Symmetrical eclecticism–when things don’t mirror each other

There is arguably no bigger difference between housing on the East Coast and housing on the West Coast than notions of “symmetry.” On the East coast (and please don’t start throwing the exceptions at me–I know they exist—plenty of them—I am just doing a little tongue-in-cheek generalizing) housing is more symmetrical—god help you if you design your house with a front door that is not in the absolute center or that the windows on either side don’t match or the dormers don’t match. You could be placed in the stocks, publicly flogged, or burned at the stake, for such oversights.

On the West Coast the other extreme exists where eclecticism is the rule and if things are “traditionally” balanced by East Coast standards your house’s value could plummet.

Of course on both the left hand side and the right hand side of the country you will find all manner of styles–and the markets and the buyers to support those styles.

If someone moves here from the east coast and is not willing to embrace the eclectic side of themselves–buried deep within themselves—they can find that lonely old colonial tucked away somewhere–where it has likely been bugging more eclectic neighbors for years. But the reality is that the colonial will not really be a colonial in the classic East Coast sense. There will be just enough modifications to allow it to “fit in” with the rest of the Northwest houses. Additions to the home and remodeling that is done to these homes generally brings them ever closer to Northwest sensibilities—with perhaps only the “white” remaining in the end.

This eclectic freedom of design was immediately appealing to me as a designer-builder when I moved here from the east. I grew up in the symmetry of colonial New England—and contrary to popular belief, not in “actual” colonial times. Some time-warps never shift however, and the desire to keep everything “old New England” is a difficult design barrier to overcome. Everything changes however—even the east coast.

However, a while back, I came face to face with “eclecticism-gone-wild” and found myself pushing very hard to embrace what I was seeing. Even intellectually I could not do it—and that was because the design was flawed on so many “practical/functional” levels. This was not “freedom” of design but possibly closer to just plain non-functional design and possibly even unsafe design.

It was eclecticism out of control.

It was a case of where one-or-more later poor design decisions were attempting to overcome one-or-more earlier poor design decisions. While this process often can result in creative solutions that actually can work and thus become successfully eclectic—more often than not they represent instances where someone should have gone back to go—and started over.

I will let you be the judge as you take a look at the following pictures and attempt to imagine all the various decisions that were thought through and culminated in the final solutions you can see in the pictures and not only once—but twice in the home.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Weir-d Science, how a P-trap works

This picture post will attempt to show how a P-trap functions, or more importantly what makes them function.

Notice how the weir can see the vent opening?

P-traps have for the most part replaced most other kinds of traps—notably the S-trap.  The toilet is one notable exception—it is designed to be siphoning—the more siphoning the better.  You want to hear that glug glug glug.


Many inspectors are under the false impression that merely lengthening the trap arm will eliminate the S-trap, but what this actually does is increase the potential for siphoning of the trap as the slug of water attempts to go down the drain.  It is a similar principle to how a toilet siphons.

Still an S-trap

The configuration still makes an “S,” just an odd shaped S is all.

What makes the P-trap function is the vent, and the rules that guide where that vent has to be. 

Essentially the vent has to be at least two pipe diameters away from the Weir.  The Weir is where water either starts to go down the drain after the trap or stops going down the drain.  So in a typical 1-1/2″ kitchen sink drain that would be a minimum of 3″ away.

The P-trap rules

We also have to be careful to not get the vent too far away from the weir as the trap arm could flood and block the vent–essentially returning the assembly to more of an S-trap. 

The rules of how far away it can be has to do with the diameter of the pipe (trap arm).  The bigger the diameter the longer the weir can “see” the vent.

Charles Buell, real estate inspections in Seattle

The Range Hood Exhaust–as Air Intake

Modern tight houses can easily become depressurized when exhaust fans are turned on. What this means is there is no place for the air to come into the home to replace the air that is trying to leave. If there are gaps around door weather-stripping, or gaps around window sashes or similar locations, the air will come into the home at these locations.  Sometimes even chimneys might be the path for this air.

If we operate and exhaust fan in a bathroom the house becomes depressurized, or an area of “lower pressure.” Areas of higher pressure will tend to make balance with areas of lower pressure, so the air outside the building literally “pushes” its way into the area of lower pressure.

Most houses are not tight enough for the air to not find its way in somewhere, and general infiltration was once allowed to be the source of this air replacement.

This small condo unit was too tight for general infiltration to be the source of make-up air, as was evidenced by its finding a path through the range hood exhaust.

Most range hoods have a back-draft damper in them, but there should also be one in the cap at the exterior of the building as well. You can see in this picture there is no damper—but there is a screen.

Exhaust fan vent termination with no back-draft damper

With two bathroom exhaust fans and the laundry exhaust fan running, the purple/violet colors of the thermal image of the chase and microwave/hood shows cold air cooling the chase and the area around the microwave.


The screen at the exterior cap location did hold a tissue paper to show that indeed air was pushing its way through the microwave/hood.

So, let’s say we “fix” the cap at the exterior with a proper back-draft damper. Where will replacement air come from? General infiltration may still be adequate, it is just easier coming from where it is now. If it is not adequate, the functionality of the exhaust fans will be reduced. In other words, they will make noise but not exhaust enough air from the room. It is like turning a 100-cfm fan into a 50-cfm fan.

For exhaust fans to do their job, replacement air is necessary and is required by modern codes when houses get to a certain point of air-tightness. This one may be at that point, even though it is an older home in that respect.

Some “positive” means of allowing exterior air to enter the home may be indicated if exhaust fans do not function properly after the exterior cap is repaired and its back-draft damper installed.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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