Remodeling on a Budget

Budgeting is an important concern on any project. By starting out with reasonable goals, understanding what you want from the project, keeping some important ideas in mind, and developing realistic cost estimates from the start (and revisiting these as the design progresses), you should be in good shape.


First of all, think through your reasons for taking on the project. Are you adding needed square footage? Increasing functionality? Making aesthetic improvements? Wanting to add value to home? Understanding your own goals can help make decisions about budgeting easier.

Determine Scope

What is the smallest project that will achieve your goals?  Ask yourself what project will have the most value to you – i.e. give you what you want in the most cost-effective manner. Is it a minor remodel (mostly cosmetic improvements)? Is it a major remodel (involving opening up floor plan, new kitchen, etc.)? Is it an addition, perhaps as part of a remodel? Or is it a total tear-down (or I should say, deconstruction) and new building?

Determine Budget

Think through what your budget is, and remember to consider not just Construction Cost but Project Cost. The Project Cost includes professional fees (architect, consultants etc.), permit fees, bank fees, insurance, in addition to the cost of construction.

Be realistic – account for reasonable costs to estimate your budget. I had a potential client who came to me wanting to do a full second story addition for $40K – and wanted to have it completed (designed, permitted & built) in 4 months!

Some homeowners try to hide (low-ball) their true budget from a contractor, thinking this strategy will lead to a lower cost estimate. I believe it’s better to be up front from the start about what the actual budget is, and then develop a team that works together to respect (and meet) that budget.

It’s always wise to include a contingency in your budget (5-10%). This is especially true in a remodel, where you often don’t discover issues until the existing walls are opened up. A contingency has the benefit of making you feel more at ease entering into a project, and can allow you to splurge on some things further into the project.

Rarely does a client’s initial budget equal the initial construction cost estimate. And guess what? – usually the former is lower than the latter. On most projects there is some juggling of the elements of the project – the budget, scope, or schedule. For example, often the clients have to raise their budget to achieve their goals and program, or if their budget is set in stone, the scope has to be reduced.

Ballpark S.F. Costs

To estimate construction cost early on in a project, the easiest way is to apply typical square foot costs. Numbers I often use are:

New construction = $225-275/s.f.;

Major remodel = $150-225+/s.f;

Minor remodel = $100-150/s.f.

On an addition project, remember to account not just for the new construction, but also the cost of work to the existing parts of the project. For example, in a full second story addition, don’t assume the construction cost only includes the area of the addition, times the new construction factor. There will be significant costs to the existing portions of the house too, where the structure to support the new second story needs to come through to reach the foundation, to connect new to existing plumbing, electrical, mechanical systems etc, in addition to new stairs the reach the second floor.

Strategies to Control Costs

Think small – the best way to control budget is by reducing the size and scope of your project. Often rooms can be combined to serve more than one function – an office can act as a spare bedroom when needed, or the laundry can be located in a mudroom or powder room. And do you really need a separate living room?

If you’re planning a teardown and new house, consider a remodel of the existing structure,. This is not always a cheaper option – it depends on the project.

Keep the floor plan simple. Keep the design simple. Use straightforward vs. complicated elements and details – there can be a beauty in the simple expression of natural materials that don’t need elaborate trimwork to “spruce it up”.

Prioritize your program and concentrate on highest value goals. Save the splurging for the parts of the project that will have the most impact, or mean the most to you. This might be in the areas guests will see, or it may be in the master bath – every project is different.

Phase work within a master plan – sometimes it make sense to break the project up into pieces, and implement them over time as budget allows.

Other Strategies to Control Costs

An open plan makes a house feel larger.

Limit moving of structural components.

Limit mechanical/plumbing/electrical work.

Limit extent of house affected.

Be creative with materials and finishes – sometimes the creative use of off-the-shelf materials can have more of an impact than more expensive “fancy” materials and finishes.

Let components of the architecture do “double-duty” – for example an exposed (perhaps colored?) concrete slab in the basement acts as both the structure and the finish floor.

