Monday, January 26, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION: Part One of Two Parts

Suppose there was a place you could buy high quality building products at fire sale prices, and do it in the greenest possible manner to boot? Well, there is such a place--it’s your local architectural salvage yard. If you can live with a few little nicks and scratches, you may be amazed at the bargains you come across. 

A good architectural salvage yard
will have doors like this aplenty.
What? Build your esteemed project with someone else’s castoffs? Well, yes. And there are three good reasons to do so. 

First, the quality of older building materials is often superior to what you’ll find at modern home improvement stores. 

Second, salvaged items typically sell at discounts of fifty to ninety percent off new prices (some items are in fact brand new products misordered by contractors, rejected by customers, or discontinued by their manufacturers--occasionally, they’re still in their original shipping containers). Lastly, salvaged items are infinitely greener than new, so-called “green” products, since they already exist and consume no additional resources. 

But be forewarned: Buying from an architectural salvage yard isn’t for everyone. Unlike shopping at your local building emporium, you can’t just grab all the generic, Made-In-China goodies you need and be on your way. You need patience. It can takes months, in fact, to find just the right items for your project. 

On a really good day, you might find a
brand new high-end entrance door like this,
perhaps still crated for delivery.
You also have to remain flexible and willing to change your mind. For example, you may be looking for a pair of double entrance doors, but come across an absolutely beautiful single door with sidelights that works just as well--perhaps better. Far from being a drawback, having to keep your design options open will often elicit more interesting, less off-the-shelf solutions.  

Now, some salvaged items that can be especially good values:

• Front entrances are one of the most commonly replaced items in home improvement, so salvage yards are usually well stocked with them. Often, these are very fine old doors that have been changed out merely to keep up with some new design fad. If you’re willing to live with the patina that accompanies a previous life, you can get  a high quality front entrance for dimes on the dollar. Your best bet is to look for units complete with the original jamb and hinges, since fitting a new door into an existing opening can be very labor intensive. 

One of my local architectural salvage yards—
Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, California.
• Interior doors can also be a good buy, as long as you know exactly what to look for. Again, if you’re building from scratch (rather than just replacing an existing door), it’s better to buy the doors complete with jambs and hinges--”prehung”, in building parlance. Make sure each door has the  proper “hand”--the direction it swings--because it’s not cost effective to rehinge a door later. Avoid doors that are glopped with multiple layers of old paint, which is usually more trouble to remove than the door is worth. 

• If you’re restoring an older home, the salvage yard is also a good source of hard-to-find vintage hardware items such as lock sets, brass switch cover plates, ornamental heat registers, and the like. They may require some TLC to be put back in use, but their quality is generally superior to that of new reproductions--often including the stuff available from those ostensible “restoration” catalog houses.

Next time, some more salvage yard bargains, along with a few items to approach with caution.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Oh no— these steps are imperfect!

Sociologists like to complain about all the beautiful people that populate advertising and the media. Presenting all those Ken-and-Barbie types as role models, they say, sets an unrealistic standard for the rest of us. Home improvement shows have, in their own way, much the same effect: In their alternate universe, contractors are all pillars of Yankee virtue, project snafus are always resolved in the nick of time, and 45 degree miter joints always fit perfectly. What a disappointment, then, when our own homes are so often far from perfect. 

It’s just as well, however. Perfection is overrated--not to mention impossible--and we’d all be happier if we’d learn to settle for “near-perfect” instead. I couldn’t count the number of past clients I’ve known, for example, who suffered untold anguish over a tiny scratch in a countertop or a microscopic dent in a new hardwood floor.   

This dread of perceived imperfection is partly the fault of our materialistic, newness-obsessed culture, which conditions us to regard anything that’s less than flawless as worn out and needing replacement. It’s no accident that this cult of newness is also what keeps new home improvement goods flying out of stores and old ones pouring into landfills--good news for people who want to sell things, but not such good news for the planet.  

There was a time in the middle of the twentieth century when some modern architects tried to convince us that flawlessness was in fact a requisite quality of fine architecture. Holding up the perfection of machine-made objects as a paragon, they designed buildings that were utterly reliant on the perfection of their surfaces, as if they alone would somehow be magically immune to the ravages of time. We need only look back at the many moldering and decrepit Modernist works still extant to see how abysmally wrong this thinking was. Predicating architecture on the notion of aesthetic perfection is as fruitless as predicating one’s life on eternal youth. 
Ah, now that's perfection—but only thanks to
vast sums spent in maintenance each year.
(Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House,
Plano, Illinois 1951)

All things--not least human beings--inevitably wear and show age, and once we accept this fact, we’re all the better for it. Yet Americans are strangely ambivalent about this process of aging, whether in themselves or in their environments. On the one hand, we profess to adore the sort of well-worn antiquity we find in places like Europe--a continent that’s notably old and beat up. But that quality doesn’t fare so well when we’re talking about our own homes. There, every tiny flaw becomes a cause for hand wringing.

 That’s a pity, because the inevitable dents and dings that arise through human habitation can just as well be viewed as a record of life’s events, forever frozen in time. See that scratch in the door jamb? That’s where Uncle Clem fell out of his chair on New Year’s Eve. Those scrape marks in the driveway? That’s where the bumper of our old Mercury used to drag. Rather than being cause for embarrassment or annoyance, such marks tell the colorful tale of time’s passage. How much more interesting that is than a flawless surface, and how much more human.

Oh no—she's imperfect!

Monday, January 12, 2015

ALL SHOW, NO GO: The Fad-Filled Kitchen

The typical "dream kitchen" of the
design magazine crowd is usually one like this—
big, busy, and slathered in stainless. 
“CHEF’S KITCHEN”. That rather pretentious term tells you a lot about what’s wrong with many of today’s kitchen designs. Dressed up in yards of stainless steel, and sporting appliances that mimic the commercial variety, they masquerade as restaurant kitchens, as if looking functional is the same thing as being functional. But no matter what fashionistas may tell you, a restaurant kitchen is hardly the best model for practical family cooking. 

