Saturday, December 7, 2013

Themelion – the ancient concept of foundation

Some people may criticize having one’s head overmuch in the historical cloud. Others could respond that having a grip on history past life/lives, events, facts provides a more stable foundation for life in the present. And that a certain wisdom can come from an appreciation of history. I am not the end all. My time is not the ultimate time to exist. Life has been going on for a long time. Life as we know it right now, my/our existence, is a minute rung on the ladder. Its only significance is that it is in the now; tomorrow it will be old news history. 

      History is a huge plate glass window over the most majestic panorama in existence. You can look and look but never see to completion. The wonders. The beauty. The ugliness, the horrors. The reality.

Now to things less philosophical and more concrete.

Ancient Greeks used a word for foundation, themelia, from an old verb “to place or to put." Meanings for themelia and its cognates were: foundations, lowest parts, roots, foundation beds. In medical use, the word could mean the root or base of the throat or of the eye. Structurally, the word had reference to the low part of the building that gave support to the rest. It also referred to supports (either stakes or stones) that were set to contain the face of an earthwork or mound.

It also has other metaphorical meanings: the foundations of battle; the place where gods stood (e.g., in their temples), the base of a mountain, the foundation for right teaching  (“doctrine"), the basis of an intellectual principle, the foundation for a future hope, etc.

The Latin equivalent is funditus, where we get the English foundation, fundamental, foundry (Old English foundery), etc.

One time there was in the Utah desert a house that was built with expensive materials marble, hardwood floors and materials, palatial. Everything in the structure itself was high grade. However, the house had been built in such a way that the 3/4 inch incoming copper water line underneath the foundation was not secure. It eventually parted and leaked. For years this condition was unknown. One day the house began to sag in its structure. The “little" issue of the leaking water line made itself known through structural weakening and corrosion. (This latter word from the old Latin word rodo, to gnaw or eat away. . . Think of a rodent, a critter that gnaws!) The repairs for this structure in the late 1990s were to be $50-60,000. Permits. Excavation. Repair. Resetting the foundation. Recavation. The occupants, also the owners, moved away for they did not have this type of money.

Another time a home owner decided to add to an existing structure by building upwards. The old structure was on a concrete slab that did not have footings around the perimeter going deep into the surrounding earth. It was only minimally sufficient to support the existing one storey structure. However, when building upward, the owner did not bother to rebuild the slab perimeter on such footings. So up he built, making a wonderful second story to overlook the scenic bay right across the way. Big windows ensured the occupants would have a beautiful south facing view across the bay of one of our gem Oregon coastal hamlets. Fortunately the floor covering was off of the first storey of this structure when it was inspected. The walls all around the structure on three sides had offset downwards, into the earth. The concrete flooring was cracked all around at the base of the wall. The foundation was no good.

Tradespeople may debate about the most important part of a structure. The foundation. The roof. The structure, components, etc. I tend to think that all aspects of a structure-become-a-house-become-a-home are important, in a fairly equal sense. But one thing for sure: weak foundation; weak structure.

Lexical information from Autenrieth, A Homeric Dictionary; Cunliffe, A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect; Liddell and Scott, Greek English Lexicon (9th).

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Reality v. The Illusion

A structure without issues, problems, deficiencies?  An illusion that does not exist. Every structure new or old, small or large, has its breaks, blemishes, improvements-to-be. "No matter who you hire to inspect your house before you buy, you’re going to discover something really important: absolutely every house will need some work, especially over time. That may sound totally obvious, but to some people it’s not. . . . Everybody wants to buy something that’s in perfect shape and will always stay that way. But nothing is truly maintenance free. Not your truck, your tools, your relationships – and for sure not your house." Mike Holmes, The Holmes Inspection (NY: Time Home Entertainment, 2012), 36.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Squirming White Nasties

The other day was inspecting a place in our wet coastal environment. In the tight crawl space wondering what fun animal I'd encounter and have to exercise my Rodent Kung Fu (RKF) skills. (Which means assessing the threat and carrying on with huge-eyeball-watchfulness or else just getting out as fast as possible! For Call-of-the-Wildman I am not!) The understructure was a mixture of old construction with "Uncle Jed" additions and bolsterings over the years. Rot new and old. Mildew galore. Weird supports and blockings and jackings with whatever material was at hand. A lot of wood-to-ground contact, which is like telling carpenter ants and termites to come in and see what's in the fridge. 
Anyway, saw a pile of sawdust looking stuff with pellets outside this one beam -- classic termite excrement the books tell us. So I hammered on the beam for a full 20-30 seconds. Finally it just collapsed into this squirming mass of squiggling white termite worker bodies. Kind of cool to see as long as they don't fall into my shirt pocket. 