Do some of the work yourself. Some clients act as their own General Contractor (G.C.), which can save contractor overhead and profit costs, and sales tax on the project. There are risks associated with this approach, so be careful.

Research and source building materials and finishes yourself.

On some projects the owners can stay in the house during construction, and save rental costs during the course of the project. There may be higher construction costs associated with this approach, however (for example the cost of taking more care every day to protect the inhabited portion from construction dust etc.), that may partially offset the savings.


If you don’t have one already, shop around for contractors – interview 2 or 3 to get a range of cost estimates. And don’t always opt for the lowest bidder!

Select a contractor early in the design process, and get their input about constructability and construction cost as the design progresses.

Do multiple cost estimates as the design is refined.  

Keep long term costs in mind – for example, upgrading to a more efficient heating system can be a big up-front cost, but will pay for itself over time in reduced energy costs.


Consider adding an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit), or Backyard Cottage. This can be rented out, and provide income to offset its construction cost.

If you have a too-short, substandard basement, consider raising the house a couple of feet to turn it into a fully functional new space.

Consider recycling an old house! A client a few years back bought a house for $1.00 from a builder who was going to have it demolished. We deconstructed the existing dilapidated house on his lot, and had the house he’d bought moved to the site and installed on a new foundation/basement:

Don’t make decisions based on some theoretical future home buyer. Unless you’ll be selling your house within a year or two, it’s better to make decisions based on your own goals and preferences.

Small Lot Legislation

Last fall the Seattle City Council put a moratorium on the creation of small lots in single-family neighborhoods. Now they’re revisiting the issue, to develop permanent legislation regulating houses on small lots. In their words the City “supports infill development in single family neighborhoods, including on legally established undersized lots. However, these lots should be clearly and legally delineated, and neighbors should be aware of the potential for new houses to be built. In addition, new houses on undersized lots should be modest enough to be proportional to the size of the lot”.

The DPD (Department of Planning and Development) offered preliminary recommendations, which the Council is reviewing:

The local CORA group (Congress Of Residential Architects) developed our own response to this pending legislation. An important part of this proposes to replace the Mid Block, as the small lot development area of choice, with Corner Lots. If the City allows outright for corner lots to contain two houses, it would at the same time provide the additional development potential Seattle needs, in a way that actually IMPROVES those neighborhoods. As noted in the Walkable Livable Communities presentation I developed with some NW Ecobuilding colleagues, double houses on corner lots take those qualities we love about single-family neighborhoods – i.e. the opportunity for social engagement with neighbors (while doing yard work, taking a stroll, sitting on the front porch watching passersby, kids playing on the sidewalk, even just getting in and out of your car), the benefit of eyes on the street/added security, the architectural/aesthetic benefit of front facade/front porch facing the street, etc. – and extends these qualities to the side streets. The before and after sketches below illustrate this:

re-zoned corner lot

David Neiman, who’s led CORA’s efforts to critique the City’s proposal, argued our case on KUOW’s The Conversation (he calls in around 20:00).

Social Media

Early last year I decided I couldn’t hold off any longer getting on the Social Media train. My Queen Anne House had been the AIA/Northwest Home Magazine Home of the Month the previous November, and I was about to give up hope of ever getting any work out of it. Which seemed strange at the time, since in the past it was published projects and recognition such as this which was the source of most of my work. It finally dawned on me that the old-school style of marketing I’d always counted on just wasn’t working anymore.

So, about this time last year I contacted Rory Martin, whom I’d worked with before in re-designing my website, to bring me up to speed with social networking. He developed a multi-step plan, involving setting up a Facebook page for my company, setting up a blog, optimizing my LinkedIn profile, and doing some search engine optimization. In addition, I created a profile for my business on the Houzz website (

For a few months I didn’t notice any improvement, although Rory showed me the analytics of how many people were seeing my website etc. Finally though, starting about four or five months after I’d started working with him (which was as long as he told me it would take) I started to see some real results. I began getting potential clients calling again. And interestingly, it seemed like I got actual jobs from these more often than in the past. In other words, I think some of this social media gives potential clients a deeper, more genuine sense of who I am, what I do and how I work, than an article in a design mag ever could. I also found that when someone did contact me after, for example, seeing my blog, I was the only architect they were talking to, whereas more often than not in the past I would be one of several architects that potential clients were interviewing.

