Monday, March 19, 2018


It's no big deal to replace a window with french doors—
as long as you stay within the original window opening
and just remove the wall beneath.
Widen the opening, however, and your'e talking $$$$.
Everyone knows that grandiose plans are expensive. But big costs can come in small increments, too: often, a matter of a few inches one way or the other can turn a bargain design into a bank-breaker. Spotting those expensive inches is crucial to optimizing your remodeling dollar.

Take a minor remodel such as replacing a window with a sliding or French door, for example. Many people figure that, since they’re tearing up the wall anyway, they ought to widen the doorway a little while they’re at it. That’s a perfect example of expensive inches. 

Design your kitchen with modular cabinet dimension in mind
and you'll save a ton of money over custom cabinets.
It's simple— just keep everything in multiples of 3".
Why?  Because the top of every window and door opening is spanned by a heavy wooden beam called a header, which continues into the wall a few inches on either side and extends nearly all the way to the ceiling. To accommodate wider doors, this header usually has to be torn out and replaced, requiring vastly more demolition and repairing of finishes, and hence adding lots of needless expense. 

The same job can be done for a lot less if the new doors are designed to fit entirely within the existing opening, thus preserving the header and the surrounding framing. In most cases, you won’t lose any functionality by doing so: the rough framing of a typical 6’ wide sliding window, for example, will handily accommodate a pair of 2’-10” french doors or a 6’ sliding door simply by removing the section of wall beneath the window.

Remember that all building materials,
such as sheet mirrors, come in standard sizes.
When you exceed them, even by a half-inch,
you're going to pay a lot more.
Kitchen remodels also contain some notoriously costly inches. For example, lowering a standard 36” high countertop “just a bit” may seem innocuous by itself, but may in turn force you to use custom-built cabinets rather than the more affordable modular kind. Deviating from the standard 3” width multiple used in modular cabinets can have the same result. So don’t be too cavalier about requesting nonstandard dimensions—while practically anything can be custom-built to your exact specifications, you’ll pay a heavy premium for it. 

In fact, sticking to standard sizes and heights will go a long way toward keeping a tight budget under control no matter what the project. Special sizes inevitably add cost, so try to become familiar with the standard building material sizes before you start your project, and work within those limits wherever possible. 

Sometimes, though, people don't add enough
inches—a small pop-out addition
such as this one will cost a fortune
relative to the space it adds.
Standard sizes even apply to a lot of materials most people consider “made to order”.  The sheet mirror typically used above bathroom vanities, for example, is stocked in 42” widths. Anything wider—even by half an inch—requires that the mirror be cut from stock the next size up.  And of course, you pay for the wasted mirror glass as well as the part you use.
Alas, the law of expensive inches can work in reverse as well: it can be just as bad not to add enough of them. For example, clients often ask me to enlarge a bedroom by “just moving the wall out twelve inches or so,” mistakenly thinking that moving a wall a small distance is cheaper than moving it a lot.  In reality, of course, the wall doesn’t get “moved” at all; it simply gets demolished and replaced by a new one. And since the cost of building a new wall is about the same regardless of where you put it, you’ll lower your square-foot building costs considerably by enclosing a big area rather than a small one. 

Monday, March 12, 2018


Even the mighty Frank Lloyd Wright didn't waste time
doing fancy drafting when he was still hashing out ideas.
This one eventually turned into Fallingwater.
Lots of my clients hire me to review designs which they’ve drawn on a do-it-yourself computer drafting program or, worse, painstakingly drafted by hand.  They usually put enormous effort into drawing fastidious little toilets, curtain rods, and so on, trying to make the plan look “professional”, while paradoxically, they put comparatively little thought into the design itself.   

That’s a big mistake. In order to produce a really well thought-out design, you have to explore lots and lots of different schemes—what architects call iterationsThis in turn means you shouldn’t spend a lot of time drawing up any one scheme until it’s clear you’re close to a solution. It’s much better to end up with a whole pile of messy solutions that work than to produce one spotless drawing that's a loser.  
The Swiss architect Le Corbusier was renowned for his
scribbly sketches, which he never hesitated to include
as illustrations in his numerous books.

 When a person invests a lot of time in a drawing—say, a floor plan—they have a natural tendency to covet it, regardless of how rotten a solution it really is. Then, when some glaring error is pointed out, they become defensive, since they’ve probably just wasted their last eight weekends slaving over a drawing that’s fatally flawed. 

