Monday, April 24, 2017

DESIGNING IN OLD TIME AMENITIES

What could be more convenient
than a laundry chute in the bathroom?
Some quaint features from yesteryear’s homes are being revived, thanks to the current trend toward traditional home designs.  Aside from major retro-spaces such as breakfast nooks and pantries, many new houses are also including old-timey conveniences that haven’t been seen since before World War II.  Some of these are useful, while others (such as built-in flour drawers) remain impractical gimmicks. Here are a sampling of the more practical retro features:

•  The laundry chute, a domestic must from Victorian times through the twenties, disappeared as multi-story homes lost favor.  However, the resurgent popularity of traditional two-story home styles has revived the step-saving laundry chute as well. While the cost of a chute is minor (most are made from twelve-inch diameter sheet metal duct), its planning does demand a bit of ingenuity.  The chute must be in a convenient central location on the upper floor, while still aligning with the laundry room beneath. 


 With the arrival of
permanent press fabrics,
most built-in ironing boards
ended up looking like this.
•  Built-in ironing boards, a common feature in many homes from the 1920s and 30s, are once again growing in popularity.  The reason: a resurgence in the popularity of cotton clothing has also revived the drudgery of ironing. While a well-located built-in board can be a useful convenience, a badly located one is worse than none at all.  (The house I grew up in, for instance, had a built-in ironing board that barred the back door when lowered). Locate the board so that when it's lowered there’s at least three feet of clear aisle space on one side—better yet on both sides—and make sure it doesn’t block circulation paths when extended.

•  The “cool closet”—a tall, built-in kitchen cabinet designed for storing fruits and vegetables—was a very popular home feature from the turn of the century until mechanical refrigeration caught on big in the 1930s. The cabinet was located on an outside wall and fitted with a set of louvers near the top and bottom to admit outside air, creating a natural draft that pulled cool air over the food inside.


The two stacked louvers seen on this Berkeley, California
bungalow are the telltale sign of a "California Cooler" 
or convective cooling closet. No electricity required.
(Photo courtesy of diginstructable)
The energy conservation movement and rising concern over ozone-depleting refrigerants such as Freon have created renewed interest in the cool closet, which works without electricity (and also doesn’t impart a “refrigerator smell”).  It’s still a useful feature today, especially as part of a pantry. However, to comply with modern energy-efficiency codes, note that it does have to be carefully insulated to increase its efficiency and to prevent heat loss from the kitchen.


A long, long hose is just about the only drawback to
central vacuum systems—other than their initial cost.
(Photo courtesy of DTV Installations)
•  Built-in vacuum systems, which were popular during the 1920s and 30s (though mainly in commercial buildings), are also appearing in homes again. Today’s domestic systems have a powerful, remotely-located central motor and canister and a network of ducts leading to wall-mounted vacuum ports. A lightweight hose and suction head are attached to the ports for vacuuming; no other equipment is required. 

Central vacuum units are quieter, and their large capacity also requires less emptying. Neither is there a power cord to get tangled up, nor a heavy unit to lug up and down stairs. There is, however, a hose up to thirty feet long to contend with. The systems are most useful in large homes or those with multiple stories or levels.


Monday, April 17, 2017

FRONT PORCH TALES

Now that's a porch you could spend summer nights on—
(Rayne Mansion, New Orleans.
Thomas Sully, architect. 1890)
When I was a kid, I lived next door to an old lady who actually used to sit on her creaky front porch in a rocking chair. No kidding. She’d spend a good part of the day there, chain-smoking Salems and chatting about flowers, floor wax, or the weather with anyone strolling past.  Her porch got more use than her living room.

It’s no wonder that the front porch has been an American fixture since Colonial times. Before the advent of air conditioning, it was a natural place to sit on breezy summer days and watch the world go by. By the Victorian era, porches had grown so popular that many large homes were completely encircled by elaborate “verandas” that created varied outdoor living areas for morning or evening gatherings, and that could be used for sunning in winter and shade in summer.


Porches were a big visual feature of the
California Bungalow style, but they couldn't hold a
candle to the earlier porches of Victorian days.
Even after after homes were significantly downsized following the turn of the century, the porch retained it importance. In fact, it became the single most prominent feature of the new, smaller homes known as Bungalows.

