Monday, June 18, 2018


Studs: They're a lot easier to find when the room looks
like this. Otherwise, buy a good studfinder.
Watch any of those popular home-improvement shows on television, and you’ll ’ll be assaulted by a barrage of arcane carpentry terms. Given that it’s a sort of badge of honor among do-it-yourselfers to know their studs from their stools—as it were—I humbly offer the following primer:

•  Stud. We’ll start with an easy one, what? Anyone who’s ever hung a picture knows that a stud is one of the vertical 2x4s that make up the wall framing. They’re usually spaced 16” apart (or “on center”, as architects and builders like to put it).  However, knowing what a stud is is one thing; finding one is another. A sharp rap on the wall with a knuckle will do for the experienced; for the rest of us, an electronic studfinder is a better choice.

Pressure treated 2x4 lumber as now
used for mudsills in place of redwood.
Some is dark brown; some is greenish;
some has telltale needle marks
like this does.
•  Mudsill. Like many carpentry terms, this one has a quaint Middle Ages ring to it. It refers exclusively to the special piece of 2x4 or 2x6 lumber that’s placed directly on top of the concrete foundation wall—a location highly vulnerable to moisture and insect attack. Prior to World War II, the mudsill was usually made of redwood to resist the effects of termites and rot. Because redwood is so pricey now, it's been replaced by pressure treated lumber. This is just ordinary Douglas Fir with a preservative injected into it, which explains why it has all those needlemarks.

A header beam carries the load of upper floors or roofs
whereever there is an opening in a wall,
such as a door or window.
•  Joist. Now here’s a word with a nice creaky sound that’s perfectly suited to its meaning. A joist is one of the narrow beams that supports your floor. Like studs, joists are spaced 16” on center; they range in size from 2x6 to 2x12, depending on the load they carry and the distance they span. And by the way—it’s usually not the joist that creaks, it’s a piece of the subflooring rubbing against against its neighbor.

•  Header. This is the elusive critter you hunt for when you’re hanging curtain rods. Most people have heard of it, but because it’s hidden by drywall, they’re not quite sure what it looks like or what it’s for. A header is simply a heavy wooden beam—nowadays usually a 4x12—that bridges a door or window opening and carries the load above it.

The part of the rafter that stick out past the exterior wall
is variously known as a lookout, an outlooker,
or a rafter tail, depending on where
the carpenter comes from.
•  Stool.  Here’s a puzzling one. Stool is the technical term for that piece of wood across the bottom of a window opening—the one any normal person would call a sill. In the building trades, however, sill only applies to the stool’s counterpart on the outside of the wall.  Oh, and that little piece of trim beneath the stool?  Why, that’s the apron, of course.

•  Outlooker, rafter tail, lookout. Carpentry terms vary a lot by region—a fact that’s nowhere as evident as in these terms. All of them refer to the part of the rafter that projects past the outside wall and is visible under the eaves. While they’re all charming terms, “rafter tail” is my favorite, because it jibes delightfully with the carpenter’s name for the wee notch in the rafter where it crosses the outside wall: birdsmouth cut.

•  Ledger. Maybe you’ve already guessed that this term doesn’t relate to bookkeeping—something both contractors nor architects are famously bad at. In carpentry, a ledger is a piece of 2x lumber that’s attached to the face of a wall to support some other structure—the floor of a deck, for example.  I suppose it derives from “ledge”, which is sort of what it creates. So why isn’t it just called a “ledge”?

Look, I just write about this stuff, I don’t invent it.

Monday, June 11, 2018


German windows—the Mercedes Benz of fenestration.
With the handle in one position, the sash tilts in;
in another, it opens like a casement. When closed,
it sealed flat-out airtight.
I never saw a serious window until I visited Germany during the 1980s. It was a revelation to find that German windows were built with the same Teutonic solidity as a Mercedes-Benz. They were massive, with broad, heavy frames of wood or polished aluminum joined with perfectly mitered corners. The lock hardware was both substantial and practical: with the handle in one position, the window tipped inward for ventilation; in another, it opened like a normal normal casement. Most importantly, when locked, the window was sealed virtually airtight against the elements. 

