How Builders And Architects Promote Radiant Heat
As close as PM is to radiant installers, it blinds us to other professionals who are just as committed to promoting radiant heat.
Wouldn’t you want a helping hand from time to time, a trusted ally, a reliable pro in your corner? What about builders and architects? They may not immediately spring to mind, and while the numbers may be small, the dedication of some of these professionals is just as large as yours.
“A builder who is willing to take on the construction of one of our homes has to be a little adventurous,” says architect/builder Jack Arnold. “Our homes aren’t just boxes with limited finishing options. They’re complicated, sometimes one-of-a-kind homes, and a builder has to think about how he’s going to put a house like that together. Radiant heat is one of those adventures they’re going to have to take.”
Arnold says he’ll never forget his first introduction to radiant heat. While he studied the subject in college, years later he was visiting a home in Santa Fe, N.M, and because of an unexpected snowfall that day, visitors were removing their shoes.
“And suddenly, I was smitten,” Arnold says. “The entire floor romanced you with heat. It was an incredible feeling and I often bring up my personal experience when I’m discussing it. Of course, many of the homes we visit in Europe for our own architectural inspiration have radiant heat systems. So we can’t help but be proponents of radiant.”
(This guy is beginning to sound like you.)
“Discriminating tastes” might be the easiest way to describe the clientele he caters to. Arnold is president of Architectural Resources, an architectural firm; and Design Properties, a residential construction firm, both based in Tulsa, Okla. Primarily, Arnold designs, and in some cases, builds elegant homes that feature French architecture.
He sells his architectural plans throughout the United States, including strong radiant markets. While Arnold deals in homes ranging in price from $500,000 to $5 million, homebuilder Jim Orr, owner of Renaissance Construction & Design, Fayetteville, Ark., takes on projects that are considerably south of that price while still strongly promoting radiant.
“In the design phase, I always offer radiant as an alternative to forced air,” Orr explains. “I explain that yes, it costs extra to put in radiant, but it is very cost-effective, virtually silent, and a very healthy, ‘cozy’ means of heating. On house designs with excessive windows I also point out how radiant can deliver extra heat to otherwise cold areas by designing tubing layouts to fit the window locations. Plus, I’ll also explain the advantages of zoning. Finally, I point out the low maintenance and easy service aspects.”
Meanwhile, commercial architect Ken Shireman knows from the get go he has to bring radiant down to dollars and common sense.
“My clients are business owners,” says Shireman, president of Ken Shireman & Associates, P.A., Fayetteville, Ark. “A business owner expects everything I suggest for his new building to have a positive effect to the bottom line, or else it won’t be used. A radiant system is pricey, but there are other benefits that once clients understand them, they don’t mind paying for them. And from the standpoint of comfort and efficiency, radiant can have a huge, positive effect to the bottom line.”
Shireman routinely specs radiant heat for commercial buildings that feature high ceilings, large windows and doors, and cement or stone floors. “With tall ceilings, it’s very difficult to keep people warm. And once you have the radiant system, it’s a natural to do snowmelt,” he adds.
Give Shireman some extra credit too, for adapting snowmelt to fit his climate and purpose. What he calls “snowmelt” could be better imagined as “freezing-rainmelt.” Yes, it may snow, but tubing outside will more likely battle icy sidewalks.
One example of his work we toured was still under construction. The 38,000-sq.-ft. PAM Transport facility, also in Fayetteville, seemed a perfect marriage of radiant inside and snowmelt outside considering the truck traffic that will continually back in and out of large bay doors. We also saw the Arkansas State Bank in Tontitown, Ark., just recently opened for business. The tiled expanse of the lobby and teller areas seemed perfect for radiant; meanwhile, while it was June when we visited, Shireman helped put snowmelt into better perspective.
“Snowmelt for a public building like a bank is a major ADA issue,” he explains. “There are some disabled people who wouldn’t even think of going out in nasty weather. In a way, radiant and snowmelt are like air-conditioning — you can’t imagine how anyone could live without it once you’ve experienced it. I’ve yet to work with anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with it.”
(These guys are beginning to sound like you.)
Resistant At FirstLike most other members of the building trades, builders are resistant to change -- and for good reason. It takes a lot of time, trial and error to get things in this business to where they are somewhat predictable. Even small changes can do big damage to the bottom line if not bid properly. There are enough unknowns and uncertainties in a building project without injecting unfamiliar products or procedures.
“From my fellow builders, I always hear that a radiant installation will take more money, more supervision and is a heavy responsibility since there are consequences for sloppy work,” Arnold says.
