Wednesday, August 26, 2009

2009-2010 Home Tax Credits

Currently there are tax credits available for home improvements that make your house more energy efficient. The upgrades must be placed in service between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2010. The credits are available only for the taxpayer's principal residence, EXCEPT for geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, solar panels, and small wind energy systems (where second homes do qualify). The maximum that can be claimed for all improvements placed in service in 2009 and 2010 is $1,500, EXCEPT for geothermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, solar panels, fuel cells, and small wind energy systems which are not subject to this cap, and are in effect through 2016. The improvements that are subject to the $1,500 limit are Insulation, Windows and Doors, Roofing, Heating, Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC), and Water Heaters. Let us look at the tax credits and requirements for each of the aforementioned $1,500 limited improvements.

August is the time of year when many people ask, “What can be done to lower my energy costs? And how can I get the most bang for my buck with the available tax credits?” The easiest way is to reduce the need for air conditioning by insulating and closing gaps in your house. Start by having a Home Energy Audit which consists of two tests. The first is a blower door test that measures the tightness of your house and helps identify the leaks’ location. The HVAC ducts undergo the same testing in the duct blaster test. The home energy audit will determine if caulking and new insulation is needed. The tax credit for new insulation is limited to 30% of the cost (including installation) and the insulation must meet the 2009 International Energy and Conservation Code (IECC). For Beaufort County the 2009 IECC requires R-30 insulation in the ceiling, R-13 in the exterior walls and R-19 in the floor. The Department of Energy’s (D.O.E.) recommendation for Beaufort County is R30 to R60 in the ceiling, R 15 in the exterior walls and R-25 in the floor.

The window and door replacement tax credit is also 30% of the cost. There are two requirements for windows and doors. The U-Factor measures the heat loss a window allows, the lower the number the better (between 0.2 and 1.2). The Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) is a number between 0 and 1 that measures the amount of heat transferred through a window, the lower the number the better. The tax credit requires a U-Factor of less than 0.30 and a SHGC of less than 0.30. You will also want to consider Impact Resistance Glass which will protect your openings during a hurricane.

The roof replacement tax credit is limited to 30% of the cost of material only. The roofs must be qualified metal or reflective asphalt shingles as listed by Energy Star. If your house is shaded or has a super insulated roof the benefits of reflective roofing will not have as large of impact.

An air to air heat pump is the most common HVAC system found in the Lowcountry. The tax credit is also limited to 30% of the cost. The deciding factors are the Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) which measures the cooling mode of the heat pump. The SEER Rating is a number between 13 and 22, the higher the number the better. The Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) measures the efficiency of the heating mode of the unit. The HSPF is between 6.8 and 9.5, the higher the number the more efficient the unit. The final measurement is the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER) which measures the peak cooling capacity. The EER is between 11 and 14 and the high number is the desired rating. For split systems the tax credit requirements are SEER Rating of 15, EER of 12.5 and HSPF of 8.5. The package unit requirements are SEER Rating of 14, EER of 12 and HSPF of 8.

Currently only gas and propane tankless Energy Star rated Water Heaters meet the requirements for the tax credit, which is also 30% of the cost.

For additional information the following sites may be helpful.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Value of an Architect

I was recently asked "On what kinds of projects is an architect absolutely recommended for residential projects? "

As incoming president elect of American Institute of Architects/South Carolina Chapter, I might appear to be biased but architects add value to all projects.

  1. The architect’s trained eye will help the homeowner make the best decisions for their project and often save the client money. In one project, my client thought they needed a major kitchen renovation. We relocated one door and all the traffic flow problems were solved.

  2. The architect can connect you house to the site and take advantage of the views and breezes. We have numerous renovation projects where the original house was a plan book house that was plopped down with a total disregard to the uniqueness of the site. By adding windows and exterior living spaces the homeowner can enjoy the view that they moved to the Lowcountry to see.

  3. Architects are fully conversant in the local building and zoning codes. Another client hired me after they had started a project with an unlicensed jack-of-all-trades. The under-construction guest house was a dysfunctional unsafe mess. We were able to salvage the project to meet their needs and the building code.

  4. Your architect will work with you on the scope of your project and material selections to ensure that the design meets your needs and budget requirements. Making all the design decisions prior to construction is the only way to ensure that your project stays on time and on budget.

  5. The architect prepares a complete set of construction documents that are a graphic and written record of decisions made. The drawings are considered complete in that they include all the information that a contractor needs to build the project. This also allows bids from contractors to be comparable.

  6. Finally, architects are invaluable during the construction phase as the owner’s advocate. They review the work and advise the client regarding design compliance. They also review and advise on the appropriateness of change orders. The architect is with you through good and bad; they help the contractor understand the design intent; and they ensure that decisions made during construction are consistent with the decisions made during design.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Trey Trahan's Louisiana State Museum

Trey Trahan's design for the new Louisiana State Museum is causing quite an uproar in Natchitoches. Many citizen feel that the contemporary design is inappropriate for a historic district. The refrain is similar to what is heard from many here in the Lowcountry about new buildings in our historic districts. Here is a link to a recent article in the Natchitoches Times describing both the design and the review board's concerns.

David Cronrath, Dean of the School of Art and Design at LSU, eloquently explains in the following essay why we should not "slavishly reproduce the past" in buildings built today.

I fear Louisianans are increasingly uncomfortable with the future. The recent concern over Trey Trahan's design for the new Louisiana State Museum in downtown Natchitoches reflects this fear of change and innovation that is incongruous with our proud past.

There was a time when Louisianans had confidence in the future and made an imprint of their optimism on the landscape. They creatively adapted traditional ways of building to a strange land with a harsh climate. They utilized the technology at their disposal. They improvised with materials. The buildings these Louisianans built did not look like their European predecessors. By Old World standards they were crude, ungainly, stumpy, and strange – you can be sure some said they were just plain ugly. But today we admire these buildings for their ingenuity and the identity they defined.

What we can learn from our architectural past is that great buildings are not defined by style. Style is the classification of particular forms and shapes. By its very nature style is a formal classification. It never attempts to reveal content or origins. Reproducing a past style of architecture during a period of societal transformation is to reduce cultural processes to stale imitation.

Significant buildings are reflections of their culture – ideals, mores and aspirations. Vibrant and productive cultures change, adapt and transform the way they organize the environment they inhabit. Consequently, dynamic cultures invent new forms and spaces to reflect the future they desire. Only cultures that have ceased to be vital reproduce what they did in the past. Cultural innovation and change are the hallmarks of healthy and robust societies … just like our ancestors.

Given this situation how are we to judge a successful building, especially in an historical context like downtown Natchitoches? The answer is surprisingly simple. Respect the scale of the surrounding buildings, develop a design that is integrated with its context, utilize the latest building technologies, and develop a plan that is respectful of the changing function of our institutions. Strangely, European societies understand these precepts far better than we do. Perhaps because they are centuries older and long understood that vibrant societies must change to new circumstances or become obsolete. Europeans are not disturbed by a medieval structure next to the Baroque, or a Renaissance palace cheek to jowl with a modern building. For them it is not an issue of style or imitation.

When I review the design for the New Louisiana State Museum in Natchitoches by Trey Trahan I find a thoughtful design that matches the principles outlined above. It is respectful of scale, context and technology. Does it look like a reproduction of historical Louisiana buildings? Certainly not and it shouldn’t. To slavishly reproduce the past would tell future generations that we have given up hope for a vital Louisianan culture. It would also be disrespectful of a rich cultural heritage. We demonstrate our respect and love for the historical by preserving it whenever possible and avoiding building deprecating imposters. We should have enough faith in our time to not belittle the past.