Monday, December 18, 2017


Back in my homebuilding days, fireplace mantels got no respect.  By the time we got around to building them, we’d have already run out of money and patience, so we’d slap together any old mantel we could. Maybe we had some scraps of crown molding and a few leftover floor tiles . . . alright, there’s your damned mantelpiece—now shut up. And those were the award-winners. Others were just two-by-fours with mitered corners.

Prefabricated fireplace units such as this one typically have
smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors.
Here, a stone veneer surround helps gives
the small firebox more oomph.

If only I knew then what I know now.  If there’s one place you shouldn’t cut corners, it’s on the mantelpiece—it’s the focal point of any room (and often, the most important room in the house). As penance for the many dreadful mantels I’ve built, I humbly offer these suggestions to keep you from treading the same path. First, though, some fireplace terminology: 

Strictly speaking, the mantel is only the shelf or lintel across the fireplace opening; the mantelpiece is the entire structure including the side elements. The recess in which the actual fire is built is called—surprise—the firebox. The material on the floor in front of the firebox is the hearth, and the facing around the edge of the firebox is the surround.  

Both the hearth and the surround must be of noncombustible materials (such as brick, tile, stone or stone veneer, marble, or cement). Consult your local building department for the exact requirements.  

Now the suggestions:    

A full-width raised hearth makes a small firebox more visible and provides
a lovely place to sit as well. This trick works well in contemporary
home styles, but may look out of place in traditional homes.
•  Use materials in keeping with your home’s style.  In a rustic home, for example, a lustrous marble surround edged by complicated moldings will look too fussy. Likewise, a mantelpiece of massive boulders will run riot over a delicate interior. The choice of surround material is especially crucial, since it must be noncombustible. The safest course is to echo some noncombustible material used elsewhere in the home—perhaps the brick used on the porch, or the tile used in the foyer floor. 

The mantelpiece itself can be of any appropriate material—wood, marble, plaster, vitreous tile, and stainless steel have all been used to good effect. The mantelpiece can be nearly flat against the wall, or it can project from it. The projecting portion can be topped with a mantel shelf or continue up to the ceiling (in which case, the part above the mantel is called the "overmantel"—reasonable enough, no?  

•  Mind your proportions. A common mistake is to design a really wimpy mantelpiece that looks entirely lost in a large room. Because today’s prefabricated fireplaces have smaller fireboxes than their masonry predecessors, you may need to  use a big, bold surround to bring the mantelpiece into scale with the room.  

You don't need fancy materuaks to create a
perfectly charming fireplace—this one is just plain red brick
with a big slab of lumber for a mantel shelf.
Another trick to make the fireplace look bigger is to raise the firebox off the floor a foot or so; this also makes it easier to view the fire. Think twice about raising the hearth, however—doing so eats up a lot of floor space, and it’s out of character with many traditional home styles. 

•  Finally, if you’re hesitant to design the mantelpiece yourself, you can choose from among a great variety of stock mantelpieces and surrounds. Remember that the same cautions regarding proportion and material still apply.   

And speaking of fireplaces, don’t forget to leave Santa some cookies.  Merry Christmas.    

Monday, December 11, 2017


Conversation pit of the 1970s, as illustrated in The House Book,
an influential design compendium published in 1974
by the Englishdesigner Terence Conran.
History has shown us that the bigger a design trend is, the harder it falls—and the more sought-after it later becomes as kitsch. For example, tailfins were the hottest automotive styling fad of the '50s, and the stegasaurus-finned ‘59 Cadillac topped them all. Though the Caddy’s reputation sank to abysmal depths soon afterward, it’s now rebounded to become the most beloved automotive icon of the '50s.

This curious law holds equally true in architecture. Given enough time, the odd and the excessive inevitably develop great appeal. In the early 60s, for example, countless kitchens contained that ubiquitous gold-flecked Formica pattern known as “Gold Lamé”. For two decades afterward, it was considered hopelessly gauche by designers. Yet Gen-Xers who grew up in these houses seem to remember the stuff with great affection—so much so that it’s actually being offered for sale again. It’s a case of “so uncool that it’s cool”.

Flock wallpaper: Instant Dodge City brothel.
Given that many products of the Mid Century era are already considered classics, do you ever wonder what kitschy treasures the more recent past might hold?  I do. Herewith are a few of my candidates for the kitsch hall of fame. Most are culled from the 1970s, which have now receded into that soft-focus distance that lets us remember even the crummiest things fondly.

