The Dangers of Heating Elements

 Image credit: Goodhousekeeping.com

Image credit: Goodhousekeeping.com

Recently, Remodeling Magazine wrote a piece on how to build a drawer with a built in plug so that hair dryers could stay plugged in.  They received a storm of responses from good contractors letting them know how unsafe it is to leave appliances with heating elements plugged in.  Here is just one.

Just read your email about the idea of putting a hair dryer in a drawer and you don’t even have to unplug it. As a Fire Damage Restoration contractor I have done many restorations, if the house was restorable at all, where the fire was caused by a heat producing appliance that its electrical circuit has somehow failed.

I use a toaster as an example when I suggest to people to unplug when not in use. You can buy a toaster on sale for $14.99. It consists of a cabinet, feet, cord with plug, heating element, thermostat, and many other items. A quality thermostat alone would probably cost $100.00. Now, would you trust the quality of this thing to not start when it shouldn’t?

A hair dryer is in the same category. This also applies to battery chargers that home owners and contractors use. A heat producing appliance of any type, left plugged in, cannot be trusted with the safety of your home.

“Plug it in, turn it on, turn it off, unplug it.” That is the motto that should be used with any electrical device. Period!”

We hope that you keep your home safe from fire by unplugging appliances with heating elements.  In most cases this will also save money by reducing phantom loads.


For those who have storm damage, we would like to issue a few warnings:

  1. The goal of insurance companies is to make a profit, which they do by limiting the amount they pay out in claims. They usually say “no” first. Unless you are a very good existing client or family member, we will not take insurance work because, in our experience, most insurance companies are unscrupulous. We are honest and life is too short to deal with companies who, in our opinion, tend not to be.
  2. In our experience, companies who do a lot of insurance claims work for the benefit of the insurance companies more than for you. There is an undeniable conflict of interest if a home repair company is recommended by an insurance company.
  3. If your home was hit by a tornado or very high winds, you probably have structural damage that is very easy to overlook. Chances are your roof was lifted up and loosened from the rest of the house; even if it did not come off. This is not always easy to recognize but needs to be repaired. If you are in doubt, hire a structural engineer.
  4. Most materials that have gotten wet need to be replaced due to mold. This includes but is not limited to insulation, drywall and carpet. If the insurance company is encouraging you to keep these things, request a mold test when the work is completed.
  5. If there was a lift on the roof (see #3) or if you had significant roof leakage, your AC ducts may need to be replaced. If the insurance company does not allow this, request a duct test and a mold test of the ducts.
  6. If you have any questions, we will offer free phone consultations for the next two weeks. Please call our office at 979-696-0524.

Check washing machine hoses

This is something that most people ignore until a hose breaks… when they are gone on vacation.  We have seen some horrific floods caused in this way.  Of course when you are leaving for any period of time, it is a good idea to shut the water to the washing machine off.  When inspecting the hoses, turn the valves off and pull the washing machine away from the wall.  Hold the drain line up so that it does not leak. Look at the floor for signs of leaking.  Check hoses for flexibility and corrosion on the fittings.  We recommend changing hoses every 3-5 years.  It is a good idea to hang a tag on one of the hoses indicating the date that it was last changed.  We also recommend high-pressure stainless steel hoses. Don’t forget to check the drain hose as well.  These hoses are thicker and usually last a little longer.  Don’t forget to sweep and mop under the washing machine before pushing it back and connecting it.

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.