Monday, June 27, 2011


It’s been well over half a century since magazines such as Sunset popularized the, like, very California concept of the redwood deck. Although decks were originally used to create outdoor living space on sloping sites, they’ve become a default standard for flat sites as well. From the jutting, rakish decks of the 1950s, to the blobby contours of the ‘70s, to the Craftsman-style motifs popular today, decks have provided countless homeowners with a creative yet manageably-scaled do-it-yourself project. 

Should you design or build your own deck? If  your needs are straightforward and you’re reasonably handy, why not? In these trying financial times, adding a deck is a simple and cost-effective way to increase your home’s living area as well as its resale value. And as do-it-yourself projects go, it can be lots of fun. Here are some tips: 

•  Since a deck is really an outdoor extension of your home’s floor plan, it should be laid out just as carefully.  First, make sure you provide generous access to the deck from the major living areas. If necessary, add a sliding door or a pair of French doors, depending on your budget and the style of your home.Determine the most likely use of the various deck areas or “rooms”, and then give each their own identity using level changes, screens, planters, or overhead structures.

•  Be creative with decking patterns. Judging by what’s out there, you’d think using 2x6 decking was one of the Ten Commandments. It isn’t, so consider 2x2 or 2x4 decking instead, or experiment with combinations of different sizes--one of the most pleasing patterns uses alternating 2x6s and 2x2s.  

Generally, the deck planks are run in the long direction of the deck to save labor.  However, on a very long, narrow deck it may better to lay the decking perpendicular to the long direction to give an illusion of added width. Changes in direction can also be pleasing, but be careful that the pattern doesn’t become too busy. Level changes provide the most logical place to change the decking direction.

•  Redwood decking offers beauty, workability, and resistance to decay, but a dwindling redwood supply and rising prices have made alternatives such as Trex more popular. Tropical hardwoods such as Ipe are another alternative if you prefer the look of genuine wood. After the decking is installed, you can simply let it weather naturally, or you can stain it or apply a transparent water-repellent finish, thought the latter will probably require renewal every one to three years. Painting is a definite no-no; the finish won’t hold up to foot traffic, and wood decking will rot more quickly since it can’t “breathe”.

•  Don’t scrimp on the steps. Even the most stunning deck will be ruined by a steep, miserly 3-foot-wide stair.  The large scale of the outdoors demands generous proportions, so make deck steps at least six feet wide, and even wider if possible. Make the risers no higher than 6 1/2”, and the treads at least 10 1/2” deep. In addition to looking more substantial, broad, gentle stairs also provide an inviting place to sit.

•  Make sure the deck railing matches the style of your home. If there’s an existing porch rail someplace, use it as a protoype, but beware: current building codes specify  that a 4” sphere should not be able to pass through the railing. If the existing design doesn’t meet this requirement, you may be able to satisfy your building department by adding 4x6 welded wire to the inside of the railing.  

•  Lastly, if you’d like planters or screens to add privacy or to create smaller areas, spend a few moments to integrate them into the design. Build planters of the same type of lumber, and try to echo motifs such as baluster spacing and the like. It’s little details like these that can turn a ho-hum wooden platform into a genuine outdoor living space. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

REMODELS: Avoiding the Road to Ruin

Reams have been written about the glamorous part of remodeling--the architect’s (often incomprehensible) commentary; the client’s bubbling enthusiasm; the glossy magazine spreads.  A lot less is said about the bumpy road most remodelers travel to arrive at a great project. In this most challenging of economies, it's even more important that you use your building budget intelligently.

While problems and surprises are endemic to the remodeling process, they can be minimized by careful planning and a healthy dose of pragmatism.  Herewith are seven rules of survival:  

•  Educate yourself.  Discover remodeling pitfalls the painless way--by taking a class or seminar--not by living through a disastrous project.  Learning from a pro is easier and a lot less expensive than enrolling in the school of hard knocks.  Look for homeowner education organizations in your area, or check the architecture department of your local junior college; many have a wide variety of classes on design and remodeling topics. 

•  Set a realistic budget.  The days of $80 per square foot construction costs are just a distant memory now; realistically,  you should allow from $200 to $300 per square foot, depending on the size, complexity, and quality of your remodel.  Extensive kitchen or bath remodels will cost even more.  If you plan to hire an architect, add an additional 12-15% fee to the total.  

•  Know where to save and where to spend.  It’s easy to be seduced by trendy design, but high-fashion items are notoriously bad investments.  Spend your money where it counts:  on top-quality doors, windows, doors, roofing, and exterior finishes.  The frou-frou can be easily upgraded later. 

