There has been much talk about the quality of recent residential estates across the country. From the stuff you can see to the stuff you cant see, some of it seems just plain silly to even the non observant out there. Issues such as terrible layout and spaces, incorrect / quick / non-existant insulation of walls, to the seemingly last minute fix-up solutions that arose in many of these homes which quite frankly weren’t so ‘fix-up’ and more like ‘stiched-up‘! Here is one case study of a house built as part of a large development of residential homes near a suburb of Cork City in the early ‘Noughties sometime. I have shown below, a sketch of the house and its site boundary shown in red. The house is of standard concrete block construction with wood floors throughout and tile in the kitchen. The immediate surroundings such as houses and fences and orientation are also shown. Forgive my spelling error, it was late!
Sketched Site Plan
Analysing Sun and Local Wind Patterns
An analysis of how sunlight and wind can affect a site or individual house should have been done but it seems to me that local wind patterns were either ignored in the construction, or were actually incorporated in the design but with unexpected outcomes (looking at where the gap in the terraced development is facing, this might have been intentionally figured into the house design for issues such as cross corridor air flow, wind related pressure build up or even to help with extra air / internal gas ventilation purposes but the impact of this on the climate inside the house was certainly ignored). Also note that there are no trees in the immediate vicinity front or back so these are not part of any shading influence or wind protection for the house.
I don’t know the full extent of the layouts in the surrounding homes or the type of furnishings in them so I cannot judge them at this point only to say that on this row, all the houses are smaller than the house in this case study. There are however many different types of homes in this estate in general.
Heating & Ventilation
The first problem with the house involves the ability to warm the sitting room. Yes…the place where most people spend their time to relax is the one place hardest to heat in this house! The house is Easterly facing (East North East to be precise) and surrounded on either side by other homes: attached on the south side, another on the north side but separated by a laneway for access. To try and improve light in this east facing house there is a very large bay window to the front, facing east in the sitting room. This room has a variety of problems and is itself the central problem with the home overall.
Firstly, I know that as building techniques and window specifications have improved from a design point of view many reasons for placing a conventional type radiator directly under a window have disappeared. It still makes sense from a space point of view so that might be the only reason now. However, many people still feel wary of cold masses coming thru a window region, and prefer to see them under the window sill. I have spent time convincing people of the decreased need for this with newer buildings but I have sampled first hand in some ‘new’ homes with double glazed windows (whether it is the windows own seals and insulating property or the area surrounding the window frame itself which would be a workmanship problem is up for grabs here!) that they still seem to allow a cold mass to form and fall below the lats of a venitian blind for example, so I am not so confident with promoting this repositioning of radiators too much where replica style homes built in the last 10 years are concerned anyway! Having inquired with someone recently about that particular problem it seems that it is mainly due to the fact that in his bedroom a cool mass forms at the interior glazed surface which is usually colder than the adjacent wall there he says. The cold air falls, is then heated by the radiator under the sill and rises again only to settle at the top of the window which is cold and the air mass cools and falls once again. The radiator however is shorter in length to the window which seems to allow a cold air mass to fall and slip out sideways on to the area his head usually occupies on a pillow when he sleeps, so he has to put a spare pillow behind his bed at sill level to keep the air inside the sill and towards the radiator which he says works well but you see the inconvenience.
Back to the case study though, I have shown a sketched house plan of the ground floor (not quite to scale). In this Sitting / Living room the window is approximately 2100mm wide x 1500mm high while the room is approx 3.9m x 3.4m with a bay of 2.8m x 0.8m alongside this.
House plan sketch
The sitting room radiator is placed on the door side wall, farthest point away from the window. The door assembly however is of light double french doors with glass panes, situated off the hallway and about 1 metre from the main door. These things wouldnt keep small pets inside never mind heat from escaping! Its as if this house was designed for a hot climate and french doors were a nice light way to separate the spaces. But this isn’t Spain. And it’s not a fouton or a laundry room but a main sitting / living room. Looking at the general functionality of the room again, the sitting room is spacious enough, includes a very large window, easterly facing and not great at capturing heat from the sun only the general light from the surroundings. Radiator is in the corner, with wide double french doors incorporating glass, approx 1400-1500mm wide total opening, separating the room from the main hallway. Not a great start with the french doors for keeping an adequate level of heat in but then, instead of installing a regular fireplace which appears to be the intended kind of feature in this room, an open gas fire is situated here inside the styled charcoal colour fireplace with mantle over. There are many forms of alternative fire pieces or gas fires that have glass or other panes in front and ductwork so that the gas is directed elsewhere and vented out the back but this was designed as a faux- fire place I presume and has no panes or back vent for the gas other than the chimney exhaust itself and this large vent hole in the wall nearby it would seem for extra ventilation purposes, just above the level of the skirting board at 150mm above the wooden floor and within 3 feet of the fireplace as shown below.