After World War II, however, the newly-requisite double garage literally crowded the porch out of prominence. In ensuing years, it slowly withered away to a bleak little patch of concrete, with a tiny scrap of roof overhead carried on spindly 4x4 columns.

Today, after years of neglect, the porch is back. With traditional architectural features in high demand, many developers are now offering spacious front porches again, sometimes even including upper-floor terraces on their roofs. 

Broad steps create a welcoming look,
and are always a welcome place sit.
If an old-fashioned porch is a part of your design agenda, here are some ways to get the most out of it:  

•  First and foremost: be generous with size. In order to be useful, a porch must be at least eight feet deep—otherwise, furniture, planters, and the like will make it too crowded to negotiate. If you intend to have an outdoor dining table on the porch, make it even bigger—twelve feet deep at least. Consider it an inexpensive way to add living space to your house.

•  Make sure the porch will receive ample sun. A dark porch will always be drafty and uncomfortable. On the other hand, a sunny porch will be livable in winter, yet can easily be shaded from excess sun during the summer sun if necessary. If you expect to use the porch mostly in the morning, favor an easterly orientation. If it’ll be used most during the afternoon, face it west.
If you're on a tight budget, scored concrete
can work wonders, but brick paving
is hard to beat for a welcoming warmth.

•  If possible, raise the porch floor even with the interior of the house. Besides making a smoother transition from indoors to out, a raised porch has a more comfortable, sheltered feel. It also gives you a nifty excuse to have a broad set of steps leading up to it—always a welcome place to sit on summer days. 

Carefully consider the floor material. If your budget will only allow a concrete floor, consider scoring the concrete to give it a finer scale. If you have a little more to spend, stone, clay tile or brick paving will create a more inviting effect. Choose the material that's most appropriate for the style of your house.

For raised porches, wood decking or tongue-and-groove flooring may be a better choice. Remember to provide plenty of ventilation below the floor, however, or your old-fashioned porch will also be subject to old-fashioned dry rot.


Monday, April 10, 2017

CHOOSING FINISHES: NO SUBSTITUTIONS, PLEASE

The hell I can't...
For years I argued with health-nut friends about eating butter versus margarine.  I always insisted that if I wanted the taste of butter, I’d eat butter, not some yellow-tinted glop that claimed to “taste just like butter.” Like most health nuts, they usually became apoplectic at this, and veins popped out on their low-cholesterol foreheads.

“Butter is BAAAD for you!” they would chide with a certain tone of superiority. "It has too much cholesterol!"

Does this look like wood to you?
Then along came a medical study saying margarine wasn’t healthier after all—that it's a so-called "trans fat" and is actually BAAAD for you, and butter is actually a lot healthier. Well, what do you know?  All this time I’ve been enjoying my butter, and they’ve been choking down the bright yellow grease and getting heart disease.

As you might’ve guessed by now, there’s an architectural connection here. Like margarine, there are a whole host of building materials that claim to be “just like” something else. Some are good substitutes; many are not. The simple reason for this is that any product basing its appeal on a resemblance to something else is, by definition, inferior. So if you like the look of the products for themselves, great. But if you’re hoping to fool someone, forget it. Let’s take a look at some of the margarine materials:

Ahem—not that believable as shakes.
 •  Wood-look sidings made of aluminum or vinyl are ubiquitous pretenders. Frankly, both kinds can be easier to maintain than real wood—a definite plus. But alas, few actually look like wood. Some brands, in an attempt to outdo the real thing, are embossed with egregiously overdone woodgrain patterns that look like they were pulled from the set of A Fistful of Dollars. Beyond their surface shortcomings, these sidings also give themselves away with flimsy window and corner trim that reveals the ersatz nature of the product.

If easy maintenance is of prime concern, vinyl or aluminum siding are fine choices. But if you’re serious about your siding looking like wood, buy wood.

"The Look of True Divided Lites"?
Come on, who are these guys fooling?
 •  “Shake-look” composition shingles were developed to counter the floppy, colored-paper look of standard "comp" shingles. They have irregularly-spaced notching, thicker butts, and variegated colors meant to resemble weathered wood. But while they’re an admirable attempt to improve on comp shingles, these products still don’t look anything like real shingles, let alone shakes. If you really want the look of shakes, buy shakes. If you need fire resistance (a requirement in some jurisdictions), look to fire-resistant treated shakes or to medium weight cement shingles or shakes, which have the three-dimensionality comp shingles lack.