Like the Matrix movie, the apparent was not the reality. A beam that looked like a beam on the outside but that was corrupt on the inside and would be worthless to hold, support anything. Because alien invaders had gotten in and ruined it. This beam only pretended to be a beam. 

An ancient writing says the same thing about humans who have a veneer of goodness and religiousity and piety on the outside but are hard and mean on the interior. The look is one way and the inner character is another. 

It's funny how we humans try to conceal or present ourselves in certain ways. Sometimes we do something wrong and hide it. Or do something good and put it on our sleeves for everybody to see and pat us on our keen little backs. Or put on makeup in whatever form to enhance the look.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The "Conflict of Interest" Tightrope that Home Inspectors Walk

When approaching real estate companies to consider including my business card among their collection of home inspectors, one local realtor emphatically counseled: [As a home inspector who expects to be successful], “you CANNOT be a ‘deal killer’!”

A "deal killer" is an inspector who finds faults in a property to the extent that the purchaser backs away from buying a property.

Real Estate purchasers almost always have a Real Estate agent. These agents spend significant amounts of time striving to match the purchaser with an available and appropriate property. Realtors have a significant time and financial stake in their clients finding a suitable property. No sale; no pay.

Some clients purchasing a property want to know in greater depth the condition of their considered property. Home inspectors are mostly hired by people seeking to purchase homes. Like anybody buying something, potential purchasers want to know what is up with the property so they do not get swindled into paying lots of money for something of bad quality.

Enter the process of how clients find home inspectors. Most inspectors are found and used by clients by the direct or indirect recommendation of a realtor.

Some realtors will not recommend a single home inspector; they will encourage their clients to choose from a range of home inspectors. The burden is on the clients to call inspectors, try to sift the good from the bad from the ugly. Factors that usually come to the fore are cost, availability, integrity, competence, the ability to see what is going on with a property and to tell the truth even if it hurts. Each client prioritizes these and other factors. This process is at best time consuming and somewhat like playing Russian Roulette with ubiquitous claims of competence and/or experience. At worst the process (like what happened to us personally) lands the property purchaser with an incompetent inspector who fails to find significant issues that end up costing considerable money to repair.

Other realtors often suggest a single inspector that s/he has worked with in the past and who is appreciated for whatever reason. These inspectors can be good or not. But this latter process puts inspectors in an inclined position of advantage or disadvantage depending on whether or not they are the recommended.

One local well-established inspector/inspection company has (after inspections but before the report was written) told at least two realtors that he will “write the report any way that the realtor needs it to read.” The implication is that the report will be worded in such a way so as to facilitate the sale. [Writing is truly a malleable craft!] Some realtors may appreciate this type of inspection work and reporting because it brings them the sale and more money. Others will not because they want their clients to know and understand the objective condition and implications of issues that exist in any given property. They want their clients to walk into a property with their eyes wide open.

Trying to get established as a home inspector has its interesting tensions. . . On the one hand, from the pathos of the realtor who brought the inspector his or her business, the inspector does not want to "kill the deal." On the other, from the perspective of the client [who happens to be paying the inspector's fee!], the inspector wants to see and speak the plain truth without bias or over-dramatization. 

The solution: "just the facts ma'am!" Seek to see the property as it exists and report on that condition. And if this brings business or not, then come what may! 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Balusters Then and Now

An ancient writing (~8th century B.C.E. in a 3-2nd  century B.C.E. translation) says that a leader, “fell through his lattice of the second storey and became ill.” Another version of this passage says he fell through his baluster and became ill.

What on earth is a baluster? This is a word for the vertical pole(s) underneath the hand railings (=balustrade) that block stairs or balconies from persons falling through.

Today there are very specific rules for how big these poles must be and how much spacing there must be between them. Most codes say that the distance between balusters must be 4” on a horizontal surface, slightly more for stair steps.

I remember one time doing an inspection for a HUD low income recipient. She had a front porch that was four to five feet off the ground with a horizontal railing but no protective balusters. She also had two children. This ancient writing came to my mind. While the person anciently who fell through his lattice or railing assembly was probably much higher than 4-5 feet, the principle still stood that balusters can save health if not life. (The ancient person who fell through eventually died from his injuries, the narrative records.) When told that her landlord must install balusters for her family’s health and safety, in fairly common fashion this mother became defiant and then enraged. How dare I come into her home (though with rent paid for with government tax dollars) and expect there to be standards of safety that threaten to cut off her funding if not remediated? Ugh. (Which brings up another para-related issue not to be discussed: fraud among HUD housing recipients. . .)