Not surprisingly, the voice inside many builders’ heads will constantly remind them to “Stick with the tried and true.”
(These guys really are beginning to sound like you.)
Because of this attitude, builders are among the most difficult members of the construction industry to persuade to give radiant heating a try. But there are certainly a number of builders who are using radiant.
“Although this part of the country still considers radiant a luxury item, I do believe we are starting to turn the corner in popularity regarding radiant,” says Cary Pestel, who calls on Arnold, Orr, Shireman and others as an outside sales engineer for Boone & Boone Sales, a 22-year-old rep agency with offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla. “Five years ago I would design one system a month. I am now doing four to five designs per week. We’re certainly used to working closely with contractors, but more builders and architects are coming to us for assistance.”
There’s no denying that radiant heat is an amenity that property owners want, according to Lawrence Drake, executive director of the Radiant Panel Association. “Many builders are beginning to realize that what they first perceived as a pain in the behind is actually an opportunity to set themselves apart from the crowd.”
At its past two annual conventions, the RPA has featured a special training seminar for builders and architects. The course provides this crowd the basics of radiant -- from slab on grade, to engineered subfloors, to wall and ceiling radiators -- and identifies what adjustments are required from standard building practices.
“The response has been good,” Drake says. “It is difficult to draw them into these seminars. But once there, they generally find that, like any other system in the building process, radiant heating can easily be folded into their normal building construction with little or no flow interruption.”
At this point, much of the evidence for this “movement” is anecdotal. In addition to the three people we met for this story, Drake relays other success stories such as a Michigan builder featured at last May’s RPA convention. The builder started questioning the merits of conventional construction after his wife fell terribly ill after moving into their new home. Radiant heat, for example, eliminated the air ducts that can be hiding places for undesirable elements. And in 1998 the builder teamed up with the American Lung Association to build a Health House Advantage Home, a successful marketing tool ever since.
Drake has also heard from builders in likely places such as upper Michigan to unlikely places as California, where several builders have put radiant in tract homes.
“This is not unique anymore,” Drake adds. “Builders all across the country are finding that adding radiant helps sell homes.”
Meanwhile, research from the National Association of Home Builders may provide builders with more empirical proof than marketing stories. The NAHB is currently helping research two homes, one in Idaho and the other in New York, that each have a forced-air system and a radiant floor system. At one point, the forced-air system is switched on for heat; and at another point, the forced-air system is shut off and the radiant floor system turned on.
“We’re primarily studying energy use,” says James Lyons, director of energy and environmental programs for the NAHB Research Center. “But a side-by-side comparison of the two systems should also give us more information on other operational issues, including thermostat readings.”
Lyons says some preliminary results should be announced by the end of this month. (You may be able to find out more by logging on to the center’s Web site www.nahbrc.org.)
Marketing RadiantFor dedication to marketing, it’s hard to beat what Arnold has done with what he calls the Lifestyle House. Essentially, it’s a permanent 6,000-sq.-ft. model home that he can use as a selling tool for his own designs.
The Lifestyle House came about because, as Jack’s reputation and demand for designs expanded, more and more prospective clients were asking to see designs in 3-D.
“The truth is most ‘showplaces’ aren’t showplaces at all,” Arnold explains. “They’re private homes that the public can’t get in to, even for an afternoon, and the best that can be done to show those homes to a lot of people is to do a magazine photo shoot. That, of course, leaves a lot to be desired by the average curious client.”
The Lifestyle Home gives the builders, developers and homebuyers a chance to see what one of Arnold’s homes really “lives” like.
The house is entirely heated by hydronic radiant in-slab (the home, like many other residences in the area no matter the price tag, has no basement). In addition, an auxiliary electric radiant mat system warms floors in the spring and fall.
One of the more intriguing features is the snowmelt system. The property’s entry courtyard, in keeping with its French design, has a loose, stone pebble driveway. Arnold got together with Pestel to devise a way to heat the gravel. What they ended up creating was snaking small-diameter EPDM rubber tubing through a connected maze of small, upturned PVC tubes, ideal for holding the pipe, and stone pebbles, in place.
A prefabricated control panel by Watts Radiant is the “brain” that manages all hydronic system mixing and control and completes the hookup of all zones. (For more on the Lifestyle House from a Wet Head’s perspective, see the sidebar written by Hot Rod Rohr on page 56.)
Marketing radiant, however, comes in other shapes and forms. Orr bills himself as “the nature friendly builder” and strives to design his homes so they fit the natural lines of the particular site.
