Gaines Group Architects
rotten wood wall

Little Things to Make Your Home Better

Sometimes the little things in our homes aren’t designed at all. I have the opportunity on occasion to share my experiences with students from all levels – Kindergarten to Graduate Students. Recently, I was invited to the Department of Energy to talk building science with graduate student interns spending their summer at the DOE. The room was full of determined and intelligent future leaders. Only one of them had a background in architecture / building science / sustainability. So how do I offer a presentation that is relevant to a group with no knowledge of my industry? I honestly was not sure. I started looking at how the industry has changed in the 20 years I have been in it. In January of 1999 there was almost no home technology being used outside of surround sound in a home theater. Now Google Assistant can call to make you a hair appointment and the salon does not know they are not talking to a human.

Alexa can adjust my thermostat, turn off lights, and turn on white noise in the background when I am going to bed.

These are huge jumps in technology and impact how we want our homes to operate. More important in an energy-efficiency discussion – we keep adding electric demand in our homes that we need to be able to supply. So in this technology driven age what does it mean to be sustainable? In a technology age where clients have access to touch screens to see their home performance, how do you provide solutions that meet their HGTV expectations? What is the balance between energy-efficient, indoor air quality, durability, and affordability? How do you define sustainability – green rating certification or energy usage or healthy?

I used specific projects that I have designed to talk about this idea of “green.” Is a home designed to be carbon neutral “green?”

Little things

It has green elements certainly, lots of them, but is it affordable? Does it need to be affordable to be sustainable?

What about a Dairy Queen that is more energy-efficient than other fast food restaurants?

Little things

It has solar PV on the roof, reduces water usage, includes day-lighting strategies, and has 100% LED lighting. It checks many of the boxes for a “green” building. Reducing operating costs adds to profit and success. So is it “green.”

Little things

Rotted wood wall

We then moved the conversation to things I find in building that are common issues in building science. For instance, a garage inside the envelope of your living space – meaning not detached has a huge impact on indoor air quality. A vapor barrier in a wall system in our mixed humid climate can destroy a building in under 30 years.

It is interesting to present to a young group that grew up with all this technology around them. They are not impressed with the newness of it all – they just want to know how it works and how to use it to future benefit. If you can now 3D print your Christmas toys for the kids, will Target survive? If you can use virtual reality to tour a historic home – will you still see it in person? If you want to live in a luxury home, can that be 3D printed by a robot and you use virtual reality to transform your home into the style you want at any given moment? Maybe that is jumping too far ahead, but the options exist. We are now today seeing homes printed. We are seeing robots replace jobs that people used to perform in construction with higher levels of accuracy. The world is changing quickly, with little things and big steps every day. However, building science remains a constant. We have to understand how all this technology being used in homes will impact our energy demand, our building operations, and quality of life. Building science is so often left out of residential design. We allow our homes to waste energy that we have to pay for monthly. We are ok with poor indoor air quality because we have medicine to make us well again. We don’t mind using too much water because we have plenty. This is not sustainable. There are little things that make your home better – please do them. I hope that message resonated with the students and with my readers.

Here are some little things to make your home better:

Air sealing

Crawl Space

Attic Insulation



Electrical Outlets


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air gaps at corners

Building Science: Why Does it Matter, and Why is it Left Out So Often?

building scienceThe profession of architecture is often looked at through the lens of television or magazines – how to make buildings beautiful. However, that is not the true work that is done by architects. Beauty is a minor part of the equation. It is the part of the design process that can be replaced by purchasing a plan online and giving it to a builder with “a few changes.” Building science is what makes a beautiful building last for years.

A good architect will talk to you first about function over form. What are your needs? How do you want to use the building? What are the rules that need to be followed, building code, zoning? What are the rules that can be broken? Where will you put your Christmas tree? Do you like to host Super Bowl parties? Do the kids have a dedicated place they can do their homework? How loud is the television downstairs when you are trying to sleep upstairs? Where will you store your stuff? What kind of light will be in that room?

building scienceEven better questions might follow a line of building science guided decisions. How efficient will the house be once you move into it? Will you feel comfortable in all the rooms year-round? How much money will you spend heating and cooling your home? Building science questions are the only questions that have answers that result in money saved. Building science questions are almost always things that cannot easily be changed once the home is built. Building science questions are almost always the most important decisions that are needed to be made before a builder gives a price to construct the home. Most builders will not be focused on thinking through building science decisions when they are given a set of house plans. Their goal is to build the home in the most efficient way possible according to the plans you gave them. So if they don’t set the building science goals, who does?

building science

Air gaps in ceiling corners

If you purchase a plan online, the designer does not know what site you are building on or the climate you are building in. If you hire an architect that does not discuss building science solutions (insulation types, wall systems, HVAC efficiency, water conservation, ventilation, lighting….) then who will set the standards for your home? Typically the fall back for these solutions are building code. Building code is the worst possible solution allowed by law. Building sciences require a holistic approach. It is not simply adding more insulation in the walls or attic. Insulation decisions have to be made along with heating and cooling efficiency, ventilation, and window selection in mind. These questions and more important these answers have to be done holistically or you will create more problems than you solve. Using the wrong insulation in the attic can lead to huge moisture problems. Locating the HVAC ducts in the wrong space will lead to condensation and higher energy bills. Buildings are complicated, probably the most complicated machine you will ever own. Make building science as important as the countertop selection you are making for your kitchen. Don’t leave out building science during design.

