A New Age for Roofs

A New Age for Roofs

May is upon us and before we know it, summer will be here. Soon enough the melodic chimes of ice cream trucks and the savory fragrance of barbeques will fill the air. The days are growing longer and the sun is getting stronger. And with the intensifying sun, many are reminded of the golden opportunity to harness this energy and channel it into usable electricity.

The solar industry has been around for decades but its marketability has been hindered by problems such as durability and lack of aesthetic appeal. Solar panels are vulnerable to damage from falling tree limbs, hail, and other natural phenomena. And the fashion in which the panels are mounted are typically not flush with the roof and look inconsistent with the design of the house. Elon Musk appears to have solved these issues.

Tesla/Solar City will be releasing solar shingles later this year that not only can replace existing shingles (so they no longer sit on top of the roofing) but are also stronger than common roofing shingles. The solar shingles are flush with the roof and also come in a handful of design options to best fit each house, greatly enhancing the aesthetic appeal. These solar shingles are also made of quartz, which is one of the strongest materials on the planet, easily outperforming common roof shingles in strength tests.

While the price has not been announced yet (and it likely won’t be cheap), this is a good option from a sustainability standpoint. The energy source is abundant and renewable, and many municipalities give incentives for this type of development. Even here in West Chester the Borough is developing a sustainable recognition program that will provide various bonuses for including sustainable practices in new developments. So if you are thinking about replacing your roof in the near future, you may want to wait for the release of these new solar shingles. They may be worth the extra buck.

Trouble in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise

Well maybe not PARADISE, but the Jersey Shore. Recently, the bridge connecting Avalon, NJ and Sea Isle, NJ was closed indefinitely after a dive team discovered a crack in one pile and severe deterioration in another one part of a three-pile group supporting a single pier. This deems the pier unstable, and therefore it cannot support the loads it was designed for. Until the pile is repaired, patrons will have to retreat to the Garden State Parkway or Route 9 to navigate between the two islands. Fortunately, this failure was detected before the start of the summer season…and before anyone was injured.

This is just a reminder for our industry that upkeep and observation is critical. Maintenance of erosion controls and stormwater collection systems is just as important as the implementation of these practices. Why? Why should I really care what happens once my project is approved and built? While the damages caused by failing erosion controls or stormwater basins aren’t as tangibly severe as a collapsing bridge, they can have long-term detriments to our water supplies and environment. For example, after all these April showers, it is necessary for contractors to go out to construction sites and ensure that silt fence or filter socks are still in place and continuing to prevent sediment from exiting the area of construction. If that sediment passes through the barrier, it and all the chemicals and toxins it garners along the way could enter the water system and pollute our natural habitat – harming plant, animal, and human life! Not to mention that this growing deposit of sediment in the stream reduces the stream’s capacity and can lead to flooding.

​Similarly, if an orifice is clogged, this could lead to system overflow, which could cause flooding downstream, or accelerated erosion. Even rain gardens could turn into ponds if the plants are not maintained with proper watering, weeding, and inspecting. Re-planting and the removal of sediment may be necessary to ensure that the gardens are collecting stormwater and thus preventing its flow through dirty roads and into nearby creeks and streams.

Our typical approach to civil engineering is Design, Build, Operate & Maintain (O&M). The above are just a few examples of why this third step of O&M should never be overlooked. While isolated incidents of failing systems may have minimal effect on our environment, repeated events will cause compounding damages. Regular maintenance habits should be developed now to prevent long term damages that will affect our future. Please contact D.L. Howell with any questions or concerns regarding stormwater management and erosion controls in your neighborhood.

Rounding out the Workforce

Rounding out the Workforce

With 2017 underway, the presidential inauguration rapidly approaches, and Donald Trump looks to take his seat in the oval office. As is always the case with a change in leadership, there is a level of uncertainty before a new leader assumes his or her role. Among the bounty of questions that come to mind, many wonder what direction the state of education will head towards. Millions of Americans will speculate whether the trend of post-college student loan debt will continue, or if there will be a shift in the education structure. While many will lust for the days of free tuition to a public university, a more realistic line of thought will show that we are not quite there yet and may not arrive at that point for years to come. Although this may be discouraging, there is one alternative to a traditional 4-year college/university that has been overlooked by much of the population for the past several years: trade school. From kindergarten to high school, students have had the message hammered into their heads that they need to go to college after graduating high school, from parents, teachers, and even the media, to lead a successful life. What they rarely tell you is that there is another option. You don’t have to go to college to become a doctor or a lawyer but instead, you could attend trade school to learn the skills necessary to be an electrician or carpenter, or some other skilled trade worker.