Not all imitations are as bad as those above.
Take this stone urn, for example.
(It's fiber glass).
•  Windows with “divided lite” grids sandwiched between the panes of glass really do look like divided wood muntins.  In your dreams. In reality, the obviously two-dimensional look such windows present from the street don't fool anybody.  So why bother?

To end on a positive note, however, there are a lot of substitute materials that work just great. Many stone and brick veneers, for example, are just about indistinguishable from the real thing when properly installed. I’ve even seen some “stone” urns mounted high on a building that fooled me for years:  they were actually fiber glass, and hence were infinitely more earthquake-safe than the genuine product.

Likewise, lots of plastic laminates look so much like granite or marble that I’ve had to touch them (they’re warmer than the real thing) to be sure they're not the real deal. So there really are good reasons to use a “fake” product on occasion. But as the cola ad used to say, “Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.”

Monday, April 3, 2017

WALL-TO-WALL TIPS FOR CARPETING

Wall-to-wall carpet advertisement dating from 1955
(note Ford Thunderbird at background).
Mid-century designers considered "wall-to-wall"
much more modern and sophisticated than
dowdy old hardwood.
During the 1960s, when wall-to-wall carpet really began taking hold in the housing industry, salespeople cleverly managed to portray it as a high-end option superior to hardwood flooring. By the end of that decade, "wall-to-wall" had become the very symbol of luxurious contemporary design, and buyers clamored for it.

In truth, however, the reason builders switched to wall-to-wall carpeting is rather less glamorous: it was by far the cheapest form of floor covering available, and unlike hardwood flooring, it required little if any subfloor preparation. A good carpet and pad could hide uneven subflooring, knotholes, plaster drips, you name it, and hence made the builder’s job that much easier.  

Today, wall-to-wall carpeting remains immensely popular with both builders and buyers. It’s still cheaper than resilient flooring, its nearest competitor, to say nothing of hardwood.   And the price of carpeting includes the pad as well as installation. Even today, a dreadful grade of carpeting can be had for as little as fifteen dollars per yard, with better quality grades costing only about triple that.  


Simple bordered/inset carpeting is
relatively inexpensive and has
a richer, more traditional look.
While its pedigree may be humble, wall-to-wall carpet does have some good things going for it. Besides its low cost and ability to cover a multitude of subflooring evils, it’s also warmer and quieter than other flooring types. Moreover, just because carpet is inexpensive doesn’t mean it has to look cheap.  Here are some tips that can help give an ordinary carpet installations some charisma:

•  One of the neatest carpeting tricks is also one of the least common: combining carpet colors. For example, the main carpet area can be accented by a border several shades darker, or even of a contrasting color. This simple and relatively inexpensive technique can add a great deal of interest to a routine space.


Wrapped bullnose step gives staircase
a more plush appearance.
(Photo courtesy stairs4u.com)
•  For an extra charge, carpet installers can wrap the exposed edges of stair treads, lending a more “upholstered” appearance suitable to some contemporary home styles (however, check with your installer first to see whether the carpet you’ve chosen will lend itself to this technique). Or, hardwood can be installed along just the edges of the staircase and carpeting laid in between, giving the appearance of a runner cascading down the stairs.

Incidentally, where floor carpeting meets a hardwood stair (or  vice versa), always terminate the carpet at the base of the stair riser, never at the top.  The idea is to have the stairs appear to “flow” out onto the floor.


Carpet/tile transition using a simple hemmed edge.
Basically, the simpler, the better. Avoid elaborate
thresholds, trims strips, etc. wherever possible.
•  Where carpet adjoins a hardwood, stone, or ceramic tile floor, have it hemmed back rather than covering the break with a metal trim strip.  The strip just attracts undue attention to the juncture, collects crud, and quickly gets scratched and ugly.  

•  Finally, in Modernist and Mediterranean style homes, one of my favorite techniques allows me to dispense with wooden baseboards, which I consider a useless anachronism in carpeted rooms. I have the gypsum wallboard finished to within 1/4-inch of the subfloor, omit the baseboard, and simply have the carpet installed directly against the wall. No awkwardly mitered baseboards, no cluttered appearance. Although I get groans of protest from purists, I find the clean, sharp delineation between carpet and wall to be much more pleasing.