•  The 70s brought us that immortal and un-scrubbable classic, flock wallpaper. With its velveteen texture and rococo patterns, it could magically transform any living room into a Dodge City brothel. I’m confident that genuine flock will soon be a cherished rarity, since hardly any of it survived the “all-white” rage of the '80s.  The largest single concentration can now be found in men’s barber salons.

And here's a '70s kitsch two-fer—a shag-carpeted wet bar.
•  Shag carpet is also bound to be a coveted rarity soon enough—it was so hard to keep clean that not even dogs could stand it after a few years. Hence, a nice big expanse of original shag will be a precious commodity indeed. If you have any left rolled up someplace in your garage, don’t throw it out. It could probably net you some serious money on eBay.

•  Conversation pits—coolest architectural fad of the '70s—will be a virtual nexus of kitsch in the few homes that didn't rip them out long ago to create more floor space. My prediction: not long from now, '70s revivalists will be pulling on Angel Flights, polyester shirts, and platform shoes and slouching into the conversation pit to drink Harvey Wallbangers.  Gold jewelry optional.

If you think the present is immune from future kitsch classics,
think again.
•  “Butcher Block” plastic laminate is my nominee to succeed Gold Lamé in the “God, remember that?” category. It’s rarer than Almond, the other popular laminate finish of the '70s, and for sheer shameless artifice, it pretty much takes the cake. In short, a classic in the making.

•  The wet bar—the only architectural fad to get even less use than a whirlpool bath—was another '70s must. Wet bars have been more long-lived than most architectural gimmicks, but only because ripping them out involves some nasty plumbing work. Consequently, most people just let them sit—a memento of the days when getting sloppy drunk in your own home was considered really cool.

•  Lastly, some advice for the hipsters among us who like to plan ahead: Take good care of that '90s-era concrete countertop, not to mention that vessel sink you installed last year. They'll be kitsch classics soon enough.

Monday, December 4, 2017

SPECIAL WINDOWS: Use Them, But Use Them Sparingly

The Palladian window, a favorite of Colonial-era architects,
is a relatively easy-to-achieve "special".
Unique windows have always been a hallmark of great architecture. Anyone who’s seen the rose window in a Gothic cathedral—that enormous wagon wheel of stained glass—can attest to that.   

A number of other distinctive (and more manageable) window designs have come down the road since then. The sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio lent his name to a handsome triple window with a “lunette” or half-round lite topping the center section. The Palladian window remains a favorite choice when architects want a feeling of understated elegance.  

The "Chicago Window" in its original
setting—an early Chicago skyscraper.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Modernism gave us the Chicago window—a large, squarish fixed sash flanked by double-hungs.  This practical arrangement was originally used on skyscrapers;  later, with the addition of decorative muntins, it became the trademark front window of the Bungalow style.

A special window in a special setting:
Think of "specials" as
jewelry for your home. 
In the 1920s, a fascination with exotic architecture brought us Mediterranean, Moorish, and Provincial cottages with eye-catching window shapes such as triple arches, round “bulls-eyes”, and Arabic pointed arches. After World War II, however, these quirky designs lost out in favor of the uninterrupted “window walls” preferred by Modernist architects.  

Today, due to the resurgent interest in traditional architecture, special window shapes are once again widely available. Most lumberyards carry “specials” such as circles and octagons, as well as half-rounds and quarter-rounds that can be combined with standard rectangular units for unusual effects.  If that isn’t enough to float your boat, there are legions of custom window shops that can build pretty much anything you care to dream up. Unusual window shapes or combinations are a great way to add interest to a home. Like anything else, however, they have to be used with some finesse. Here are a few suggestions:  

Now that's a special window!
•  Keep your window designs consistent with the architectural style you're working in. An elaborate triple arch may look great in a Spanish Revival house, for example, but it’ll look pretty weird on a Rancher. Likewise, a trapezoidal window (one with at least one acute-angled corner) will blend right into many Modern home styles, but will look jarringly foreign in a traditional one.

A window seller's dream, though possibly
an architect's nighmare.
  • Even if special shapes suit the style of your house, don’t go overboard with them. Specials should be used as a focal point, not as a relentless theme. In particular, specials such as round-tops, circles and octagons can quickly become cloying if they’re overused.  Think of such windows as jewelry for your house, and use them just as sparingly.

•  If  you plan to “gang” or combine several windows side-by-side, use an odd number of them. Even-numbered combinations are less pleasing to the eye because the window’s visual center is obstructed by a mullion.  You want glass at the focal point of the window, not wood.   

