Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Judging by the typical model home, you’d think that the perfect bathroom was a gigantic space with lots of glitzy surfaces and a monstrous whirlpool tub. In reality, this brand of bath design is mainly intended to make a splashy first impression on buyers--the so-called wow factor. The designers of such rooms don’t much care how comfortable they are for daily use.

The ideal bathroom has many requisites, but vast size, acres of granite, and a whirlpool tub aren’t among them. What really counts is having generous space where it’s actually useful, and having all the elements of your daily bath ritual right at hand. 

One of my favorite "wow factory only" designs.
If you have 300 square feet to spare,
you can have a tub like this, too.
For starters, here are some basic rules of thumb that can be applied to most any living space, but that are especially essential to bathrooms: 

• Natural light trumps artificial light. Basically, this mean you should buck the usual bathroom standard--a paltry, high-placed window--and insteadprovide the biggest window possible. And don’t let privacy worries restrict the window size or placement, since you can always augment privacy using window coverings, exterior screening, or planting. 

• Natural ventilation trumps mechanical ventilation. Don’t rely on a puny exhaust fan to ventilate a naturally humid room like the bathroom. Fully-opening windows such as casements or awnings are ideal, but generously sized sliding or double hung windows will work too if they’re better suited to the style of your house. If you can provide cross ventilation with two windows spaced some distance apart, all the better.

• Usable space trumps “wow” space. If  you’re more interested in genuine comfort than impressing your neighbors, delegate your bathroom space to useful purposes, not to grandiose statements like huge, seldom-used whirlpool tubs. For example, few bathrooms have adequate storage for bulky items like toilet paper, extra towels, and bath sundries. Sure, you can cram them into the lavatory cabinet, if you don’t mind rooting around on all fours to get them out. But a generous cabinet at eye level is much more convenient. Likewise, when you shower or bathe, it’s a real luxury to have a cabinet with clean underwear and another hiding a laundry hamper, all within arm’s reach.

The vastly impractical vessel sink,
current darling of interior designers.
They're already showing up in the salvage yards.
• Function and ease of maintenance trump trendoid design. The current poster child for utterly impractical bathroom fads is the so-called “vessel” sink, which sits atop the counter rather than in it, trapping spilled water and all manner of nasty gunk underneath. Then there are those elaborate glass shower surrounds which look so dazzling in staged magazine photos, but which require ceaseless cleaning under real life conditions. For my money, an old-fashioned shower curtain is simpler, cheaper, doesn’t clutter up the room, and is also easier to maintain--when it starts getting grungy, you can recycle it as a drop cloth and buy a new one. 

You can probably come up with your own favorite impractical features, but you get the idea--simply keeping up with current product fads is no basis for an intelligent bathroom design.
Next time, we’ll take a more detailed look at what makes for an ideal bathroom--including the choice of fixtures, hardware, and lighting.

Monday, December 22, 2014


 When it comes to aesthetic matters, a lot of men seem almost embarrassed to express their opinions. That’s not too surprising, considering the longstanding stereotype of males whose work deals with the way things look. Architects, designers, and other aesthetes are typically seen as being, shall we say, a long way from the guy on the Brawny package. You needn’t look any further than the popular media to find them routinely depicted as effete prima donnas.  

Every macho man's dream—a U.S. Army Cat D9
with bulletproof glass in the cab.
Rather than risk such associations, many males feign disinterest in how things look, and instead make a pretense of concern for the more manly nuts and bolts of building. They feel compelled to ask questions about lumber grades or circuit breakers, pointedly leaving those sissified aesthetic judgments to their fairer partners.

This is all pure swagger, of course. Men are at least as susceptible to appearances as  women are, and one look at the things typically bought or used by males will confirm this. Power tools, pickup trucks, bulldozers--even items that ostensibly are purely functional, such as jet fighters--are all carefully designed to include the aggressive styling cues that are known to push men’s buttons. Strong colors, chunky lines, and a visual suggestion of weight are all used to impart a look of masculine toughness and durability that panders to the male’s own wishful self image. 

