Constraints, Constraints!

October 3rd, 2007 by Peter Schmelzer

Thank God for limits!

It may sound strange, but constraints actually help fuel our design engines. They limit the possibilities from uncountable to manageable.

As we started thinking about remodeling, the first thought was to add on to the back of the house. The lot has some area, the trees would easily allow it, and it seemed like the best value-per-dollar way to go. At least it seemed so until we hit the drawing boards.

The 1905 house is a story and a half with a simple gable roof running east-west. The 1967 addition is likewise a story and a half, but its ridge runs north-south out from the north side of the 1905 house, and it has a lower pitch with eaves that do not align with the 1905 house. The screen porch is a shed roof off the back of the house. We came up with several options that successfully worked with the existing roof lines in practical terms, but none that really fit the house and the neighborhood. Nor did they fit the budget (dormers, stick-framing remodeling, and high ceilings add up quickly!) Finally, it became clear that the minimal addition to the rear was not going to work. The roofline constraints were too much.

So we embarked on a different route, which favored adding up instead of out. By removing the second floor walls, ceiling and roof, we gave ourselves a conceptual blank slate. With only minimally expanding our footprint (about 80 square feet) and building on top our our screened porch (which has full frost footings), we developed a plan that well-exceeded our expectations. The second floor could go from two bedrooms and one bathroom to four bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The site constraints made this design possible after the rooflines forced a direction change. With limited ability to expand to the sides and rear, up became the only viable option, then it opened more possibilities.

Building a new roof meant we could pick our pitch. 12:12 works well for solar panels at our latitude, and attic storage was needed, so we opted for attic storage trusses and a 45-degree roof slope. We developed a traditional-looking roof plan that will fit the neighborhood nicely, recede away from our maple trees, accommodate future solar panels, and make room for storage and mechanical space. The height is within zoning ordinance requirements and it raises our future solar domestic hot water panels away from much of the adjacent tree shading. In fact, we will receive direct sun all year from 10:00 pm to 2:00pm, when the sun is most productive.

Our new heating system will tie into the future solar panels. We have opted for a high-velocity air handler tied to a natural gas boiler. Highly efficient, this system will allow us to route ducts to and from each area of the house to provide even air distribution to the whole house. By locating it in the insulated attic, the solar water heat will be right there to attach to the system. So, when we are not using water heated by the sun, it can be used to heat the house. The boiler will also serve as our primary domestic water heater until the solar system fits our cashflow.

So, the constraints of the site and existing building helped us come up a plan that is more affordable and meets our sustainability goals even better.

I’m still going to try to find a way to fit the solar hot water system into the budget….

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