Monday, February 26, 2018


Compression faucets: Plink, plink, plink...
Plink.  Plink.  Plink.

With all the little annoyances the world has to offer, the last thing you need is a cheap, leaky faucet driving you crazy. Unfortunately, the market is now flooded with junky foreign-made products—as well as a few U.S.-made dogs—that are hardly worth taking the time to install. One simple test for quality is knowing how long a manufacturer has been around. While I can’t mention names, I can tell you this: If the brand wasn’t around ten years ago, forget it—let someone else be a guinea pig.

Another basic indicator of  faucet quality is whether it uses compression valves (rubber washers) or ceramic disc valves. Basically, there's no point in buying faucets with washers anymore, and in any case, only absolute bottom-of-the-barrel models have them. Avoid these unless you're nostalgic for the sound of dripping.

These little ceramic discs are what prevent modern faucets
from dripping. 
Also, think twice before investing in high-priced European brands. The plain fact is that European plumbing technology has been playing catch-up with the U.S. for more than a century—why pay a hefty premium for it? Domestic manufacturers such as American-Standard and Chicago Faucet were building quality faucets long before many Europeans had indoor bathrooms.
Now, a quick rundown on what’s available.

Note the awkward hand movement required to
operate this faucet. Try it before you buy it.
•  Kitchen faucets—whether standard or single-lever—can be had in chrome, brass, gold, and various painted finishes. Chrome is by far the easiest to maintain and the least likely to look dated in a few years. Numerous nifty accessories are available to go with kitchen faucets, from pull-out sprayers—very handy for rinsing bulky things—to built-in soap dispensers, which neatly do away with that gloppy soap-bar mess. Beware high-style faucets with oddball faucet handle locations—there are plenty of them—because these can be unintuitive or just plain clumsy to operate. In any event, try out any faucet for ease of use before falling in love with its appearance.

•  Lavatory faucets can be had in the same range of finishes outlined above, as well as in a bunch more proprietary finishes. However, unlike kitchen faucets, most of which are reasonably good-looking, lavatory faucets range from inoffensive to hideous. Look for the cleanest, simplest design that still suits the style of your house, and think twice about choosing high-maintenance finishes such as brass and gold.

No, this manufacturer isn't kidding.
•  Bath faucets present a regular minefield of possibilities, what with options for twin shower heads, handheld sprayers, needle baths, and other luxury options. The technical choices can also be confusing. There are two broad types of tub/shower valves—pressure-balancing and thermostatic. The intent of both is to regulate the temperature of the bath or shower water to prevent scalding, a feature now required by most building codes. Pressure-balancing valves are typically installed in mid-level work and are perfectly adequate for most tub-shower applications. Thermostatic valves are more commonly seen in showers with multiple heads. They require additional hardware, since they do not regulate flow at all, but only temperature. Typically, the thermostatic control valve is used to set the water temperature and a separate valve, called a volume control valve, regulates the volume of water going to each spray head.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Postcard view of the Palace of Fina Arts, Chicago
(Architect: Charles B. Atwood, 1893)
If you ever wanted to create a Disneyland for architects, you’d only have to put a fence around Chicago. The place is so chock full of architectural masterpieces, it’s like a living history book.  

Umpteen heroes of American architecture are represented here: Louis Sullivan (you know—“form follows function”) contributed the monumental Auditorium Building in partnership with Dankmar Adler, and ten years later gave Chicago the lyrically ornamented Carson, Pirie & Scott store—the swan song of his brilliant but tragic career.  

Lake Shore Drive Apartments, Chicago.
(Mies van der Rohe, 1949)
Charles B. Atwood, among the reigning Beaux Arts architects of his time, conjured up the ethereal Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry) for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and helped set off a nationwide mania for classical architecture. And the expatriate German architect Mies van der Rohe (“a house is a machine for living in”) got his licks in too, most notably with his Lake Shore Apartments of 1951, still considered a high-water mark of Modernist design. 

More than anything else, though, Chicago is a showcase for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The brilliant, defiant and egocentric Wright is considered the greatest architect the United States has produced, a status that’s only grown more secure in the years since his death in 1959 at 92.  

At the close of the nineteenth century, it was largely Wright who broke the Victorian stranglehold of artifice and eclecticism in architecture, and who pioneered so many of our modern residential ideals: open planning; honest use of materials; and integration of the building to its site.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Chicago (Oak Park):
The beginning of an architectural revolution.
Wright’s prodigious ego also helped him weather the storms of controversy that surrounded his so-called “Prairie Houses”. As his increasingly-radical designs appeared in new Chicago suburbs such as Oak Park in the early years of this century, dismayed neighbors frequently declared them to be monstrosities or worse. It’s easy to see why: compared to the dunce-capped towers, filigreed porches, and superficial gewgaws of contemporary Victorian houses, Wright’s uncompromisingly clean-lined, ground-hugging homes must have seemed like something from another planet.   

