Monday, June 20, 2016

SOLID LUMBER: What Are The Alternatives?

Coming from a nation of once seemingly limitless resources, we Americans have always taken our lumber for granted. In Victorian-era California for example, many homes—such as the fantastical mansion of the famed lumber baron William Carson in Eureka—were framed entirely of redwood.  It never occurred to builders that the lumber from this once-ubiquitous tree would one day be priced out of reach. Even in recent years, few people really expected that ordinary construction lumber species such as pine and Douglas fir would become an expensive commodity.

he Carson Mansion in Eureka, California, was the home of lumber baron
William Carson. Built in 1886, it was constructed entirely of
California redwood—which would cost a pretty penny these days.
(Architects, Newsom & Newsom)
 The continual rise in solid lumber prices is due both to the inevitable depletion of timberland, and to the lumber industry’s reaction against increasingly stringent environmental laws. To the consumer this means only one thing:  Homes built of conventional solid-sawn lumber will be getting a lot more expensive.  

I-joists are stronger and straighter then solid wood
floor joists, but can still be installed using
regular wood framing methods.
Alternatives to solid lumber have been around for a long time—the relatively low cost of solid lumber just hasn’t made them attractive until now. However, in light of the staggering increase in lumber prices over recent years, many people are taking a good look at alternative construction materials. Here are a few: 

•  Engineered lumber, which includes glued-laminated members, composite I-joists, and reconstituted wood members made of shredded wood fibers bonded by special glues. Unlike solid lumber, which inevitably has natural flaws such as knots and splits, engineered lumber has a consistent composition and hence a higher strength. This consistency also minimizes warping, which in solid lumber is caused by the tree’s natural growth rings

Disadvantages of engineered lumber include a higher cost than solid lumber, heavier weight in some cases, and slightly more complex installation methods. However, many framers agree that the straightness and consistency of these member generally outweigh such problems.

Metal stud framing is also stronger and straighter
than solid lumber framing, but working with it
takes some getting used to.
•  Steel framing has been used in commercial construction for decades. It uses lightweight steel studs attached to metal runners with self-tapping sheet metal screws. Steel framing has several advantages over wood.  Steel studs are very strong and don’t warp or twist.  They come pre-punched with holes for running wires and plumbing.  And they’re also fireproof and resistant to termites  and resistant to termites and rot.

The drawbacks of steel framing have been its cost, which in past years was substantially higher than wood, as well as the need to re-train framers accustomed to working with wood. As steel framing becomes more prevalent, however, framers will become more comfortable working with it.  

Concrete block can do most anything that
wood studs can do, and will last longer.
If you're used to building with wood,
however, it's a whole new universe
 to work in. 
•  Concrete block, widely used in Florida and parts of the Southwest, has been used infrequently in other parts of the country. Its advantages—high strength, resistance to decay, and good thermal properties—have historically not been able to overcome a widespread bias against the material’s appearance.  

Today, however, concrete block is available in a range of styles and colors, and many interesting designs are possible.  It’s the ideal material for passive-solar homes requiring thermal mass for heat storage.  And when properly reinforced, concrete block is also seismically sound. 

With old-growth solid lumber fast disappearing and managed forests producing lumber of generally inferior quality, the price of solid lumber will only increase in the future. If you’re thinking of building a home, alternatives to solid lumber are worth looking into.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

PAVING THE WAY TO SUCCESS: My Inevitable Title With A Meaningless Subtitle

Author's note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for most of the summer, and depending on how reliable my internet service proves to be, I'll continue my weekly blogs. However, please forgive me if the infrastructure/political events cause me to miss a date here or there. In any event, I wish you all, dear readers, a lovely summer.

If you’ve ever walked down a mossy brick path winding its way through a garden, you know how evocative outdoor paving can be. A well-chosen paving material can enhance both your home’s architecture and your garden’s ambience.

Scored and colored concrete—simple,
but beautiful.
A good paving material should acquire a patina as it ages.  Also, since soil is constantly swelling and shrinking due to rain and frost, it should also be able to take a little ground movement and still look good.  Here are just a few of the more popular paving materials, and how they can be used:

•  Concrete has been the standard for patios and paths for many years. Yet the great creative opportunities inherent in concrete are seldom exploited.  Because it’s a plastic material, patterns and textures are limited only by your imagination.

