Tuesday, May 31, 2011


“Won’t it leak?”  Those are the first three words I hear from clients when I propose using a skylight.   

Not to worry. Today’s skylights are all but leak-proof when they’re properly installed and flashed. Least troublesome of all are the self-curbing variety, which feature a one-piece welded aluminum curb in place of the old-fashioned wooden curb and its associated waterproofing headaches. Even interior condensation problems have been eased with the use of built-in gutters which either drain away condensate or hold it until it evaporates naturally.  

But while skylights may give you fewer technical worries these days, their aesthetics still demand careful thought. Here are a few tips:

•  Choose the skylight’s location carefully. First, determine its solar orientation, so you’ll know how much light you’ll be getting. Too little light won’t justify the installation cost, while too much can make a room intolerably hot. South-facing skylights in sloping roofs are especially liable to overheat rooms; north-facing skylights will admit a soft, diffuse light all day long, though they won’t give that sun-splashed effect.  

Most manufacturers offer a range of glazing tints, from clear to gray- or bronze-tinted to translucent white, to suit the skylight’s orientation. The gray and bronze tints help reduce overheating but still allow direct light, while the translucent white diffuses the light as well. However, you should also plan on some additional form of shading, whether an old-style roller shade or a pleated fabric one on tracks.   

•  Consider the skylight’s appearance both indoors and out. Inside, try to align the skylight opening with a door, window, or some other existing feature, so that it doesn’t look haphazard.

Outside, avoid installing the skylight on any roof surface that faces the street. Front-facing skylights look jarringly out of place on traditional home styles, since they were seldom used in the original designs, and often yield a cluttered-looking roof even on Modernist homes. Discreet concealment is the safest course.

•  Choose a skylight that’s as large as orientation and aesthetics will allow. A large skylight is cheaper than small one per unit area, and the premium in labor is often marginal. Frequently, a single large skylight is also preferable to an equivalent group of smaller ones, even if it requires minor reframing. Multiple units admit less light due to the intervening mullions, require proportionately more labor to install, and have a greater likelihood of leaks due to improper flashing.  

Why complicate things? Single skylights are widely available in sizes up to five by eight feet, and at least one manufacturer offer standard units up to ten by twelve feet.  

•  Take advantage of special skylight options. If you’re not keen on conventional “bubble” skylights--and if you have a traditional style home, you shouldn’t be--some manufacturers offer special low-profile models. Some firms will furnish some of their standard skylights with flat glass in place of the usual acrylic plastic bubble.However, make sure the glass versions will meet your local building and fire codes.

Unusual shapes such as circles, octagons, and pyramids are also available. Many rectangular skylights can be ordered “operable” (hinged to open a few inches for ventilation). They can also be fitted with an electric operator controlled by a wall switch--probably a waste of money if the skylight is easy to reach, but a great convenience if it isn’t.  

Monday, May 16, 2011


Over the years I’ve learned that it’s very difficult to design a great kitchen, but fairly easy to design a good one--in fact, a basic kitchen will usually just about design itself. 

This assertion may have my kitchen designer colleagues whipping out their Dreizack knives, but no matter.

First, on the question of size: big kitchens aren’t necessarily better. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of palatial, 400-square-foot kitchens that are perfectly awful, with pointlessly convoluted counter shapes and appliances separated by marathon stretches. These kitchens are like old Cadillacs: their size serves merely to impress; it doesn’t make for efficiency.  In fact, functionally, a well-designed small kitchen can be in every way equal to a large one except for all those scads of extra storage space.  

Regarding appliance locations, the hoary old rule of the “work triangle” remains a useful one. If you draw lines connecting the three major work centers in your kitchen--sink, stove, and refrigerator--the sum of the sides of the resulting triangle should equal at least thirteen feet, yet not exceed twenty-two feet. Ideally,  circulation paths should not cross this triangle, though in real life it’s often unavoidable.

There are only four basic kitchen arrangements: U-shaped, Corridor, L-Shaped, and One Wall, and your choice is dictated mainly by the number of doors or other circulation paths that enter the kitchen space. More openings usually mean less uninterrupted counter space, though not necessarily a less usable kitchen. 

Because the U-shaped kitchen is entirely removed from through traffic, it ensures both the maximum continuous counter space and the least disruption of the cook. One arm of the U can also serve to divide the kitchen from an adjoining room, such as a family room or great room, in place of a solid wall.    

Alas, many older kitchens have multiple doors entering the room, which demands a different arrangement. When the room is long and narrow and has a door at either end, the Corridor (or “Pullman”) kitchen is the ticket. It’s extremely efficient in narrow confines--hence its use on railroad cars--and also simple to plan: The sink goes on the outside wall beneath a window, the range is placed more or less at the center of the counter opposite, and the refrigerator can go at either end on whichever side suits you best.

If the existing room is interrupted by doors entering on two adjoining walls, an L-shaped kitchen usually fills the bill. In this case, the sink once again goes on an outside wall under a window, and the range takes the approximate center of the counter space on the adjoining side. Depending on space constraints, the refrigerator can be located at the extreme ends of the “L” on either wall, depending both on your preference and the space available.

The humble one-wall kitchen, which is most often found in efficiency apartments, doesn’t really have a work triangle at all, since the work centers are all in a row.  As long as there’s enough counter space between the sink, stove, and refrigerator, this arrangement will serve perfectly well. In fact, it’s ideal for all those single guys who dine on Pop-Tarts over the kitchen sink. 

