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.

Monday, January 29, 2018


Come on—you could knock this deck out in no time!
It’s almost deck-building season, folks. If you’ve had a deck project on the back burner for a while, this might be a good time to start thinking about it.

Remember that a deck usually requires a building permit, and hence plans. Whether you design and build the deck yourself or hire a pro to do it, here are some basic practical guidelines for both economy and good looks:

• Minimize the number of piers. Usually, you can support the entire deck on a pair of widely-spaced main girders (or even a single girder if the deck is attached to the house on one edge). Unless the deck is gigantic, these girders can usually be supported by as few as two piers. The girders, in turn, support the deck joists. Fewer piers means less concrete work, and less chance of errors and misalignments.

Cantilevered deck framing allows you to add skirting
that will conceal those ugly piers.
(Image courtesy of Boston Decks and Porches Blog)
•  Cantilever the deck. Set the piers back a couple of feet from the deck edges and let both the main girder and the joists cantilever (overhang) beyond them. The cantilever serves two purposes: It reduces the span of the girders and joists, which often allows you to use a smaller size lumber; and it serves to tuck the piers beneath the completed deck so that they’re not as conspicuous. Then, if you like, you can skirt the deck with lattice or lath, and the piers will be completely invisible.

Screws in hardwood decking need to be predrilled and
countersunk. The Smart Bit, shown here, is one way to do it
•  Choose the right decking. Redwood is the traditional material, but decent quality redwood has become so costly that it's being used less and less. As a result, tropical hardwoods such as Ipe have gained popularity, and they appear to hold up very well. There are also a number of wood/plastic composites on the market, but alas, I can't recommend any of them. I've seen many failures over the years, and I'm not convinced that these problems have been overcome.

•  Consider different decking patterns. Standard 2x6 spaced decking is fine for Modernist-era houses, but a more interesting pattern might be better suited for traditional home styles. Try using 2x6 deck planks alternated with 2x4s or 2x2s to produce a visual rhythm. Very small-scale decks will look better with narrower decking—using 2x4s flat or even on edge will help produce a finer scale.

No matter what style of deck rail you choose,
make sure that it matches the style of your house.
(Image courtesy Salter Spiral Stair)
• Choose deck fasteners carefully. In the past, decking was usually attached with galvanized 16-penny nails, which often worked loose or popped up when the wood shrank as it dried. Today, most decking is attached with screws, which have several advantages: they don’t pull out as easily, they’re easily retightened if the decking shrinks, and they allow individual deck planks to be removed without damage. They’re easily installed with a good heavy-duty power screwdriver and don’t require predrilling in softwood deck planks. Tropical hardwood planks, however, do need to be predrilled.

Screws are available in stainless steel, or with a galvanized or black oxide coating. I’ve found that galvanizing usually splinters off the heads of the screws as they're being driven, inviting rust in the worst possible place, so I prefer the oxide-coated or stainless variety. They look better, too.

Since the screws heads are quite noticeable, take care to drive them in neat rows—use a chalkline if you have to. Set the heads either flush or just ever so slightly below the surface of the decking. If the heads are set too deep, they’ll collect water and promote rot. If the wood shrinks later on and the heads become proud of the surface, you can always re-tighten them until they're flush.
All done. Time to grab a cool one and relax.

When you install fasteners, neatness is important—nothing will ruin a deck’s as quickly as sloppy, meandering lines of screw heads driven to ten different depths. If you're a masochist and you choose to use nails rather than screws, lay them out neatly and drive them slightly above the deck to avoid marring the wood. Then go back and set them just below the surface with a nail set.

•  Use a simple guardrail that matches the style of your house. For example, a heavy, complicated wooden railing might be at home with a Craftsman or Ranch-style home, but it will be at odds with a Spanish Revival house. Any railings that already exist on the house—on the front porch, perhaps—will provide a good clue to the style of railing you should use on the deck.

