Monday, December 21, 2015


The late Malvina Reynolds best expressed the modern image of stucco when she sang about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.  In the years since World War II, the mention of stucco has usually prompted snickers, its image cheapened by dreary G.I.  housing and monotonous design made infamous by tracts such as Levittown, New York and Daly City, California--the real-life inspiration for Reynolds’s lyrics.

Little boxes made of ticky tacky?
Actually, stucco is much more durable than wood.
But stucco’s history is long and dignified. The ancient Greeks applied it over rough stone to get a smooth surface that could be decorated, and the Romans mixed it with marble chips to obtain a brilliant interior finish.  The magnificent frescoes of the Renaissance were painted onto a form of wet stucco. It’s still the finish of choice in Mediterranean lands.                 

Stucco is still unmatched for beauty and versatility.  It’s far more durable and fireproof than wood. It can be formed in limitless ways, and the final or “skim” coat can be colored to almost any shade, and will never fade, peel, or need repainting.  

America’s golden age of stucco began with the California Bungalows of the 1920s.  These squat little homes, which were eventually  built from coast to coast, quickly demonstrated the material’s economy and design potential. Contractors found that, unlike siding and shingles, stucco went up quickly and would conform to any shape.  Better yet, stucco could make a humble house look substantial:  By applying it over a hollow wooden framework, for example, a porch column could be given Herculean proportions.  

Not bad for a stucco house, eh? The famed
Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California,
(designed by architect Julia Morgan and
in 1919) made brilliant use of stucco.
The Mediterranean style homes of the thirties also put stucco to good use for mock adobe walls and arches. Its ability to form compound curves made it perfect for the bulging shapes this style demanded.

After World War II, the pressing need to house tens of thousands of returning GIs made home styles turn strictly utilitarian.  Stucco was used because it was cheap, but little attempt was made at creativity.  The dreary legacy of postwar tract housing gave stucco its undeserved reputation as a slapdash, built-on-the-cheap material.

The inspired stucco design of the Bungalow era isn’t lost, however—it’s just dormant.  Here are some ways to capitalize on stucco:

•  Take advantage of its plasticity, or ability to be modeled into any shape.  Stucco can easily form arches, vaults, and even compound curves.  All that’s required is a rough wooden framework that approximates the final shape.  Turrets, serpentine walls, and bulging forms are just a few of the possibilities.

But stucco was just as adaptable to more modest homes,
such as this 1920s-era California Bungalow.
It's still a great choice today.
•  Use stucco to suggest mass and solidity.  Handle it like masonry, not like exterior wallpaper.  Make design features such as columns stout enough to look structural, using the same proportions that stone might require.  The Bungalow builders excelled at making inexpensive wood-framed homes look very massive, and using stucco three-dimensionally was the key to this trick.

•  Use stucco’s many available textures.  If you’re adding onto a home with an unusual stucco texture, find a contractor who’s willing to match it. If you’re building a new house, take a drive through some prewar stucco neighborhoods.  You’ll find a huge variety of textures, each the “signature” of its creator.  You’ll also find a lot of great design ideas. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


When I hear people say, “They sure don’t build houses like they used to,.”  I think to myself, “Yeah, and it's a good thing, too.”

Granted, the quality of many items in new homes--doors, paint, hardware, and so on--can’t measure up to that of their vintage counterparts. But when it comes to actual structure and infrastructure, there’s no comparison.

This would never happen to a modern house, because
modern framing systems have shear walls.
Starting at the bottom of things--the foundation--modern houses are already way ahead. Prewar foundations had little or no reinforcing steel in them, which is why sticking doors and crooked floors are so common in vintage houses. Thanks to increasingly stringent codes for earthquake safety, modern foundations contain plenty of reinforcement., which has the added benefit of keeping them level and in one piece. 

Building codes also require today’s houses to be much more robustly framed than their predecessors, many of which had shockingly weak structures. Victorian houses, for instance, typically sat atop tottering “cripple walls” that made these already spindly and top-heavy structures even more susceptible to earthquakes, hurricanes, and flood damage. Today, the use of inexpensive metal framing connectors such as joist hangers and tie  straps produce far stronger houses at a very modest additional cost.

Galvanized water pipe was used
through the 1950s. This is what
most of it now looks like inside.
Modern building infrastructure such as plumbing, heating, and electrical systems are also leagues beyond their vintage counterparts. Take plumbing systems, for example--prewar homes typically used rust- and occlusion-prone galvanized steel water piping. Most modern plumbing systems, on the other hand, use durable, trouble-free copper. 