“Your bathroom opens onto the dining room,” I’ll say to a proud client.  “We’ve got to fix that.”  To which they invariably moan, “Oh, no!  I spent so much time on this drawing!”  

Your best friends—lots of cheap paper,
a waste basket, and a willingness
to keep on trying.
If you’re thinking of building an addition (or a whole house) and want to explore  a few design possibilities—whether to save on architectural fees, or just to give your architect a starting point—try the approach many architects use:

• Don’t do initial design sketches on a CAD program—you'll spend most of your effort trying to make the drawing look good, which is a waste of time at this point. Draw on paper. But don't draw on expensive paper, either. Draw on flimsy tracing paper (available in art and drafting supply stores in 12”x50’ rolls). Why? First of all, it’s cheap, and you won’t feel guilty tossing wads of it into the recycling bin as you search for a solution. Second, since tracing paper is transparent, you can overlay your basic sketches without having to draw the whole blasted thing over and over again. You can focus on just the parts that still need work.  

•  Do try lots and lots of quick, sketchy solutions. Don’t waste time making your drawings look tidy; regardless of what your first-grade teacher may have told you. Neatness is unimportant at this stage of the game. The more schemes you try, the more likely you’ll converge on a good solution.

Multiple design sketches can help you
sort out what works, and what doesn't.
•  Don’t get mired down in one basic approach. This is a deadly trap for neophyte designers. You end up drawing the same basic solution over and over again, perhaps with trivial variations, while possibly overlooking one or more completely different—and better—solutions. If you don’t seem to be moving forward, quit. Take the problem up again the next day when you’re refreshed, and try to take a whole new tack on the problem.

•  Finally, don’t get too attached to your sketches. Remember, they’re a means toward an end, not a work of art. Yes, you've probably spent dozens of hours on your design and, yes, it hurts when people point out shortcomings—but you should always be willing to take criticism, whether from your architect, your spouse, or your twelve-year-old. The end result will just be that much better.

Monday, March 5, 2018


Back-to-back bathroom plumbing: It's fine if you can do it;
otherwise, forget it.
Certain fallacies have been repeated so often that people now accept them as fact—“urban myths,” some call them. No doubt you’ve heard the one about the lady who tried to dry her poodle in the microwave. It never really happened, but it’s been repeated so often that many folks think it did.

Architecture and planning have their own truisms—"building myths", if you will.  While they lack the high drama of exploding poodles, they’re equally nonsensical. Here are a handful that spring to mind:
A kitchen design with the wall ovens next to the
refrigerator: If your appliances don't mind,
why should you?

•  “Bathrooms should be designed back-to-back to save plumbing costs.”  This truism no doubt has its roots in commercial construction, where identical bathroom groups are endlessly repeated, and back-to-back planning can in fact yield real savings. While it may save a little money in residential design, too—to the tune of a few hundred dollars—it’s simply not worth straightjacketing a floor plan for such a trivial saving. The frequent corollary of this argument, "All the plumbing bathroom plumbing should be located in one wall," is equally invalid for the same reasons. There's no need to line up fixtures on one wall if some other arrangement works better.

•  “When laying out a kitchen, don’t put the oven next to the refrigerator.”
Some copy-starved home magazine probably engendered this planning myth. Ovens make heat, the reasoning goes, and refrigerators make cold—put the two together and all thermodynamic heck will break loose. As kitchen design problems go, however, this one is a non-starter. Refrigerators generate plenty of heat on their own—that’s how they cool the food inside—so a little more heat from baking a meat loaf now and then won’t make any difference. Given a lack of other options, placing these two appliances side by side will work just fine. Same goes for refrigerators and dishwashers.   

Second story additions: Not nearly as simple as they look.
(Image courtesy of
•  “Adding a second story is the cheapest way to gain space.” Far from it. If your property is big enough, an addition at ground level will usually be both cheaper and less traumatic than adding a second story. “Going up” has other potential pitfalls as well. A second story addition demands a logically-placed staircase—something many existing floor plans can’t accommodate without coming off half-baked. Moreover, if your present foundation isn’t adequate to carry an additional story—many aren’t—you may need to reinforce it, often at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.     

If there’s nowhere else to go but up, a second story addition is the ticket; otherwise, look into other options first.