Don't think for a minute that aircraft aren't
intentionally styled to push men's buttons.
Nor is it accidental that so many tools have names suggesting firearms or other things that explode--hence, nail gun, screw gun, calking gun, spray gun, heat gun, drywall bazooka, water blaster. I own an electric drill--a relatively benign tool as these things go--that’s nevertheless sold under the formidable-sounding name of “Magnum Hole Shooter”. Well, hell yes, pardner--what kind of pasty-faced wimp would settle for just drilling, when he could be out shootin’ himself some magnum holes?

The point is that men are just as easily moved by a certain curve or color as women are--we just feel weird admitting it. We might buy that Magnum Hole Shooter for its fire-engine-red case, or its musclebound styling, or even its swagger-filled name, but we’ll never admit as much. Instead, we’ll mumble something about how Dad’s old Hole Shooter lasted thirty years, and even then it was only the trigger that busted.
Well hell, let's go shoot us some dang magnum holes.

Given all this macho posturing, it’s no wonder that when it comes to discussing the aesthetics of his own home, many a man will pointedly stay out of the conversation. He’ll leave it to his gentler partner to hobnob with the architect, who’s probably been classed as a bit deficient in the macho column anyway. And he’ll profess that he doesn’t much care what the place looks like, as long as the garage will fit his table saw.

This reluctance to take an aesthetic stand is too bad, really. After all, a home, beside being a man’s castle, is very likely also the biggest investment he’ll ever make. Since he’s going to have to live in the place, he needn’t fear having an opinion on how it should look. Even if he comes off a little pasty-faced now and then. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


The other day I was strolling through a local shopping center when I noticed a colorfully ragtag quartet of young travelers camped out in the little plaza outside a chain coffee store. They were presumably hitchhiking across the country, their entourage complete with two friendly mutts and a couple of beat up guitars.  The whole bunch was in high spirits, although judging by their looks, they’d been on the road for a long, long time. 

 Coming a long way, but for what?
At first I was reminded of my own teenage travel adventures, when my friends and I had cheerfully slept on sidewalks or railway station floors, immune to the disapproving frowns of the locals.

But then I began to wonder how similar our experiences really were. The plaza these travelers occupied so happily was ringed by one-hundred-percent corporate chain outlets, from the ubiquitous coffee bar, to the familiar purveyor of ersatz tacos, to the giant home-improvement outlet, with its inevitable parade of customers driving off with screen doors tied to their roofs. 

It was a place at once utterly familiar and utterly forgettable, without a single feature unique to this particular corner of America. Nowadays, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of ultra-generic locations--in fact, they’re becoming almost inescapable. Hence, what these kids were experiencing--the simple exhilaration of travel notwithstanding--would have been pretty much the same whether they’d been in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, in Lansing or Laredo. Here they were, gloriously free and ready to take in the United States, yet for much of the time the places they went all looked the same.

Could be anywhere. Is it your town?
Don’t get me wrong. America is a land of incomparable natural contrasts--of mountain, desert and prairie, of oceans of water and oceans of wheat. Mother Nature has blessed us with plenty to see and this, one hopes, will never change. Yet the places where we actually spend most of our time--the erstwhile charismatic cities, the formerly charming whistle-stop towns, and the increasingly vast stretches of bland, lookalike suburbs in between--have less and less to distinguish them as the years pass. Our nation’s once culturally distinct landscapes are slowly congealing into a homogenized, study group-induced, corporate marketer’s idea of nirvana, in which one business plan conveniently fits all because every crossroads is interchangeable. Only the backlit plastic signs need their logos swapped now and then.

Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon? Bet you
can't tell me.
History is cyclical, of course, and it may be that the insidious spread of global megabusiness is just a phase that will grow and then wither--and along with it, the bland, calculated, one-size-fits-all corporatization of America and the rest of the globe. Still, given today’s frenetic electronic linkage of everything and everyone--and the apparent glee with which young people experience it--we might just as likely be on a one-way trip to Blandville. 

 As I watched those four scruffy kids in the bloom of youth, strumming on their beat up guitars, I felt a little sorry for them. They were traveling America, all right, but they were always ending up in the same place.

Monday, December 8, 2014


Dutch door in a classic Hugh Comstock-
designed cottage in Carmel, California
A door seems like a simple enough thing. Yet visit your local door showroom, and you may think the salesperson is speaking a foreign language. In a way, he is: it’s the arcane terminology of doors. 