One neat trick is simply to score a pattern into the wet concrete, a technique widely used prior to World War II but seldom seen today.  When combined with coloring, scoring can produce a very elegant effect at relatively low cost.

Impressed concrete systems, such as
Bomanite, can be a dead ringer
for actual stone paving.
• More costly is the patented Bomanite system, in which patterns such as cobblestone, brick, or tile are imprinted into suitably colored concrete.  In many cases, the effect is indistinguishable from the real material.  You’ve probably been fooled by Bomanite “cobblestones” in many roadway median strips.    

• Exposed aggregate, in which the fine cement on the surface of the concrete is stripped off to reveal the aggregate beneath, has overcome its shopping-center reputation of the Sixties and is quite popular again. You needn’t use sparkly white rocks for this effect, either; any color or size of aggregate will do.

• For a subtler textured effect, coarse rock salt can be embedded into fresh concrete before troweling. The salt dissolves after a few weeks, leaving a very interesting rye-cracker sort of texture.

Classic brick paving can roll with
the punches. This is a herringbone
pattern with soldier course borders. 
All concrete work should be provided with control joints (strips of redwood or hardboard) at intervals of about twelve feet to allow the sections of paving to move relative to each other.  This reduces cracking in the middle of the surfaces.

•  Brick paving provides almost limitless design possibilities, weathers beautifully, and is reasonably affordable if you provide your own labor. Borders and curbs are easily accomplished in brick. And of course,  varying shades of brick can be laid in patterns to create highly artistic installations.

It’s not necessary to set bricks in mortar, either.  They can simply be laid dry on a sand bed, which allows the paving to accommodate soil settlement and encourages the growth of mosses and lichen between the bricks. Running bond, herringbone and basketweave are just a few of the most common brick paving patterns.

Interlocking pavers have a sharper, more precise look,
and are less likely to settle. 
•  Interlocking concrete pavers, which have long been popular throughout Europe, are now widely available in the U.S.  Although more expensive than poured concrete, they provide an attractive surface which easily accommodates soil movement.  Like bricks, they can be laid dry in a sand bed, making do-it-yourself installation simple. They’re available in many interlocking shapes, and in a range of colors.  A special type, called a grid paver, has openings which grass can grow through, softening the look of the paved surface.

Monday, June 6, 2016


In medieval times, the "hall"
is where everything happened.
In the small California town I grew up in, we had an elderly Oklahoma-born neighbor who always referred to her living room as “the front room”.  To me, this always conjured up visions of an old wind-beaten farmhouse in the midst of the prairie.

Today, it seems, the familiar term “living room” itself is beginning to fade away. For the past forty years, living rooms have been shrinking steadily, while family rooms have grown ever larger.  This is partly due to the fact that few people actually use their living room—it’s just become a sort of showcase for their most expensive furniture.

In light of this, many modern homes are doing away with the living room altogether.  In a recent trade journal featuring popular floor plans, a fair number of them had no living room at all—just a large family room. So it’s likely that in the not-too-distant future, the family room will assume the role that the living room has played for the past century.  It’ll still be a living room; it just won’t be called that anymore.  
The Victorian parlor was the direct
precursor of today's 'living room".

The room-name game is nothing new. Actually, we’ve gone through quite a few different names for the living room since the Middle Ages. In medieval times, the large room in which the well-to-do lived was known as the “hall”. It was the central (and often the only) gathering place for the family. It wasn’t furnished in the conventional sense—it was more like a place to camp out. People lived, ate, and slept in the hall. Furniture was designed to be movable—in French it’s still called mobiliers—so that it could be moved around to suit the room’s multiple requirements.

Since the hall was the main room of the house, you had to pass through it to get to other rooms. Today, that great medieval hall has atrophied into the tiny little room at the center of your house—the one you pass through to get to the others.

Rooms began to be specialized according to their use in seventeenth-century France.  The French salle became the modern equivalent of the medieval hall, except that now it was no longer used for cooking or sleeping.  For the first time, these functions were assigned to their own special rooms.
Far out, man—here's the ultimate earth-toned
living room of the 1970s.