• Lastly, note that window manufacturers love to come up with huge and outlandish window combinations in their advertisements, not because this represents good design, but rather because they’d love to sell you a whole truckload of expensive special shapes. Over-the-top design is one thing in a sales brochure, but usually, a bit more restraint is advisable in your own home. Quality, not quantity, is the key to memorable results.

Monday, November 27, 2017


If your roof leaks,  don't panic and assume you need a
whole new roof. Look for common problems like this
leaky plumbing vent jack. It could be the difference
between a repair costing ten bucks, or ten thousand bucks. 
Nothing strikes fear into a homeowner like the dreaded L-word: Leaks. But the fact is, every house has leaks of some kind. It’s just that they’re usually so minor that we aren’t aware of them. 

The most common way for water to enter a house is, of course, through roof leaks. But as I’ve noted many times, it’s almost never the roof material itself that’s leaking. Rather, water usually enters wherever the roof is penetrated—at vent pipes, flues, chimneys, and at junctures between roofs and walls. Hence, replacing your whole roof to solve a few minor leaks is usually a colossal waste of money. Most small leaks can be repaired just as effectively with a three-dollar tube of calk.

Attic louvers—in fact, just about
any kind of louver—will leak under
 conditions of strong wind and rain.
Don't sweat it. A few drops of water
won't do much harm in the long run.
But roof leaks aren’t the only way water can get into your home. Here are some other favored routes for the dreaded L-word:

•  Many skylight “leaks” come from water vapor trapped inside the house, not from rain. When the weather gets cold enough, vapor from cooking, showers, and the like can condense on the underside of a skylight bubble and drip down. For this reason, modern skylights have an integral condensate gutter around the inside edge to catch the “leak” before it hits your floor. From there it either drains out onto the roof through a little weep hole, or simply evaporates when the weather warms up.

•  Louvers, such as those used to ventilate attics and crawlspaces, will often leak a little during any rainstorm that’s combined with a good strong wind. It’s normal, and there’s not much you can do about it. The small amount of water that enters seldom does any real harm, and quickly evaporates.

Close up view of composite drainage sheet system. The
knobbed sheet allows water to drain away easily.
The filter fabric blanket keeps soil out of the passages.
• Basement or crawlspace leaks are more difficult to solve, and can do a lot more damage than any of the foregoing. Usually, these leaks come from water-saturated soil that’s in contact with the basement wall, creating  hydrostatic pressure and making the wall act essentially like a dam. The solution in most cases is simply to offer the water an easier exit than being forced through the wall itself. 

One common solution involves excavating along the outside surface of the leaking wall and sealing it with a moisture-resistant material such as bentonite clay; then putting a perforated drain line in the bottom of the trench and leading it to an appropriate outlet; and finally backfilling the trench with gravel and placing a few inches of soil on top. Then, when the soil becomes saturated, the water will migrate via the path of least resistance: through the gravel and into the perforated drain pipe, rather than through the less permeable wall. 

In lieu of gravel, another approach is to use composite drainage sheet systems such as Delta Drain, Miradrain, or Hydroduct. All of these come in rolls, are relatively lightweight, and are installed directly against the basement wall. They all use some form of knobbed plastic sheet that creates a space in which water can easily drain away. A filter fabric adhered to the outside face of the drainage sheet prevents dirt from clogging the drainage passages.

If you have galvanized steel pipes such as these
in your house, leaks are a foregone conclusion.
Replace them if you get the chance.
•  Plumbing leaks are—mercifully—a fairly rare source of unwanted water. They can arise from either drain or supply piping and can be a real bear to fix, since the pipes are usually hidden inside floors and walls. If you have old-fashioned galvanized steel plumbing, eventual leaks are almost a given, so you may want to consider re-plumbing your whole house with a more durable material such as copper.

The joints of old-style bell-and-spigot cast iron drainage pipe can leak too on occasion, but unless you’re a whiz with oakum and rammed lead wool—and who isn't these days?—they’re hardly worth repairing with the original materials. Usually, the simplest course is to replace the offending area with a new section of no-hub cast iron or, if your local codes allow them, with ABS or PVC drainage pipe.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Replica of the copper axe carried by Otzi the Iceman, who
lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE.  He was discovered
in the Otztal Alps on the border of Austria and Italy in
Only a handful of building materials can claim to have been in use for thousands of years:  wood, stone, brick.  And perhaps most remarkable of all, copper.

Copper was one of the first metals known to man, and was in use as early as the fifth century BCE.  Most ancient copper was mined on the island of Cyprus—hence its name.  Alloyed with tin, copper formed the prize metal of the Bronze Age, and thereby played a crucial role in the ascent of man.