The components that make up your house have a long history. To me, running into an ancient writing dealing with something so trivial (!) as weak balusters and then dealing with such things in real life in the present is fascinating. History comes alive in such moments. Inspecting homes is fulfilling when seeing something that has a "storied" history in architecture and construction through the ages.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Domus v. Tenement

The vast majority of urban residents in ancient Rome and Roman cities dwelled in insulae, or tenements. (On this word, think “insulation” or that which is separated or that which separates. The old Roman word insula also meant island or isle – something separated from the main land. [E.g., English peninsula.]) Only the wealthy dwelled in separate dwellings sort of similar to what is known today. The word domus, from which we get the English words domicile, domestic, etc., was the dwelling of the wealthy elite. By the imperial period of Roman history (post 31 BC), multi-storey (4-5 levels) tenement blocks were the norm in Rome and other big cities. Some were low quality; some not. Many had stores and storefronts on the first level; apartments existed in upper levels – similar to many buildings in cities and towns throughout North America today.

There were little to no glass windows. Window apertures were closed by shutters. Heat and light were continual problem in colder months; people shut themselves in and stayed either in the dark or within the small circles of light afforded by oil lamps. “People [in the cities] wore overcoats indoors and went to bed fully clothed. . . But inside city homes braziers burned. Incapable of heating whole rooms, they at least offered comforting warmth to anyone who drew near.” [P. Veyne in Ariès, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium]. Latrines were communal; rooms were largely empty of furnishings, crude beds were used for sleeping and eating; furniture resembled our lawn furniture of today more than furniture inside modern homes.

A minor slave owner in ancient Paestum [Mod. Pesto, SE of Naples It.] lived in about a 1,000 ft2 domus. There were three rooms, with a wide open interior patio taking most of the space. A visitor would have knocked on the front door by kicking the base of the door, which was the custom, and upon entry, known by the large patio that the owner was not a commoner. In the very center of the structure was a tiny sanctum sanctorum [think Judaism – a holy place in the midst of the holy places, only here meaning more the center of the structure] where the owner would have sat in his special seat. (Perhaps on a precursor of the Lazy Boy seat!)

All condensed from, Hornblower, et. al., The Oxford Classical Dictionary 3rd. ed.; Andrews, The Latin English Lexicon; Ariès, et. al., A History of Private Life Vol 1; Adkins et. al., Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Domuspect: The Name

On Domuspect

* Sought a name that was not otherwise used. 

* Had to learn to read Latin back in the schoolyard days. 

* Love history. 

* Love "etymological" history: the use of words historically and how uses have evolved to the present. 

Hence. . .

Domus, old Latin for home, house

Specto, old Latin for to search, examine

domuspect (a conflation of these two words) was not used anciently; it is my way of bringing two words together into one with a meaning unique to inspecting structures. 

More later on different forms of homes / houses / housing --in some parts of the ancient world. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Architectural Evolution

Last week inspected a structure dating to 1916 in small town, coastal Oregon

Incidentally, history beckons. This was the crux year in WWI -- a year which hundreds of hundreds of thousands of persons in Europe died horribly in industrial-scale slaughter as generals of all sides dumped huge masses of their countrymen into battles thinking that mere numbers would win the battle, war, and day. (America did not get troops in France until early 1918, the last year of the war that ended in November.) Have read many, many first hand accounts of this year from European eyewitnesses. Some survivors; some doomed to fall writing before their battles. Now all gone. So as I was crawling around the rafters and underside of this still-stout structure that smelled of solid workmanship and age and history, in a place that has not known war, 1916's distant horrors filled my mind.  

There had been a pretty bad chimney fire in the attic of this structure over 25 years ago. Nobody remembered the fire. But there were the charred timbers and planking and blackness all around. Yet, the structure was for the most part still strong. It had history written all over its construction. 

The following a summary of, N.A., "The Evolution of American House Construction," The Old House (Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1979), 8-9. 

