or foreseen disability issues.
  • A more sprawled design - one can generally place elements farther apart on a single story home. It's sometimes helpful to have the master bedroom and the kids bedrooms separated adequately.
Cons of a Single-Story
  • Takes up more room on the property.
  • If it has a basement then that can be so huge as to be unmanagable.
  • Generally more roofing area which can create more occasion to leak.
Pros of a Two-Story
  • More compact - Can fit more onto a single, small lot.
  • The look - Two or more story homes can be quite sensational. One can have two story atriums, majestic entries, etc. that really set the home design apart.
  • Separation - There are types of separation that can in fact be done better on a two-story. Getting the bedrooms upstairs can get them separated nicely from more common spaces below. In homes where entertainment is to be done this can be a nice quality.
Cons of a Two-Story
  • More complex to build.
  • Can cause accessibility situations in certain cases.
  • Present a larger area for wind forces - structures will have to be a bit complicated.
Investment Comparison: In my time as a designer and builder one and two story homes tend to be similar in price tag.:
  • A two story home has one roof which covers more living area which makes it it more cost effective. Point for 2-story
  • A two-story home has one slab/foundation system which works to support more structure - thereby a bit more cost effective. Point for 2-story.
  • A single story has a simpler structural system - usually simple exterior walls and a roof - whereby the two story has the stairs and the upper floor system. Point for 1- story.
  • With a two-story one can get away with a smaller lot. Point for 2-story.
  • With a single story one can utilize, especially with cement block walls, a less expensive finish such as stucco over block. On a two-story we always have the issue of how to cover the second floor. Point for 1-story.
  • On a single story homes, most through the roof venting, including chimneys, may be run to a lower height. Heating ducts and piping can be complex on a two-story. Point for 1-story.
Though costs tend to balance out, for any given living area, the the call as to which to build will be hinged upon many things - but mostly upon what you want. You may have fond memories in an old 2-story home you were a child in up north. As in all design, you create what you want. This is the great thing about custom design and built homes. You are the final say! It's up to you. Hire an expert designer and engineer and you can create and build most anything.
As the illusion of ever-increasing complexities and danger is amplified by 24 hour news and the apocalyptic shows on Discovery and the History Channel some may wonder if they need to better protect themselves in their own homes. Can one’s own home be a safe haven during the worst of storms? In 2004 and 2005 US was hit by several hurricanes and we saw (or experienced) the destruction of these events. Homes today are being built by high structural standards – however they are designed, in reality, for wind events that occur in mid-sized hurricanes. Get a really big storm (a Category 4 or 5) and all bets are off. Beyond evacuation and other very wise precautions, you can still provide for a way to get to safety in your own home by building what is called a safe room.. These are sometimes called storm shelters. A safe room is a small windowless room that has been strengthened to resist the effects of wind pressures and the impact from windborne debris generated by extremely severe weather.  These are becoming rather common in Florida and other hurricane state. A relatively cheap storm shelter can provide you and your family with a sense of security knowing that there is a space in your home that will withstand the forces of the worst hurricanes. These can also act as tornado shelters. What is a safe room? It is usually a small space within the home that has special walls, ceilings, fastening systems and doors and are (to use an engineering term) really, really strong They can serve the vital purpose of providing safety for you and your lovelies during those scary events. I’ve designed a few myself for folks who value the room’s existence even if they never actually use it. Seems a lot like insurance, doesn’t it? These rooms can be separate or can be some part of the home, like a walk-in closet, which is built like the proverbial brick stink house. They need to be isolated from the main structure so that as the main home becomes unglued and turns into countless fragments, this little oasis of space remains unscathed. The best way to do this, above ground, is to build a concrete storm shelter with walls that are reinforced masonry, with all the cells (the holes in the concrete block that you have seen) filled with reinforcing bars and concrete. Generally we form and pour concrete slab roof over top. This can be relatively inexpensive do to if you are building your home – it is easy to work into the structure. One of my clients had me design his master walk-in closet and bathroom into a safe room. Its ceiling was designed to be concrete and rest just below the bottom chord of the trusses. The trusses could blow off and basically the entire home could collapse yet he and his family would remain safe. Any structural engineer can design such as space for you. FEMA has a great guideline called FEMA320A “Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room inside your house”. Of course, we can’t nor should we worry all the time. Life has its inherent risks. But, like insurance, a safe room can offer peace of mind – even if you never really use it.

Saving Energy in Your Home – It’s All About the Heat

by Engineer Designer on August 9, 2010

Energy is heat. Saving  energy is mostly about heat management. Let’s cover 10  basic actions to reduce energy usage in your home. These apply to new construction and existing residences. First, some basic science: A. Heat energy flows from hot to cold. Its speed of flow increases as the difference between temperatures increases B. Heat flow is reduced by insulation. C. Heat can be pumped in the opposite direction – from cold to hot. Air conditioners and heat pumps do this. Pumping heat is cheaper than created heat – about 1/3 the cost or less.. D. Any heat that enters your home during the summer must be removed by your air conditioner. E. The green-house effect is like a one-way check valve which allows heat to enter but not leave. Heat from sunlight must be stopped before it passes through the glass – not after. F. Passive operation just happens by its nature. It requires no energy. Okay – so based upon these simple rules, here are 10 basic actions that will improve a home’s energy efficiency which will save you money. I’ll mention the rule and then what you can do: 1. Rule B - Insulate your home to the max. Few actions will give you a better cost to benefit ratio. This is also passive (rule F). 2. Rules D and E - Large overhangs – this reduces sunlight into the home which would have to be removed. This is passive (rule F). 3. Rules D and E - Reduce or block windows on the western side. If you are designing a new home this can be easy. This is passive (rule F) 4. Rule E - Use reflective glass. Shades and curtains will not work. They will heat up yet not pass the heat back out the window. Your air conditioner will have to remove that heat. You must stop the heat before it goes through the glass. This is a passive method and will save you lots of energy and money in the summer time. 5. Rule A - Place foil on the bottom of the plywood roof sheathing of your home. This is easiest to do while building a new home. If your home exists, then consider a radiation barrier in the attic. This will keep the attic cooler. This is also passive (rule F) 6. Rule A – Ventilate the attic. This can be passive or active. It reduces the attic temperature which slows the flow of heat into your home. The active, but effective, way is with a powered fan system which operates only at high attic temperatures. An advantage is that this will not operate in the winter when you DO want heat flow into your home. The passive method of ventilation is by effective venting that operates when the wind blows. This is excellent in the hotter states. This requires good air flow both into the attic and out of the attic. 7. Rules A and B - Place the air conditioning ductwork inside the cooled space of the home – not the hot attic. This reduces the heat that flows into the ductwork which eases the work load of the air conditioning system. This is easiest done in new construction. it can be also be done by wrapping insulation on top of the ductwork and not placing any between the duct and the interior of the home thus thermally connecting the duct to the inside temperature. This is also passive (rule F). 8. Rule D - Water heaters should be outside of any air conditioned space. They leak heat. If they leak heat into the home then the air conditioner has to remove it. This action is passive. 9. Rule D - Dryers, ideally, should be outside air conditioned space for the same reason as water heaters. This action is passive (rule F) 10. Rule C - Most water heaters heat their water by running electricity through coils. As an alternative heat can be pumped into the water less expensively. One way to do this is to route the heat being pumped out of your home straight into the water heater. This has multiple advantages. It even works in the winter because the heat being pumped from the cold air outside (this is how a heat pump works) can be used, in part, to heat the water. Per Rule C, pumped heat is cheaper than created heat. Considering the basic rules you can think of your own ideas of ways to save energy and money. Remember, it is all about the heat.