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. 

Monday, October 2, 2017


Finnish-style dish cabinet/drying rack. Are the Finns
smarter than we are? Yeah, probably.
Despite all the ballyhoo about avant-garde designs, architecture remains one of the most hidebound disciplines around. It takes ages for us to finally change things that are—well, silly. Sometimes we have to see the way ote way ote have to see the way other people approach a problem to realize that maybe the way we do things isn’t necessarily best.

I got an eye-opening dose of this when I visited Finland some years ago. Trying to help out my host in the kitchen after dinner, I offered to dry the dishes, and got a rather uncomprehending look. Know why? The Finns don’t dry the dishes. Instead, they have a wall cabinet above the drainboard that has an open wire rack in place of a bottom shelf. The rinsed dishes are put away and simply drip-dry.  The water runs down the drainboard and into the sink.  

Baseboard: It costs a lot to install,
 but what exactly is it doing there?
The eminent practicality of this arrangement made we wonder why we don’t use it here in the States. The answer, I’m afraid, is that we’re just so used to doing it “our” way that we’re suspicious of something that’s better and simpler. We dry our dishes by hand and then put them away because—well, dang it, that’s just the way it’s done.

Another relic of this traditional mindset is the baseboard or mopboard—that wooden molding installed where floors meet walls. Originally, a mopboard was just that—a board meant to protect the wall plaster from moisture and scrapes when you were mopping. That seems sensible enough in rooms that need mopping. Today, however, most rooms have wall-to-wall carpet, and even my mother doesn’t mop that. 

Sear Roebuck precut house, circa 1929:
Apparently far too radical an idea.
Still, builders routinely install a lot of complicated and expensive baseboards in carpeted rooms because they’ve done it that way for years. I get howls of protest from contractors when I try to omit the baseboards and extend the wall finish to the floor instead. They insist that vacuum cleaning will scuff the wall if there’s no baseboard.  True enough—and if there is a baseboard, the vacuum cleaner will scuff that instead—except it’ll be a lot harder to repaint when the time comes.      

Far from being trivial, the baseboard issue is symptomatic of  a larger problem in architecture: The way we build houses has remained fundamentally unchanged since the Middle Ages. We assemble them out of tens of thousands of individual pieces, so that no two are ever quite alike. There have been many attempts to improve this state of affairs: In the early 20th century, Sears Roebuck sold precut homes that arrived via railcar with every brick and stick of lumber required to build it—a step in the right direction, but one that ultimately didn't fly due to public's lower perception of "kit houses" as opposed to "custom-built" homes.

The luxurious railcar-like interior of Buckminster Fuller's
Dymaxion House of the early 1950s, an innovative
design that was to be mass-produced in an aircraft plant.
Sorry, Bucky—it's too far out for the hidebound
building industry.
There have also been lots of interesting alternatives out there: houses formed of gunite sprayed over balloons; geodesic domes; houses built underground or sunk into hillsides; but none of them have managed to lure people away from the standard stick-built house.
While a handful of architects enjoy experimenting with such innovative housing concepts—such as Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house, shown here—in truth the majority are perfectly happy doing things as they’ve always been done, mopboards and all. It’s not that architects are a bunch of reactionaries; it’s just that, contrary to their popular image, most architects are busy enough just making a living. They feel no inclination to reinvent the wheel.

Then, too, contractors are reluctant to adopt new construction methods because the long learning curve can cost them their profits. Moreover, it takes people a long time for people to get used to new ideas in architecture.  If automobile design progressed at the same rate that housing has, we’d all still be driving Huppmobiles.

With all these forces working against progress in housing, what’s going to create change?  Beats me—but I’ll think about it while I dry the dishes.        

Monday, September 25, 2017


Traditional Persian courtyard house
with pool at center.
Not long ago, in a bleak industrial suburb of San Francisco, I came upon an old house wedged incongruously between a mustard factory and a plating shop. From the street, there was little to see but a garage and a blank facade, with a narrow gate squeezed between them.  

But beyond the gate was a long narrow passage, and when I reached the end of it I had to pinch myself: I was standing in an amazingly lush secret garden, snugly surrounded by the picturesque bays and roofs of the house. At its center, a waterfall burbled placidly into a meandering koi pond, and narrow paths snaked away into mysterious recesses beyond the cool plants. Compared to the harsh streetscape outside, it may as well have been Wonderland.    

That’s the magic of a courtyard house: It can feel placid and secure in even the most unfavorable location. The ancient Persians, who knew something about harsh surroundings, were wise to this concept thousands of years ago. They built their houses around central gardens designed as miniature representations of paradise, emphasizing the water that was so precious in the parched lands beyond their walls.  

Atrium of a reconsturcted Roman villa at Pompeii,
with the columned peristyle offering shade to
the surrounding rooms.
Urban Roman houses also turned their backs to the street, preferring to face inward toward a garden court they called the atrium.  

But the courtyard house reached its ultimate expression in China. Among the most famous of these is the Wang Shi Yuan (“garden of the master of the fishing nets”), located in a densely-populated district of Suzhou. Despite its crowded setting, the moment one enters the house and gardens, all thoughts of urban congestion vanish. The cleverly convoluted arrangement of pavilions, plants, and water makes the tiny residence seem boundless. 
The Garden of the Master of Nets, located in my second home
of Suzhou, China, is actually a residence
surrounding a central courtyard. First constructed
in 1140, it was restored in 1785.

Given the many advantages of the courtyard house, why don’t we see more of them in the United States? Originally, it was because of our country’s vast area and relatively sparse population. We simply got used to building a monolithic house smack in the center of a huge piece of land. Back then, there was little point in having an enclosed court.

Things have changed, however. Population has increased by magnitudes, and even our formerly spacious suburban lots have shrunk to minimal size, leaving little useful land surrounding our homes. Moreover, urban and suburban streets have become less friendly year by year, making security a top consideration of urban and suburban dwellers.   

The gated courtyard house offers an elegant and time-honored solution to these problems, and many more.  

Traditional Spanish courtyard home in Cordoba.
Unfortunately, U.S. zoning codes haven’t kept pace with the changes in our cities, and they continue to make it difficult to build courtyard houses. Because of long-entrenched setback requirements, regulators continue to frown on zero-setback construction in many residential areas. Most cities continue to demand that homes be surrounded by useless, narrow strips of “setback” land. They still regard a house set in the middle of a property as the norm, making it difficult for progressive builders who wish to use their sites more intelligently.

It’s time our city planners began looking at courtyard houses as a better alternative to conventional, land-wasting houses. Far from being newfangled, it’s an arrangement proven for centuries.