In fashionable Georgian homes of the late seventeenth century, the “drawing room” became the major living area. Its name is a corruption of “withdrawing room”—the room where ladies were expected to go while the men smoked cigars and drank brandy at the dinner table.

By the late Georgian period the “parlor” had replaced the drawing room as the main public room, and the drawing room became a less formal space—somewhat like our modern concept of the family room.

Is this the "centrum" of the future?
I sure hope not.
The term “parlor”  survived through Victorian times.  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there was a growing backlash against the bombastic architecture of the Victorian period. The perceived stuffiness of Victorian ideas fell out of fashion, right down to the room names. The term “parlor” was declared old-fashioned, and the more populist-sounding “living room” succeeded it.

During the last four decades a number of would-be replacements for the living room have been suggested—“great room”, “centrum”, even “parlor” has been exhumed on occasion. My bet is still on “family room”, though, because it’s already familiar.  Anyway, I’d feel dumb saying, “Come on in, Joe, have a seat in the centrum.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


So you’re thinking of building an addition in that unused piece of yard. Should you call in an architect?  Maybe.  But before you hire a professional, you may want to do a little legwork first to make sure your idea will comply with local zoning laws. You’ll save time, money, and arguments with the neighbors by ruling out unworkable schemes at the outset.

A typical plot plan. The heavy black lines are property lines.
The dotted lines indicate the setbacks.
First, call your zoning department to find out the setbacks and height limits for your property. Remember, just because you have some empty ground doesn’t mean you can put an addition on it. Every residential property has a setback on each side—an area in which you’re not allowed to build. When requesting zoning information over the phone, give the zoning official your street address or, better yet, your Assessor’s Parcel Number (it’s on your property tax statement).  The zoning officials may require a day or two to return your calls, but be patient. Don't even start thinking about an addition until you have all the setback requirements in hand.

A typical city's table of setback requirements.
Every city is different, so don't make any assumptions.
Next, if you have the original blueprints for your house, look for the sheet titled site plan or plot plan—it's usually the first sheet of the drawings. It will show the distance from each side of your house to the property line. If you don’t have the blueprints, you may have received a small 8 1/2” x 11” size plat map with your deed when you purchased the house. The plat map will show the size of your property, although it won’t show the house.  If you can’t find this little map, the Tax Assessor’s office can provide you with a copy for a small fee.

The site plan or plat map will give you the basic dimensions of your property, as well as indicating potential problems. Beware areas with dashed lines labeled R.O.W. (right-of-way), reserve, or easement. These areas may contain public utilities such as sewer lines or overhead power lines, or they may be reserved for future utilities. Even though  you own the property, you usually cannot build on these areas. You can pave or landscape them, but the utility company nevertheless maintains the right to remove anything that’s in their way in order to access them.

Here's the buildable area that remains
on this simple rectangular property. Your existing
house will already have used up most of it;
what's left is where your addition will have to go.
If you’re thinking about a second-story addition, guesstimate the height of the completed addition and make sure it doesn’t exceed the local height limit. Take a look at the neighboring houses: If none of them have second stories, there may be a good reason for it. Height limits generally aren’t a problem, but check anyway. You know that old saw about making assumptions.

After you’ve determined your setbacks and height limits and checked for R.O.W.s, reserves, or easements, subtract these areas from your property. You can do this on paper or by actually measuring from your approximate property lines. What's left is the buildable area.  Don’t be disappointed if there's a lot less room to build than you thought. A good designer or architect can usually work around a tight site, and it’s better to have a realistic idea from the outset rather than wasting a lot of time on an impossible scheme.

Monday, May 23, 2016


Whenever it comes time for them to review their completed construction drawings, many of my otherwise poised clients begin to blanch and sputter protests like, “Oh, don’t even bother showing me those, I have no idea what they mean.”  But that’s a little like signing a contract without reading it. How do you know what you’re getting into?

A simple floor plan with dimensions.
Remember, though, that there are many
different types of plan drawings.
Since an architectural drawing is in fact a legal contract —a graphic rather than written one—it’s very important that a homeowner be able to “read” it.