Worn-looking roof shingles: They may be ugly,
but that doesn't mean they're going to leak.
•  “Paint is a great way to update your home’s look.”   This advice invariably appears under a headline announcing, “The Latest Color Trends!”  Trendy colors will update your home’s look, all right—until next year’s color fad blows into town.  If you really want a timeless color scheme, eschew the pronouncements of fashion- industry tastemakers, and choose colors based—gasp!— on your own preferences.  If you don’t trust your ability to choose or combine colors, by all means, hire an interior designer or color consultant to help you; but make it clear that you don’t want yet another trendoid color revamp.

•  “If your roof looks worn, it’s time for replacement.” Rubbish. I’ve railed against this misconception for years, but I’ll repeat myself one more time:  If a roof doesn’t leak, it doesn’t need replacement. The way it looks is no basis for judging its watertightness. If your roof is so ugly you can’t stand the sight of it, that’s another matter. But don’t confuse appearance with performance.  

Monday, February 26, 2018


Compression faucets: Plink, plink, plink...
Plink.  Plink.  Plink.

With all the little annoyances the world has to offer, the last thing you need is a cheap, leaky faucet driving you crazy. Unfortunately, the market is now flooded with junky foreign-made products—as well as a few U.S.-made dogs—that are hardly worth taking the time to install. One simple test for quality is knowing how long a manufacturer has been around. While I can’t mention names, I can tell you this: If the brand wasn’t around ten years ago, forget it—let someone else be a guinea pig.

Another basic indicator of  faucet quality is whether it uses compression valves (rubber washers) or ceramic disc valves. Basically, there's no point in buying faucets with washers anymore, and in any case, only absolute bottom-of-the-barrel models have them. Avoid these unless you're nostalgic for the sound of dripping.

These little ceramic discs are what prevent modern faucets
from dripping. 
Also, think twice before investing in high-priced European brands. The plain fact is that European plumbing technology has been playing catch-up with the U.S. for more than a century—why pay a hefty premium for it? Domestic manufacturers such as American-Standard and Chicago Faucet were building quality faucets long before many Europeans had indoor bathrooms.
Now, a quick rundown on what’s available.

Note the awkward hand movement required to
operate this faucet. Try it before you buy it.
•  Kitchen faucets—whether standard or single-lever—can be had in chrome, brass, gold, and various painted finishes. Chrome is by far the easiest to maintain and the least likely to look dated in a few years. Numerous nifty accessories are available to go with kitchen faucets, from pull-out sprayers—very handy for rinsing bulky things—to built-in soap dispensers, which neatly do away with that gloppy soap-bar mess. Beware high-style faucets with oddball faucet handle locations—there are plenty of them—because these can be unintuitive or just plain clumsy to operate. In any event, try out any faucet for ease of use before falling in love with its appearance.

•  Lavatory faucets can be had in the same range of finishes outlined above, as well as in a bunch more proprietary finishes. However, unlike kitchen faucets, most of which are reasonably good-looking, lavatory faucets range from inoffensive to hideous. Look for the cleanest, simplest design that still suits the style of your house, and think twice about choosing high-maintenance finishes such as brass and gold.

No, this manufacturer isn't kidding.
•  Bath faucets present a regular minefield of possibilities, what with options for twin shower heads, handheld sprayers, needle baths, and other luxury options. The technical choices can also be confusing. There are two broad types of tub/shower valves—pressure-balancing and thermostatic. The intent of both is to regulate the temperature of the bath or shower water to prevent scalding, a feature now required by most building codes. Pressure-balancing valves are typically installed in mid-level work and are perfectly adequate for most tub-shower applications. Thermostatic valves are more commonly seen in showers with multiple heads. They require additional hardware, since they do not regulate flow at all, but only temperature. Typically, the thermostatic control valve is used to set the water temperature and a separate valve, called a volume control valve, regulates the volume of water going to each spray head.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Postcard view of the Palace of Fina Arts, Chicago
(Architect: Charles B. Atwood, 1893)
If you ever wanted to create a Disneyland for architects, you’d only have to put a fence around Chicago. The place is so chock full of architectural masterpieces, it’s like a living history book.  

Umpteen heroes of American architecture are represented here: Louis Sullivan (you know—“form follows function”) contributed the monumental Auditorium Building in partnership with Dankmar Adler, and ten years later gave Chicago the lyrically ornamented Carson, Pirie & Scott store—the swan song of his brilliant but tragic career.  

Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago.
(Mies van der Rohe, 1949)
Charles B. Atwood, among the reigning Beaux Arts architects of his time, conjured up the ethereal Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and helped set off a nationwide mania for classical architecture. And the expatriate German architect Mies van der Rohe (“a house is a machine for living in”) got his licks in too, most notably with his Lake Shore Apartments of 1951, still considered a high-water mark of Modernist design. 

