Roll-In Shower Remodel

There are many options when considering an ADA size specific, roll-in shower remodel. Although the primary need may be for wheelchair accessibility, a roll-in shower can also provide style and beauty to any bathroom.

As you can see, the aesthetic flow of the bathroom was not interrupted by converting the existing shower into one that is more accessible.

The modern look of these showers also give your bathroom a sense of high-end, spa-like luxury that is completely functional.

For more information on bathroom remodeling contact Stearns Design-Build.

Bringing Thermal Mass Inside

In a previous post we spoke about the importance of using thermal mass on the inside of a home in a hot humid climate like that in Bryan and College Station.  This time we will talk about home design ideas that will help achieve this.

The Foundation

Most homes in the Brazos valley are built on monolithic slab foundations.  Not only is this probably the largest structure in your home, it is also tied to the earth; which actually provides geothermal heating and cooling.  Though a floor may be cool to bare feet in the winter, most of the time it is much warmer than the outside temperature.  Most builders use a great deal of carpet as a means  of keeping the cost per square foot low.  Although this is an effective way to reduce the upfront cost of a home, it covers and minimizes a large and expensive asset.

Maintaining the thermal mass of the foundation is a great way to reduce energy costs.  This can be accomplished by staining the concrete or, more commonly, by using a stone or tile on the floor.  For those cold winter feet, use area rugs in high traffic areas.  This allows enough exposure of large areas of thermal mass to be of benefit.


While most fireplaces are a large source of energy loss, using rock or brick around them can add beauty and thermal mass.  In your home design, consider extending this outcrop of hard surface.  However, be mindful of the connection of this thermal mass to the outside where it will conduct outside temperatures into the house.

Rock walls

In our custom designed homes, we usually incorporate rock or brick walls where possible.  This is especially effective at entryways where a visual connection to the outside material can help create continuity.  Thermal mass walls can add contrast and texture to tall walls.  An especially beautiful wall can be created with a process called rammed earth; which is exactly what it sounds like.  A precise combination of sand and clay is used to create a manufactured sandstone using pressure to form the structure.

These are not features commonly found in tract homes as they add to the cost per square foot but they add beauty, grandeur, elegance and energy efficiency which makes them a great consideration for custom homes.  These can be considered practices for green homes but they are smart and beautiful practices for any home.

Thermal Mass in Hot Humid Climates

This is a visual of the effect thermal mass has on your home.

  Here in College Station and Bryan we have a very hot and humid climate, which presents a unique set of design and construction challenges.  For one, traditional approaches to thermal mass walls are out for us. However, this potentially beautiful design approach is not necessarily a bad idea; if we modify its application from what is traditional.

Thermal mass is thick, highly dense material. This category includes stone, adobe, and brick.  The idea is that through the hot day, heat does not penetrate the full depth of the thermal mass. Then, at night the outside temperature cools down enough to pull the heat out of the wall so that the process can start over the next day.  Yet, because our humidity is high, we do not cool down enough at night to pull the heat out of the wall. Consequently, over time the wall serves to heat the building.

It is odd that brick is the preferred veneer through most of the hot and humid gulf coast south.  Even though this is not usually structural brick, there is an air space between the brick and the insulated wall. Nonetheless, the brick is a very affective solar collector that creates a hot surface next to the house.

On my own house that was built in 1950 and once had a 100% brick veneer, I removed all of the brick that was serving to heat my home. I replaced the brick with a second insulated wall and sided it with fiber cement siding.   In doing this, I was able to more than double the insulation, create a better air seal and reduce the heat next to the house.  I also happen to think that it looks a lot better.

Okay, so now that we understand the process of eliminating thermal mass, how can we use it to positively affect the Brazos Valley? As we pointed out, thermal mass works well in hot, dry climates that cool down at night.  In a hot, humid climate we can bring the thermal mass inside, away from the source of heat; and have it work for us.  When this is done, the mass assumes the ambient inside temperature.  Consequently, as temperatures rise through the hot part of the day, it helps to reduce the cooling load required to keep the house comfortable.  It does this by absorbing some of the heat in the air.  Although the same amount of energy is needed throughout the day, there is less of a peak load required for the hottest part of the day; which allows us to reduce the size of equipment needed to keep the house cool.

Unfortunately, more research is needed to quantify this effect.  Currently, there is nothing in the program that calculates equipment size that takes this into account.  Good air conditioning companies are reluctant to deviate from the standard sizing of equipment.  We love our AC mechanic and have a huge amount of trust in him. However, we frequently push him to reduce equipment size because we design in ways that reduce load but that are not considered in load calculations.