Trade school is a viable alternative to the traditional 4+ year university experience and it offers a lot of benefits. For one, trade school costs less and takes fewer years to complete than a university. On average, a four-year university will gouge your pocketbooks for over $125,000, with several top institutions amounting to over $200,000. That number can be quite daunting to countless parents and prospective students throughout America. Conversely, a 2-year trade school averages a little over $30,000, less than 25% of the average university and less than 12% of many top universities. That significantly minimized tuition also comes with a reduced term of enrollment. The average length of trade school is two years whereas most universities take a minimum of 4 years to earn a bachelor’s degree, with numerous students adding a year or two because of dropped classes or transfer from another school. This means that anyone completing trade school can enter the workforce at least two years earlier than a university graduate, allowing the skilled trade worker a head start on their student loan payments. And that doesn’t even touch on the additional time and expense consumed by graduate, medical, or law school.


Another big draw for trade school is job demand. How many times have we heard that our waiter at Chili’s was a psychology major or that the cashier at Petsmart was a fine arts major? Several paths in college look great on paper and truly do allow an individual to follow his or her passion. But there are more than a few degrees that come with a low-demand job market that make it difficult for recent graduates to begin careers relevant to their major. Those include psychology, fine arts, and history, to name a few. On the flipside, professions such as electricians, plumbers, and carpenters have typically been filled by the older generation which is now beginning to retire. This movement is creating a vacancy that is waiting to be filled by an eager, young workforce. Those completing trade schools have taken advantage of this opportunity and typically have had an easier time finding a job than many college graduates. Take, for example, HVAC technicians. They can provide year-round service for a market that won’t go away anytime soon. Homeowners and renters alike will always want the comfort of heat in the winter and the refreshment of air conditioning in the summer. It’s safe to say that’s a high demand field.

Although I did not mention other benefits of trade school such as the joy and reward of creating with one’s hands or that it caters to a variety of learners I will wrap up this blog post with a quote from an experienced judge. He once said, “The world needs ditch-diggers, too.” This statement is not meant as a slight to the skilled trade worker, but rather as a commentary on the balance and diversity of skill sets required for a well-oiled industry. We need competence on all levels – from our designers to our builders, all the way up to management. In our industry, if the skilled workers implementing our plans are inadequate, then it won’t matter how good of a design we have created – something will likely go amuck in the build process. We are only as strong as our weakest link. So if you or someone you know wish to be productive in your career (and avoid the looming cloud of student loan payments), do not look singularly at a 4-year university. Broaden your scope and consider trade school as a viable option for your future. But if you decide to go to college, engineering is never a bad major to take.
New Year! Should we all shed a few square feet?

New Year! Should we all shed a few square feet?


Happy New Year! One of the most common questions of the holiday season: what’s your New Year’s resolution? We often promise ourselves we’ll work out more, or spend more time with family, or work out more, or drink more water, or, I don’t know, work out more. However, there is another popular resolution this year that is all about less. Less things, less work, less shopping…and less square footage. The lifestyle is called “Minimalism.” The predominant idea of minimalism is a shift in focus from the tangible (i.e. material items) to the intangible (i.e. relationships, experiences, memories). Minimize consumerism, maximize happiness! Well, let’s say that this new mentality takes a stronghold on America. How will this affect the civil engineering industry? This is where the idea of less square footage, or “Tiny Houses,” comes in.

​Tiny houses are 150-500 square foot homes that are equipped with all the essentials to make day to day life possible– beds, bathrooms, and kitchenettes. But you can’t plop this $35,000 – $80,000 shack just anywhere. You need land, of course. Land isn’t free. And, as we know, with land ownership comes adherence to local regulations and laws. Not every municipality is going to allow for a “tiny house” to be considered a dwelling, so before setting up shop on land, the owner must research whether the home will be considered livable by the residing township’s ordinance definitions. Zoning laws often consider these homes to fit the description of an RV, which is usually considered temporary shelter rather than a permanent residence. Beyond the definition of their lodging, tiny home owners must also consider sewer/septic connections, storm water management, municipal water connections, and minimum lot size. Because of the novelty of the concept, even if a tiny home owner purchased a lot of land, placed the tiny home on it and made all the utility connections, there is always the risk of a neighbor complaining to the township. And zoning laws aren’t the only type of regulation restricting your tiny dreams. Building codes will affect the design of your custom home. The International Residential Code (IRC) states minimum square footage and ceiling heights for specific room types.

​There has been a movement in states like Colorado, California, Texas, and Florida to amend zoning and building codes to accommodate for tiny house enthusiasts. Even tiny house hotels are a thing in Oregon, which is when many miniature homes surround a regular sized home. Tiny house communities have become popular. However, while some advocates have been successful, many counties remain strict about their zoning.

I don’t think Americans are ready to give up their surround sound and 3-car garages, so we shouldn’t expect a mass influx of tiny homes. Quite frankly, we have built America around a specific infrastructure system, and the tiny house doesn’t exactly fit the mold. However, this revolution of quality over quantity is something to keep in mind as we forecast industry housing trends over the next few years.

Tiny House Links