Roof Decks: Another Story for the City

Groundhogs aside, the coming of spring is marked for us by people calling for new roof decks.

Roof decks are possibly the easiest, least expensive, and most rewarding way that urban dwellers can increase their private living space without the trauma of building a large addition or the aggravation of relocating.

The finished deck with Philadelphia in the background.One of my favorite projects was a roof deck we did in the Fitler Square neighborhood of Philadelphia. The client is a designer for an architecture firm, and he had been creating plans and drawings for his home’s pièce de résistance for several years before we embarked on the project. Its features include a galvanized steel spiral staircase, a corrugated tin roof, granite countertop, working sink and extendable body sprayer to cool off, a barbecue pit with exhaust hood, hard-wired lights, and electrical outlets throughout. We even installed a galvanized steel bucket on a pulley system to easily raise ice, food, and beverages from the first-floor kitchen.

We’ve employed the same structural approach on a half-dozen or so roof decks since then. We remove the existing tar and roofing on the shared “party” masonry walls on either side of house, upon which we form and pour new concrete caps. These footings support the pressure-treated 2×10 joists for the deck. This approach allows the deck to span from masonry wall to masonry wall, with absolutely nothing touching or potentially harming the existing roof below. Also, the weight limit upon the deck is virtually limitless; the deck is framed exactly as the floors within the house.

Finished multi-level roof deck.Except in very rare occasions, the gradual slope of city roofs can result in a cool design element. Rather than a single level deck starting a foot or so off the roof on one end, and ending three or four feet in the air on the other, we build bi-level decks. In the end, the two levels result in a more attractive and sophisticated look than just a single deck anyway.

I don’t think we’ve used pressure-treated wood as decking on an unenclosed space since I’ve been with the company. The new composite decking products on the market are simply too affordable, environmentally friendly, and maintenance-free to consider any other option. And there are new, more attractive lines coming out every day; while we have used the popular Trex and ChoiceDek carried at the large home stores, we like the natural appearance and color choices of brands such as MoistureShield, TimberTech, and others. These decks are created from up to 90% pre-and-post-consumer recycled material and require no sealing, staining, or painting and will not rot or warp from water or sunlight. MoistureShield Decking, for example, contains an average of 289 plastic grocery sacks or 92 plastic water jugs per 12-foot board.

Nothing sings spring to me like the sound of a cool breeze over city rooftops, children laughing in playgrounds below, and the buzz of a circular saw that only we can hear. Seems like most folks enjoy their new rooftop deck more than they originally thought they would

Learn more about our deck and patio services and view more of our portfolio.

It’s Not Easy Being Green (Part 1)

Cumming Construction Booth at GreenfestYou may have heard of the LEED Certification system, which is a national standard for green building. LEED is still rare in residential remodeling, due to the high costs involved in retrofitting the existing home and the rigorous third-party certification process.

That being said, one of my favorite aspects of LEED is that it requires builders and designers to research every building material source, its manufacturing process, and travel distance to the job site — whether salvaged and reclaimed, extracted from an FSC-certified forest, recycled from waste products, or a renewable resource.

Because the answers, especially in remodeling, can be more grey than green. The truth is, everyone from contractors to product salespeople wants to be green these days, so there is an awful lot of “greenwashing” (“clean coal,” anyone?) By the way, only a building can be LEED Certified, not a person or product.

Consider bamboo, for instance. It’s one of the most popular green products available -– bamboo fights global warming by releasing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees, it doesn’t destroy the topsoil when harvested, and it’s renewable every three to five years. Unfortunately, much of the bamboo now available is harvested overseas by countries exploiting its sudden popularity –- resulting in over-harvesting, additional shipping expense, and questionable labor practices.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of bamboo, its durability and warmth in addition to its environmental benefits (I recently installed bamboo flooring in my own home). I’m simply suggesting that “environmentally friendly” doesn’t mean perfect, and compromises — whether financial, stylistic, or pragmatic — are inevitable in any major home improvement project.

We recently installed CFL bulbs in the new recessed lighting kits of a kitchen remodel in Fairmount. Although the bulbs were marketed as dimmable, after going a shade less bright they simply went dark. The result: out came the CFL bulbs in favor of the inefficient and energy-wasting incandescents (though the dimmers still save lamp life and reduce electrical output, both green positives). Again, good intentions tempered by practical application.