Most of us are familiar with that old residential standby, the hinged door. But other doors have less obvious names. The ones that slide into a hollow space in the wall are called pocket doors (not, as you might think, sliding doors). Paired doors that slide past each other--often used for closets--aren’t called sliding doors either; they’re called bypassing doors. As a matter of fact, the only sliding door that’s actually called a sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to your patio.

Each individual door is called a leaf. Hence double doors are said to have two leaves; with the one that’s usually opened being called the active leaf. Those narrow pairs of doors that are hinged together in the middle--also common for closets--are called bifold doors. Doors that are split in half horizontally are called Dutch doors. Doors that swing in two directions are called double acting doors. 

Doors with glass in them, which most of us call French doors, are more properly called glazed doors. Each pane in a glazed door is called a lite, and the wooden bars dividing the lites are called muntins. Hence, the typical glazed door having one vertical muntin and four horizontal ones is called a ten-lite door.

The doorknob is the part you see;
the lockset is the part that does
the work.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of doors. The first, known as panel doors, were common from pre-Victorian times through the Depression, and were built of solid lumber enclosing varying numbers of recessed wo
oden panels. Designs ranged from six panels in Colonial-era homes to four in Victorian ones to a single large panel in homes of the inter war era. Panel doors made a big comeback in the 1980s, though most are now just one-piece moldings made to miimic the real thing.

Go on, get your butts out of here.
Modernist-era homes such as California Ranchers, on the other hand, typically had doors with completely plain, flat surfaces. These are known as flush doors, and they can further be classed as hollow core or solid core, the latter being more durable and also more expensive.

Door hardware has its own arcane terminology. What most of us just call a doorknob is properly referred to as a lockset (the knob is just the visible part that turns). The direction a door opens is said to determines the “hand” of the lock: a door that’s hinged on the right and swings away from you, for example, is said to have a right hand lock. 

As for what you and I call hinges, door professionals rather inelegantly refer to them as “butts”. To make things more confusing, butts are counted by pairs, not by the piece. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while a heavier door that requires three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs of butts. 

Listen, I  just pass this stuff along--I don’t make it up.

Monday, December 1, 2014


A while back, driving through an old and well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, I came upon a charming street flanked by swaying palm trees and lined with classic Craftsman bungalows. Practically all of them had stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows--in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.

Classic bungalow in Alameda, California, circa 1911.
There was just one problem: Although the original architecture of those homes had been remarkably consistent, at least half of the them had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions that had taken place in earlier years--erstwhile ”improvements” that in the long run destroyed their architectural value.

By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl windows ones. These windows are today’s equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old Victorians during the postwar era. Regardless of what vinyl window sellers may claim, and regardless of what kind of “historical” muntin patterns they may offer, these windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style--least of all the emphatically woodsy bungalow. 

Another great bungalow, this one with not-so-classic
vinyl replacement windows.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone wrong on this erstwhile remarkable little street. Some homeowners had apparently found their premises a little too cramped and, lacking enough property to add to the back of their homes, instead built enormous, looming second story additions that were the visual equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.

Other less egregious but equally irreversible damage was done by owners who, in an apparent attempt to keep up with some color fad or other, had painted over their bungalows’ natural river rock on columns and chimneys.

The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were all unnecessary. Old wood windows, for example, can generally be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing--the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows--is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.

A bungalow addition gets off to a bad start.
Note the overpowering mass, uncharacteristic hip roof,
 and the means of extending the chimney.
Additions, even on a tight site, needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second story additions can be designed to minimize their visual presence, with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.

Neither should the foregoing suggest that it takes a big budget to thoroughly wreck a vintage house--all it really takes is one trendoid fool with a paint brush. While painting a house solely in to keep up with color trends is merely a waste of time and money, painting over natural stone or brick for the same purpose is self-inflicted sabotage. The damage is, for practical purposes, irreversible, and the punishment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell.

Take that lovely little palm-lined street, for example. The very owners who refrained from “modernizing” are the ones whose homes will be valued most highly at sale time. The ones who made inadvisable and half-baked “improvements” end up the losers.