Monday, June 20, 2016

SOLID LUMBER: What Are The Alternatives?

Coming from a nation of once seemingly limitless resources, we Americans have always taken our lumber for granted. In Victorian-era California for example, many homes—such as the fantastical mansion of the famed lumber baron William Carson in Eureka—were framed entirely of redwood.  It never occurred to builders that the lumber from this once-ubiquitous tree would one day be priced out of reach. Even in recent years, few people really expected that ordinary construction lumber species such as pine and Douglas fir would become an expensive commodity.

he Carson Mansion in Eureka, California, was the home of lumber baron
William Carson. Built in 1886, it was constructed entirely of
California redwood—which would cost a pretty penny these days.
(Architects, Newsom & Newsom)
 The continual rise in solid lumber prices is due both to the inevitable depletion of timberland, and to the lumber industry’s reaction against increasingly stringent environmental laws. To the consumer this means only one thing:  Homes built of conventional solid-sawn lumber will be getting a lot more expensive.  

I-joists are stronger and straighter then solid wood
floor joists, but can still be installed using
regular wood framing methods.
Alternatives to solid lumber have been around for a long time—the relatively low cost of solid lumber just hasn’t made them attractive until now. However, in light of the staggering increase in lumber prices over recent years, many people are taking a good look at alternative construction materials. Here are a few: 

•  Engineered lumber, which includes glued-laminated members, composite I-joists, and reconstituted wood members made of shredded wood fibers bonded by special glues. Unlike solid lumber, which inevitably has natural flaws such as knots and splits, engineered lumber has a consistent composition and hence a higher strength. This consistency also minimizes warping, which in solid lumber is caused by the tree’s natural growth rings

Disadvantages of engineered lumber include a higher cost than solid lumber, heavier weight in some cases, and slightly more complex installation methods. However, many framers agree that the straightness and consistency of these member generally outweigh such problems.

Metal stud framing is also stronger and straighter
than solid lumber framing, but working with it
takes some getting used to.
•  Steel framing has been used in commercial construction for decades. It uses lightweight steel studs attached to metal runners with self-tapping sheet metal screws. Steel framing has several advantages over wood.  Steel studs are very strong and don’t warp or twist.  They come pre-punched with holes for running wires and plumbing.  And they’re also fireproof and resistant to termites  and resistant to termites and rot.

The drawbacks of steel framing have been its cost, which in past years was substantially higher than wood, as well as the need to re-train framers accustomed to working with wood. As steel framing becomes more prevalent, however, framers will become more comfortable working with it.  

Concrete block can do most anything that
wood studs can do, and will last longer.
If you're used to building with wood,
however, it's a whole new universe
 to work in. 
•  Concrete block, widely used in Florida and parts of the Southwest, has been used infrequently in other parts of the country. Its advantages—high strength, resistance to decay, and good thermal properties—have historically not been able to overcome a widespread bias against the material’s appearance.  

Today, however, concrete block is available in a range of styles and colors, and many interesting designs are possible.  It’s the ideal material for passive-solar homes requiring thermal mass for heat storage.  And when properly reinforced, concrete block is also seismically sound. 

With old-growth solid lumber fast disappearing and managed forests producing lumber of generally inferior quality, the price of solid lumber will only increase in the future. If you’re thinking of building a home, alternatives to solid lumber are worth looking into.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

PAVING THE WAY TO SUCCESS: My Inevitable Title With A Meaningless Subtitle

Author's note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for most of the summer, and depending on how reliable my internet service proves to be, I'll continue my weekly blogs. However, please forgive me if the infrastructure/political events cause me to miss a date here or there. In any event, I wish you all, dear readers, a lovely summer.

If you’ve ever walked down a mossy brick path winding its way through a garden, you know how evocative outdoor paving can be. A well-chosen paving material can enhance both your home’s architecture and your garden’s ambience.