This fall we exhibited our work at two “green” events around Philadelphia — the Manayunk Eco-Fest and the GreenFest on South Street. Not only did we meet many people who appreciated our knowledge of green materials and products, but it was great to network and see what other exhibitors — from energy auditors to green roof designers — were introducing to the marketplace.

One part of the GreenFest I found particularly noteworthy was that, due to a scheduling conflict, our event shared space with a benefit walk for cancer (which we were happy to do, even swapping our company’s maroon tablecloth for a purple one). The cancer event director confided to me, as the festivals were winding down, that the GreenFest organizers gave her a very hard time because she was distributing collateral material in plastic bags. I empathized so deeply with her dilemma that all I could do was respond, “It ain’t easy.”

Toolbelts and Textbooks: Our Ongoing Education

Jon has been building custom homes and remodeling for over half of his life (which, I jokingly remind him, is a very long time). And simply by practicing thoughtful and responsible habits — considering long-term and life-cycle sustainability, and maximizing nature’s resources in an efficient and conserving manner — he was a green builder, I believe, long before the term came into vogue.

He’s taught me construction and remodeling along those lines, so although it’s fun to read about trendy materials and more efficient systems, the philosophy and mindset are already second nature. Each time I eagerly bring an article to work about a new insulation or roofing shingle, he unfailingly responds, “Doesn’t that make sense?”

Deliver better indoor air quality, make the home cost less to operate, and minimize the negative impact the home has on the environment — these aren’t revolutionary concepts. The products themselves may improve on earlier versions, but the practical goals have been around even longer than, well, Jon.

That being said, we find it extremely important not to rest on our (green) laurels. Jon and I both are avid readers and self-educators on emerging green techniques and materials through trade magazines, web sites, seminars, manufacturer and distributor newsletters, and trade shows.

Jon is currently pursuing continuing education through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), where he is studying to become a Certified Remodeler (nothing like going back to school after 25 years in the business). Although his course load doesn’t specifically focus on green building, the information seems to take a pragmatic approach to environmentally responsible and cost-effective solutions for long-term goals (again, a basic definition of green building).

Last year I became a LEED Accredited Professional, which was a very intense six months of classes, studying and a pass-fail exam. The US Green Building Council defines a LEED AP as someone who has demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and resources. He or she is also trained in the process of attaining LEED Certification for their projects. I belong to the US Green Building Council’s local Delaware Valley Chapter, as well, where I sit on the Emerging Professionals and Residential Circle Committees.

Check out next week’s blog to see how we’ve incorporated some green principles into our everyday work.

What Green Remodeling Means to Us

Jon Cumming and I have put a lot of thought into what “building green” means to us, as builders, contractors, architects and designers are at the forefront of the surging eco-friendly movement. We decided that — although there are a handful of exclusively “green” remodelers in the area enjoying great demand, and believe me it’s tempting to ride the wave — we’re only going to incorporate the green elements into our projects that work smarter and look better than conventional products (AND do this after considering the product’s environmental impact over its entire life cycle).

Our job as remodelers is to deliver an energy-efficient project, contribute to healthy indoor air quality, and practice thoughtful and well-researched buying habits — not to religiously aspire to a mysterious principle because it’s trendy and looks good on our marketing materials. So we’re “practically” green, if you will.

The first, and by far most important, component of green remodeling, we concluded, is education. It is incumbent upon us — both for our clients and the greater good — to be highly knowledgeable about and aware of as many green products, materials, and techniques as possible. We then must give clients the options and explain:

  • what a product’s green benefits are,
  • the upfront price difference and possible cost-savings,
  • the product’s components and durability,
  • how it returns to its natural state in the environment at the end of its life (check out the broad green remodeling cost-benefit analysis by our friends at GreenandSave.com, for example).

We should work closely with our clients to interpret the (often hazy and conflicting) product or material information and best apply it to their projects — if it makes sense.

As we pursue this ongoing education (watch for later posts), our responsibility at Cumming Construction is two-fold. First, construct smart, well-insulated and energy efficient homes. Not just on larger projects like complete renovations or additions, but also on a smaller (and more frequent) scale, like bathroom or kitchen remodels. Secondly, but just as importantly, we must have the knowledge and experience to propose and explore whatever sustainable and green elements might benefit our clients’ homes in the long run. We must educate our clients and then let THEM decide; we’re here to consult and guide the process, not to insist on a principle or tell the clients what they want. We want our client to champion the process and recognize the benefit of every decision made and each piece in the puzzle. In the end, it’s the client’s home, not our’s. Despite how nicely it may read on our web site.