Vent in Living Room Close up
Vent and Gas Fireplace
The vent, situated as the photo shows, is near the fireplace to promote extra ventilation of the fresh air from the outside into the fireplace and out through the chimney as the fire blazes. The whole design seems questionable. Not from the need to prevent a gas build up but from the original decision to put an open gas fire in here needing such ventilation in the first place, and in a room which doesn’t receive enough direct sunlight and practically open to the colder hallway with its french doors only 1 metre from the front door. The bay window has the regular type of vents incorporated in the top parts of the frame and the french doors allow plenty of air movement from under and between the door leaves yet someone decided it was ok for an oversized vent just above the floor level to the outside also. There is ventilation and then there is over ventilation! Well, at least there is no mold growth, one advantage to this extreme ventilation! (One would have thought that modern design and workmanship would more easily prevent mold growth than going back to the days of draughts and gaps aplenty)
Perhaps if the vent was placed on the window side, or a slightly smaller vent used in a high position it might work but certainly not the current situation. From what I see, when they are required, a vent placed high in the wall works much better than a low position in this country in particular. Colder fresh air coming in at high level meets warmer air as it drops to lower level allowing the air to warm quicker before it drops to the bottom, creating a warmer air layer at the floor when it gets to that level. Air coming in at low level tends to just reside low on the floor without mixing quick enough with warm air above and takes much longer to heat up while also creating larger temperature differences between high and low levels in the room. Add to this the fact that the vent is on a wall in the only gap between the 8 homes or so on this row, at the highest point of this hill where the development is situated. This results in quite a strong level of wind funneling through here, adding to the existing southwesterly winds prevalent in these parts which has the effect of forcing a strong draught through the side vent into the sitting room. Vents should allow air to be moved slowly yet continuously and not forced through constantly from a windy lane outside. The positioning at low level has the effect of creating a draught all along the lower level of the room, where people would be sitting down, making it uncomfortable at times particularly at foot level and almost impossible to keep warm on cold winter days like the ones just passed.
Occupants reaction to Cold Room.
A cold day results in cold air pushing through the vent creating a cold draught. The resulting situation is that the occupant turns on the gas fire to heat the room. This just increases air flow from outside to the fireplace as heated air in the fire rises up the chimney which then sucks in air from below and around the fireplace to maintain this flow. This cycle in turn sucks in the cold air from the vent nearby. It essentially creates a warm middle zone of air while promoting a cold floor zone as it receives an abundance of colder air constantly at floor level from the vent which is only being heated at the fireplace to be sent up the chimney. So whether the fire is on or off, there is too often a cold layer of air at the lower zone of the floor. And as they say…If you have cold feet you usually feel cold all over. This overuse of the central heating and / or gas fire to heat this one room is needless and could have been prevented if common sense was used in some of the original design process. It makes the building a lot less sustainable and just adds to energy bills. Other issues with the house layout are listed out below.
Radiator in Sitting Room
The use of the gas powered central heating does provide heat to the rest of the house for the most part, but fails to heat the sitting room to the same degree because of the vent in question, the french doors and also the radiator size and position. Due to the layout there is a long sofa in front of the radiator but not blocking it overly. It seems the heated air either goes out the french doors or is countered by the fact that circulation of hot air rising from it only sucks in a large volume of cold air through the vent along the floor zone again, too much to quickly warm up the overall air volume without needing to keep the heating on for very long periods of time. The radiator should either have been increased in length to be effective at minimum and possibly repositioned closer to the vent to counteract the cold air coming through.
Storage space/downstairs WC:
Next on the menu is the minuscule storage space shoved in under the stairs. There is a WC situated just beyond this as shown in sketched house plan, but again some questionable design was incorporated. The storage hole is an awkward triangle shape where only a small vacuum cleaner and small artificial folded up Christmas tree with a small shoe box size bag of some of its decorations are kept…nothing else with fit in here. I’ve tried! The WC is actually quite long for its purpose. This could have been shortened by about 250mm to create a someway decent storage space under the stairs while still maintaining a good WC space. I don’t normally advocate making WCs and bathrooms smaller as they are usually tiny and not well planned but in this case the benefits would have warranted it considering the already lengthy nature of it. Considering the size of the house and that there are 2 bathrooms upstairs already (1 large and 1 average sized ensuite), these are some contributing factors.
Tiles in Kitchen.
There are some tiresome looking floor tiles in the kitchen. Whoever decided upon them I would like to know. They just don’t look good. I will have to attach a picture of it as soon as I get a chance. From a distance they have the traditional black and white alternating look. But the style has been complicated by a ‘just cut from stone’ style pattern where the texture has been printed on the surface of this bumpy tile surface as a cheap alternative to the real thing. The result is a surface that no matter how well cleaned just looks a little dirty or dusty all the time…Its quite disappointing to clean a floor on all fours for an hour or two, and knowing it is now clean but for it to look exactly the same afterwards as it did before!
Why are they so small? Particularly here? If the large living room was slightly narrower, even 200mm this room could be useful other than to dry laundry or watch a TV up close and personal. For now its used just as a laundry and storage room. As shown in the plan sketch there is a sitting room and kitchen downstairs, with a laundry room, and bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. This spare room could have been a better alternative space or turned into a proper kitchen and dining area to improve the current kitchen layout which has a small table stuck in the corner. Its a wasted room unless you consider that it was always meant as a rented accommodation household with multiple occupiers rather than a potential single family residence. But should we be designing residencies as homes with multiple possible end uses or pigeon holing designs to maximize units, square footage pricing, and profits without caring about the changes in social situations that may arise after a house is built? I know which one should be the answer and I know which one was actually the answer for many developers and builders here over recent years.
Ok thats my rant for now. I do hope builders and developers that are left, start to realise that since they cant just throw up houses anymore due to the lack of them being planned, that we need to utilize our time on site and actually produce better homes as a way to stand out from the competition, that way securing more projects in the long term. Better and more considered decision-making in the designing of all buildings. I hope!