It turns out that the framing type characteristic of this structure and many others dating to the late nineteenth century, early twentieth  centuries was invented by an American architect names A. D. Taylor in 1830 Chicago. It was derisively called "balloon framing" by critics and the name stuck.  This type of structure featured smaller size timbers that were placed closer together, often from the foundation all the way to the eaves with no breaks. (Now buildings are built floor by floor with the previous floor serving as the base for floors above them.) The buildings were well ventilated (drafty!) and hence hard to heat but also very resistant to rot as buildings are in our day. Additionally, a complete air change occurred in such structures at least once per hour, making the air healthier. People tended to have less respiratory problems than today, with our well sealed structures that hold in human pollution, moisture, and mildew. (Though heat, too!)

Two developments made this type of construction possible: the circular mill saw and the mass production of nails. The saw allowed for accurate cutting of smaller sized timbers and nailed joints replaced hand cut joints allowing for swifter construction by unskilled (or less-skilled) laborers. Previously the workmanship of the wood structure in buildings required skilled craftsmen who fitted together the pieces in a precise manner. The balloon framing method developed by Taylor took immediate hold and rapidly moved westward where it became the standard method of building structures in countless prairie towns and burgs. 

It was very fun to “monkey-climb” around this structure and see wood that was dimensionally true (a 2X4 was actually 2X4,” not shaved smaller the way our “2X4s” are today, etc.), and built with methods of bygone years. Though Taylor’s balloon framing method accelerated structure production exponentially, the quality was nevertheless much more stout than found on buildings today. What a privilege to have this opportunity to examine a piece of history. . . 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Ethical Motivations for Behavior (and Home Inspecting!)

Ethics are the standards of conduct by which persons behave, live, act. From an ancient Greek word ethos that means custom, usage, habit, manner. Every person on the planet behaves certain ways and has a primary motivation for behavior at any given time.

Ethicists speak of the motivations that drive human behavior. While there is not agreement on this subject, perhaps a good summary of these motivations could be: 

1.       Egocentrism: what benefits me. (From old Greek/Latin word “ego,” or I/me.) I shall act in a manner that benefits me, regardless or with less regard of how it affects others.
2.     Utilitarianism: what benefits the most people. Often this is guised in a nationalistic context of what will benefit the singular people group (or company) without regard for individuals. (Utility – usefulness. Here applied to the greatest number of people.) 
3.     Deontological: what is necessary, proper, or right. (From another ancient word “deon,” just meaning necessary, proper, right.) People’s standards for measuring what is right differ vastly. Some are religious; some are not. From suicide bombers to gay rights to religion in schools to "just" retribution (death penalty or not) to. . . Examples are infinite. 
4.     Altruistic: helping others without regard for personal benefit. (From a Latin word “alter” – meaning “other, another.”) Putting the interests of others over one's own. 

These and other motivations could be blended. But they provide a decent starting point to consider behavior.

Have you ever received service from a provider (in any context) where the job was incomplete, slovenly, inexact, etc.? Where you sensed the provider was not so interested in you and what you needed but rather in. . .
-         His/her self? Expressed in any number of ways, but usually with reference to money. Gain. Greed. The ancient motive.
-         Company image or reputation. You the individual get disregarded or dis-serviced in lieu of a company image projected onto the public at large without regard for the individual service you had purchased.

So how does this apply to home inspections?

May Domuspect’s services be motivated by what is right. (deontological motivation). To inspect and report on properties carefully and honestly just because these are the right things to do. Not to make the most money or to protect or advance myself as the first priority. Easy to say this at the beginning of a race. May it also be said in the race and at the end.

In the Not-so-Beginning

Dear Readers. 

Summer 2013

The journey begins. Early in post secondary education I began to earn money fixing things for other people, doing large and small construction work, and the like. Owning property and doing almost all my own work on it has also added to this experience. Over the years (nearly thirty) my abilities and understanding of structural maintenance, repair, and renovation have grown proportionately. Hence, I come in to the occupation of home inspecting with a wizened, sensible attitude. But also an attitude and methodology that are committed to excellence at the expense of rapidity-for-financial gain. Financial gain seems to be the ethical fuel that has driven humanity through the ages unto the present. More on this shortly. 

There is great value in what predecessors have thought and said and done. The essence of history. Coming from an education where history was (to me) irrelevant and boring, I have over the years come to see history as a great lens that reveals the old and present (and the future) human heart. Time and again the successes and failures of the present are mirrored in the past, with all persons. 

Life is like a roller coaster that one cannot see very far in advance. Sometimes up; sometimes down; sometimes tedious, exhilarating, here, there, etc. Let's see where this current chapter shall take us. . . Would you join the ride?