Monday, January 22, 2018

PRIVACY IN THE HOME: Why We Lack It In The West

Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rear Window"
played upon the lack of privacy
endemic to city life.
Two centuries ago, when most Americans lived hundreds of feet from their nearest neighbors, domestic privacy was seldom an issue. But as cities such as New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia began to grow by leaps, building lots began shrinking. Ultimately, so-called rowhouses were built cheek-by-jowl, facing directly onto sidewalks or overlooking a patchwork of rear yards, making privacy a precious commodity. In time, this living style was taken for granted. Films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, in which James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound character kills time by spying on his neighbors, helped turn a lack of privacy into one of the cliches of big-city life.  

Sadly, though, lack of privacy isn’t limited to urban America anymore. Nowadays, even suburban homes are shoehorned onto tight lots with just a sliver of space between them. The privacy issue has come home to the heartland.

Typical Islamic streetscape (this is in
Hama, Syria) emphasizes privacy
and the sanctity of the home.
So how to maintain privacy under such conditions? History yields some excellent design strategies. In Islamic countries, for example, houses were densely packed along narrow alleys, yet were among the most private dwellings we know of. Why? Islamic cultures placed enormous value on the sanctity of the family, and hence on domestic privacy. Their houses turned inward, with major rooms facing a lush central courtyard.  The street facades, on the other hand, might be completely blank, with only a single door to mark them.  Even roof terraces, which were often used for sleeping in desert climates, were carefully screened from view.

So dear was privacy in these parts that an ordinance in one village declared:  “Anyone may, if necessary, climb up his date palm, provided he previously informs the neighbor into whose house he might obtain a view.”

Traditional Asian houses also placed a high value on privacy, with many ordinary homes being hidden behind tall walls relieved only by a pair of gates leading into a courtyard. Here, as in Islamic architecture, there’s no reluctance whatever to have minimal openings facing the street.

Planting can make an excellent privacy screen; here
it extends the height of a wall without violating
the local height limit on property line fencing.
In the West, however, most architects and city planning officials feel compelled to put a window-filled “happy face” on the street side of every house, offering little visual protection to the occupants, either literally or psychologically. Variations are seldom attempted, thanks to obsolete zoning laws and meddlesome design review boards. And as long as planners hang onto the ideal of houses addressing the street rather than inner courtyards, we will continue to have some of the least private homes in the world. 

Other than starting from scratch, what can be done to enhance the privacy of Western houses?  

A simple but ingenious privacy screen with a window. When
overgrown with vines, this structure will provide a lovely
and enticing garden backdrop.
•  Choose your home carefully. Avoid houses with windows that look straight down a public street, or directly into a neighboring house (remarkably common in tract developments with "flopped" floor plans). Be wary of rear yards surrounded by taller buildings such as apartment houses— you’ll never feel at ease outdoors with all those windows staring down at you.  

•  If you’re stuck with what you have, consider some traditional ways of increasing privacy. Walls or screens built on the ground some distance away, or decorative grilles or louvers placed directly in front of windows, are both simple and effective devices. Be careful to use a design that complements the style of your house, however—perhaps a traditional turned wood grille for a Spanish Revival home, or a pierced metal screen for a Modernist one. Even leaded or patterned window glass will create a psychological buffer against unwelcome observers.    

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Lots of soft materials dampen sound reverberation
and create a sense of coziness. It's one reason
we perceive this window seat to be so inviting.
Many people consider architecture strictly a visual art—one involving the sense of sight alone. Architects often compound this misconception by concentrating almost exclusively on how their buildings look, rather than striving to involve the full range of human senses. Too often, they seem mainly concerned with how their work will photograph for a glossy magazine spread.

At best, this fixation on appearance leads to flashy but uninvolving designs; at worst, it can produce an architecture of oppression, as Modernism’s own mania for visual order so often demonstrated.