As a building material, copper’s durability is legendary as well. The most important monuments of Baroque architecture were fitted with copper roofs and gutters, many of which are still in service after centuries. One reason for copper’s longevity is that, over years of exposure, it forms a protective oxide “skin” that protects the metal below and produces the familiar blue-green patina known as verdigris.
Copper-roofed spire of the Baroque
Church of St. Nicholas, Prague,
begun in 1703.

This brings up copper’s other great strength: its timeless beauty. Unlike chromium and other perishable metals, whose appeal is based on their initial luster, copper grows more attractive the more weathered it becomes. In fact, mellow, aged copper is actually more prized than the spanking-new variety—so much so that impatient folks are even willing to pay a “patinator” to artificially hurry up the process.

Nowadays, copper’s high first cost, as well as its unstable market price, makes many people reluctant to use it in their projects. But first cost isn’t the only consideration when specifying materials, or we’d all have plastic gutters and tarpaper roofs. Durability and appearance both need to be factored into material choices. And if long life and beauty are your main concern, copper is just plain unbeatable. Here are a few places to consider using it:   
Copper pipe—a familiar, reliable,
and affordable building material.

•  Supply and waste piping is probably the most familiar use of copper in construction, and remains unchallenged for durability. Moreover, copper piping is affordable to all but the very tightest budgets.  

•  Copper gutters (starting at around $25 per lineal foot installed) are far more durable than galvanized sheet metal, and require no painting—they’re simply allowed to weather to a handsome patina. As with all uses of copper in construction, only compatible fasteners can be used to attach copper gutters, since fasteners of dissimilar metals can create electrolysis problems that’ll lead to corrosion. This will lead to failure of the fastener, not the copper.
Detail of copper roof eave/gutter,
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House
in Oak Park, Illinois (1909).

•  Copper roofing (around $15 per square foot) is generally considered the premium choice for durability and appearance.  The parallel ribs or “standing seams” used to join the individual sheets of copper give this roof its characteristic appearance, as well as providing the ultimate in watertightness.  

•  Copper lighting fixtures achieve a beautiful patina just about the time most plated fixtures start getting pitted and ugly. If you can’t find a fixture that suits you, however, consider having one custom-fabricated. Practically any design that can be formed from galvanized sheet metal can also be fabricated in copper, and the price is often competitive with store-bought fixtures.

•  Lastly, a bit of philosophical advice:  The building materials industry is rife with wannabe materials and unproven claims of durability. When it comes right down to it, though, the only rock-solid evidence of worth is how a material performs over time.  Say, oh, about two thousand years? 

Monday, November 13, 2017


A '55 Studebaker President just like mine—
except this one runs.
When I was a pimple-faced teenager, I bought a 1955 Studebaker with the aim of restoring it. I'm fifty-eight now and my complexion is a little better, but I'm still working on that same Studebaker.  

Many times over the years I've been approached by car restorers who want me to join some auto club or other, but I always demur. Most of these guys are just too fanatical. For example, it’s routine for restorers to insist on tires made from the original molds, as well as hoses, belts, and batteries marked exactly like the originals. Nowadays, restorers will even painstakingly duplicate the carelessly-scrawled inspection marks that were chalked on the engines during assembly. Why stop there? Why not insist on 1955 air in the tires, or 1955 oil in the crankcase?

Her'e a "correct" bungalow kitchen:
Is this really what you're after?
Worse yet, cars restored to these ultra-exacting standards represent such a huge investment that their owners are usually afraid to take them on the road. Rather than being driven as they were intended, they end up languishing in a garage or a museum.  

Car restorers aren’t the only ones to go overboard, however. I see many people with older homes—be they Victorians, bungalows, or mid-century Ranchers—getting caught up in the same sort of mania for authenticity. They slavishly outfit their homes in period furniture and fixtures, no doubt goaded by well-meaning magazines that encourage this sort of thing. One recent article, for example, showcased a restored bungalow kitchen that was correct right down to the intrusive freestanding range and dreadful circulation. It was an authentic bungalow kitchen, all right—clumsy and impractical. 

Don't hesitate to upgrade old infrastructure, such as this
asbestos-laden and extremely inefficient old
gravity furnace. Antique technology is fascinating to look at,
but not much fun to live with.
To be sure, restoring a house to prime condition is an admirable undertaking, and I’m generally the first person to say so. But just as a car is made to be driven, a house is built to be lived in, not just looked at. Hence, putting up with shadowy lighting, a cramped bathroom, or a Luddite kitchen is a pointless sacrifice.  

