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Architecture/Cigarette smoke coming into my rowhouse


QUESTION: Hi! Hoping you can give me some suggestions. Neighbor chain-smokes in her bsmt. it is drawn into my heater and pushed out thruout the house during winter/summer. I have sealed noticeable cracks with the foam that hardens, in my bsmt. Also stuffed one of the nearby vents with insulation to try to stop it. It is bad. I'm sitting here on the first floor with a window open, floor fan on, and exhaust fan to try and alleviate the tightness in my chest (asthma). And the a/c is coming on, of course. She claims there are no openings that she can plug (as her bsmt is finished--paneled). We just have the brick wall (firewall) between us. Homes were built in the 50s, I believe.  If you have no ideas, do you know if I have any recourse? Is there a state or county group that I could contact for help? Secondhand smoke is awful.  I shouldn't have to live like this and feel so helpless. Looking forward to your answers, Richard. And thanks very much for your time.

Rowhouse Section
Rowhouse Section  

Although I may be an architect, I am not licensed in your particular state.  For more detailed analysis, I must recommend that you employ the services of a mechanical engineer licensed within your state.  Furthermore, I know nothing about asthma and you should consult a doctor. By reading any further, you and all others who choose to make use of this information agree to hold harmless the person offering this voluntary advice.

Evidently, the furnace unit (and/or duct work) that serves your living area is located in the basement below.  But I am uncertain where a vertical brick wall would divide your living unit from hers if her unit is entirely below yours.  Unfortunately, your efforts to exhaust the fumes from your living unit to the outside only makes it worse as the result is a negative pressure.  In other words, you are sucking smoke from her apartment.

While the standards for sealing duct work have improved dramatically, anything installed more than 10 years ago would leak a great deal.  Any duct work installed by today's standards will leak a little.  I am guessing that the return air ducts between your unit and the furnace not only trespass into the smoking lady's space but it needs to be sealed tight, tested, and sealed again.

Better yet would be to abandon that furnace/A.C. unit altogether by plugging the duct work, disconnecting the power/gas to that furnace/A.C. unit, and installing a Mitsubishi split mini system with one unit located discretely on the outside of your row house and then separate units inside (that each connect to the one unit outside).  You could have four small internal units individually controlled by four thermostats in four different rooms.  I am guessing the cost would be $4,500 for complete equipment and installation.

If that is beyond your budget, then I would recommend purchasing a quiet, energy efficient Broan exhaust fan for $150 and have your favorite mechanical contractor REVERSE the air flow in order to pressurize your living area.  This requires you to close your doors and windows.  Then cook your favorite smelly ethnic food and ask your neighbor if she can smell it.  I would recommend coconut curry chicken.  If my theory is correct, you will no longer smell smoke but she will smell your food.

I hope you find a solution that works.

Richard Burton, AIA
Registered Architect
ICC Certified Plan Reviewer
NFPA Certified Fire Plan Examiner

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QUESTION: Thank you, Richard. I live in a row house that is right next to hers, so we each have a bsmt, a first floor, and a second floor, then attic space. Anything else you might add, now knowing this?  Thnks much.

Smoking Rowhouse
Smoking Rowhouse  

Please refer to the disclaimer in the previous post.

What part of the country do you live in?  So far, I can only assume that both heating and cooling is important in your State.

Given the larger size of your row house than I assumed, the exhaust fan may not be sufficient to create the positive pressure we need to force your conditioned air through the cracks and into your neighbor's unit (instead of the existing situation while her smoke invades your breathable air).
From what we know already, there are penetrations somewhere that allow air transfer.  A typical location would be the electrical outlets located in the common wall.  While today's code prohibits these from being installed back-to-back, there was a time when the electrician thought it made sense to do so.  Take a candle and hold it near the electrical outlet to see if the flame flickers as air blows out around the outlet cover.
Rather than install a small fan, I would recommend more air flow given that your row house is more than 1,000 S.F. in size.  An energy recovery ventilator could be installed for $2,000 and it is possible that it will also save you money in terms of utility bills.  Sure, it will take a few years for it to pay for itself but eventually it will pay for itself.  This would be in addition to your existing heating and air conditioning system.

Let me know what you decide to do and how things turn out.


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Richard Burton AIA


A combined total of 25 years experience with construction, architecture, and building code enforcement. Ask me about residential and commercial design. Ask me about design aesthetics, structural methods, and building something that will withstand severe weather conditions. Ask me my opinion about YOUR design ideas and I will tell you the merits of good design and challenge your thinking about practical issues. Ask me how to best find and work with your local architect and approach general contractors to get the most value for the least amount of headaches. You can ask me about improving your energy efficiency and things that are both green and practical. But don't ask me about solar panels and wind turbines unless you are currently paying your utility company 35 cents per Kilowatt. Otherwise the math does not justify the initial cost and return on investment. Ask me any building code question and how to get a building permit from the most difficult enforcement agencies.


Here in the midwest, we design and build "green" in ways that make sense. My construction methods prioritize weather resistance, ease of maintenance and durability. While a graduate student in San Diego, I taught drafting and history of architecture. After working ten years for other architecture firms, I have started my firm Arrow Architecture in 2008. More than half of my work involves commercial office buildings. But my portfolio of work also includes custom homes, residential additions, home remodels, and second story additions.

President-Elect of American Institute of Architects - Lincoln, NE

B.S. Architecture - (Interior Design) University of Nebraska Lincoln 1997 Master of Architecture - (Urban Design and Professional Practice) NewSchool of Architecture - San Diego 2004 Graduated Summa Cum Laude ICC Certified Building Plans Examiner

Awards and Honors
AIA Henry Adams Medal and Certificate

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