Next time I will talk about using interior thermal mass in home design.

Therapeutic Landscape Network

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Naomi Sacks, who runs the Therapeutic Landscape Network. She is currently working on a PhD in Architecture here at TAMU. But her accomplishments exceed that of many who have long had such academic di…stinction. Her book, Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, is available on Amazon. Though Naomi’s focus is on landscape design in institutional settings, I look forward to learning as much as I can about her approach and applying it to the residential setting.Landscaping tends to be the unwanted stepchild of residential design. Tract builders want to put as little cost into landscape as possible to keep their essential benchmark, cost per square foot of heated space, as low as possible. And it is also overlooked in custom design. Even if there is landscaping in the package, it is usually not designed and it is usually the fund that is drawn from for upgrades inside the house. This is a shame because good landscape design that is integrated with the design of the home can have more impact than almost any other aspect of a custom home. A well landscaped home invites you outside and provides dramatic views out of every window.


When design is not contained by the footprint of the house, expanded living spaces are created. This can be a strategy to reduce the overall size of the house, thus lowering, not increasing, costs. But more importantly it can provide natural connection that cannot be achieved when design is restricted to inside spaces. The affect of this connection is why our tag line is “We Design and Build Happiness.” Our claim is supported by quite a lot of science.

Landscaping is also an essential part of green building. Shading canopies on the western exposure of a home can have a surprisingly dramatic impact on cooling costs and allow for day lighting that would otherwise be unwise. If you are inclined to fresh air in the home, the landscape can help funnel prevailing breezes to open windows. The default, no design, yards of turf is not only uninspiring it is also a great consumer of water. While good landscape design is not inexpensive, it is usually a great value over time.

Landscape design is an integral part of our Transitions theory of design. We seek to design a naturally connected, healthy, experiential home, which is what Naomi’s work is all about. I am looking forward to a deep learning experience.


I recently returned from the Greenbuild 2014 conference in New Orleans.  This is an annual conference put on by the United States Green Building Committee (USGBC.)  It is three days of intensive learning about a wide range of design and construction concepts that relate to creating a smarter and healthier built environment.

My favorite sessions this year had to do with Biophilia, which is the study of the positive effects of nature in our lives and ways to increase our exposure to nature in the built environment.  The term and general concept has been around for many  years, introduced by E. O. Wilson in his book by the same name.  But it has only relatively recently been picked up by the design community.

This is a thrilling development for us at Stearns Design Build, as it is so similar to our own theory of design that we call Transitions.  Transitions is built on the knowledge that connection to nature and natural rhythms creates happiness.  We know, for example, that people who know what time the sun rises and sets, or what phase the moon is in, consistently report a higher level of happiness and contentment.  So the question becomes: in the modern world of rather insular homes, how do we create these connections for people?

The most predominant feature on the modern American home is the cavernous garage, with doors that open mechanically, swallowing cars, saving drivers and passengers from interaction with neighbors that they do not know.  The backyards of most homes are no less isolating. Surrounded by a tall privacy fence, maintaining protection form neighbors and natural surroundings.  Most of the trees that the yard may have once had were taken down during construction and replaced with turf that requires weekly maintenance and large amounts of pesticides and herbicides.

At one time American homes had large front porches that provide a fresh air room with access to neighbors who were frequently out for a walk.  Those porches have shrunk and, if they exist at all, are a façade feature too narrow to accommodate a chair.

Modern residential design creates homes that isolate us from both community and nature.

The Ancient Greek word for community was koinonia.  But it was more often used as a verb rather than a noun.  It also translated as share, participate jointly and intimacy.  This is the word that got translated to “fellowship” in the New Testament of the Bible.  For us, community has become a place or a group of people: a passive noun, not an active verb describing how we are in community.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his book What Is Called Thinking, spoke about the separation of the self from nature in language and in thought.  This separation is the source of modern angst.  This angst belongs to us and to all of nature. When we do not view ourselves as a part of nature, it becomes easy to view nature only as expendable resource.  Heidegger said, “Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”  Angst manifest in nature as climate change, habitat destruction, smog and extinction.

Our Transitions theory of design seeks to assuage modern angst through the phenomenology of design.  By placing us in the context of our surroundings, both natural and community, we can impact who we are and provide a sense of connection and transcendence in the world.  This bold undertaking is the essence of humbling, as we must recognize that we are a part of, and not apart from, larger systems.

To the extent that we seek “green” or sustainable solutions, it is not enough to consider the resources that we use in building, we must consider our relationship to all resources. We must design homes that put us into relationship with life’s resources so that we can become aware of our part of a process of dynamic balance.