Fortunately, it’s fairly obvious when to abandon the tiresome constraints of “correct” restoration. So unless you’re aiming to turn your house into a museum, don’t fret over the occasional anachronism.  

Gorgeous—but I bet you wouldn't
want to hear "Back in Black" on it.
Besides, in most cases, you’ll do just fine to adapt certain parts of your home to modern requirements. Few reasonable people are willing to dispense with contemporary products such as dishwashers, microwave ovens or energy-efficient refrigerators, and while these items simply don’t fit into “authentic” kitchens, there’s little to be gained by trying to hide them with clumsy disguises such as cabinet door overlays. Just call a spade a spade, and be frank about including the modern stuff along with the authentic.    

The golden rule is: Respect your home’s architecture, but don’t be straitjacketed by the compulsion to make everything look “period”.  Feel free to modernize when it comes to functional necessities such as appliances, plumbing, wiring, or heating.

Times change, and the ability to change with them is what distinguishes a living, breathing home from a museum.  

Monday, November 6, 2017

THE $20,000 BATH: And Why You Should Be Glad To Get It That Cheap

Here's the tub your'e not getting: Made by
Arcaro-Martini of Italy, it's plated with 24 karat gold
and will run you about $100,000.
Twenty thousand dollars. That’s the minimum figure many contractors and architects cite for the cost of a major bathroom remodel these days, or for a new bathroom included as part of a larger addition.

Whenever my clients hear this number, however, they guffaw and make wisecracks like, “Hey—I don’t want a gold-plated bathtub or anything.”

Don't worry—you’re not getting one.

One reason bathrooms are so expensive (second only to kitchens) is that they contain a lot of plumbing, mechanical, and electrical work concentrated in a small area. They also require a range of relatively expensive finish materials and cabinetry, as well as some often-pricey hardware such as towel bars and the like.

When I say you can spend any amount of money you want
on a toilet, I'm not kidding. Here's one for those
incurable romantics among you.
And of course there are the attendant installation costs of these items—generally, about twice the cost of the material. So while the possible cost range for bathrooms is wide, $10,000 is not an exorbitant figure, even for a run-of-the-mill bath. A look at some of the costs peculiar to bathrooms may help put things in perspective:

•  Plumbing materials. While the cost of so-called “rough” plumbing materials—piping, hangers, and the like—is comparatively modest, the cost of installing them isn’t. In my neck of the wood (the San Francisco Bay Area, plumbers charge anywhere from $80 to $130 per hour or more for labor. You might get away with less where you live, but it will still put a dent in your wallet.

A little more in line with most people's budgets,
fifty bucks will still get you this standard plastic
 lavatory faucet. Sorry, no German name on this one.
You can also spend as much as you like on finish plumbing items such as fixtures and fittings. The cost of a toilet, for example, can run from $79 for a noisy piece of junk, to several thousand dollars for a top-of-the-line "signature" job designed by an architect who, presumably, had too much time on his hands. Somewhere in between lie simple but well-made models, though seldom for less than $300. Throw in a seat (around $35), a wax gasket ($4), plumber’s putty ($4), a shutoff valve ($10) and connecting riser ($5), and you’re already coming up on four hundred dollars.

Lavatory sinks, showers, and tubs all have similarly wide price ranges, as well as much higher fitting costs. Lavatory faucets, for example, can run from around $50 for dime-store grade models made of plastic, all the way up to $1,000 and more for ultra-chic creations. Add a German name, and you can add another $200 to the price. And don’t forget:  Labor, labor, labor.

Towel bars can run anywhere from $15 bargain bin models
to Baroque creations such as this one,
which comes in just under two hundred bucks.
• Cabinetwork also soaks up money in a hurry. Costs vary wildly, but better-quality brands of base cabinet are seldom below  $200 per lineal foot, and can go up steeply from there. Installation labor is additional, of course. Lavatory mirrors can set you back as well. Plain old 1/4" mirror glass with a deburred edge will cost you about $6-8 per square foot installed. Polishing, beveling, drilling or other special work will cost substantially more.

•  Finish materials.  The coup de grace for most bathroom budgets comes from finish items such as flooring, countertops and shower surrounds. These costs tend to sneak up on you near the end of the project, just when you thought you were still solvent. Countertops can range from a low of around $15 per square foot for for plastic laminate, to well over $300 per square foot for a custom concrete job. Tile is so wide-ranging in price that, basically, you could spend any amount you wanted on it. And whether you go cheap or fancy on the material, however, the installation is still going to cost at least five bucks a square foot.