Scored and colored concrete—simple,
but beautiful.
A good paving material should acquire a patina as it ages.  Also, since soil is constantly swelling and shrinking due to rain and frost, it should also be able to take a little ground movement and still look good.  Here are just a few of the more popular paving materials, and how they can be used:

•  Concrete has been the standard for patios and paths for many years. Yet the great creative opportunities inherent in concrete are seldom exploited.  Because it’s a plastic material, patterns and textures are limited only by your imagination.

One neat trick is simply to score a pattern into the wet concrete, a technique widely used prior to World War II but seldom seen today.  When combined with coloring, scoring can produce a very elegant effect at relatively low cost.

Impressed concrete systems, such as
Bomanite, can be a dead ringer
for actual stone paving.
• More costly is the patented Bomanite system, in which patterns such as cobblestone, brick, or tile are imprinted into suitably colored concrete.  In many cases, the effect is indistinguishable from the real material.  You’ve probably been fooled by Bomanite “cobblestones” in many roadway median strips.    

• Exposed aggregate, in which the fine cement on the surface of the concrete is stripped off to reveal the aggregate beneath, has overcome its shopping-center reputation of the Sixties and is quite popular again. You needn’t use sparkly white rocks for this effect, either; any color or size of aggregate will do.

• For a subtler textured effect, coarse rock salt can be embedded into fresh concrete before troweling. The salt dissolves after a few weeks, leaving a very interesting rye-cracker sort of texture.

Classic brick paving can roll with
the punches. This is a herringbone
pattern with soldier course borders. 
All concrete work should be provided with control joints (strips of redwood or hardboard) at intervals of about twelve feet to allow the sections of paving to move relative to each other.  This reduces cracking in the middle of the surfaces.

•  Brick paving provides almost limitless design possibilities, weathers beautifully, and is reasonably affordable if you provide your own labor. Borders and curbs are easily accomplished in brick. And of course,  varying shades of brick can be laid in patterns to create highly artistic installations.

It’s not necessary to set bricks in mortar, either.  They can simply be laid dry on a sand bed, which allows the paving to accommodate soil settlement and encourages the growth of mosses and lichen between the bricks. Running bond, herringbone and basketweave are just a few of the most common brick paving patterns.

Interlocking pavers have a sharper, more precise look,
and are less likely to settle. 
•  Interlocking concrete pavers, which have long been popular throughout Europe, are now widely available in the U.S.  Although more expensive than poured concrete, they provide an attractive surface which easily accommodates soil movement.  Like bricks, they can be laid dry in a sand bed, making do-it-yourself installation simple. They’re available in many interlocking shapes, and in a range of colors.  A special type, called a grid paver, has openings which grass can grow through, softening the look of the paved surface.

Monday, June 6, 2016


In medieval times, the "hall"
is where everything happened.
In the small California town I grew up in, we had an elderly Oklahoma-born neighbor who always referred to her living room as “the front room”.  To me, this always conjured up visions of an old wind-beaten farmhouse in the midst of the prairie.

Today, it seems, the familiar term “living room” itself is beginning to fade away. For the past forty years, living rooms have been shrinking steadily, while family rooms have grown ever larger.  This is partly due to the fact that few people actually use their living room—it’s just become a sort of showcase for their most expensive furniture.

In light of this, many modern homes are doing away with the living room altogether.  In a recent trade journal featuring popular floor plans, a fair number of them had no living room at all—just a large family room. So it’s likely that in the not-too-distant future, the family room will assume the role that the living room has played for the past century.  It’ll still be a living room; it just won’t be called that anymore.  
The Victorian parlor was the direct
precursor of today's 'living room".

The room-name game is nothing new. Actually, we’ve gone through quite a few different names for the living room since the Middle Ages. In medieval times, the large room in which the well-to-do lived was known as the “hall”. It was the central (and often the only) gathering place for the family. It wasn’t furnished in the conventional sense—it was more like a place to camp out. People lived, ate, and slept in the hall. Furniture was designed to be movable—in French it’s still called mobiliers—so that it could be moved around to suit the room’s multiple requirements.