Likewise, houses predating 1940 or so employed knob-and-tube wiring systems with cloth-insulated wires that were embrittled by heat and attractive to rodents. Worse, these systems were protected by simple plug fuses that could be (and often were) circumvented by clueless owners--the infamous “penny in the fusebox” trick that led to many an electrical fire. 

Knob-and tube wiring like this was common from the
1900s until World War II. As you can see,
a lot of it is an accident waiting to happen.
Modern home electrical systems, on the other hand, use circuit breakers that can’t be tampered with. They also provide ample electrical capacity and plenty of outlets, doing away with the tangles of dangerous extension cords so ubiquitous in old houses. 

And speaking of fires, it’s no accident that fewer deadly fires occur in newer homes than in older ones. Rather, it’s because today’s building codes require interlinked smoke detectors, and many codes now also require fire sprinklers as well. Together, these improvements have dramatically reduced the incidence of fatal house fires.

These old furnaces were cool to look at, but
were dismally inefficient. They can't hold
a candle to today's modern forced air units.
Lastly, and perhaps most apparent to us in day to day life, new houses are far and away more comfortable and energy efficient than their old-time predecessors. Although we like to think of homes from the “good old days” as being warm and snug,  most lacked wall and attic insulation to conserve heat and instead relied on huge, wasteful gas furnaces to keep them warm. 

Thanks to modern energy efficiency standards, however, gone are the days of huge furnaces that lost over half of their heat energy up the chimney or by radiation from poorly-insulated ductwork. Today’s high-efficency furnaces, coupled with other features such as mandatory floor, wall, and ceiling insulation, mean modern houses are many times more energy-efficient than grandma’s cottage was.

Given all these improvements, next time you hear someone say, “They don’t build houses like they used to,” tell them they’re absolutely right.

Monday, December 7, 2015

PAINTING: No Yahoos Allowed

A friend of mine is an expert plaster and drywall finisher with almost fifty years in the trade. Not long ago, he knocked himself out on a very labor-intensive plastering job. Instead of kudos, though, he got a complaint from the owner, who said:

You can get away with cutting corners in some areas
of construction. Painting isn't one of them.
“Jimmy, they painted the walls, but I’m really unhappy with the way they came out.”

“Who did the painting?” asked my friend the plasterer.

“A couple of college students," replied the owner.

Tradespeople tell these kinds of horror stories all the time. Besides being entertaining, they can give remodelers an object lesson in the things that really matter: You can scrimp a little here and there, but don’t ever cut corners on the finishes that meet the eye—be they on the floor, the walls, the ceiling, or the roof. 

Yahoo paint work.
As it happens, my plasterer friend went back to see what the owner was complaining about, and his heart sank: The college kids--who probably had four hours of painting experience between them—had ruined all his painstaking plasterwork in one gloppy coat. Although my friend did manage to undo all this damage, it cost the owner a lot more than he’d “saved” by hiring cheapo painters. Next time, my friend advised him, he’d do better to hire a pro and not a couple of yahoos on summer break.

Sound advice, of course. The trouble is, for most remodelers, those final, all-important finish phases happen late in the job, at just about the same time their money is running out. This makes it excruciatingly tempting to hire low-bid, quick-and-dirty practitioners who’ll ruin all the hard work done before them. 

More yahoo paint work. Notice the paint on the knob trim
 It takes about two minutes to remove the lockset
 from a door,  and that's what these
clowns should have done.
Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, set aside an ironclad, untouchable reserve for the very best professional finish work you can reasonably afford. This is especially critical if you tend to be an impulsive buyer, and are always tempted to spend “just a little bit more” on unplanned extras along the way. It’s this kind of “feature creep” that exhausts budgets at just the time the finish work comes around. 

Your reserve for finishes should ensure that you can afford decent quality stucco, roofing, hardwood flooring, and carpet, but above all, it should provide for top-quality painting. Why? Because, of all the aforementioned trades, painting is the only one that homeowners wrongly assume any fool can do. Well, any fool can paint, all right, but the results will speak for themselves. 

Beyond yahoo. Two little screws, twenty seconds,
and they could have done the job right.
It’s perfectly reasonable to shop for bargains on materials such as lumber, pipe, electrical wire, and so on. You may even be able to cut costs by using salvaged material or providing sweat equity on framing, plumbing, or what have you. As long as these invisible portions of the job are safe and adequate, no one will ever know or care that you didn’t pay top dollar for them. 

Not so with finishes. Slapdash work will be right there, staring you in the face every morning. Save where you will, but don’t save on the surfaces that meet the eye.