•  Lastly, don’t overlook the cost of towel bars, toilet paper holders, soap dishes, and the like. Though they seem like nickel-and-dime items, they add up quickly. A basic, piece-of-junk towel ring, for example, starts at around $20, and if you want anything with a semblance of quality, the price will go up—way up. Hence, if you haven’t been minding your budget, your towels may end up hanging on a nail.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Crapper: The thing, and the man.
Almost two centuries ago, Thomas Crapper showed off the effectiveness of his newfangled water closet by flushing down six apples along with several sheets of paper stuck to the bowl with grease. His guests were no doubt suitably impressed by this demonstration. However, few would have dreamed that utilitarian plumbing fixtures such as Crapper’s would one day be marketed as virtual objets d’art in plumbing showrooms everywhere.

You can spend any amount of money you want on a toilet,
if that's really where your priorities lie.
Yet that’s just what has happened.  Toilets, lavatories, tubs and sinks have been elevated to luxurious status symbols. Sure, you can still buy an ordinary white china toilet for under a hundred bucks, although its pedigree may be dubious. But for a healthy surcharge you can also choose from myriad colors—or should I say flavors: French Vanilla, Jersey Cream, and Raspberry Puree are just a few I’ve come across. Toilets can also be had with crackled, speckled, or glazed finishes; with hand-painted flowers or pinstripes; or in sculpted shapes designed by architects who apparently don’t have much else to do. You can even buy reproductions of antique toilets not much different from Crapper’s, except that they now sell for around $1200.  

Of course, people are entitled to pay as much as they want to for a toilet. The thing to remember is that, beyond a basic level of quality, there isn’t that much difference between one toilet and another. The same is true of other plumbing fixtures. Here’s a brief rundown of common fixtures and their relative benefits:  

This is your garden-variety undermount sink.
Note that there is no rim to catch crud and
complicate cleaning.
•  Toilets can range from about $75 to well over a thousand. The better models use ultra-quiet “siphon vortex” flush action and a high-quality flush valve;  cheaper ones use noisier “siphon jet” flushing and a flush valve worthy of the name Crapper. Beyond that, one toilet is about as good as the next; any additional expenditure only goes toward those hand-painted magnolias on the bowl rim. 

•  Lavatory sinks are widely offered in enameled steel, china, or cast iron, in ascending order of cost. A few companies make stainless steel lavatory sinks as well. They’re variously available in self-rimming topmount, metal-framed, and undermount styles.  The latter are the most practical of the three, since there’s no protruding rim to catch splashes and crud. Lavatories made of solid-plastic materials such as Corian can be fabricated integrally with the countertop, yielding a perfectly flush, seamless installation that’s very easy to maintain. And by the way, I'm not even going to mention vessel sinks, those inane bowl-on-top-of-the-counter affairs, because I happen to think it's one of the silliest trends in plumbing history.

Composite countertop materials such as Corian offer
sinks fabricated integral with the counter—
probably the ultimate in ease of cleaning. Alas,
just about the ultimate in expense as well.
•  Bathtubs (the old-fashioned variety, not the kind bristling with jets) are available in both enameled steel and enameled cast iron. American Standard also offers a composite material called Americast, which emulates the performance of cast iron but is lighter. Enameled steel tubs are the cheapest; however, they have a tinny feel, lose heat rapidly, and dent and chip more easily. Cast iron tubs, while about 3-4 times the cost of steel, are extremely durable and hold heat better once they’ve warmed up. They’re also incredibly heavy, so plan on hiring a he-man at installation time.

•  Kitchen sinks are available in enameled steel, stainless steel, solid plastic, and enameled cast iron, roughly in ascending order of cost.  Enameled steel is again the low-budget choice. Stainless steel is scrubbable and impervious to chipping, but requires frequent cleaning to maintain its sparkling look. As with lavatories, solid plastic sinks can be fabricated integrally with kitchen counters for minimal maintenance. Once again, enameled cast iron is the vintage Cadillac of sink materials—solid, durable, but on the heavy side.   

Monday, October 23, 2017


Yes, you really can save a pile of money by doing it yourself.
Labor accounts for about two-thirds of building costs these days. Ergo, furnishing your own labor is a cracking good way to save money on a project—in fact, it’s really the only significant way to save.

Yet when I suggest to money-conscious clients that they take on a part of their project themselves, you’d think I asked them to drain the Pacific with a teaspoon. Their eyes glaze over and they begin mumbling things like, “Well...maybe I could sweep up at the end of the day.”

Framing—it's all standardized. Don't be afraid!
While it’s good to know your limitations, it’s also true that you don’t know what you can do until you try. Many construction tasks, such as rough framing and insulating, are well within the reach of any reasonably skilled person.  