With Germany’s harsh climate and high energy costs, weathertight, energy-efficient windows have always been indispensable. Not so here in the States: as little as thirty years ago, the average tract house window still consisted of flimsy aluminum frames, with a single sheet of 3/16” glass, hit-or-miss gasketing, and rinkydink extruded hardware. These windows were affordable in first cost, but in terms of energy efficiency, they were little better than a hole in the wall. But back then, who cared? America got its energy dirt cheap. From Boise to Buffalo, the remedy for a cold, leaky house was simple—turn up the thermostat. 

By contrast, this is what most American homes had just
thirty years ago: Flimsy, leaky, aluminum dreck.
As energy prices began their inexorable climb, however, people suddenly realized how much of their heating dollar was literally going out the window. At least one progressive state government woke up to this fact as well. In 1978, California, then under the first two terms of Governor Jerry Brown, enacted Title 24, which mandated that new homes maintain a minimum level of energy efficiency. Despite the usual bellyaching over government intrusion into private business, it was the granddaddy of energy-efficiency legislation, and numerous states eventually followed suit. 

Only then did window manufacturers finally recognize the huge market for a window that was both affordable and energy-efficient. Nowadays, the best U.S.-made examples are just about on par with their German cousins, both in energy efficiency and construction quality. Some of the features to look for:

Triple glazing: Overkill for most U.S. climates, but
maybe not so for sound attenuation.
•  Double- and triple-glazing for improved R-values (a measure of an assembly’s resistance to the flow of heat—the higher the number, the less heat is conducted). Many states have made double-glazed windows all but mandatory, since they’re at least twice as efficient at retaining heat. Triple glazing performs even better, although the additional investment is seldom worthwhile in a mild climate. However, because the air captured between multiple panes of glass also serves to reduce noise transmission, you may want to consider using triple-glazed windows in rooms facing traffic noise or other unwanted sound. 

•  Inert gases sealed between the panes of double  and triple glazing. Gases such as argon conduct less heat than ordinary air, thereby improving the insulating value of the window assembly.

•  Vastly improved hardware and gasketing, which provide an airtight seal against infiltration of cold outdoor air, along with thermal breaks to prevent heat from being conduct ed outdoors via the window frame. Aluminum, in particular, is a notoriously efficient thermal conductor, so many window manufacturers now interpose less conductive materials such vinyl or rubber between inner and outer frames to help stem the flow of heat.

Today, American windows are almost on par with
European ones. Almost.
•  Low-e glass, which captures the sun’s warming infrared rays and prevents them from being re-radiated to the outdoors—a sort of one-way valve for heat—and UV-filtering glass that blocks ultraviolet radiation, which helps reduce fading of interior surfaces such as carpets, drapes, and furniture. 

Taken together, these improvements have saved countless millions of barrels of oil and kept who knows how much carbon out of the atmosphere. Granted, they took a generation to enter the mainstream of US building practices, but in the face of today's ever-more alarming changes in climate—well, better late than never.   

Monday, June 4, 2018


The Romans had already mastered the use of
poured concrete when the dome of the Pantheon,
shown here, was completed in 125 AD.
Concrete or cement?  Getting these two terms, uh, mixed up—is  just one of common misconceptions about concrete, an ancient and honorable material that’s frequently misunderstood.

When most people use the term cement, they really mean concrete—a mixture of sand, aggregate, and cement powder. It’s the cement powder alone that forms a paste when water is added, and through a magical process called hydration, solidifies and binds the sand and aggregate into the familiar stuff that makes up your garage floor.

Concrete’s ubiquity in modern architecture makes many people think it’s a modern material—another misconception. In fact, the Romans were already using a type of concrete, called pozzolano, some two thousand years ago. It was made from volcanic ash—of which they had plenty—and Roman engineers cast it into all kinds of sophisticated shapes, including the coffered dome of the Pantheon.