And I’m getting some new recognition, which is really surprising me. I’ve been told by LinkedIn that I had one of the top 5% most viewed LinkedIn profiles in 2012. I was featured in a Houzz Ideabook (online article) about how design in Seattle responds to the environment (–Seattle-Design-Reveals-Natural-Wonders). And Jim Burton Architects was chosen as a Houzz Best of 2013 winner, in the Customer Satisfaction category!

Passive Solar

Passive House, or passivhaus, is sometimes confused with passive solar, and although the latter is an important component in Passive House design, the terms are not interchangeable.

Passive solar refers to the strategy of using the building itself – the windows, walls, floors –  without added equipment, to collect, store, and distribute solar energy as heat. A part of passive solar design is also the control of unwanted solar energy in the summer, through the use of overhangs etc. The idea of passive solar contrasts with active solar, which uses equipment (e.g. photo-voltaic panels, or solar hot water collectors) to do the same.

Passive solar requires thoughtful consideration of the local climate, solar access, building siting and orientation, landscaping etc.

There are several types of Passive Solar. The first, and most basic, is Direct Gain, where the interior space is heated directly through south-facing windows (of course this assumes the building is located in the northern hemisphere).








In Indirect Gain, a thermal mass, for example a “trombe wall”, is located between the south-facing windows and the space to be heated. The advantage in this method is that the transfer of heat to the interior is delayed, so a thermal mass heated during the day may release its heat to the interior at night.








The third type is Isolated Gain, using a separate Sunspace, or Greenhouse, to borrow heat from as needed.

Some Passive Solar Fundamentals:

  • Orientation – if possible, orient the long axis of the building in the east-west direction, to maximize southern exposure. Ideally there will be unobstructed access to the sun during most of the day, and the principle use spaces of the building will be located on the south side, with service spaces (e.g. example bathrooms, mechanical, storage) on the north side.
  • Windows (free solar heat generators) – in general, optimize the amount of windows on the south side of the building, and minimize the amount of windows on the other three sides.
  • Control – use the architecture itself (eaves, awnings, exterior shades, sliding screens etc.), to block summer sun, but allow winter sun to penetrate interior. The latitude determines the ratio of depth of overhang to height of glazing. You can also use the landscaping for control. Deciduous trees on south side can block unwanted summer sun, but allow the winter sun to pass through. Evergreen trees on the east and west sides can block unwanted solar gain.
  • Thermal mass – Thermal mass refers to a material that can absorb the solar heat that enters a building – it can be an exposed concrete floor, ceramic tile, even gypsum wallboard.
  • Distribution – Thermal mass distributes the heat by radiation; In indirect or isolated passive solar, distribution can be by radiation, convection, or assisted by mechanical means.

Some Passive Solar Challenges:

  • Passive solar design guidelines often assume a large, flat, unobstructed site with no trees. In urban areas, lots oriented east-west typically have (sometimes tall) neighbors tight to the south, while lots oriented north-south will have a short face on the south side, neither of which is ideal. Sites on north facing slopes are not ideal – sometimes the site itself can block the sun (esp. when the sun is low in winter, when you need the solar gain the most). Conversely, sites on south facing slopes are preferred.
  • Seattle homes are sometimes designed as “View Machines”, and often that view is to the west – maximizing windows for view can be at odds with passive solar ideals.
  • Shading or screening of south-facing windows, to minimize summer heat-gain, can make rooms darker in our already gray winter months.
  • Remodels – passive solar design guides often assume you’re building a new house from the ground up, and so have more opportunity for optimal siting, orientation etc. A remodel or addition project has more constraints, e.g. existing architecture to relate to, structural issues that may make large areas of glazing difficult, etc.