If you feel utterly clueless about how to approach such projects, study a few online videos or, better yet, take a few "hands-on" how-to classes.  They’ll be well worth your while, because even if you decide not to pursue the work yourself, you’ll be a better-informed in hiring a professional. I don't recommend written how-to guides because books are  generally less helpful to the serious do-it-yourselfer—the projects they describe usually exist in a perfect world where lumber never warps, cuts are always straight, and no one ever smacks their thumb with a hammer.

Insulation: It's no fun to put in, but neither is it
rocket science. How much is a day of itching
worth to you?
If you’d like to do some of the work yourself but don’t feel confident about taking on conspicuous tasks such as finish work, consider doing phases of the job that won’t be visible later. Here are a few:

• Framing is an excellent candidate for do-it-yourselfers. Framing conventions are standardized and easily learned. Better yet, wood is relatively forgiving, and even a major screw-up isn’t that difficult to fix. Moreover, the standard of “professional” quality framing isn’t always that high to begin with—in production framing, speed, not accuracy, is the objective.  Visit a large housing project under construction to see for yourself. A do-it-yourselfer has a pretty good chance of matching that caliber of work.   

Modular cabinets are easier to design with,
and also easier to specify and install.
Your local building emporium has tons of them. 
• Installing insulation is no fun, but neither is it difficult—a decent online video may be all you need to prepare for it. Weigh the savings-to-itch quotient carefully before committing yourself, though, as this may be one of the most uncomfortable jobs in construction.

Some kinds of finish work are do-able as well:

• Hanging drywall is well within most people’s abilities; although it’s a backbreaking job, the results are gratifyingly visible. Alas, the most expensive part of a drywall installation—taping and texturing—is both difficult and extremely conspicuous, and hence is best left to professionals.     

•  Installing modular cabinets, which come in standard widths of 3" increments, is fairly straightforward. If you’re at all conversant with the use of a spirit level, you’ll probably do all right. Installing preformed plastic laminate countertops is also relatively simple. For other countertop materials such as tile or cultured marble, take a class to gauge your aptitude first.
This, however, is not the place to learn on the job. A mistake
in the foundation, such as an out-of-square corner,
can haunt you all the way through the project.

Naturally, there are also some areas to stay away from: 

• Pouring your own foundation is only advisable if you're a masochist, insane, or both.  Otherwise, stay away. Unlike wood, concrete is an unforgiving material—errors such as misaligned forms or overlooked anchor bolts can create major  headaches throughout the rest of the job. A botched foundation will also dog all subsequent phases with line, level, and squareness problems. Leave this part to the pros. 

•  Installing roofing is seldom cost-effective for do-it-yourselfers, since the learning curve is long, the job is miserable, and mistakes can leave you all wet.    

Monday, October 16, 2017


Your basic straight run stair. The flat
parts are "treads", and the vertical parts
are "risers".
Years ago, when I worked as a framer, I always got stuck building staircases because I was the only sucker willing to do the math involved. After a while, I earned the title of Exalted Stairmeister around the job site. Secretly, I had to chuckle at this, because in reality stair design involves nothing more than basic arithmetic. Try it yourself:

First, decide on the basic stair configuration—straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped. Unless you’re a masochist, don’t even think about building a curved stair. The correct choice depends on how much room you have in your floor plan, the sort of look you’re after, and a few other factors that, lucky for you. we don’t have room to address here.

Once you’ve decided on a straight, L-shaped, or U-shaped configuration, determine the total rise of the staircase—the vertical distance from one floor to the next. For this example, let’s assume a typical height of 106”.

Traditional U-shaped stair with a half-landing
is space efficient and less strenuous to climb.
Next we have to choose an appropriate height for the riser (the vertical distance from one tread to the next). There a re several guidelines here. For starters, most building codes don't allow any stair riser to exceed 8” in height. Moreover, few good contractors will use a riser greater than about 7 1/2”, since anything higher will yield uncomfortably steep stairs.

Okay.  Let’s say we want our stairs to have a fairly gentle slope, so we’re looking for a riser height somewhere around 7”.  To determine the exact height, we divide the total rise from one floor to the next—in our hypothetical case, it’s 106”—by whole numbers (representing the total number of risers) until we arrive at a figure as close to 7” as possible.

Through trial and error, we find that dividing the total rise of 106” by 15 gives us about 7.07”.  That’s as close as we’ll get to 7” using a whole number, so we’ll settle on that. This means our staircase will have 15 risers of 7.07” each, yielding a total rise of 106”.  Go ahead—check it out on your calculator. It works.