No straight lines here: Known as the Flintstone House,
this residence in Hillsborough, California was built in 1976
using Gunite sprayed over a metal armature.
(Architect: William Nicholson)
As the Romans quickly realized, concrete has some remarkable properties that set it apart from most building materials. It’s plastic, which means it’ll assume any shape you care to mold it into. Unfortunately, you usually have to build a lot of complicated formwork to contain it first, which can be an expensive proposition. That’s why most site-built concrete structures have rather uninspired flat surfaces.

However, free-form shapes can be created without the need for complex formwork. There are a couple of ways to do this. In one, a special type of concrete is sprayed over an armature of reinforcing steel. The process, known by the trade name Gunite, is commonly used to form the soft curves of swimming pool shells; however, it’s occasionally been used for entire buildings as well.

Acid stained and polished concrete,
available in a host of colors and
gloss levels.
Another method of making free-form shapes, known by the trade name Shot-Crete, can be used to "pour" structural walls without the need for formwork to contain the concrete. Here, an especially stiff concrete mixture is sprayed against a relatively light "backstop" until it's built up to the correct wall height and thickness. Shot-Crete differs from Gunite in that it's mixed and pumped from the truck, while Gunite is mixed with water only at the nozzle.
In recent years, concrete’s reputation has been sullied by its association with dreary structures such as multilevel parking garages. But it’s far from a dull material. It can be finished in myriad ways, many of them both expressive and economical. Here are just a few such techniques:

•  Scoring—inscribing lines into the wet concrete with a special tool—is one of the easiest yet least-used ways to create an interesting finish. Scoring can be done in any pattern, though simple designs are usually best. It’s important that the job be done by someone with experience, however, since mistakes will be embarrassingly permanent.

•  Coloring. Concrete can be integrally colored by adding pigments directly into the mix, or else color can be dusted onto the wet surface in powder form and troweled in.  Both methods are durable and attractive. Don’t mistake integral coloring with superficial painting, however; the latter is far less durable.

Impressed concrete ("Bomanite") is available in an array
of convincing masonry textures. This one is a dead ringer
for cobblestone set in a traditional fan pattern.
•  Acid staining. This applied color finish works by reacting with certain minerals in the concrete surface, creating intriguingly subtle variations in shading. However, it only works with concrete that hasn’t been previously treated.

•  Texturing. The range of concrete textures is limited only by the imagination. That familiar mid-century favorite, the exposed aggregate finish, is just one possibility among many. Others involve troweling in rock salt, which eventually dissolves to leave a rye-cracker-like finish, and sandblasting, which exposes the fine aggregates near the surface.

•  Impressing. This process, best known under the trade name Bomanite, involves pressing molds into the wet concrete to create spot-on renditions of cobblestone, brick, and tile and tile. These mock effects are even more convincing when the concrete is appropriately colored first. One of the few drawbacks to impressed concrete:  Cost, which is on the premium end of the scale.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


Integrally-colored (not painted) concrete is an old-timey
material whose color mellows with age. Don't try to
"freshen up" the color by ruining it with paint.
Color is enormously important to architecture.  Unfortunately, many architects and designers achieve it in the most literally superficial way:  by applying a coat of paint. 

Relying on paint for design impact is asking for failure. For one thing, paint is among the most transient of all building finishes. Unlike materials that patinate—such as wood, stone, and copper—paint’s durability is measured in years, not decades. 

Despite this, many architects cavalierly specify complicated paint schemes that look great for a year or two, and then become a nightmare to maintain forever after. It’s a shortsighted design approach, with the built-in likelihood of owner neglect.

The beautiful shade of verdigris on this copper roof will last
literally centuries. It's about as close to permanent color
as you can get.
What’s more, colors that are fashionable when applied (like today's mania for gloomy gray tones, for example) inevitably fall out of favor in a few short years when the next color fad rolls around. The result is usually a hasty coat of some other color that’s more popular at the moment—and more often than not, a complete negation of the architect’s original design intent as well. 