•  Do as much of the work yourself as you can, but be realistic about how much you can do and how well you can do it.  Finish work, especially, is not the place for on-the-job training--novice work can ruin an otherwise first-rate job.  And be forewarned:  Many contractors dislike sharing construction responsibilities with owners, since any tardiness on owner’s part can raise havoc with the contractor’s schedule.  If you’re confident of your time and abilities, fine; otherwise, forget it.

• Choose a contractor (or an architect) by what he builds, not by what he says.  Always ask for references, and then follow up on them.  Most contractors and architects are dedicated, competent, and take great pride in their work--and they’ll be glad to let their references prove it.  

• Be prepared for more of everything--more expense, more time, more disruption, more problems than you planned on.  Surprises of one kind or another are endemic to working with existing buildings--expect them.

•  If you need design help, get it.  That 12-15% architect’s fee may sound like a waste of money until you find yourself spending $30,000 to correct errors or add items you’ve forgotten.  If I do say so myself, investing in a professional’s experience will usually repay itself many times over.  In any case, a well-detailed set of plans is an absolute must if you plan to bid the job out, since vague plans will invite many costly “extras” later on. 

All of the foregoing adds up to two remodeling fundamentals:  Be  informed, and expect the unexpected.  A little mental preparation will go a long way toward smoothing out the road to a remodel.

Monday, June 6, 2011

AFFORDABLE HOUSING: What Do Architects Know About It?

If there’s one building type that architects seem ill-equipped to design, it’s so-called affordable housing. Aside from getting in a few years of honest-to-goodness construction experience—which is rare in the profession—very little in an architect’s training enables him to understand what makes for an affordable, easily-constructed building.  

While many factors outside an architect’s control interfere with the production of housing for ordinary incomes--including obsolete zoning ordinances, anxious lenders, and developers who naturally prefer the fat profit margin of upscale markets--the architect’s share of the problem is rooted in an educational system that encourages unique solutions when obvious ones might do better.  

Many brilliant architects have taken a crack at producing affordable housing over the years. Not the least of them was Frank Lloyd Wright, who in 1937 erected the first of his “Usonian” houses—an attempt to deliver his highly personal brand of architecture in an inexpensive form. Well, okay—not that inexpensive. 

Le Corbusier and a host of other Modernists brought their affordable-housing ideas to the United States and, unfortunately, some of them got built. Minoru Yamasaki’s ultra-rational Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, celebrated as a shining example of urban renewal when it was constructed in the Fifties, ended its short life as little more than a highrise drug den. Its demolition by dynamite in 1972, a slow-motion image seared into the conscience of many an architect, vividly signaled the failures of Modernism.    

One problem with attempts such as these lies in the architect’s characteristic compulsion to begin from a clean slate. Wright invented what amounted to a whole new construction system for his Usonian houses but, being unfamiliar to contractors, it could hardly have gained rapid acceptance. And in his Broadacre City model town project of the ‘30s, he proposed that each house be placed on a full acre of land, at a time when most Americans were already gravitating toward big cities.

While Wright dallied with such bucolic notions, the International Style Modernists instead seemed convinced that rationalism and technology held the key. In his “Ville Radieuse” project—mercifully unbuilt—Le Corbusier placed a phalanx of numbingly identical living towers on a site that resembled nothing so much as a sheet of graph paper. It was the spiritual ancestor of Pruitt-Igoe, based on the strange idea that equality was somehow linked to mindless anonymity.  

Moshe Safdie’s innovative Habitat housing scheme, built in Montreal in 1967, attempted to stack a standardized concrete housing unit into a sort of multistoried modular sculpture. Alas, the need to design much of the details from scratch once again derailed the project’s practical potential for mass construction.

Since that time, there have been any number of attempts to provide decent housing at a reasonable cost. Many have been laudable, and some have actually been affordable. Few have been both.

In recent years, one of the most promising forms of affordable housing has been the concept of industrial loft housing (often called live-work), in which obsolete industrial and commercial buildings were adapted to residential use. Artists, musicians, and craftspeople found generous areas of low-cost living space in these buildings, and could pursue their avocations there at the same time.  

As soon as architects eager for show-stopping projects entered the picture, however, the industrial loft became just another trendoid living style. I know—I helped it happen.  The result, I’m sorry to say, is a gentrification so rapid that industrial lofts are now essentially the domain of attorneys, stockbrokers, and techies. 

Once again, the virtual absence of practical training in architecture serves us badly, leaving most architects unable to judge what’s affordable and what isn’t.