That being said, an existing house can be remodeled to incorporate passive solar strategies, e.g. adding more windows on the south side, adding awnings over south facing windows, or adding thermal mass on the interior.

Without going into detail, I’ll list a few innovative ideas relating to passive solar design:

  • Annualized geo-solar – this refers to capturing warm season solar heat and storing it for several months, until it’s needed in the cold season. A variation on the Thermal Flywheel idea;
  • Phase change materials – usually eutectic salts, materials that store solar energy as latent heat. The sun heats and melts the material during the day – at night the material reverts to a solid state, and the stored heat is released. Phase change materials can be incredibly efficient in storing heat – as much as 80 times as effective as water;
  • Living Walls, depending on the plant type, can allow winter sun through, but will block the sun when it’s filled out in the warmer months;
  • Planning for future active solar – I like to think of this as another passive solar fundamental. Configure the roof to maximize solar orientation and access for potential future PV and solar hot water systems. In projects not installing a solar system, pre-pipe for future installation.

The heat-gain benefits of passive solar design should always be complemented by strategies to minimize heat-loss, such as adding insulation (beyond code), using high-performance windows, making the building super air-tight, using an HRV, using high-efficiency lighting, plumbing fixtures, appliances and systems, etc. This meshes with the goals of Passive House (you knew I was going to circle back to that, didn’t you?) – to equalize, as much as possible, the heat loss through the envelope of the building, with the heat gains, both external (solar) and internal (peoples bodies, appliances, lighting, etc.).

Queen Anne Bathroom Remodel

In my last post I showed two recent projects – one a medium size addition, and the other a new backyard cottage. Here I’ll focus on a very small project, a bathroom remodel in the Queen Anne neighborhood.

The existing bathroom was functional, but just barely so. The built-in tub was tucked into a niche,  under a vaulted ceiling that required the homeowners to crouch down to take a shower. The toilet was located behind a too-big vanity, which protruded into the doorway (the door actually had to open out into the hallway). The goal in the project was to improve the configuration and functionality, introduce some more refined finishes, and do so in a cost-effective fashion.


The door opening was moved away from the sink, and the door was re-used as a custom (i.e. substantial) pocket door. The toilet was moved into the vaulted space, because its function allowed it to work well with the lower ceiling there. The tub was moved around the corner, to give it more headroom and bring it more natural light. The new clawfoot tub allows the tile floor to run underneath, and makes the room feel more spacious. Its ring curtain allows the window to be open to the room, but provide privacy when in use. The pedestal sink is set away from the door, and allows easier access into the room. A pedestal was chosen to, again, let the tile floor run underneath and keep the room feeling bigger.

There’s an interesting mix of traditional (the clawfoot tub) and modern (the pedestal sink and toilet) fixtures, which are tied together by similar colors and hardware, and complement each other nicely.

A painted beadboard wainscot wraps the room and connects everything together. Its cap aligns with the window sill, and extends out at the sink wall to provide shallow shelf space, for toiletries, display items etc. A new mirrored medicine cabinet adds more storage, and is worked into the design of the sink and shelf.




We also took the opportunity, once the walls were opened up, to add insulation, do some air-sealing, upgrade the existing plumbing and electrical, and make some structural improvements.

Recent Projects Update

I’d like to take this opportunity to show a couple of recently completed projects. The first is a Backyard Cottage, my second completed since Seattle’s Backyard Cottage Ordinance was approved 3 years ago (I have two more in the planning stage). The second project is a modern addition to an old Tudor style house.


Green Lake Backyard Cottage

This project is a new  Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU) in the backyard of a house in the Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle. Driven by the program, this cottage had to completely max out the allowable square footage (800 s.f.), and the maximum roof heights (16′ on the low side, 20′ on the high side). Spatially, the building was shoe-horned into the allowable building envelope, and just barely allowed comfortable ceiling height at the top of the stairs. In the end, what was created was an efficient but comfortable open living space, with gracious bedrooms and baths.