Stop making your home less comfortable by spending money on the wrong things

Installing a bigger badder Air Conditioner is not the best way to get your house comfortable in the summer. Although many HVAC “pros” will try to sell you one.

energy recovery ventilator

I have heard all the solutions that have been pitched to you by salesmen with the best of intentions. There is the attic fans, more insulation, dehumidifiers in vented crawl spaces, larger HVAC system, new duct work, and ceiling fans. These solutions do not address a holistic approach to the comfort issue in your home.

attic insulation

Our homes for years were built to “breath.” Then we started adding insulation and heating and cooling systems. At that point we should have stopped making houses leaky, but we did not change. We instead started installing larger heating and cooling systems that are so oversized they only function properly 4-5 days a year. Sure they get your house cold in the summer, but you are spending a fortune to get it there and doing nothing to address humidity. Throwing money at the problem without understanding building science is not the right solution. While a ceiling fan is nice when you are in the room, it is doing nothing to make your home more comfortable when you are not there, turn it off. An attic fan is making your attic cooler, but it is achieving that by sucking conditioned air from your living space causing you to have higher electric bills and poor indoor air quality. New duct work may be needed and you may need a new HVAC system. However, if you don’t have a tight thermal envelope, prepare to spend more money after bad building science. Before you invest in your home get to know the building science behind the problem.



Hire an Architect Not Only For Aesthetics, But For Design

Hire an architect“A rotary phone is to codes compliant building as a smart phone is to a high performance building…” When you are thinking of your next project, hire an architect. Buildings are complicated, perhaps the most complicated and expensive machines you will ever control because there are many details that need to be considered beyond aesthetic considerations. The knowledge of building science principles has evolved over the last ten years, as have the evolution of building materials. One cannot rely on past solutions to continue to cooperate with the materials and systems used today.

If you have the opportunity to make decisions about how a building will perform before it is built, take care to do it right and hire an architect. There are many paths to get a building built; you can rely on “because that is the way we always do it” as your source of decisions, or you can base your decisions on the latest understanding of building science.

Hire an architectLook for an architect that has a proven record of successful high performance building solutions. A basic check of third-party certified “green” projects (LEED, EarthCraft, and Energy Star) for example. Take a look at our portfolio to better understand the impact of design.

Hire an architect


Get to know “Milton Matter of Ivy Tools” Friday Featured Local Business

 ivy_tools_logoGive us some background on your company. What do you do and why do you do it?

Ivy Tools supplies instruments to test and diagnose issues of building performance. These tools enable contractors, inspectors, energy auditors, HVAC technicians, and homeowners to answer tough questions about a building. Maybe it’s, “Why is this room so uncomfortable?”, or “How can I reduce my utility bills?”, or “Where is that persistent leak coming from?”. Building science has come a long way in understanding how a building and its systems interact to provide a space that is healthy, comfortable, and sustainable. At the same time, advances in technology have made it possible to scientifically quantify the condition of a building’s systems in a cost-effective manner, in many cases even as the building is being constructed. These developments are changing the way we build, and changing it for the better. Why do I do it? That part is probably obvious already–I do it because I love it. Building performance is just our little piece of a larger puzzle. From great design to building heath and comfort, the built environment shapes much of our lives, and I believe doing it well is important.

Do you have an ideal client? If so, what do they look like?

Someone who needs to answer a question about a building performance issue, and needs the diagnostic means to do so, makes a good client for Ivy Tools. We are happy to Missing-Insulationprovide our time and experience to help customers solve issues such as air leakage, moisture intrusion, duct performance, or energy usage. And of course we’re happy to provide any needed diagnostic instruments as well!

What is your favorite success story in the past few years?

Wow, it’s hard to choose just one. We love to see problems solved, or questions answered. That’s what good diagnostics is all about. Choosing a real world, day-to-day example, I recently received a call from a water restoration contractor who was working in a large commercial office space that had been flooded to a depth of about four inches. He was already using one of our moisture meters, a Delmhorst BD-2100. But the enormity of the job meant he needed to quickly locate and address the walls FLIR-E30bxMissing-Insualtion-2that had absorbed the most water. I suggested using a thermal camera to find the moisture patterns and locate the most affected areas. Since a thermal camera views heat patterns, and since wet walls absorb and release heat at a different rate than dry walls, it’s a great choice to quickly locate the worst water damage. The contractor was able to visualize the most critical areas and balance his remediation efforts accordingly. The building owner and insurance adjuster were impressed with the scientific approach to evaluating the problem, and happy that they didn’t need to completely gut the building. The contractor called me a week later to thanks us and report that the thermal camera had paid for itself in just that one job.

Favorite place to spend a Saturday afternoon?

