About the Master Designer Thomas Cook

I began construction at the age of 14 working summers for a master builder of some of the finest houses in the Atlanta metro area. I had the privilege of working on each of the various construction crews from framing carpenters, finish carpenters to plumbing and electrical crews. This gave me the opportunity to observe what all goes into building a house from foundation to completion and to learn all the basic skills of the craftspeople who work in constructing a house. This was an invaluable experience to launch me in a career of construction.

Following this experience I worked six years in the summers and school year weekendsfor a cabinet shop with also a hardware store.  We built fine custom hardwood cabinets and furniture as well as designed and built roof and floor trusses.  We got the contract to build all the fixtures for Day’s Inns throughout the Southeast.  We also designed and built their first restaurant. 

When I was not working on cabinets and trusses I worked in the hardware store helping people figure out what they needed to complete their projects or repairs or matching custom paint colors. This was a long time before computer generated color mixes.

During graduate school I worked on thecampus’ historical buildings doing restoration work. This included everything from matching and making plaster mouldings; reproducing wood mouldings for crowns and cornices; repairing slate roofs; repairing and reproducing windows and doors and making oil paints to preserve exterior woodworking.

While in graduate school I also established a company restoring antiques and making limited edition antique reproductions. A wide variety of fine antiquities came my way, from 1000 year old urns to unique wood antique furniture which often required reproducing missing parts such as finials. One of my clients whom I had done a great deal of work was on the board for the restoration of the Kentucky Governor’s Mansion. She employed me to work as a consultant for restoring this fine old mansion, including plasterrestoration and plaster mouldings and restoring the house’s antiques and reproducing others.

This work in historical restoration gave me a great appreciation of superior craftsmanship and taught me what techniques in design, workmanship and materials work successfully over 100’s of years and serving the needs of many generations.

After doing historical restoration in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana I returned to Atlanta, Georgia to live and work.  I found myself working mostly on extensive repairs, restoration and remediation of houses built in the past 30 years.  Fundamental flaws in design, workmanship and materials were identified, causing foundation issues, rotten windows and doors and the devastating damage done from insect infestation.  As a professional I felt it was my responsibility to design and implement permanent solutionswhen possible to correct these costly flaws.

In all these situations the people were living in the unhealthy presence of black mold and other toxins.

Eventually I could drive through any neighborhood and tell you what radical problems each house had without stepping on the property and could tell you within a 5 year span when the house was built.

I have done countless inspections for clients and many people walked away as a result of what they learned and what it would cost them to repair the prospective house.

It is for this reason that I resist designing houses based on continuing fluctuations in fads and trends. I aim to design houses that are timeless in how they look, but most importantly building houses to exceed local building codes. What you cannot see is after all innately more important than the façade you can see.

I once heard one the largest builders in Georgia say at a meeting of the Atlanta Home Builders Association that the secret of his success was that he stayed on top of the latest trends and spent 70% of his construction budget on the things that prospective buyers could see, because after all what they cannot see does not matter. I find this practice egregious and despicable on the part of a building professional. I cannot count the number of his houses I have practically rebuilt. Incidentally the subdivision where we had to rebuild all the rotten showers was one of his housing developments. After all for most families buying a house is their single largest investment. They should be able to rely on their professional builder to be competent in his/her building practice and use their knowledge to look out for the client’s best interest. This is what we expect of our medical doctor or attorney and no less should be expected of a builder.
We also did kitchen and bath remodels building the fixtures, cabinets and mouldings onsite in order to build cabinets that fit the space and maximizing the storage and utilizing features that fit with our clients’ choices.

Everybody likes kitchen and bath remodels because they add value to the house and bring a financial return when selling a house. What nobody likes are costly repairs for remediation and to correct fundamental design and workmanship flaws, because such does not add value to the house and the equity lost in a house to correct these issues the home owner never recovers. The client knows they must address these problems, but the money they must pay they will never see again. I really felt for the home owners with whom I worked to fix these issues. I saw them having to spend 10’s of thousands of dollars and in many cases 100’s of thousands of dollars. It often took months addressing all these kinds of issues and being in peoples’ homes daily took enormous patience on both the clients and on us who were implementing remedial corrections.

In the mid-1990’s I had grown weary and even cynical of modern building materials and practices. I determined that I would design and build to overcome the common costly issues I was addressing in the remedial side of my business. I determined that I would design and build housesto be a very low cost to maintain, energy efficient and built to be a reliable structure to serve the needs of many generations.

I didextensive research to determine what materials and building techniques would best meet these criteria. I believe that as a building practitioner I need to be a better steward of the Earth’s resources.I certainly knew that the 100’s of dumpsters filled with failed materials being sent to landfills was not good for our environment. I had also determined that building houses out of wood frame, OSB (Overlaid Strand Board) and plastic wrapwas leading to a devastating national environmental crisis. So I decided that framing houses out of wood was an option I would not use.

I am fundamentally opposed to wood framing because our forests are so essential to our survival on this planet. I had seen that here in the Southeastern United States where I live and work that the wood used to build houses in our region was coming from the Northwestern United States, Canada and even Finland and Norway. This is a practice that is seriously flawed. Trees develop and adapt to their environment and to the indigenous insects where they live. Trees from the Northwest and Canada grow in an environment where the relative humidity is low and has not the insects that we have here is the Southeast. So it was no surprise to me to see extensive deterioration and insect infestation in this wood. I have determined that if you decide your only alternative is to build with wood then have the good sense to build using timber grown and harvested in your region. I have in fact designed and built houses out of the natural resources present on a building lot including timber framed with stone houses from the timber and stone on the property.