“I like a house to look like it fits in,” he explains. “I try to match roof lines to hillside slope lines, the colors of the home to the natural tones of the setting, and build in the least invasive method possible. I build in and around natural features such as trees, bluffs, and allow nature to be an instrumental part of the design.”
This personal philosophy works perfectly with radiant heat and further persuades the type of clients who share these environmental beliefs.
“Radiant is a highly efficient system and keeps fossil fuel requirements to a minimum,” Orr adds. “It is virtually silent, which appeals to clients who want to enjoy the sounds of their natural setting without the noisy furnace blowers. The heat is very ‘healthy’ -- no drafts, mold or dust and that also appeals to our health-conscious clients.”
Five to 10 years ago, radiant contractors complained about how the builders would ruin the sale by talking the owner out of radiant, Drake adds.
“Today we are seeing more builders doing the selling,” Drake says. “Once a builder has been exposed to a few radiant systems, they begin to get enthused, provided the install was done cleanly and professionally. But, it takes years to make believers of people in the construction industry. Fortunately, much of the groundwork has been laid. Today it is not uncommon to find builders who are strong promoters of radiant heating and their numbers are growing. The radiant voice is being heard.”
In the end, all these guys know just as contractors do that customers have got to want it -- and it’s up to them to put them in that state.
“To me, it all comes down to one word -- comfort,” Arnold says. “When you have a large room with a lot of windows, maybe several double French doors, radiant heat works much better than forced-air heat from ceiling vents to keep the room invitingly warm. Another reason is that radiant heat is invisible, and since I specialize in Old World-style homes, there is nothing about radiant heat that breaks that mood.”
(These guys definitely sound just like you.)
Priming The PumpI think most contractors agree that getting radiant floor heat involved in the design phase would be a huge benefit. What a win-win situation it would be if the architect had “primed the pump” for the radiant contractor. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with architect Jack Arnold, who has recently felt the heat and likes what he feels.
By Hot Rod Rohr
Arnold caters to the very popular Old French-style home, currently the rage in many areas of the country. Arnold has also, wisely, keyed into the buyer’s wants, needs and desires. He’s aimed his expertise at a well-funded and fast-growing Baby Boomer/empty-nester market.
He carefully considered the market’s interest before doing so. Here’s what he found: His key customers would be second- or third-time homebuyers -- better yet, let’s think of them as “last-time homebuyers”. These are the type of buyers who generally have the financial means to get the home they want after years of living in homes with varying levels of compromise.
As an architect, floor plans played heavily into Arnold’s design for this segment of the market. And among the considerations: ground level access with more open rooms lends itself well-suited for slab-on-grade construction. And, knowing that cold hard floors lack little appeal to a last-time home buyer -- designed with retirement in sight -- absolute comfort was high on the list for a Jack Arnold design.
Rep Cary Pestel, Boone & Boone Sales, Tulsa, Okla., was keen enough to spot this need in Arnold’s wish list and act on it. Cary designed and supplied the radiant package for Arnold’s Lifestyle House, built to be a showcase for comfort, design and amenities where potential clients are invited to experience the best in ultimate comfort. A focal point is the radiant floor system that features hydronic in-slab, under-floor and electric mat radiant heat.
The mechanical package will be proudly displayed behind French doors in a nicely appointed mechanical room in the finished garage area. As a contractor I really embrace the idea of a great working radiant floor combined with a well-appointed mechanical package. Actually, shouldn’t the two always go hand-in-hand? Nothing like top-notch workmanship to further enhance the radiant experience for the homebuyer!
Arnold, being personally involved in the tube installation, quizzed me about options to allowing the tube loops to penetrate the floor in a nice orderly fashion. Funny how little details like this are the things architects and buyers key into, often unbeknownst to the radiant contractor!
Possibly the best reach the radiant industry could make, from this contractor’s view, would be to take the radiant message proudly and loudly to architects and home designers. A great goal for all of us, and in Arnold’s case, he and Cary combined forces to champion the cause. I hope Jack’s idea starts a movement in his segment of the home design/home comfort industry, as the architect often enjoys the first contact with the buyers.
Incidentally, I was also pleased to see that Jack included a fire sprinkler system in his Idea Home concept, even though not required by code in his area. Just another piece-of-mind benefit for the Baby Boomer buying market.
A Builder Even A Contractor Would LoveIt takes all kinds of people to be contractors. So it seems natural that it takes all kinds of people to be builders -- at least the kind of mavericks who raise the flag for radiant.