While the look of a building may be the first thing we perceive, senses other than sight must also be brought into play, or the architectural experience is sadly incomplete. Here are just a few ways in which the senses add dimension to architecture:

The sound of a tiny trickle of water
can transform a patio into an oasis.
• Sound. In a Gothic cathedral, the awesome reverberation of footfalls and voices literally amplifies the power of the design itself. But sound plays a role even in ordinary dwellings: big rooms with a touch of reverberation create a sense of grandness; small rooms with lots of soft surfaces and hardly any reverberation convey the opposite—a feeling of warmth, shelter, and coziness.  

Other sounds that we probably take for granted contribute as well: the crunch of a gravel path underfoot; the brassy click of a well-made door latch; the sound of rain drumming on a skylight. How about the chirp of birds in a window box, or the trickle of water in a fountain? A good design capitalizes on such simple ways to add sound to the architectural experience.  

A two-fer: This window box can provide
lovely fragrance and the equally lovely
sound of birds at breakfast.
•  Smell.  If you’ve ever sat beneath a jasmine-draped pergola on a hot summer day, you’ll know just how much the sense of smell can add to the enjoyment of architecture. In your own designs, look for ways to add this dimension, perhaps by incorporating fragrant planting into the architecture, or by using naturally aromatic woods such as pine or cedar. One of my most vivid memories of the old house I grew up in was the subtle smell of unpainted fir that still wafted out of the cabinets after nearly a half century of use.   

 This unusual corridor provides tactile contrast in the extreme.
Who could resist running a hand along both sides? Not me.
•  Touch.  Unlike painting and other visual arts, architecture is three-dimensional—it’s basically sculpture we can live in. Hence it has a unique ability to tantalize the human sense of touch. Something as simple as a handrail, for example, can give us a whole range of tactile choices: do we want the liquid smoothness of brass, the cold solidity of iron, or the familiar warmth of wood? Likewise, the texture of a wall can offer us the grittiness of wallboard, the glassy smoothness of tile, or the coarse power of concrete. Each, in a different way, adds tactile interest. 

Rather than limiting yourself to a single texture, however, try using contrasts—rough versus smooth, warm versus cool—to entertain the sense of touch. Frank Lloyd Wright was a master at juxtaposing such finishes:  stone against stucco; plaster against wood; concrete against glass. It’s one reason his works remain so powerfully involving to this day.  

 •  And about employing the sense of taste in architecture: A friend of mine has this two-year-old. . .

Monday, January 8, 2018

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? Architects Should Be.

Interior by Bernard Maybeck, and...
Some time ago, I visited a contractor friend of mine who was bogged down in framing the floors of an extremely complicated hillside house. The architect had inexplicably specified four different types of floor joists, ranging from solid lumber to laminated beams to I-joists to stranded timber beams, all with different sizes and requiring different methods of installation, and all interconnected in a pointlessly complex manner. 

The hapless contractor was doing his best to cope with this mess, taking it on faith that the architect must have had a good reason for creating it.

In fact, a simpler design—using just one type of joist—would have served just as well. The plain truth was that the architect didn’t have the faintest idea how difficult his design would be to build, because he had no hands-on experience in construction.

...portrait of the architect himself. He knew
what he was doing, because he was the son
of a woodcarver, and he know how to build.
After the contractor had showed me around this disastrous project, he implored: 

“How come architects don’t have to serve an apprenticeship in the field, so they can see how hard their stuff is to build?”

Good question—and one I’ve heard many, many times before. I wish I had a good answer.
It seems perfectly reasonable that someone who designs buildings should also know something about how to build them. Yet field experience is the exception and not the rule among architects. This lack of practical knowledge is one reason the architect’s once-proud reputation as “master builder”—one that goes back centuries—is rapidly crumbling.

In spite of this sad state of affairs, I’m not aware of a single major architecture school that requires a mandatory field internship. Nor do current licensing requirements encourage any form of field work—instead, they stress office internship under the tutelage of a licensed architect.  This is the part of an architectural education that’s considered “practical experience”.     

