Category Archives: Code

Utility Colors

Utility Colors

Utility Colors

A water line break in my front yard is an opportunity to review the American Public Works Association (APWA) color coding standard for underground utilities:

RED : electrical
ORANGE : data (phone, CATV)
YELLOW : gas (and oil, steam)
BLUE : water, potable
GREEN : sewer
(not seen in the photo above)
PURPLE : water, non-potable (irrigation, reclaimed)
PINK : survey
WHITE : excavation

You'll notice the markings in my yard include two orange lines, one for telephone and the other for cable television. It's not uncommon for multiple services to be present that are owned or managed by different companies. In the Triangle exist many other common services: fiber optic data, liquid petroleum, natural gas distribution, security, satellite downlinks, irrigation, and re-claimed water.

These conventions came about because buried services are a huge hazard and having conventions to locate and key them are critical to the nation's infrastructure. A 1999 US Department of Transportation study was the impetus for tying local, regional, and national governments and utility companies to a clearinghouse of locating services available to the public for free. This is done through the auspices of the Common Ground Alliance.

If you're planning any kind of construction, repair, or installation within the ground, get all the utilities located for free through the website or three-digit telephone number: 811.

SteveHallArchitecture uses these same colors in our electronic drawings for consistency with the AWPA standards and continuity with what we see in the field. In a fast growing area like the Triangle, you'll see these markings everywhere. Next time you take a walk, test yourself on the standard!

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Harrison Bergeron

Equal

Equal?

Written in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s Harrison Bergeron is a classic. The three-page short story can be found online here and elsewhere.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

This story comes to my mind often in architectural practice. Many who know me have read it at my urging. Despite our best intentions, projects are utterly encumbered by codes, laws, and regulations in the attempt to create safety, opportunity, and equality.

Not that any of these are, in themselves, bad things. In fact, utopian vision has driven architecture for at least four millennia. I am actually a proponent for great design and good craftsmanship that is inclusive, accessible, and universal. Slightly larger spaces aren't just for injured employees, aging residents, or disabled visitors. They also help encumbered firemen in smoke-filled air trying to rescue occupants. In that context, what's a few more inches?

Still, our endeavor to create great is slowly being truncated by our compromise to create barely adequate. Great design takes great time, and the more factors there are to consider, the longer it is going to take and the more it is going to cost.

I suppose inflation is the natural course of civilization simply due to this ever-expanding growth of requirements. But is there a way to simplify? At what point can we no longer afford the growth of regulation? With U.S. federal government debt at $19,963,980,500,000 (trillion), haven't we exceeded our capacity to pay for these demands?

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1915 Re-design, Sketch 2016-05-17

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

sketch, 2016-05-17, downtown house space stacking diagrams

Even if you don't get the project, you can still enjoy the process!

This was a quick look at an urban rooftop living room and kitchen addition. The building was a three-story masonry construction from 1915 in downtown Raleigh.

The existing stairs were in different locations on each floor. So this design re-stacked them for more efficiency toward the rear. And it introduced a skylight above it to filter natural daylight down the dark, north facing rear of the building.

The initial sketch worked out the spacial organization and then a 3D model looked more closely at the forms.

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

3D model, 2016-05-17, downtown house spaces

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Big Problems Little Projects

Fabian Oefner's exploding paint balloons

Fabian Oefner’s exploding paint balloons (as seen on Wired)

Even tiny projects are rarely simple. The type I run into most often are so small that no architect has been involved. Unfortunately, the encounter is after it has unraveled. Then, my ability to proactively solve problems is limited, and the fix ends up being more expensive and time consuming.

In Code Check, I introduced some general areas of concern for a typical small project. I can illustrate three specific situations related to toilet fixtures that often crop up on projects in spaces constructed only five or more years ago.

As mentioned in the previous articles, codes are changing all the time. North Carolina discarded its customized accessibility code in 2009 to adopt the national code, ANSI 117.1. There are dozens of differences between the two.

Toilet clearance plan

Toilet clearance change

One of these is the required clearance beside an accessible toilet. The previous code required only 48″ clear around the toilet fixture. The lavatory was allowed to overlap the 60″ toilet clearance by 12″. But in the current code, the full 60″ must be preserved. This means that any single space bathroom completed just five years ago will very likely require adjustments to achieve compliance.

Unfortunately, this implies that either the toilet or the lavatory must be relocated along with several adjacent walls, toilet accessories, and maybe the door. In one of my recent projects, the lavatory was adjacent an exterior wall where it couldn’t move farther away from the toilet. So the toilet had to be relocated instead.

This is expensive. It requires tearing out the concrete slab, existing wall, door, water supply, vent pipe, grab bars, and toilet accessories. The under-slab sanitary drain must be re-worked, and the concrete slab patched back. Then wall studs, drywall, toilet accessories, ceiling, paint, and a door are installed to get back to a finished condition. Sometimes even the lighting and HVAC venting must be re-worked as well. Expect something like this to cost $10,000 or more. All because of a 12″ code change!