I discovered a material that is widely used in Europe and Asia and has been in use since the early 20th century. It is fireproof, insect proof, mold proof, has a high thermal mass and effective sound isolation. The material is Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (AAC). It is a product made with sustainable renewable resources and there is no manufacturing waste byproduct because it is made completely of inert materials. It puts off no VOC’s nor can harmful micro-organisms grow upon it.The building blocks are dimensionally accurate so the walls are put up using thin set mortar which actually is a byproduct of the manufacturing and it literally sucks the blocks together so that it is impossible to break the joints.

A standard 8” block or panel has an R-value of R- 32. A conventional wood framed wall is R-13 and ceilings or roofs are R-19. So you can see the thermal mass and the material’s ability to reduce the transfer of heat or cold is far superior to conventional construction which translates into significantly lower energy costs. After the construction envelop is complete as an AAC structure the house is completely monolithic unlike framed construction and this is why it holds up superior against strong winds as in tornadoes and hurricanes. It also stands up well against wild fires, floods and even earthquakes.
I found that AAC is a very easy material in which to work. It can be cut accurately with a band saw and shaped with router knives and it even accepts screws. Another product that I integrated in my plan designs and construction is Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF). I mostly used ICF for foundations and AAC above grade but have done houses completely out of ICF.

As a design/ build contractor on only custom homes I worked daily with my crews training them on solid build construction throughout all phases of building a house. Working in the field gave me the ability to see what challenges my crews faced in undergoing their construction and this informed me on what things could be accomplished on site which insight I used in the design process.

Ialso designed and built all concrete structures which were earth bermed using the earth’s own natural thermal mass which translates into very low energy demand to heat and cool these houses. I have also designed rammed earth houses though have not actually built one. I have designed and consulted on building houses made of natural resources found on a lot such as hay bales. I have also designed and consulted on houses made of post-consumer waste such as tires, plastic and glass bottles.
Since I did design/build using solid construction methods specializing in using AAC and ICF which make high thermal mass building envelopes we also incorporated less conventional HVAC systems that could function well in initial costs and lifetime energy costs.

With a historical background and having seen the ways my predecessors had met the challenges of their day in heating and cooling their houses I learned to design primarily, beginning with incorporating simple principles of physics such as convection and working with the fact that hot air rises and cold air falls. I had in fact worked on houses over a century old that used deep tunnels under ground to heat and cool their houses. So I am a big proponent of using deep earth tubes through natural convection or using these tubes to draw fresh air through the air exchanger. This air is constantly drawn in at a threshold of 60-68 degrees so it takes very little energy to bring air up to or down to the heating and cooling demands. My building predecessors also used convection to draft out the hot air during the summer months using cupolas. So I design using clerestories and dormers not only to flood the primary living space with natural light but also to draft out hot air and reduce the cooling load. You will find this element in all my plans.

I also have used Evacuated Tube Solar Thermal Collectors (ETSTC) for domestic hot water, water source heating and as a heat source for desiccant cooling. I have worked on a house over 150 years old that used copper pipes to utilize the direct energy of the sun to provide heat for radiators and hot water. Unlike solar photovoltaic collectors the initial cost of ETSTC is relatively low and last virtually forever and you get to use the direct energy from the sun for house’s heating and cooling needs. For lots that could accommodate geothermal energy with deep bored wells for air conditioning tubes we borrowed this free energy to heat and cool our houses. I also know how important it is to have continuous convection air flow under a roof not only to eliminate condensation, reduce heat induction in the living area but also reduce the stress on the building members.

I believe when you are building a house to be low cost to maintain and to serve the needs of many generations you should put as permanent a roof as possible and fiberglass asphalt shingles certainly do not fit that bill. I usually design for Architectural Standing Seam metal roofs using zinc, aluminum, galvanized painted steel or copper roof panels which when properly installed can with stand high winds where composition roofs cannot. Such permanent roofs must be installed on permanent decking such as Cypress lath or Western Red Cedar in regions where Western Red Cedar grows. OSB certainly does not fit this bill or even plywood.
For more than 35 years I have consciously sought to strive for excellence in construction in design and implementing such plans. I have tried to keep an eye on the big picture to design and build houses that have a low impact on the environment by making them low maintenance to reduce the waste that ends up in our landfills;highly energy efficient to reduce emissions and reduce our carbon footprint and to design and build to serve the needs of many generations instead of being torn down every 20 years to suit the latest fads and trends. Though I no longer build my designs I still do house designs with the intent of them being environmentally low impact and energy sustainable.

I know you must be thinking how could I find a builder that could or would do solid type constructionwhich you specialized upon? In the designs you will find on this site I have taken this under serious consideration, so I have planned them using conventional framing techniques except for using mostly wood construction I specify them to be steel framed. I give very detailed notes and specifications on how to make a steel frame house superior to conventional wood framed and much more energy efficient and I specify low maintenance sidings and trims. Whereas standard construction walls are R-13 and roofs R-19 these plans call for R-22+ walls and R-30+ roofs and yet still use 2×4 studs. There is very little cost difference between light gauge steel studs and wood studs and usually much less waste. There are two houses in my single story plan portfolio which were designed for AAC construction: The Lauren House and The Lindley House. These can be modified for frame construction if you like the floor plans. If you are interested in solid construction I am open to providing consultation for your builder and modifying a floor plan to suit this type of construction. There is a great deal of information to be found on the web about AAC and ICF construction if you are interested in exploring this subject more. There are manufacturers of these products in the United States and of course in Europe. The two brands of AAC that I know about and have worked with are Hebel and Ytong.

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