Jim Orr, for example, started his professional career as a builder, but then spent 10 years producing movies with the likes of Shelly Winters and John Travolta.
“It’s really not much of a leap from contracting to producing or vice versa,” says Orr, owner of Renaissance Construction & Design, Fayetteville, Ark. “In both cases you are responsible for conceptualizing a project, arranging for all the creative aspects to fit within a defined budget and then arranging for staff, crew and materials to make it all come to life.”
Likewise, as a filmmaker, Orr learned how expensive delays can be -- up to a thousand dollars per second.
“The time management skills I learned in the movie business are very helpful in creating timelines for construction projects,” he adds. “By pre-identifying ‘best case contingencies,’ alternate plans are already in place to keep the project moving forward despite setbacks or weather delays that might occur.”
Orr got back in the trades in the mid-1980s. He first learned about radiant five years ago after a homeowner customer said he’d seen it on a home show and wanted it for his new home. At the time, Orr couldn’t find any local radiant installers so he enrolled himself in training run by Heatway (now known as Watts Radiant).
Since then, Orr has found radiant to be the perfect match for his passion to build homes into their natural surroundings. Philosophy aside, Orr also knows how down-right practical radiant heat can be for man or, in some cases, beast.
Orr and his wife, Debbie, are active with the Arkansas Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Association and care for all manner of creature, including but not limited to deer, possum, crows, owls and snakes. At the moment, he’s in the early stages of constructing a radiantly heated recovery facility.
“Injured and scared animals will not eat if they’re cold,” Orr says. “The first key step is to get them to the right temperature as soon as possible.” Zoning will also help the volunteers regulate temperatures of various containment areas to fit the needs of a particular species of animal.
The Role Reps PlayManufacturers reps could be the unsung heroes of the radiant market. Maybe it’s a result of contractor myopia, but we’ve only recently begun to appreciate the role reps play.
“We offer a great deal of hand-holding for new contractors and make ourselves available when the pipe starts to go down, and return when the system is tested,” says Cary Pestel, outside sales engineer for Boone & Boone Sales, a manufacturers rep firm with offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Okla.
Pestel joined the agency six years ago after working for a chiller manufacturer and specializing in heat transfer. “I naturally migrated toward everything the agency did in the form of heat transfer. I was curious at first about radiant, but later I became hooked on radiant as more and more of my projects got completed, and I got to stand on those warm floors.”
Pestel normally gets involved early on with any radiant project. The contractor relies on him for everything from pre-job training to on-site training to system design to troubleshooting. It’s not unusual for Pestel to be fielding questions as the pipe is being tied down. The company also has a policy of having reps on site during start up and even offers the homeowner or building owner training once the system is complete.
“I visit the site four or five times during the building process,” Pestel says. “Our success comes down to building strong relationships with our contractors and keeping pace with our role as the experts in the business.”
In addition to Pestel’s work, we’ve also recently met rep Bill Bailey, whose quarterbacking figured prominently in “Radiant Teamwork,” (May 2002). In that feature, Bailey helped the contractors complete their biggest radiant install to date -- a 90,000 sq. ft. job.
Rep Don Rathe, Rathe Associates, Syosset, N.Y., recently helped on a considerably smaller job -- but notably the very first radiant job completed by contractor Belmar Plumbing & Heating, Astoria, N.Y.
At around 2,500 sq. ft., the two residences would be modest abodes by most people’s standards. But when they’re two Manhattan penthouses atop a 16-story building facing Central Park, then they go for $5 million a piece.
“Everyone needs to start with basics,” Rathe says. “Where else are you going to start? So for this first project we went through everything and helped the contractor feel confident about installing radiant.”
Hydronics isn’t anything new in New York City, with many of its apartment buildings featuring steam heat fed by 104 miles of steam mains underneath the streets. This apartment building isn’t unusual in that regard. But the owners wanted radiant for the penthouses.
Since there is no boiler in the building, the owner built a boiler room on the roof dedicated just to supplying the penthouses’ radiant floors and domestic hot water.
Four direct-vent Slant/Fin Victory boilers were specified. Installed as a modular system, they provide the fuel savings of a step-fired system. With four boiler units, there is also built-in back-up should one unit need to be taken out of service for maintenance. Being immediately adjacent to the living units, response time for heat and hot water is fast. Load per square foot on the roof was not a problem. With direct venting, no chimney needed to be constructed.
“Everyone’s problem is dealing with the unknown,” Rathe says. “But once you’re through that, the contractor figured, well, is that all there is?