Toilet grab bar dimensions

Toilet grab bar dimensions

Another recent code change is the additional requirement for a vertical grab bar on the side of a toilet. This is an inexpensive change since only the bar and its installation are required. On rare occasions, a toilet accessory like a toilet paper dispenser may interfere with the required location and also need to be adjusted.

Toilet fixture count requirements

Toilet fixture count requirements

The building code has a number of major occupancy classifications with further minor use type stipulations. Together, they specify the maximum quantity of occupants in any given space. The plumbing code then has a table which requires the minimum number of required plumbing fixtures based on this calculated occupancy. In the table excerpt above, the water closet quantities required are shown for the number of occupants in Business (B) and Mercantile (M) occupancies.

As you can see, the quantities differ significantly. A typical calculation would require only one fixture for a ground floor retail space of 15,000 SF. That same space, used for exercise, would require seven water closets.

Any change in occupancy requires recalculation of the required number of toilets. Even a seemlingly minor change can increase the number of required toilets, lavatories, or drinking fountains.

I would like to be able to help more building owners and tenants navigate code issues. It is simple to run just a short analysis and determine the feasibility of any required changes before signing a lease or starting a renovation!


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Water Heater… Fail

New water heater

New water heater

Almost everybody has a water heater story. I have four. Here’s my latest.

Just days before Christmas, there was a familiar pool under the water heater stand in the garage. It was hard to accept because I was pretty sure we had replaced it not very long ago. A little research in the file showed it had been replaced exactly six years and one day earlier. Of course, the warranty on the unit was… six years.

Apparently, recent Federal energy efficiency requirements mean that tanks have thinner metal than ever before. This reduced thickness ensures heat from the gas burner below is more quickly transferred into the tank and reduces the amount of total energy required to heat it. It also means that the tank will rust out faster. In my case, exactly as long as the manufacturer predicted.

There has been a lot of talk recently about tankless water heaters. They used to be called instantaneous heaters, but tankless seems to imply a reduced risk of exactly the kind of failure I had. There are more pros and cons.

First, tankless water heaters have been around a long time. Electric coffee brewers are essentially the same technology. Water is heated in small quantities as it is needed. The unit is sized to blast heat into water passing through a pipe as it flows. Instead of a coffee, they are scaled up for a home, adequate for a shower, clothes washer, or bath tub. This requires a tremendous amount of energy for just a few minutes, although theoretically cheaper than heating 40 gallons of water continuously day and night.

It is true that the energy savings is considerable. The trade-off is that the equipment and the utility service must be increased to manage the short bursts of gas or electrical energy required to heat the water so quickly. Current whole-home tankless heaters have 25 year warranties. These are mostly new models without testing long enough to prove it. Economically speaking, long warranties indicate untested or unreliable performance, from cars to electronics to water heaters. Incidentally, there are also fiberglass tanks with “lifetime” warranties that have been on the market for five years.

Water heater controls

Water heater controls

In our area, a lot of existing homes have gas tank water heaters. In the region’s building boom twenty years ago, gas was cheap and burning fossil fuels wasn’t considered as taboo as today. Electricity is now popular again because it is relatively more competitive. It is also more flexible across the many types of potential utility energy generating methods like coal, hydroelectric, and photovoltaic. However, converting a gas tank water heater to an electric tankless one requires an enormous (and expensive) electrical circuit to be added. Some homes don’t even have the electrical service to handle it.

To work around this limitation in retrofitting an electrical tankless heater, there are gas models. These still require electricity to ignite the fuels, but the circuit is small and reasonable. So the implementation becomes more feasible. But there is still one major drawback as I see it.

The great blizzard of January 2014

The great blizzard of January 2014

The most significant issue with instantaneous water heating is that if the utility service goes out for even a minute, the unit ceases to operate until the utility is restored. The best benefit of a tank is that momentary blips and even short outages don’t impact hot water availability. Even better with gas is that it remains functional throughout electrical power outages. Although we rarely have ice storms, the few memorable ones are enough to second guess depending on electrical utility power for hot water.

Another issue is cost. Tankless heaters are 50-100% more expensive. I got a good quote to replace my hot water heater at $1,800. The tankless gas heater would have been $2,700. Electrical tankless wasn’t even an option, my panel is simply not large enough.

Payback

Payback

For a new house, the equation is a bit different. Since the electrical service, panel, and circuiting can be properly sized from the outset, upfront costs are a much lower barrier to installing a tankless heater new. While it is important to size the unit to handle the expected hot water load for the likely extremes (such as multiple teenager showers and laundry loads), monthly energy savings may pay back in only a few years.

One final consideration is the actual configuration of the unit. My water heater failures have been restricted to the garage. But it is common in this area to find them located in attics over living spaces with poorly installed containing pans that create catastrophic water damage when they fail. A tankless type can reduce the size of the failure and can also save some space in the garage or attic since they are several times smaller.

I was fortunate that my water heater’s manufacturer decided to replace my water heater under warranty. It covered the cost of the unit even though I still had to pay $600 for the labor. For a repair, payback alone is unlikely to justify replacing a tank type with a tankless. However, instantaneous water heater disadvantages may be outweighed in new homes or in repairs by homeowners with environmental, energy saving, risk managing, and space making interests.


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