Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Is this what you look at on your way out to the back yard?
No wonder you never go out there.
Author's Note: I'll be at my second home in Suzhou, China for the next eight weeks or so, and since the big bad Chinese government blocks Google, I won't be able to file my blogs during that time. In the interim, though, I invite you to browse through my not-inconsequential archive for topics that may interest you. See you at the end of August.

Now that real estate prices are soaring again, it makes more sense than ever to make full use of the land your home is sitting on. Yet all too often, the space behind homes remains a sort of barren back forty. And no wonder: in many an older home, the only way to reach the garden is via a laundry porch or by going through the garage.

Access to the back yard can completely
transform your home's traffic flow
and make it feel much large.
Aside from the questionable aesthetics of eying the old Kenmore on your way out, having to pass through a secondary room to go outside impedes your use of the garden. Result: A garden that's weed patch city.

Even many glass-flaunting postwar homes have surprisingly bad access to the rear yard. Big windows alone aren’t enough. It’s one thing to look outside; it’s something else again to get there.

Creating better access to the outdoors is one of the most dramatic improvements you can make to your home, not to mention your garden. Happily, it’s also one of the most cost effective: an uncomplicated door installation can usually be done in the range of $5000-$10,000. 

The first step is to choose which room will lead out to your beautiful (well, eventually) garden. In a perfect world, this access would be from the living room or family room; dining rooms are usually too cluttered with furniture to allow good circulation. However, if neither of those rooms face the rear of the house, a door from the kitchen may work just as well. Even a back bedroom will do in a pinch.  They all beat stumbling over old mops and boxes of Tide.

Make sure that the patio or deck outside the doors is
at most a couple inches below the interior floor.
Don't just have a scrap of landing and some steps.
Here are some additional tips on getting into the garden:

•  Make the doors as big as possible. If you’re installing the doorway in place of a narrow window or a blank wall, you’ll need to install a new header above the opening anyway, and you won’t save much by making the opening small. Go ahead—make a grand gesture. The bigger the doorway, the more sense you’ll have of outdoors and indoors flowing together. 

•  Mind your traffic flow. Having easy access to the garden can yield a radical change in the way people use the rooms in your house—a heretofore quiet bedroom may suddenly become Grand Central Station. Make sure that foot traffic to the new doorway won’t be impeded by tables, couches, or sleeping dogs. If you’re using a sliding door, don’t arbitrarily center it in the wall—locate it so the opening panel—not the center of the door—is in the traffic path. 

I'll be over as soon as it's ready.
The same goes for paired doors: despite what you’ve seen in those old MGM musicals, it’s not really possible to burst through both doors at the same time. Crime is up a bit since Sam Goldwyn’s day, so paired doors usually have one leaf (panel) stoutly secured with a cane bolt at the top and bottom. Hence, choose which leaf will be active, and then locate the door so that leaf  is in the traffic flow.

•  Avoid having steps outside the doorway. Even the grandest pair of doors will feel like a back stoop unless the outside paving is nearly flush with the interior floor. If necessary, build a deck to within an inch or two of the interior floor level, so that there’s a generous buffer zone before any steps lead down to the garden.

•  Lastly, throw a big barbecue when you’re all done and invite me over. Salmon’s okay, but steak would be better.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


No "limp fish" handshake here.
(Image courtesy of Old House Journal)
An old teacher of mine always insisted that a firm handshake was critical to making a good impression. “Don’t give ‘em the old limp fish,” he’d warn us. It’s not much of a stretch to say that your home’s locksets (what most people call doorknobs) should show the same fortitude. After all, locksets are the part of your house that everybody shakes hands with.

That’s why even the most frugal developers will usually spring for a top-quality lockset at the front door. They know that it’s the first thing a buyer will touch, and that a favorable first impression here will carry over to the rest of the house.

Given all this, it’s worth choosing your locksets carefully, and not just grabbing an armful of cheapies at the local discount emporium. If your budget can’t handle top-flight locksets throughout the house, then the front entrance lockset is the place to splurge.

Lever handle lock in satin nickel finish.
But can you tell me the finish code?
When choosing a lockset, look for a good solid feel. The motion of the latch mechanism should be smooth and firm, not gritty or tinny. The knob itself should have minimal wobble and should feel heavy, not flimsy and hollow. In general, avoid locksets labeled “builder’s special” or the like; they’re the low-line models. And don’t fall for beefy American-sounding brand names without checking the fine print first: many junky imported brands will try to flim-flam you with a name right out of the Rust Belt.

Here’s a quick rundown of common lockset types:

Standard hardware finish codes, courtesy of Schlage.
•  Entrance locksets usually feature some kind of fixed handle with a thumb latch, and often incorporate a deadbolt as well. Stick to a style that suits your home’s architecture—the model name often gives a good clue—and buy the very best brand you can afford. The front door is no place to cut corners. Besides, with all the wear and tear locksets have to endure, a quality brand is worth the extra investment..

Your basic privacy lock, shown au naturel.
This one is in Finish 612, Satin Bronze.
•  The most common type of in type of interior lockset is the passage lock, which in fact can’t be locked at all. The privacy lock, on the other hand, has a push button, turn button, or lever that allows the door to be locked from one side. A dummy lock is a non-operational doorknob and escutcheon (trim plate) that’s solidly fixed to the door. It’s sometimes used in closets, where a protruding inside doorknob might interfere with stored items.

•  Lever-handle locksets, favored throughout Europe for centuries, found their first widespread use here in disabled-accessible buildings. However, their good looks and practicality—you can still operate them with your hands full—have made them a popular alternative to knob-type locksets. A full range of designs, locking functions, and finishes are available.

A substantial front entrance makes an impression
that carries over throughout the house.
•  Locksets come in a huge range of finishes, but only the most common—bright chrome, satin chrome, polished brass, satin brass, and satin bronze—are readily available at hardware stores. Blackened finishes (commonly known as antiqued) are coated with black paint and then polished, leaving highlights that emphasize their form.

Additional finishes, such as hammered iron, bright bronze, and oil-rubbed bronze, are available at a higher cost. Perishable finishes such as brass and bronze are usually lacquered, which temporarily preserves their just-polished look. Unfortunately, the lacquer eventually wears off in spots, allowing the finish to oxidize in an unattractive mottle fashion. Personally, I prefer to forego lacquering and allow the bare metal to form a permanent oxide coating, which will acquire natural highlights over the years.

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?