The good news is that architectural drawings are not that mysterious.  If you can live with the concept of using two dimensions to represent three, the rest is easy.  There are only three basic types of architectural drawings:

•  The first type is called a plan. A plan is any view looking straight downward. The best-known of these is the floor plan, which cuts an imaginary horizontal slice through a house in order to show walls, doors, and the like.  But there are many other kinds of plans. For example, a site plan shows the property that the house will be built on; a foundation plan shows the concrete foundation; an electrical plan shows the location of lighting fixtures, switches, and receptacles; and a roof plan shows the roof surfaces and how they intersect.

Elevations: Front, right, rear, and left, though
in this case, they're labeled by compass direction.
•  The second type of architectural drawing is called an elevation. It shows the house from the side rather than from above. The most common kind is an exterior elevation, which shows the exterior of each side of the house. The standard sequence for a complete set of exterior elevations shows the front, right, rear, and left sides of the house.

There are two other types of elevation:  An interior elevation is used to show interior features like fireplaces or archways, or other features that can’t be fully described in a plan alone.  For example, the floor plan may show an arch, but what kind of arch?  Round, square, elliptical, segmental, Moorish?  The interior elevation helps clarify such features.

Finally, a cabinet elevation (also called a casework elevation) shows the cabinetwork as seen from the front. While a kitchen floor plan can show the basic location of cabinets and counters, a cabinet elevation is needed to show the exact size and location of cabinet doors, drawers, shelves, and the like.  It’s typically drawn for kitchens, bathrooms, and any other complicated interior areas.

A simple section drawing. In this example, it's fairly easy
to recognize that it's a slice through the building.
•  The third and final type of drawing is called a section. Simply put, it’s a vertical slice through the house. To picture it, imagine taking a giant saw and cutting the house in half vertically. The resulting dollhouse-like view lets us actually look inside of walls, attics, and crawlspaces, so it’s useful for showing the house’s structure and other features that can’t be seen from outside.

For most people, sections are the most difficult drawings to read.  Unlike plans and elevations, they don’t always look like a recognizable part of a house.  But once you get used to the concept of cutting slices through the house to see what it’s made of, you’ll find yourself reading them like a pro.

•  Finally, any one of these three drawing types can be used to zoom in on a particular aspect of the building to show it more clearly.  The resulting larger-scale drawing is called a detail.  For example, an unusually-shaped rain gutter may be too small to distinguish on a section, so the architect draws an enlarged version of the gutter to describe it more clearly.

Monday, May 16, 2016


A beautifully defined outdoor room. The low wall provides
a sense of enclosure (as well as extra seating)
without obstructing the garden view.
What’s an “outdoor room”?  No, it’s not one of those aluminum p aluminum patio covers people had in the Sixties.  In architecture, an outdoor room is a living area that relies on landscape elements instead of walls to provide a sense of enclosure.

Considering the expense of real estate today, it’s surprising how few people fully utilize their land for outdoor living space.  Properly-planned outdoor rooms can make a small home seem much larger, and at very reasonable cost.

An outdoor room requires all the same niceties as an indoor one: Sunlight, comfortable furnishings, privacy, and convenient access. Just think of it as an integral part of your home’s floor plan.  
Here are a few design tips:

A pair of doors leading out in the bare minimum—
and the bigger the better.
• Locate outdoor rooms in the areas that receive sunlight throughout most of the day—yes, even if you live in a hot climate.  You can always create shade if you need to, but a shadowed area will be unalterably drafty and uninviting during most of the year.

• If you’re planning several areas with different times of usage—for example, a small deck for breakfasting, and a patio area for afternoon barbecues—orient them where they’ll receive sun during the time of use.

•  Minimize negative space. An area with a strong sense of enclosure—one based on a circle, for example—is termed a positive space.  Negative space is what’s left over from it, like the pointy scraps of dough left over from cutting out cookies.  These harsh, spiky areas are uncomfortable to be in, and they’re also hard to utilize.

Therefore, banish angles with less than 90 degrees when laying out planting beds and paved areas. Narrow dead-end alleys, sharply converging slivers of ground, and other leftovers should be avoided. Any such areas that remain can be filled with planting.

Paving patterns are one way to define outdoor areas,
but don't rely on them too much. .Where possible, try to add
changes of level to introduce a third dimension.
•  Use different paving materials to define areas.  So-called hard materials such as concrete, brick, and redwood decking can be contrasted with soft materials such as lawn or ground cover to avoid a barren, hard-edged feel.