More than anything else, though, Chicago is a showcase for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The brilliant, defiant and egocentric Wright is considered the greatest architect the United States has produced, a status that’s only grown more secure in the years since his death in 1959 at 92.  

At the close of the nineteenth century, it was largely Wright who broke the Victorian stranglehold of artifice and eclecticism in architecture, and who pioneered so many of our modern residential ideals: open planning; honest use of materials; and integration of the building to its site.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Chicago (Oak Park):
The beginning of an architectural revolution.
Wright’s prodigious ego also helped him weather the storms of controversy that surrounded his so-called “Prairie Houses”. As his increasingly-radical designs appeared in new Chicago suburbs such as Oak Park in the early years of this century, dismayed neighbors frequently declared them to be monstrosities or worse. It’s easy to see why: compared to the dunce-capped towers, filigreed porches, and superficial gewgaws of contemporary Victorian houses, Wright’s uncompromisingly clean-lined, ground-hugging homes must have seemed like something from another planet.   

In Oak Park, in Wright’s day a quiet suburb, one can literally walk from one Wright masterpiece to the next, witnessing an architectural revolution one house at a time. It’s here that we first see Wright begin to tamper with Victorian architectural conventions, and finally discard them altogether. Among the earliest examples is Wright’s own home, begun in 1889 with $5000 loaned to him by his “lieber Meister”, Louis Sullivan. Subsequent Oak Park commissions show his style slowly mature into the now-familiar Wright hallmarks: the low, broad-eaved roofs; the banded casement windows with their dazzling leaded glass panes; the massive central chimneys which anchor the homes to their sites.  
Wright's Oak Park home for bicycle magnate Frederick C. Robie (1909),
considered the apogee of Wright's "Prairie Style" phase.
(Image: Garret Karp View for Open House Chicago)

In Hyde Park stands the culmination of Wright’s Prairie House phase, the residence he built for bicycle manufacturer Frederick C. Robie in 1909.  It’s a design so extraordinarily “modern” as to make one wonder if any real progress has been made in architecture since.

Although Wright’s subsequent commissions took him to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Baghdad, Chicago affords the most fascinating glimpse of Wright’s career:  the shaping of an extraordinary vision, and the solitary path of genius.

Monday, February 12, 2018

HOME RENOVATION: The Un-Sexy Stuff Comes First

Just patch it up? No, I don't think so.
I recently spoke with a client who just bought an old house in, shall we say, less than pristine condition. That’s understandable—home prices are once again on the rise, and you take what you can get.  

The problem? As we went through the place, he recounted a whole litany of projects he intended to undertake right away, ranging from trivial ones such as painting, to enormous ones such as remodeling the kitchen, without drawing any distinction whatever as to what needed doing first.

Now there’s a recipe for disaster.  

There's no use building anything on top of a floor like this,
because you'll be fighting it through the whole project,
and still end up with a lousy job. Fix it first.
A complex project such as renovating a neglected house consists of umpteen separate steps, all of which have to occur in a logical order. Now, it happens that this fellow’s house had some serious foundation problems that caused the floors to be markedly out of level. Hence, any work done before this problem was corrected would be a complete waste of time, for two reasons: first, you’d be working with a lot of cockeyed reference points (crooked floors and out-of-square walls); and second, even if you managed to do a credible job of concealing these problems, they would all reappear when the floors were finally leveled.  

Clearly, the ugly job of repairing the foundation, as un-sexy as it was to my cosmetic-minded client, had to be done before anything else. Therein lies half the battle of doing a big project: putting first things first. Here are a few pointers to help keep your own priorities straight:  
Oh, crap—where do I cook dinner tonight? And
for the next three months?
If it ain't broke, don't fix it yet.

•  First, establish reasonable goals and a realistic budget. Many first-time home buyers greatly overestimate how much they can accomplish, and greatly underestimate how much it’s going to cost. Don’t be blinded by optimism. Instead, make a detailed wish list of what you’d like to do.  Then append a guesstimated cost to each item (hire a contractor or architect to help you if necessary)

You’ll probably find that your budget has gone south long before all your wishes are fulfilled, and that both lower expectations and a sense of priorities are in order.   