The cottage includes 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, a kitchen and family/dining room. It can be re-configured as needed to provide a separate one-bedroom rental for a tenant, and an extra bedroom for the main residence. The project had a modest budget, but because of the small size allowed the owners to splurge on the bathroom and kitchen finishes, and exterior elements such as the galvanized steel canopies.

The siding is a mix of cedar, and cement-board siding, installed in a rain-screen fashion over rigid exterior insulation, which acts as a thermal break. The outdoor court is technically a parking spot (accessed from the alley), but is not used as such for the current tenant. A mechanized sliding gate can close off the court from the alley.















The main floor bedroom includes a space-saving Murphy bed, with a fold-down table to make the space even more versatile.





Ravenna Addition

This project was a rear yard addition to an existing 1920′s era house in the Ravenna neighborhood. The addition included a master suite downstairs, and a family room off the existing kitchen and dining areas upstairs. The existing kitchen was remodeled too. A roof terrace was added off the family room. The work to the existing portions of the house was kept to a minimum to help stay within a limited budget.


The homeowners wanted their addition to be in the modern style, but did not want to change the appearance of the house from the street. On the interior too there is a striking change in style between the old and new portions, delineated by the new beam separating the two.


A frosted glass railing helps diffuse the light, both natural (during the day) and artificial (at night – a pendant light is centered in the stair well behind), throughout the space.


The stair wall consists  of a cabinet that provides dense storage on all sides – at the main floor, on the stairwell side, and at the bedroom below.















The basement floor is a heated concrete slab. A sliding barn door shuts off the bedroom from the stairway.


It’s been a few weeks since my last post, due to a combination of a flurry of new work, and some technical glitches I’ve had to work through. I apologize – it won’t happen again!

City View: Seattle Design Reveals Natural Wonders

The Architectural Design Process

If you’re considering doing a design project, either a new house, or a remodel or addition to your existing house, I’d like to try to describe the architectural design process for you. I’ll present it in a linear, orderly fashion, but keep in mind that not all projects are simple – often the project becomes more clearly understood as it develops, and/or the owner decides to proceed in a different direction, so previous phases may be revisited to some extent.

A typical residential design project consists of five discrete phases. These are: Pre-design, Schematic Design, Design Development, Contract Documents, and Construction Administration. Depending on the scope of the project, the desires of the owner(s), and how quickly decisions are made, some of these phases may be abbreviated, or extra lengthy, or not required at all.


Pre-design involves any work required which occurs before design begins. Typically it includes discussion with the clients about their goals for the project, including their functional requirements, aesthetic preferences, etc., as well as budget, schedule, and quality goals. For a remodel or addition, measurements are taken of the existing house, and ‘as-built’ drawings are created from these (if you have existing drawings these can save time and expense). These as-built drawings form the base for subsequent design work. Other pre-design work may involve photo documentation of the existing structure and site, code research, review of neighborhood covenants etc.

Schematic Design

In this phase the information collected in the pre-design phase is used to generate design ideas. This work starts very conceptually, taking the site configuration into account (including potential passive solar strategies), orientation, exploring adjacencies, circulation, etc. As schematic design progresses, the design begins to gel. Several options are studied, reviewed, and then one is chosen to develop further. 3D studies are done, to visualize the different options. At the end of this phase a definite design direction has evolved, and the scope of work is fairly well established.

Design Development

In this phase the preferred Schematic Design scheme is – you guessed it – developed. Often the scale of design drawings jumps from 1/8” to 1/4” per foot. The design becomes more detailed, and systems (e.g. structural and mechanical) are reviewed and incorporated. An Outline Specification is developed to accompany the drawings, and includes written information (i.e. flooring materials, door hardware, appliances etc.) that cannot be contained in the drawings.

Construction Documents

In this phase the drawings required for Permit and Construction are created. Usually by the end of Design Development there is not much work required for Permit submittal. The drawings are refined, dimensions are added, special conditions are detailed. The Specifications are finalized, and become part of the Construction Documents.