Since the hall was the main room of the house, you had to pass through it to get to other rooms. Today, that great medieval hall has atrophied into the tiny little room at the center of your house—the one you pass through to get to the others.

Rooms began to be specialized according to their use in seventeenth-century France.  The French salle became the modern equivalent of the medieval hall, except that now it was no longer used for cooking or sleeping.  For the first time, these functions were assigned to their own special rooms.
Far out, man—here's the ultimate earth-toned
living room of the 1970s.

In fashionable Georgian homes of the late seventeenth century, the “drawing room” became the major living area. Its name is a corruption of “withdrawing room”—the room where ladies were expected to go while the men smoked cigars and drank brandy at the dinner table.

By the late Georgian period the “parlor” had replaced the drawing room as the main public room, and the drawing room became a less formal space—somewhat like our modern concept of the family room.

Is this the "centrum" of the future?
I sure hope not.
The term “parlor”  survived through Victorian times.  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, there was a growing backlash against the bombastic architecture of the Victorian period. The perceived stuffiness of Victorian ideas fell out of fashion, right down to the room names. The term “parlor” was declared old-fashioned, and the more populist-sounding “living room” succeeded it.

During the last four decades a number of would-be replacements for the living room have been suggested—“great room”, “centrum”, even “parlor” has been exhumed on occasion. My bet is still on “family room”, though, because it’s already familiar.  Anyway, I’d feel dumb saying, “Come on in, Joe, have a seat in the centrum.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


So you’re thinking of building an addition in that unused piece of yard. Should you call in an architect?  Maybe.  But before you hire a professional, you may want to do a little legwork first to make sure your idea will comply with local zoning laws. You’ll save time, money, and arguments with the neighbors by ruling out unworkable schemes at the outset.

A typical plot plan. The heavy black lines are property lines.
The dotted lines indicate the setbacks.
First, call your zoning department to find out the setbacks and height limits for your property. Remember, just because you have some empty ground doesn’t mean you can put an addition on it. Every residential property has a setback on each side—an area in which you’re not allowed to build. When requesting zoning information over the phone, give the zoning official your street address or, better yet, your Assessor’s Parcel Number (it’s on your property tax statement).  The zoning officials may require a day or two to return your calls, but be patient. Don't even start thinking about an addition until you have all the setback requirements in hand.

A typical city's table of setback requirements.
Every city is different, so don't make any assumptions.
Next, if you have the original blueprints for your house, look for the sheet titled site plan or plot plan—it's usually the first sheet of the drawings. It will show the distance from each side of your house to the property line. If you don’t have the blueprints, you may have received a small 8 1/2” x 11” size plat map with your deed when you purchased the house. The plat map will show the size of your property, although it won’t show the house.  If you can’t find this little map, the Tax Assessor’s office can provide you with a copy for a small fee.

The site plan or plat map will give you the basic dimensions of your property, as well as indicating potential problems. Beware areas with dashed lines labeled R.O.W. (right-of-way), reserve, or easement. These areas may contain public utilities such as sewer lines or overhead power lines, or they may be reserved for future utilities. Even though  you own the property, you usually cannot build on these areas. You can pave or landscape them, but the utility company nevertheless maintains the right to remove anything that’s in their way in order to access them.

Here's the buildable area that remains
on this simple rectangular property. Your existing
house will already have used up most of it;
what's left is where your addition will have to go.
If you’re thinking about a second-story addition, guesstimate the height of the completed addition and make sure it doesn’t exceed the local height limit. Take a look at the neighboring houses: If none of them have second stories, there may be a good reason for it. Height limits generally aren’t a problem, but check anyway. You know that old saw about making assumptions.

After you’ve determined your setbacks and height limits and checked for R.O.W.s, reserves, or easements, subtract these areas from your property. You can do this on paper or by actually measuring from your approximate property lines. What's left is the buildable area.  Don’t be disappointed if there's a lot less room to build than you thought. A good designer or architect can usually work around a tight site, and it’s better to have a realistic idea from the outset rather than wasting a lot of time on an impossible scheme.