Log homes and energy efficiency

On a recent road trip around the State of Washington, we stayed at a motel constructed of older style Pan Abode buildings built sometime in the late 50’s. 

The structures seemed in remarkably good condition for their age, but the stresses on these structures are perhaps not what they would be in a wetter area of the state–like west of the mountains–in the Seattle area.  The structures seemed well suited to their hot and dry climate.

What I found interesting was the insulating ability of the 4″ thick walls–or their lack of ability would perhaps be more accurate.

This first picture is of the exterior wall.  The red rectangle corresponds to an area at the interior that will be discussed below.

Pan-abode type building

This next picture is what the wall structure looks like.  You can see the double tongue and group shape with the wall being approximately 4″ thick.

Pan-abode type wall structure

On the interior, with thermal camera, the wall and pillow temperatures show in the next two pictures.

Thermal image Thermal image

In this next picture we see the wall with the pillows moved away from the wall to reveal how the wall was “insulated” by the pillows.  The wall, heated up by the direct sun shining on it at the exterior, could not give up its heat to the interior as readily as the other areas of the wall. Thermal imageThermal image

My understanding is that modern Pan Abode structures are a double-wall type of construction that allows for the installation of insulation inside the walls.  This would certainly be required by modern energy codes for both heating and cooling. 

Regardless, these pictures demonstrate very well how poor 4″ of wood is as insulation (about R-4).  By themselves, it would take exceptionally large logs to meet modern energy efficiency standards.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Honey, the deck ate the WHOLE yard!


Can we make the deck bigger?

In fact, can we cover the whole yard with it?

Sure honey—will get right on that this weekend!


wholeyarddeck1What started out as a nice little rectangular deck on the back of the home, turned into a complicated series of decks, which did in fact cover much of the back yard.  Decks can be maintenance nightmares and, as nice as they might be, it is important that they be constructed properly.

They must be supported properly, attached to the house properly and have safe guard railings.  It is actually pretty unusual to find a deck that does not have one or more issues with it.  Missing flashings at the ledger on the house, the ledger attached over the top of the siding, missing ledger bolting and/or missing joist hangers on the ledger are just a handful of the common issues found with just this part of the deck.

This is not intended to be a treatise on deck construction and my focus today is merely on how these newer decks were “connected” to the existing deck.  There was no access under the deck so the picture I have of the underside had to rely on the light of my flashlight with the camera looking through the lattice that skirted the deck.


As you can see, the older original deck is all of the greenish/grey colored wood to the right in the picture.  The newer deck is all the reddish/brown structures to the left in the picture.  The board that divides the two is the original outer rim joist of the old deck.  Notice that (as would have been common with attachment of the original rim joist) the board is merely nailed into the end grain of the joists.  The joists are cantilevering across the top of the original beam that can be seen to the right side of the picture.

The new deck ledgers have been butted into the old rim joist and metal joist hangers have been used to support the joists at the attachment.  So now we have half the weight of all the new deck structures that hangs on this rim joist being supported by the few nails driven into the end grain of the original cantilevered joists.  This weight of course does not include whatever numbers of people are able to gather on the new portion of the deck.  In this next picture—everything to the right of the red line in the picture is added to that original rim joist.


This deck has been this way for about 10 years so all is good right?

Depending on lots of factors, this connection may or may not fail catastrophically.  I know my E & O policy would not be happy if it did.  The size of the nails driven into the end grain is critical.  Whether they can rust and corrode is critical.  The total number of nails is critical.  None of these can be actually determined in the course of a Standard Home Inspection.

The bottom line is that this type of connection would never stand up to modern deck construction “best practices” and the connection should be properly supported.  It will likely be necessary to move the existing beam over under this connection or to add another one.  Simply adding hangers on the other side may be sufficient but that would have to be determined by someone working beyond the scope of a Standard Home Inspection.

Sometimes the things that can be done on weekends should be left to weekdays.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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It has been that way for 82 years—how can it be wrong?

I love the passionate and sometimes heated “discussions” revolving around whether old construction is better than new construction.  Of course if one does not define any parameters one can come to the conclusions they are looking for either way.

Inefficient older home

However, given that a better than average builder in 1800 has built an absolutely state of the art house, and a better than average builder in 2000 has built an absolutely state of the art house, there is no question but what the 2010 house is going to be superior–in probably any way you may choose to define superior.

It will be structurally sounder, it will have a better foundation, it will be far more energy efficient, it will have safer electrical systems, it will have safety glass, it will have smoke alarms, it will have frost-free hose bibs, it will have indoor plumbing, it will have double pane windows, it will be “comfortable” everywhere in the home, and snow will not build up on the window sills “indoors.”  There won’t be any asbestos products or lead paint chips for your kids to snack on.  The floors won’t squeak either.

Newer more efficient home

I realize that what most people mean is that compared to that great old mansion on the expensive side of the tracks that was built by some bootlegger baron in the early 1900’s, the tract houses on the other side of the tracks being built today are much worse.  But then we are not comparing apples and apples–we are comparing apples and lemons.  All those houses on the other side of the tracks built in the early 1900’s are long gone–because they were crap houses.  Just because all our crap houses are still around does not mean that there are no REALLY good quality ones around.  I would argue that the tract quality houses built today are even superior to the tract quality houses built in 1900–but only time will tell.

In my own home, built in 1930 (and certainly not by any bootlegger baron), which I would consider of “better-than-average” construction, but not “great,” I found a faux pas from 1930 that shows that quality control was as much an issue in 1930 as it is today.  It also shows how redundancy of building techniques can result in some mistakes being fairly forgiving.   During my recent window/siding replacement project, when I was taking the old siding off, I found where the original felt paper had been installed wrong.  It was actually lapped the wrong way, and for 82 years it has not been a problem.


Why has it not been a problem?  Because the siding had not failed yet.  As long as the siding acted to keep water off the building-paper it did not really matter which way it was lapped.  If water had been able to get behind the siding it would have been able to run behind the felt paper as well.  If this had happened there would be a problem sooner or later–especially on the “weather-side” of the home.

This is also a good example of the kind of things that no home inspector can see–unless he is replacing his own siding.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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