•  Attend to structural and functional problems first. For the time being, learn to live with the gold-veined mirror tile in the bedroom, and put your resources where they’ll count.  While foundation, dry rot, and roof repairs aren’t the sort of projects you’ll see in glamorous home magazines, they’re a lot more vital than painting your living room in the latest shade of gray. Buckle down and get the nasty stuff done first.
Okay—now you can do the sexy stuff!
(Image courtesy

•  Don’t create more work than you already have. My client was raring to remodel his kitchen, despite the fact that there were a dozen more pressing projects waiting. Moreover, while his kitchen wasn’t great, it was perfectly serviceable, and the last thing he needed was to tear it to pieces. Concentrate on deficiencies first; don’t create new problems where there weren’t any.  That enormously wise old maxim applies here:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—at least not yet.

•  Save cosmetic repairs for last. Home buyers naturally want things to look better right away. Unfortunately, painting, plastering or carpeting over problem areas is a complete waste of time and money. Once you’re working with a solid base (and I mean that quite literally), then you can go on to the fun of choosing colors and finishes.  The renovation process is like a good dinner—first the steak and potatoes, then the chocolate mousse. 

Monday, February 5, 2018


You simply can't make outdoor steps too shallow.
However, remember to make the steps deeper as you make
the rise shallower, using the formula Rise± Run=17.5".
Designing landscape structures—decks, gazebos, planters and the like—is a lot different than designing buildings. The scale of the outdoors is vast, and dimensions that might be perfectly appropriate inside a house can result in a major case of the wimpies when used outdoors.  Here are a few examples:

If there's nothing to stop you from making the deck steps
full width—do it. Steps make a lovely place to sit and relax.
•  Stairs are the most frequently screwed-up detail of outdoor designs. While the Uniform Building Code allows interior stairs as steep as 8” rise by 9” run, such dimensions are aesthetically disastrous outdoors. For decks, patios, and landscape stairs, you shouldn’t exceed a maximum 6” riser with an 11” run.  Preferably, stairs should be even shallower. A useful formula for stairs, whether indoors or out, is:  Rise+Run=17.5”. It’ll help you adjust the rise and run to the slope the slope of the landscape while maintaining comfortable stair proportions.

Another common mistake in designing outdoor steps is to make them the same width as the typical indoor stair, which is typically about three feet. Alas, this yields what my mother would call a hühner leiter: a chicken ladder. Such steps are much too narrow in the context of the landscape. Deck steps, for example, should be a minimum of six feet wide, and even wider if possible. In fact, if there’s nothing to stop you, make your steps the full width of the deck. The extra cost is trivial, and they’ll make a fine spot for sitting on warm evenings.

Fussy gazebos, such as this prefab one
made by a well-known company, won't hold up well
in the weather, and look wimpy and inconsequential outdoors.
•  Because the outdoors is so—well, big—structures and decks can look insignificant unless their scale is increased somewhat. For example, while an indoor breakfast room measuring 9’ by 9’ feet might be acceptable, an outdoor gazebo built to these dimensions will look positively dinky. It’s best to increase the scale of such structures
(including their ceiling heights) by about 20 percent or so over their indoor counterparts. Likewise, decks meant to accommodate outdoor furniture should be no less than twelve feet deep—otherwise, occupants will always feel as though they’re about to fall off the deck edge.

This gazebo is simpler, heavier, and will only
get better looking  as the years pass.
• Even railings need to be beefier in the scale of the outdoors. For instance, the usual 1/2” square wrought iron balusters commonly used indoors will look like gossamer when they’re installed outside. If you have your heart set on a wrought iron rail, try using 3/4” square balusters with commensurately heavy posts and top and bottom rails. Or, cap the top rail with a chunky piece of lumber such as a 3x4 (but use a good quality vertical-grain lumber to avoid splinters).

This combined steel (a.k.a. "wrought iron") and wood rail
avoids the gossamer look of most all-steel railing designs.
If you’re planning to use a wood rail, avoid finicky construction details that employ spindly stock such as 1x2s or thin lattice material. Aside from looking frail, such small-scale materials are highly susceptible to the ravages of weather and partying teenagers. They’ll look great the day they’re installed, and then fall to pieces not long after. In outdoor designs, the rule is simple: the bigger, the better. Use substantial lumber sizes, and try to avoid nominal 2” lumber altogether.

Certain kinds of joinery are also bad news outdoors. For all their vaunted beauty, miter joints seldom hold up well over time. Even the most carefully-constructed miters will eventually open up and look shabby within a few years (often, in even one season.) Simple, square-cut butt joints—especially ones with a healthy overlap that conceals shrinkage—are much more resistant to the effects of weathering.