Construction Administration

In this phase the design becomes reality. The architect’s work here involves assuring that the design intent is being met in the construction. There may be weekly site meetings with the owner and contractor, and clarifications and details may be requested from the contractor for items not included in the drawings.

There can be additional phases – for example Feasibility Study (if someone wants to determine if a project they’re considering is even possible, or if a house they’re considering buying would lend itself to a remodel they’re envisioning), Post-Construction Services, etc., but the ones laid out above are typical to most projects.

How a Contractor is selected varies from project to project – sometimes the owner brings a contractor to the project, sometimes one is selected in the course of the design, and sometimes one is selected through a bidding process. I often recommend a contractor to owners, based on the type of project, and what the owners are looking for.

In a future post I’ll talk about How to Work with an Architect, with tips on how to ensure your project is a successful one.

Walkable Livable Communities

A few years back I developed (along with Sheri Newbold and Justin Fogle, fellow former Presidents of the Seattle Chapter of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild) a presentation describing the benefits of allowing increased density in Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. We called it Walkable, Livable Communities, and we gave our presentation to several community groups, policy makers, and agencies.

In brief, the presentation boiled down to the following:

  • Seattle is destined to grow substantially in the near future;
  • That growth can be sustainable, and occur within the city limits, or it can be unsustainable, and lead to more sprawl;
  • Most of the developable land in Seattle is currently zoned single-family;
  • We proposed that the City allow more variety within single-family neighborhoods, to let a good part of the predicted growth happen there (by “variety” we meant such things as: cottage developments, retail on corner lots, duplexes, triplexes, apartment buildings, mixed housing types adjacent to one another, etc).*

The diagrams below show how the idea of sustainability in regard to cities has evolved over time – in both scenarios, red is bad. The old way of thinking, illustrated on the left, shows CO2 per square mile, more concentrated in the denser urban zones than in the outlying areas (so, cities are BAD).  Cities were considered unpleasant, dirty, polluted, and unsafe. The diagram on the right shows CO2 per household, and from this perspective cities are GOOD.

CO2 per household diagram

The chart below shows the density per square mile of several cities, including Seattle.  Clearly Seattle is less dense than many others, including Los Angeles, which is usually thought of as a sprawling, less dense urban area.

density per square mile of several cities

Density is a loaded word and concept, and has negative connotations for some people. Part of this negativity (sometimes called NIMBYism – as in Not in My Back Yard) might be explained by the prevalence of poorly designed, poorly built condo developments, which people may envision when they hear the term “density”. Because these often happen on the boundary between SF and MF zones, some people think they’re allowed in Single-Family neighborhoods.

Some people fear that increased density will lead to lower property values. This is often expressed as an aversion to rental properties, or the feeling that renters have less incentive to maintain their homes and yards.

Parking, of course, is a controversial issue, with the concern that increased density will lead to more parking congestion and traffic. This is a chicken and egg question – since increasing density and potential public transportation ridership, and encouraging local businesses, will lead to less need for automobiles.

Others fear that higher density will make neighborhoods less safe and secure. As with really all of these concerns, it’s more an issue of good design than density per se.

Our presentation pointed out that the zoning we know today is a relatively new concept. In the past different uses and densities were allowed together, on a block by block basis. Only later did we establish the division of zones that we see today – large swaths of area for one kind of use only. We can still see traces of the old zoning (or lack of zoning) in areas – in existing buildings and development patterns that would not be allowed under current code. Here are some small retail spaces at a corner lot in Capitol Hill currently zoned SF:

corner lot in Capitol Hill currently zoned SF

Cottage housing was built in single family neighborhoods in Seattle to create affordable housing, or housing that met other needs. These are the Pine Street Cottages built in 1916, and renovated in the 90’s.