If color is important to your sense of design—as it ought to be—consider including it in ways that are either permanent, or at least are more easily maintained than coatings such as paint or stain. Some materials that hold their natural colors well, starting with the most low-key: 

•  Woods such as pine, cedar and redwood exhibit nice bright colors when freshly cut. Unfortunately, these colors won't last—all woods eventually weather to some shade between silver-gray and black, depending on species and climate. Embalming wood with preservatives or varnishes to maintain its fresh-sawn color isn’t the answer; it’ll only result in an ugly, mottled weathering pattern after the coating begins to wear off.

Still think brick is a dull material? This architect—
William Butterfield—didn't. The building is London's
All Saints Church, Margaret Street, c. 1852).
•  Concrete can be integrally colored in a range of subdued tones, from beiges to deep greens, reds and browns. Since the pigment is mixed in when the concrete is wet, the color is permanently fused to the surface. The modest additional cost of coloring is well worth it for highly visible design features such as paths or walls. However, applying paint superficially onto concrete (like the typical red "porch paint") is a losing proposition; it will quickly chip off at the wear points, and will look worse than no color at all.

•  Copper slowly weathers from an orange-brown to the blue-green shade known as verdegris, and will hold its color for centuries thereafter. Talk about a permanent coating.

Stucco can be integrally colored
in a whole rainbow of shades.
And you'll never paint your house
•  Brick comes in a vast palette of natural colors ranging from creams through peaches, buffs, and ochres, all the way to flashed brick that’s nearly black. If you’ve always thought of brick as a monotone building material, take a look at some of the dazzling pattern and color in Victorian brickwork of the late 19th century. You'll never think of brick as drab again.

The color in fired ceramic tile will last for centuries.
And, there's an incredible range of tile to choose from.
•  Stucco can be integrally tinted in a surprisingly broad range of shades. Over time, the color will soften and mellow, rather than just peeling off like paint.  Perhaps the biggest advantage, though, is that you’ll never again need to repaint the body of your house.  (Incidentally, if you’re lucky enough to have a house with this kind of finish, don’t even consider repainting it to get a more “contemporary” look. You’ll be trading a maintenance-free finish for a few years of trendiness; after that, you'll be needlessly stuck with repainting for the life of the house.)

•  Ceramic tile, glazed brick, and glazed terra-cotta were very popular exterior finishes during the color-mad Art Deco era and are still available today, though to a lesser extent. The vivid colors of these materials are fired on much like the glaze on pottery, and are equally permanent. Tiles, in particular, make an inexpensive yet permanently colorfast decoration when set in stucco or concrete.

Monday, May 21, 2018


There are worse things than getting paid
in abalone.
I once completed a project for a young fellow who supported himself by diving for shellfish.  When it came time to pay my bill, he confessed that he didn’t really have any money.  Instead, he went to his freezer, pulled out two cartons bulging with abalone steak, and handed them over to me. 

Actually, being compensated with gourmet seafood is at least as good an approach as the way architects are usually paid. For generations, it’s been customary for architects to work on a commission fee, which nowadays ranges between 10-15 percent of the project budget. 

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the problems with this system. The first is that you can’t really know the budget until you’ve got plans; but you can’t get plans until you pay the commission; and you can’t figure out the commission until you know the budget. To circumvent this breathtaking bit of pretzel logic, the architect usually ends up guesstimating a budget figure, based both on his experience and a pinch of voodoo economics.   

Don't throw away Franklins needlessly—
consider paying your architect by the hour
rather than on a commission fee.
The second problem with architectural fees is that a percentage-based commission fee rewards the architect for spending the client’s money: the more expensive the project, the bigger the commission. Some say that basing an architect’s payment on the budget makes sense because costly projects are generally more complex. True enough; unfortunately, architects have a penchant for making simple projects complex as well—a trait which the commission fee only encourages.

