The Design — A Systems Engineering Approach

When we first started thinking about remodeling our house, our thoughts were just to fix things that were old and in disrepair. However, the more I thought about it, I started to think about a more comprehensive approach. There are many books and websites that provide information about the design process, but the more I read, the more I came to understand that the design process for a home is the same as the process for any other design. That means that I could (should) use my experience as a systems engineer.

So, what is systems engineering? In a nutshell, it is the process by which you (1) define performance requirements, (2)  break down these requirements into sub sets that ultimately result in tangible design characteristics, (3) develop alternatives, (4) analyze the alternatives and choose the optimum approach, (5) perform detailed design, (6) construct from the design, and (7) test the design to validate that it meets performance requirements.

So, to be more specific, my wife and I sat down and had a discussion (actually a series of discussions) about what we wanted in a home. We came up with the following top-level requirements:

(1) Age in place. Since this would probably be the place we would live in for a long time, we wanted to make it such that we could stay here as we became older and make it safe and accessible.

(2) Have a modern home infrastructure that would allow for accommodation of new features.

(3) Maximize the energy efficiency of the home.

(4) Eliminate chronic maintenance problems and fundamental architectural design flaws.

(5) Pay off the house in 15 years. (No house payment when fully retired).

Having these requirements agreed upon, we considered two alternatives: Selling the place and moving to a new home, or remodeling our existing home. We then took a look at the relative advantages and disadvantages of each approach and compared them.

Attribute New Home Remodel
Age in place None that met requirements. Would require retrofits. Easily incorporated in the design.
Modern Infrastructure Most new homes have sufficient capacity for expansion Would have to upgrade the electrical system and add data/video/security systems.
Energy Efficiency New homes are energy efficient by code. Remodeling would trigger incorporation of energy efficiency code requirements.
Maintenance problems Minimal risk in a new home Would require redesign of the roof over the front porch to fix a chronic rainwater leak.
Pay off house Not likely. Likely if the remodeling budget were kept to less than $100K

So, after visiting a lot of new homes, and finding that the cost would be too high and that we would have to change them to meet our age in place requirement, we decided to proceed with a more detailed design for our home.

To set the stage for the detailed design, I looked at each high-level attribute and studied what kind of physical attributes would be necessary.

1. AGE IN PLACE: I learned that the best key word for this is “universal design” which is a term that implies design for accessibility without making the place look like a hospital. The Center For Universal Design at North Carolina State University is an excellent resource , as is the book Universal Design for the Home by Wendy Jordan, and Universal Design Ideas for Style Comfort and Safety by Reed Construction Data (my personal favorite). Design attributes that comply with universal design include curbless showers, ADA complaint fixtures (toilets, sinks, faucets, shower fixtures), countertops of different heights (30″ and 36″), wider doorways and passages, elimination of trip hazards (e.g., steps), and… LIGHTING. No kidding, I didn’t realize that lighting was a big deal until I thought about it. As you age, your ability to see becomes less. So you need more light to see properly. If you don’t see where you’re going, then you may trip and fall. This is a big deal because if you trip and fall, you’ll likely break something badly and lose your mobility. And when you’re older, that can be a death sentence.

2. MODERN INFRASTRUCTURE: There were a few things that I noticed about the new homes that I felt would be good to incorporate into my remodel: (a) air conditioning (!), (b) increased electrical capacity, (c) automatic fire sprinkler system, and (d) smart home infrastructure. Each of these required some additional research to come up with a design, and I will detail these in future posts.

3. ENERGY EFFICIENCY: California Title 24 requires that all remodeling projects comply with  performance requirements based on an energy analysis computer program. Being a geek at heart, I found this really interesting, and I took the time to properly model the house and understand the program so I could make some tradeoffs in how I approached the remodel. For example, I found that the energy savings for replacing my single pane windows with fancy double pane vinyl windows was not very much compared to the cost. Plus I found that the reliability of the vinyl windows sucked, so I decided to refurbish my existing windows. Again, I will have a separate post dedicated to energy efficiency.

4. ELIMINATE CHRONIC MAINTENANCE PROBLEMS: The primary one that had to be addressed was a leak over my front porch. This was kind of tough to figure out by myself, but fortunately, some of the other houses in the neighborhood had come up with a fix that looked pretty good, so I adopted that. More on that later as well.

5. PAY OFF THE HOUSE: We really couldn’t see how we could accomplish that if we moved based on the value of our existing home and the features we wanted in the new home. We set a remodeling budget of $100K and would plan on a pay-as-you-go approach to the maximum extent possible.

With that part of the systems engineering process complete, it’s on to the detailed design!

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