Adding changes of level is an even more effective way to delineate different outdoor rooms. A few steps in a logical place will also add interest and help avoid the two-dimensional effect of using borders alone.

•  Use generous openings to access the outdoor room directly from an interior living area, perhaps using a sliding door or a pair of French doors. Direct and generous access is critical, since an area that’s difficult to reach will seldom be used. Adding doors to the garden has an another benefit as well:  By visually incorporating the outdoors, interior areas will appear more spacious.
If there are neighboring houses that look out
onto your outdoor room, make sure you provide
some privacy screening. It won't be comfortable
to spend time there if you feel you're on display.

•   Lastly, provide for privacy. To be comfortable, at least part of your outdoor room should be screened from the view of your local gawkers.  Tall planting, a lattice screen, or just a good old-fashioned fence will fill the bill.  Or, build a trellis or gazebo to provide a private retreat from the main outdoor area.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


A few decades ago, you had two main choices of interior door:  A hollow-core slab door in Philippine mahogany, or one in paint grade. My, how tastes change.

Your standard-issue six-panel Colonial
door—king of the hill since the '80s.
Today, the molded six-panel Colonial door is king.  First made popular by tract builders during the 1980s, these retro-look doors are manufactured of wood fiber formed under pressure and won’t warp or split.  They’re available prefinished in a limited number of colors and can also be had prehung. Mind which brand you choose, though; some have really preposterous wood graining molded in.

From Grandma's house:
An old single-panel door
made of honest-to-God
For devotees of genuine wood, other choices are available.  Stile-and-rail panel doors—the kind your Grandma’s house probably had—have made a real comeback. The single-panel stile-and-rail door, originally seen in homes of the Twenties and Thirties, is currently the most popular style of genuine wood panel door.  These have a single large recessed panel that adds elegance without being as fussy as the molded six-panel style.  Also, because these doors are real wood, they can be stained or oiled.

Stile-and-rail doors are available in many other panel configurations as well, right down to the elaborate vertical-panel formats of Victorian times.  Of course, genuine wood panel doors will cost you more than the molded variety—a basic single-panel door in fir will run around $150.

A flush door is the "correct" style for  Mid-Century
Modern homes, which didn't cotton to a lot of
fussy ornament.
If you’re remodeling a Mid Century Modern home, however, all of these panel doors will look very much out of place. For these modernist-era homes, a slab door (more properly called a flush door) will be more in character. Don’t fear, though; you needn’t use a cheap hollow-core one.  Solid-core flush doors are available in a range of high-quality wood or laminate veneers. They start at around $100.  You may not find these at discount home centers, though—check the better quality lumberyards.

And while we're on the subject, here’s a brief summary of door types:

A pocket door can be a boon
when space is at a premium.
•  Swinging doors are by far the most common type.  The direction in which the door opens is called the hand of the door.  For example, a door which opens away from you and is hinged on the right is termed a right-hand door.  Hinged on the left, it’s a left-hand door.  But if it opens toward you and is hinged on the right, it’s a “right hand  reverse bevel door ”, and hinged on the left it's called a. . .  let’s just forget it, okay?

Bifold doors are sometimes the best
choice for odd-width openings;
in closets, they allow much better access
than bypassing doors.
•  Pocket doors (often mistakenly called sliding doors) slide into a recess in the wall. They usually come as a kit with all the required pocket framing and hardware.  The door itself is just a regular door, however, so any normal style can be used, as long as it doesn't have moldings that protrude beyond the door face.

•  Bypassing doors (also often incorrectly called sliding doors) are the least expensive type for closets.  They consist of two or more panels that slide behind each other, or “bypass”.  They can be of molded wood products, plastic, wood veneer, or solid wood.  They’re also available mirrored, with wood or aluminum frames.

•  Bifold doors are twin pairs of hinged panels that fold to either side of the opening.  They’re available molded or in solid wood (and less commonly in aluminum).  They’re popular for closets, since they’re available with louvers or half-louvers.  Though they look great when properly installed, they’re susceptible to misalignment and tend to bind as they get older.  The louvered type are also a nightmare to paint.