Monday, May 9, 2011


If I’ve ranted and raved about any architectural subject over the years, it has to be the idea of fashion-driven “modernization”.  With today’s renewed appreciation of historic residential designs such as the California Bungalow, you’d think that designers would finally get the message that every architectural period has its finer points.  We’ve seen the pattern umpteen times:  After five or so decades of neglect and abuse, older styles are suddenly rediscovered and cooed over by designer types, while other, more recent styles are patronizingly judged to be in need of “improvement” by superimposing today’s fashion biases upon them.  I still routinely hear interior designers advising homeowners on “getting an updated look” and “contemporizing”--words that instantly set my teeth on edge.

Architectural styles have always followed a cycle of initial popularity, decline, disgrace, and rediscovery.  Victorian homes, you’ll recall, were held in contempt for the first half of the 20th century, during which time countless examples were either demolished or just as irrevocably destroyed in the process of being “modernized”.  Today one wouldn’t dream of stripping the ornament from a Victorian house and slathering it in stucco, but during the Forties, that’s precisely what many architects and designers urged their clients to do in order to get an “updated look”.  

Sounds ridiculous now, doesn’t it?  Yet apparently, we’ve learned nothing from such mistakes.  Regardless of the quality or thought that went into their design, examples of past styles that are currently out of favor--for instance, the spare and unadorned Modernist homes of the Sixties--are deemed unworthy of the same appreciation we’d give a Craftsmen Bungalow or some other style that’s currently chic.  Design elements that are integral to Modernist architecture--slender window frames; plain, ornament-free walls and ceilings, and flush doors--are blythely replaced because the don’t happen to fit in with the current mania for plasticky, frou-frou-laden design.

A basic truth of aesthetics is that the more fashionable something is now, the more unfashionable it will be later--and not very much later, mind you.  Yet, driven by the relentless juggernaut of advertising and fashion industry hype, both designers and homeowners continue to buy into the bogus idea that a thirty-year-old house needs modernizing, while a sixty-year-old house needs restoring.  

This is an exquisite bit of pretzel logic.  First, we’re encourouraged to remove everything that makes the original house belong to its era; then, a few decades later, we’re supposed to wring our hands in regret and try to put it all back.  Why not cut out the middleman, and simply keep your house in its original style?  

Improving a house by revamping it with momentarily trendy features is about as valid as improving Ishi by putting him in a three-piece suit.  I invite any architect, designer, or decorator to cite a single example of a fashion-driven residential makeover done ten or fifteen years ago that can still be considered an improvement in light of changing tastes.  No kidding--I’d really like to hear about it.  

On the other side of the argument, I can cite any number of homes that have commanded higher sale prices for being in fine original condition.  Am I missing something? 

(This post was reprinted from a recent entry in my blog Red Tile Style, official site of the like-titled book on Spanish Revival architecture that I co-authored with Doug Keister. To view, please go to redtilestyle.blogspot.com).     

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Since the end of a decade is a time people like to put out all kinds of dumb statistics, here's my contribution. I've culled these from the barrage of media kits I get every month, many of which feature homeowner surveys of various kinds—statistics on what type of appliances Americans want in their kitchens, what rooms they like to eat in, that sort of thing. They’re put out by manufacturers to sell a product, so naturally they’re biased in one direction or another.  Still, some of the results may surprise you:

Sorry, remodeling this 80s bath will have to wait—
the kitchen is even worse.
•  Contrary to the truism that most households live in their kitchens, over forty percent of Americans claim—I say claim—that they have most family conversations in the living room. Sort of puts the lie to the Cleavers, doesn’t it?  If this finding is true, it contradicts the current planning trends of either downsizing the living room or omitting it altogether. On the other hand, it may just show that forty percent of Americans are liars.  

•  Americans overwhelmingly agree that if they could afford to remodel just one room in their house, it would be the kitchen.  Fortunately, this fact dovetails nicely with the old real estate maxim that regards kitchens (along with baths) as one of the few types of remodels that return their investment when the house is sold.  

An island can work great, but only if you have tons and tons
of room to accommodate it.
Surprisingly, only 15% of Americans chose the bathroom as the first room they’d remodel.  Still, that was good enough to take second place on the wish list. 

•  Almost half of all homeowners would like an island cooktop in their kitchen.  Apparently, these are the people who’ve never worked at one before. While cooking islands may look great in TV kitchens, they’re patently impractical for real-life cooking.  For one thing, they require both cooking utensils and sloppy ingredients to be needlessly carried across an aisle.  Worse, they’re also tremendous space hogs, gobbling up dozens of precious square feet in useless aisle area.  My advice?  Unless you’ve got both money and space to burn, skip the island kitchen.  

Simply press the button, and twenty pounds of trash
will be turned into twenty pounds of trash.
•  Ostensibly, one in seven Americans pine for a trash compactor--an appliance that essentially turns twenty pounds of trash into twenty pounds of trash.  Actually, with all the recycling going on nowadays, most households should have very little garbage left over to compact. Ah well—chalk one up for the marketing industry.

•  Two out of three Americans want a garbage disposer. No big surprise there. Curiously, though, people in the eastern half of the nation demand batch-feed  models—those in which the stopper has to be installed to turn the machine on—
while out west where I am, people overwhelmingly prefer continuous-feed models.  Apparently, we westerners still like to live dangerously.  Interesting, no? 

Oh, never mind. Happy 2020.