When you meet with an architect, figure out
what you want to ask beforehand,
not while the meter is running.
Is there a better way? Often, there is. Here are a few suggestions:

•  Consider working with your architect on an hourly basis rather than on commission. Most architects charge somewhere between $100 and $150 per hour. While this may sound pricey, it’ll frequently save money over a lump-sum commission, because you won't be paying for a lot of services you may not need—choosing paint colors, for example. Hourly payment is especially wise if your project is still at an exploratory stage, because it allows you to advance the project in manageable increments, and to stop the work at any time without taking a big monetary hit.

If you don't mind doing some of your own
design homework, you can save your architect
a lot of time, and also save yourself a lot of money.
•  If you do choose to hire your architect on an hourly basis, keep your consultations with the architect brief and to the point.  Don’t engage in lengthy pie-in-the-sky dream sessions while the meter is running at $100 an hour. Also, make sure you and your spouse have reached at least a fundamental accord on your project goals. I can’t tell you how often I've sat in on initial conferences in which one spouse was raring to go while the other was dragging the brakes, or meetings in which both wanted to proceed but had wildly differing ideas of how to get there. 

What's in your freezer?
•  Take on certain portions of the design process yourself. Often, there are architectural tasks that don’t necessarily require your architect’s attention. For example, you can do the legwork involved in applying for building permits—a tedious job that most architects will gladly relinquish. You could also choose your own appliances, lighting fixtures and the like.  Relieving the architect of these responsibilities can save a substantial chunk of high-priced professional time.  

•  Lastly, don’t dismiss the idea of paying your architect with goods or services rather than money. Occasionally, such an arrangement can be mutually beneficial (but mind that you stay on the right side of the IRS). So. . .got anything interesting in your freezer?

Monday, May 14, 2018


Think of a ramp as an integral landscape element, not as
an ugly afterthought. 
For most of us, a disability is something that afflicts strangers, not people we care about. Yet, much as we hate to consider it, we’ll all have to deal with disability in one way or another as the years pass. And nothing humanizes the term  “disabled” like suddenly finding that person to be your father, your friend, yourself.

Fortunately, we’ve gotten a good start at making the built environment friendlier to the disabled—an aim which, incidentally, makes life easier for the able-bodied as well. For example, who would object to lever-handle door hardware (a boon when you’re holding two armfuls of groceries), or to national park trails with ramps instead of steps?

Doorways should be a minimum of 32" wide
to safely accommodate a person in a wheelchair.
(Image courtesy of
True, some of the earlier efforts at barrier-free design weren’t much to look at. To be blunt, there have been some horrific retrofits done in the name of accessibility. But as architects become more attuned to barrier-free design, we’ll see less and less of those hastily-added wheelchair ramps snaking across the front of buildings.

We should remember, too, that “disabled” doesn’t just mean “wheelchair-bound”. Conditions such as vision or hearing impairment, arthritis, and other ailments simply due to growing older are disabilities as well.

What can be done at home to better accommodate the disabled? Since few of us really plan for such eventualities, we usually end up hastily retrofitting a house built for an able-bodied person—a much bigger challenge than starting from a clean slate.

Lever handle door hardware makes life easier
on everybody, not just the disabled.
•  Stairs and steps present the biggest physical barriers to the disabled (they’re often a nuisance for the rest of us too). To make an existing house more accessible from the street, consider building a ramp from the sidewalk up to the floor level, eliminating the front steps entirely. Make sure you have enough distance between the sidewalk and the front door since, ideally, the slope should be no steeper than one inch for every foot of length. The ramp needn’t be ugly—approach it as a permanent landscaping element, not just a tacked-on afterthought. 

•  Doorways throughout the house should have a clear width of at least 32” to allow a wheelchair through, and thresholds should be no higher than 1/2” to make it easier for a wheelchair to roll over them. Doors should have lever handles rather than knobs—usually an easy retrofit. Ideally, the pull side of doors should also have some “parking” space beside them so the wheelchair won’t block the door as it’s opened.