Via Mizner in Palm Beach, Florida, by architect
Addison Mizner (1872-1933) and...
Perhaps the licensing process is thought to be too prolonged and rigorous already. Maybe so—but the rigor is mainly theoretical. It’s equally important that architects gain a sense of how structures go together in the real-life environment of the building site. No architect can fully appreciate the stupidity of many common architectural details until he’s had to construct them with his own two hands.   

Mizner in person. Not only
did he know how to build,
but he founded a craft
workshop that made many
of the materials for his
I’m solidly with the contractors on this one: As part of every architect’s training, he or she should serve at least a year on a construction site—if even just to dig ditches or clean up. The nature of the work is less important than simply gaining an appreciation of how difficult constructing a building really is.

History has shown that architects with hands-on experience, from Michelangelo to Maybeck to Mizner, seem to develop an innate feel for the nature of materials, an appreciation for simplicity, and a firm grasp on what things cost to build. All of these are crucial to a project’s success.  So if you’re in the market for an architect, never mind the eye-popping website and look for some evidence of hands-on knowledge.  

I don’t think I’m alone in advocating a field internship. Many of my colleagues might agree that prospective architects could use more practical experience. If they had it, the world might look a lot different.   

Tuesday, January 2, 2018


Wait a minute—didn't this room used to have a window?
Nobody’s perfect, they say.  Heaven knows it’s true of architects, but did you know that contractors make mistakes too? Since contractors are only human, construction projects occasionally end up with, shall we say, minor shortcomings.  Some get fixed before the client ever notices;  some don’t. Only a chosen few, however, achieve legendary status among contractors and become fodder for late-night story swapping.  

Most construction errors happen when the contractor or in a big hurry—in other words, all the time. No contractor has time to supervise his workers every minute of the day, so little things can sneak past. Moreover, a tradesman will sometimes ignore his own error in the fervent hope that the following trade will fix it. That never happens, of course; the trade that comes in later leaves the error alone on the sound premise that the guy who screwed it up will get the blame.

A new meaning for the term "hot seat".
A contractor friend of mine recently recalled a favorite house project in which the harried drywall contractor had unwittingly sheetrocked over the doorway to one of the bedrooms. To top it off, rather than opening the doorway up again, the tradesmen that followed the drywaller simply went in and out through the window instead.

When it comes to construction hijinks, in fact, drywall contractors seem to be in a class by themselves. In a tract house I designed some years ago, for instance, the general contractor was puzzled by how poorly the heating system worked.  Finally, he noticed that the return air grille in the hallway ceiling had been covered over with drywall. Not only that, the subsequent tradesmen, ignoring the obvious bulge in the ceiling where the grille was, had textured and painted over it as well.   

But drywall contractors mustn’t hog all glory. In the rush to get the job done, it’s not unheard of for plumbers to lose track of which pipe is which, thus providing another fertile ground for mixups;   d waited patiently for hot water to arrive. Only after running the faucet for several minutes, with uniformly cool results, did he finally concede that it was connected to the cold water line.

The result of mixed-up mixing valves.
An even stranger case was related to me by a client who had just moved into his new house. He noticed that whenever the toilet was flushed by several people in succession, wisps of vapor would rise menacingly from the bowl. Toxic fumes? A potentially lethal chemical mixture? Neither, it turned out. By gingerly dipping a finger into the bowl, he quickly discovered that the plumber had connected the toilet to the hot water line.

Perhaps the unkindest plumbing surprise of all lay in wait at the house I lived in as a teen.   The single-handle shower valve had been misconnected when the house was built, so that turning the knob to “hot” yielded “cold” and vice versa. Our family eventually grew used to this idiosyncrasy, and so we never bothered to correct it. On one occasion, however, we forgot to warn a visiting relative of this quirk, and I'm sure it was the most refreshing shower he ever experienced.