To begin with, professional kitchens are designed on the presumption of having a full-time staff to operate and maintain them (which also explains why commercial cooking appliances can afford to have so many hard-to-clean cracks and crevices). Professional kitchens also have the luxury of sprawling over large amounts of floor space. Neither of these attributes apply to the average home kitchen. 

There’s a lot more to functional design than simply adopting the usual stainless steel, faux-restaurant kitchen garb. A true chef’s kitchen--that is, yours--demands less concern with how things look, and more concern with the way you cook. 

To design a kitchen specifically tailored to your cooking style, first measure the space you have available and draw up a simple plan. Then try out  a few different tentative layouts as a test bed for your ideas. All the old chestnuts of kitchen design still apply: There should be a compact work triangle formed by the three basic cooking areas--sink, stove, and refrigerator--ideally uninterrupted by traffic passing through it. The sum of the triangle’s sides should be no less than thirteen feet nor more than twenty-one feet. It should only take a few steps to get from one work center to another--a test, incidentally, that most of those sprawling “chef’s kitchens” fail miserably. 

Some kitchens are barely recognizable
as kitchens at all.
Once you have one or more basic layouts, mentally run through your usual daily cooking rituals in each of them to look for shortcomings. For instance, imagine cooking breakfast in each version, paying careful attention to small details such as where you store the cereal, silverware, coffee mugs, and so on. Is the microwave in a convenient spot? Where will the coffeemaker go? The coffee? The bread? The toaster? Minor as these things seem, they can spell the difference between a kitchen that’s a pleasure to work in, and one that’s a daily pain. Run through the same mental exercise for all your other regular mealtimes, as well as any special kitchen uses, such as baking, craft work, or holiday gatherings. 

By the time you’re finished testing out several virtual kitchens designs in your head, you should know exactly where to find Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, the Swiss Miss, and Captain Crunch, as well as how many steps you'll need to take between each of them. Going through these mental dry runs will also allow you to adjust any shortcomings that come to light. When this happens, the real design work is done--you can be sure the kitchen will suit the way you cook, because you've already cooked in it in your mind. All that remains now is the sexy design-mag fun of choosing appliances, finishes and hardware. 

And by the way--while you might like to fancy yourself whipping up fresh strawberry crepes for the kids each morning, there’s also no dishonor in tossing a couple of frozen Eggos in the toaster. After all, it’s not Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen. It’s yours. 

Monday, January 5, 2015


Last time, we looked at the basics of designing an ideal bathroom. This time, we’ll get down to the fine points of fixtures, hardware, and lighting. All of these aspects need to be planned out in detail ahead of time, including the exact placement of bath hardware and lighting fixtures, which many people treat as an afterthought.

If space is at a premium, a cabinet-mounted lavatory sink is preferable to a pedestal sink, since it provides both counter space and storage. Either way, though, each lavatory bowl should have a towel bar or ring for face towels and a GFI-protected electrical outlet within arm’s reach. 

Good lighting places the fixtures to
either side of your face.
The so-called “standard” lavatory sink height of 32 inches dates back to a time when people were much shorter, and nowadays this height is usually too low for comfort. Since this is your bathroom and not Napoleon’s, make the lavatory sink high enough to use without having to stoop. If you’re using a ready-made lavatory cabinet, consider using a base to raise it to a comfortable height.

As for lighting, don’t fall prey to another antiquated standard--having a single lamp centered above the sink--because that’s just about the worst possible location. Instead, provide two separate light sources flanking each lavatory sink, located roughly at the height of your ears, and between two and three feet apart. If there's you're planning a full-width mirror, have it drilled to accommodate this lighting arrangement. Steer clear of recessed lighting fixtures and pendant fixtures that dangle in front of the mirror. Regardless of how trendy they look in the showroom, they’ll do a lousy job of lighting your face. 

On the other hand, this fixture location will cast
harsh shadows on your face. The mirror could have
been drilled to accommodate a better placement.
(Both images courtesy of Progress Lighting).
Don’t forget to find a spot for the toilet paper dispenser (a common oversight), and for heaven’s sake, make it within easy reach. Consider including an additional 8-inch deep cabinet for storing bulky bath sundries (the wall behind the toilet, about three feet above the tank, is often a good spot--it’s much more convenient than storing things under the sink). If space allows, provide yet another cabinet to accommodate underwear as well as a hamper for dirty clothes. Regardless of what moisture-fearing naysayers may tell you, having these things right at hand after a bath or shower is a real luxury.

Don’t even bother to include a separate shower unless you can make it really generous--a stall shower smaller than three by four feet has very little advantage over the typical tub-shower. If you’re lucky enough to have room for a good-sized shower, don’t forget to include a soap dish at a convenient height, a hook or two for washcloths, a niche for holding bath sundries, and a bench or at least a ledge you can put your feet on. Also, arrange the towel bars so you can reach the bath towels without stepping out of the shower.

Lastly, invest in a top quality, ultra-quiet exhaust fan with about twice the capacity recommended for your bathroom. The few bucks you’ll save on a cheap fan simply aren’t worth the earsplitting assault on your senses every morning. If your budget allows, consider a remote-mounted fan, which is even quieter and more powerful than a ceiling-mounted unit. Note that a remote-mounted fan can either be placed on the roof, or be mounted in an accessible spot inside the attic. 

Whether your bathroom is thirty square feet or three hundred, it’s the little conveniences that spell the difference between daily irritation and daily enjoyment.