Grab bars should be in every shower and bathtub—
they are among the most dangerous places in the house,
whether you're disabled or not.
•  Kitchens and bathrooms often present a host of barriers to the disabled. Faucets should be easy to operate, with large lever handles rather than slippery knobs. For wheelchair users, sinks and lavatories should have clear space underneath to provide maneuvering room; the hot water and drain pipes should be insulated to prevent those with no feeling in their legs from burning themselves. Shower stalls and toilets should have enough space beside them to allow the user to transfer from the wheelchair to a shower seat or toilet. Showers and tubs should have grab bars, which are a boon to safety for all ages. Plumbing manufacturers offer specially-designed products for such needs, and can provide excellent planning help as well.

These basic measures will go a long way toward making a one-story home more user-friendly to a disabled person. Unfortunately, making a multistory home accessible presents a bigger challenge and much higher cost; moving to a single-level home may be a simpler solution. If that isn’t an option, consider installing a stairlift—a moving platform attached to one side of the staircase—or a residential elevator to reach other levels.

Monday, May 7, 2018


When this house was designed, the architect agonized over
which kind of roofing to use (like the wonderful heavy
textured shake on this example). Why second guess him
(or her) all these years later?
Most people wouldn’t dream of walking around in striped pants and a plaid jacket. 
Yet when it comes to choosing a new roof, that’s just how many folks dress up their houses. If there’s one error most commonly made in home improvement, it’s choosing the wrong roof. I’d guess that perhaps half of all reroofing jobs use materials that are contrary to the style of the house.

The are two major reasons for this: First, many people allow their roofer to suggest the best material.  That’s like asking the wolf to guard the henhouse. Most roofers will tend to recommend materials—such as composition shingle—that are quick and easy to install, and hence more profitable.  Aesthetics are hardly their first concern. 

Composition roofing is inexpensive, but its ultra-flat texture
doesn't have enough visual "oomph" for many home styles—
such as this one. If you home doesn't have composition
shingle now, think twice before switching to it without
good reason. . .
Which brings us to the second reason: Uninformed consumers. You can’t really blame roofers for looking after their own interests. It’s up to you, the homeowner, to inform yourself as to what roofing material is most appropriate for the style of your house. The rationale is simple, and that’s why it pains me to see all those stripes-and-plaid houses out there. Here are a few rules of thumb:

•  First and foremost: If you’re replacing your home’s original roof, use the same material.  Somewhere out there is an architect who agonized over the type and color of roof to put on your house. Honest. That choice was based on the material’s style, cost, and durability, and represented the best compromise of the three. Unless your own requirements have changed—due to your budget or to local ordinances—there’s very little reason to switch to another material. It’s especially risky to downgrade from a quality product, such as shake, to a low-end one, such as composition roofing.  The stylitic unity of your house will be compromised, and so will your resale value.
. . .or without at least considering an unpgraded
composition shingle with texture, such as this one.

•  If your roof has already been remuddled a few times and you have no idea what the original roofing material was, make an educated guess and try to return to that material if it’s at all possible. 
For example, suppose you own a California Rancher with a composition shingle roof. A good style guide will tell you that Ranchers almost invariably featured a heavy shake roof. Since the roof’s rustic texture is integral to the style, consider going back to shake. Or, if there’s a high fire danger in your area, switch to fire-treated shakes, or as a last resort, to a textured composition shake look-alike; some come reasonably close to the shaggy appearance of real shake—at any rate, much closer than ordinary composition shingle ever will.

And most of all, don't re-roof if you don't need to.
If your house doesn't leak, it doesn't need a new roof.
Even if it does leak, it might just need a tube of roofing
mastic. And no, I don't own stock in Henry Company.
•  On the other hand, don’t assume that a more costly roofing material will automatically yield an aesthetic improvement. It ain’t necessarily so. For example, upgrading a California Bungalow from the original composition shingle to a more expensive concrete tile will simply look weird, because bungalows designs seldom employed that material. The roof will call much more attention to itself than the architect intended, and again, the design’s unity will be compromised.

•  Finally, make VERY SURE your house actually needs a new roof in the first place. Many DON'T.  If your roof doesn’t leak, you don’t need a new roof—it’s that simple. And even if your roof does leak, it may only need a few simple spot repairs. If so, your only dilemma will be where to spend all the money you’ve saved.