Rise, run, and total rise and total run. Not rocket science.
Now we have to choose the "run" or tread depth measured front-to-back. There’s a handy rule of thumb to help us do this:  Rise+Run=17.  Ergo, since we’ve already settled on a riser height of 7.07”, our tread run should be about 10”. Simple, no?

Now we know both the rise of our stair—7.07”—and the tread—10”. On a straight-run stair, all that’s left is to find the total run or length of the staircase. To do it, we multiply the tread width times the total number of treads to find the total length required by our staircase. Here's the catch: There's always one less tread than the number of risers, since the top tread is formed by the upper floor itself. So, in our example, the total run of the staircase would be:  10” tread x (15-1) risers = 140”, or 11’-8”.

Exterior stair risers should not exceed six inches, and treads
should be at least twelve inches deep. The gentler the slope,.
the better
Now you can check whether your stair actually fits in the space allocated to it (it probably won't; underestimating the space required for stairs is a common problem for both architects and amatuers). If there’s an intermediate landing, as in an L- or U-shaped stair, it’s just counted as an extra-large tread, and it's added to the total run of the stair.

Remember that the total rise is always divided by a whole number representing the number of risers. You can’t start by arbitrarily choosing a riser height, because when you get to the top of the stair you’ll end up with an orphan step that’s lower than the rest. Note also that this works for any number of risers, including deck steps that have only a few risers between landings. However, for any outdoor steps, the riser should be no higher than 6", and treads should be at least 11" deep.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ADDING A SECOND FLOOR: Are You Sure About That?

If your foundation isn't able to support a second floor,
are you ready to do this?
Time and again, couples will ask me over for a consultation and happily declare, “We want to add a second story to our house!”  Right then, my heart sinks, and I think to myself:  Rats. I have to spoil the party again.  

Why? More often than not, adding a second story is more complicated and less satisfactory than adding on at ground level. If you’re thinking about “going up”, there are a number of serious issues to consider.

Stairs crammed in a closet or
wiping out a bedroom won't do
your resale value much good.
First and foremost, is your existing foundation up to the task?  The foundations of most single-story homes weren’t designed to carry the additional weight of a second floor. Years ago, this wasn’t such a big deal, because building departments were fairly lax about enforcing foundation requirements—that’s why you see so many rinkydink old houses with obvious second-floor additions. But earthquakes and lawsuit-mania have changed that. Nowadays, most building departments require detailed engineering calculations to demonstrate that your existing foundation is capable of supporting an additional story.  

If it isn’t, your only alternatives are to reinforce your present foundation, or to replace it with one designed to carry two stories. Both are expensive propositions. Foundation replacement, for example, requires that your house be supported on cribbing while the contractor demolishes the old foundation and pours a new one. This in turn usually requires that the landscaping and paving around your house be dug up as well.  Not quite what you had in mind, huh?

Many home styles weren't meant to be tall and spindly—
as you can seen from this example.
(Courtesy Chicago Bungalow Association)
Even if your foundation is adequate, adding a second story doesn’t always make architectural sense. For example, if the new interior stairs can’t be properly incorporated into the existing floor plan, a ground-floor addition may be a better solution. A steep staircase that’s crammed into a closet, or one that wipes out half a bedroom, may actually hurt your home’s resale value despite the extra space gained. 

What’s more, a small second-story addition will generally be more expensive in relation to the amount of floor space added. That’s because the stairs consume a big chunk of floor space on both the first and second floors—space that has to be recaptured in the addition. Hence, a small second story addition is seldom worth the trouble.  

The proverbial second-floor addition that "fell out of the sky",
crushing this poor little rancher.
As for aesthetics—more bad news. Many home styles, such as bungalows and ranch-style homes, were meant to be long and low. On such homes, a second story can look gawky and foreign, as if it just dropped out of the sky.      

If all this isn’t enough to think about, zoning and design ordinances in a few areas restrict or even forbid a second story addition, so check them out carefully too.  

However, since you've stuck with me up to this point, I'm happy to say that there are a number of instances in which a second-story addition makes sense. If your foundation is adequate, your zoning checks out, and there’s room to accommodate a staircase without disrupting the lower floor plan, then going up may be just the ticket.  If your foundation needs replacement anyway—say, due to seismic requirements or damage from settlement—then the extra effort necessary to bring it up to two-story standards will be nominal, and a second-floor addition may be worthwhile.  Lastly, of course, if your site doesn’t have any room for a first-floor addition, you may not have any choice in the matter.