Pine Street Cottages built in 1916, and renovated in the 90’s

This is an older duplex in Queen Anne:

older duplex in Queen Anne

A triplex in Wallingford:

triplex in Wallingford

And a fourplex on a 4000 s.f. lot in Queen Anne, currently zoned single-family.

fourplex on a 4000 s.f. lot in Queen Anne, currently zoned single-family

The photo below shows two lots in Ballard, each 2500 square feet. This would not be allowed today, in this SF 5000 zone.

two lots in Ballard, each 2500 square feet

The drawings below show a typical corner lot (on the left), and a re-zoned corner lot (on the right), which illustrates the condition in the above photo. We propose that this be allowed again, that existing corner lots can be subdivided. An advantage to this would be allowing the single-family character of the residential neighborhood (pedestrian activity, visual interest, eyes on the street etc.) to wrap around onto the side streets as well. Incidentally Portland allows duplexes outright on corner lots.

re-zoned corner lot

In addition, there are some new ideas that would allow more housing in single-family neighborhoods, and give homeowners more options, in ways that could maintain the scale and character of those communities:

A Flex House adapts over time to respond to its owners’ changing needs. For example, a young couple may move into the upper floor of their Flex House (as illustrated below) and rent out the lower floor. When they start a family and need more room, they take over the whole house. Then, as their kids grow up and move out, and the parents become less mobile, they can move into the lower floor and rent out the top. The nice thing about this idea is that, along with adapting to match the owners’ needs, it would encourage people to stay in their homes longer. The Flex House would require zoning codes to become more resilient, and able to be altered over time for particular lots.

Flex House adapts over time to respond to its owners’ changing needs

Many of the ideas we’ve discussed are not new ones – as shown, almost all were legal inSeattlein the past. These can benefit homeowners, by giving them more options for their property, to accommodate extended family, or bring in extra income. They can accommodate a good part of the projected growth thatSeattlewill experience, and offer many of those new residents a broader variety of housing options.

Zoning terminology has changed over the years – remember “Single-Family” zoning is a relatively new idea. Maybe it’s time to reclassify our in-city residential neighborhoods – not as “Single Family Residential”, but just…”Residential”.

*Incidentally, this presentation initially included Detached Accessory Dwelling Units – the City has since passed the Backyard Cottage Ordinance.


Mean Radiant Temperature – an Important Factor in Comfort

The Mean Radiant Temperature (MRT) indoors is an important factor in determining if a home is comfortable or not. The MRT is essentially a measure of the average temperature of all the objects in a space, including the walls, windows, furniture, people etc. It, along with the ambient dry air temperature, determines how thermally comfortable a space is. A newer, well-insulated building with high-performance windows will have a higher MRT than a conventional older building.

The importance of the MRT can be illustrated by something we’ve all experienced. In an older home in the middle of winter, the ambient air temperature indoors can be 68 to 70 degrees, and yet we feel cold when we’re near a window. That’s because the cold interior pane of glass in that window is literally sucking warmth away from us, or, to put it more accurately, our bodies are emitting heat to that cold surface, which causes us to feel cold. This is the inverse of the experience of feeling warmed by the sun outdoors on a cold winter day. Our skin has high emissivity and absorptivity, meaning we’re very sensitive to radiant heat loss and gain.

You might have noticed that heat registers in older buildings are typically located along the exterior wall, at windows – that’s precisely to counteract this effect. In a high-performance building, such as a Passive House, the MRT will be higher. Their triple-glazed windows will ensure the interior pane of glass is warm, so you’ll be comfortable next to them even on a cold day. This leads to other benefits – for example, because the heating system doesn’t have to counteract the cold glass effect, the conditioned air can be delivered to the living spaces on the inboard side of the rooms, rather than at the exterior walls. In this way the size (both of the heating equipment, and the size and length of ductwork) and complexity of the heating system can be drastically reduced, thus driving down the cost of the mechanical equipment too.

We’re all well aware of the effect of air temperature on comfort, but once you’re cognizant of the importance of Mean Radiant Temperature on comfort you’ll become more aware of it too.