Hiking with the family would probably top the list. Favorite spots include the High Knob fire tower on the West Virginia border, and Hogcamp Branch in Shenandoah National Park. A close second to hiking would have to be working on an old British car. My children all learned their fractions from handing me the right wrench while I’m under a car. I’m currently restoring a 1965 Triumph TR4.

What is your favorite book?

That would have to be A World Lost, by Wendell Berry. It’s a novel about being rooted in place and time, and understanding community and our place in it. I try to read it every couple of years, usually in the summer since that’s when the book takes place. To name a favorite from within our industry, it’s hard to beat Residential Energy, by John Krigger and Chris Dorsi. It’s the standard text on understanding the house as a system, and introduced me and many others to both the theories and best practices of home performance. Did I really just choose a textbook as a favorite book?Infrared-Moisture

Green Terms Defined: Green Building (Part 1)

There are many definitions of what green building is or does. Definitions range from a building that is “less bad” than the average building in terms of its impact on the environment to a building that is  “high performance.” My definition is a home / building that meets the budget, is adaptable, durable, preserves or restores habitat, reduces energy and water use, and provides healthy indoor air quality.


It is critical to make the decision to “go green” early in the construction process. The first step is to create a team that understands building science, works well together, and are experts at green design and construction. A balanced team for home design includes an architect, contractor, and a client.  All parties have to work together to design and build the project in order to achieve the best solution. Eliminating any team member from any part of the process will result in a building that is not as green as possible.


Your health depends on it – Healthy Indoor Air Quality

As we learn more about building science homes are being built tighter through good construction details. This is a GOOD thing. The new worry is that many products used in homes off gas chemicals known in the industry at Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). These chemicals have adverse short and long term health impacts on the people living in your home. While we are still learning a lot about what chemicals are safe – if any – you should be sure to use those proven products that are available with a NO-VOC option. Paints, caulks, adhesives, stains, and joint compounds are just the starting point. Discuss with your architect the options, which products seem to be working and which have durability issues, and make wise decisions for your family. Product selection along with a appropriate ventilation system in your home will lead to better health for everyone living there.

Triple C Camp - NEST Rebuild, 2010

yoga studio design

Harrisonburg Bikram Yoga Studio design

We were contacted by a small business owner in Harrisonburg that wanted to start a new venture in town. I was familiar with the type of studio she was looking to create, but had never experienced it first hand. Her goal was to start the first Harrisonburg Bikram Yoga Studio. Bikram Yoga is a system of Yoga that Bikram Choudhury synthesized from traditional hatha yoga techniques and popularized beginning in the early 1970’s. Bikram Yoga is ideally practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%. As an architect and a building scientist, this is the coolest design challenge and the scariest all in one project. Our first step was to do some research – this is the Charlottesville Bikram Yoga Studio.


We set off to design a functional, healthy, space for this new business in an old two story building. We evaluated the existing space, created drawings to start our design work, and met with the owner to layout the most functional solutions for her business goals.


Due to some circumstances beyond our control the project became a fast track schedule where we were still doing design while construction was ongoing. This is often not the best approach to a complicated design project, but we adapted. The design team by this point included the business owners, Winston Rhodes (mechanical engineer), Jim Herr (Contractor), Ken Wells (insulation expert), Deborah Smith (architectural intern), Amy Turnage (Interior Designer), and me. The challenge was to keep the humidity controlled inside the yoga studio and to protect the existing structural components of the building. If both of these goals are achieved the clients goal of having a healthy and functional space will be realized. I worked with Winston to cover the various options for performance then we both met with the entire team to discuss buildability / costs to deliver the best solution possible for this business use.


Once the plan was agreed on, construction continued on the space. First rigid insulation was installed on the interior of the wood studs. Then a vapor barrier of closed cell foam was installed.


Drywall brackets were created by Jim with consultations with the drywall company and local suppliers.


The finished product, in the works, will be a healthy, comfortable (110 degrees at 40% humidity) room for our client. While this is a very unique business type, all projects should take the care and attention this project did to building science elements. Planning up front always costs less than fixing the problems later. As we always say – Design Matters!

For more thoughts on saving money, protecting the environment, and on architectural design visit my websites:

Citizen Architect – Design Matters

I believe that as an architect I have an ethical duty to design solutions that are energy efficient, durable, and healthy. It is my job to understand the materials that are available in the market today, know how to use the materials effectively, and to know the impacts on indoor air quality, durability, and the environment. The added value that an architect brings to a project is based a practical understanding of material science, building science, and spatial relationships. The process of design is like translating musical notes into a symphony of parts to create a masterpiece. The results will not always be an icon of building mastery, sometimes it will simply be a well crafted space that brings function and form together into a harmonious marriage.

charlottesville architect

Do you have an energy problem at your home?


Is your home energy-efficient? Is the indoor air quality healthy? There are clues that you can look for to help determine how your home performs. For instance, if you have to dust weekly, then you are probably breathing glass fibers from your insulation filter. I have heard for years from framers that you don’t want to build too tight. This is wrong with a minor clarification. Your home should be air tight with a controlled intake that goes through your Ventilation system. If you rely on ‘not too tight’ then you will waste money and suffer with poor indoor air quality.

Harrisonburg Architect