In Oak Park, in Wright’s day a quiet suburb, one can literally walk from one Wright masterpiece to the next, witnessing an architectural revolution one house at a time. It’s here that we first see Wright begin to tamper with Victorian architectural conventions, and finally discard them altogether. Among the earliest examples is Wright’s own home, begun in 1889 with $5000 loaned to him by his “lieber Meister”, Louis Sullivan. Subsequent Oak Park commissions show his style slowly mature into the now-familiar Wright hallmarks: the low, broad-eaved roofs; the banded casement windows with their dazzling leaded glass panes; the massive central chimneys which anchor the homes to their sites.  
Wright's Oak Park home for bicycle magnate Frederick C. Robie (1909),
considered the apogee of Wright's "Prairie Style" phase.
(Image: Garret Karp View for Open House Chicago)

In Hyde Park stands the culmination of Wright’s Prairie House phase, the residence he built for bicycle manufacturer Frederick C. Robie in 1909.  It’s a design so extraordinarily “modern” as to make one wonder if any real progress has been made in architecture since.

Although Wright’s subsequent commissions took him to New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Baghdad, Chicago affords the most fascinating glimpse of Wright’s career:  the shaping of an extraordinary vision, and the solitary path of genius.

Monday, February 12, 2018

HOME RENOVATION: The Un-Sexy Stuff Comes First

Just patch it up? No, I don't think so.
I recently spoke with a client who just bought an old house in, shall we say, less than pristine condition. That’s understandable—home prices are once again on the rise, and you take what you can get.  

The problem? As we went through the place, he recounted a whole litany of projects he intended to undertake right away, ranging from trivial ones such as painting, to enormous ones such as remodeling the kitchen, without drawing any distinction whatever as to what needed doing first.

Now there’s a recipe for disaster.  

There's no use building anything on top of a floor like this,
because you'll be fighting it through the whole project,
and still end up with a lousy job. Fix it first.
A complex project such as renovating a neglected house consists of umpteen separate steps, all of which have to occur in a logical order. Now, it happens that this fellow’s house had some serious foundation problems that caused the floors to be markedly out of level. Hence, any work done before this problem was corrected would be a complete waste of time, for two reasons: first, you’d be working with a lot of cockeyed reference points (crooked floors and out-of-square walls); and second, even if you managed to do a credible job of concealing these problems, they would all reappear when the floors were finally leveled.  

Clearly, the ugly job of repairing the foundation, as un-sexy as it was to my cosmetic-minded client, had to be done before anything else. Therein lies half the battle of doing a big project: putting first things first. Here are a few pointers to help keep your own priorities straight:  
Oh, crap—where do I cook dinner tonight? And
for the next three months?
If it ain't broke, don't fix it yet.

•  First, establish reasonable goals and a realistic budget. Many first-time home buyers greatly overestimate how much they can accomplish, and greatly underestimate how much it’s going to cost. Don’t be blinded by optimism. Instead, make a detailed wish list of what you’d like to do.  Then append a guesstimated cost to each item (hire a contractor or architect to help you if necessary)

You’ll probably find that your budget has gone south long before all your wishes are fulfilled, and that both lower expectations and a sense of priorities are in order.   

•  Attend to structural and functional problems first. For the time being, learn to live with the gold-veined mirror tile in the bedroom, and put your resources where they’ll count.  While foundation, dry rot, and roof repairs aren’t the sort of projects you’ll see in glamorous home magazines, they’re a lot more vital than painting your living room in the latest shade of gray. Buckle down and get the nasty stuff done first.
Okay—now you can do the sexy stuff!
(Image courtesy

•  Don’t create more work than you already have. My client was raring to remodel his kitchen, despite the fact that there were a dozen more pressing projects waiting. Moreover, while his kitchen wasn’t great, it was perfectly serviceable, and the last thing he needed was to tear it to pieces. Concentrate on deficiencies first; don’t create new problems where there weren’t any.  That enormously wise old maxim applies here:  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—at least not yet.

•  Save cosmetic repairs for last. Home buyers naturally want things to look better right away. Unfortunately, painting, plastering or carpeting over problem areas is a complete waste of time and money. Once you’re working with a solid base (and I mean that quite literally), then you can go on to the fun of choosing colors and finishes.  The renovation process is like a good dinner—first the steak and potatoes, then the chocolate mousse. 

Monday, February 5, 2018


You simply can't make outdoor steps too shallow.
However, remember to make the steps deeper as you make
the rise shallower, using the formula Rise± Run=17.5".
Designing landscape structures—decks, gazebos, planters and the like—is a lot different than designing buildings. The scale of the outdoors is vast, and dimensions that might be perfectly appropriate inside a house can result in a major case of the wimpies when used outdoors.  Here are a few examples:

If there's nothing to stop you from making the deck steps
full width—do it. Steps make a lovely place to sit and relax.
•  Stairs are the most frequently screwed-up detail of outdoor designs. While the Uniform Building Code allows interior stairs as steep as 8” rise by 9” run, such dimensions are aesthetically disastrous outdoors. For decks, patios, and landscape stairs, you shouldn’t exceed a maximum 6” riser with an 11” run.  Preferably, stairs should be even shallower. A useful formula for stairs, whether indoors or out, is:  Rise+Run=17.5”. It’ll help you adjust the rise and run to the slope the slope of the landscape while maintaining comfortable stair proportions.

Another common mistake in designing outdoor steps is to make them the same width as the typical indoor stair, which is typically about three feet. Alas, this yields what my mother would call a hühner leiter: a chicken ladder. Such steps are much too narrow in the context of the landscape. Deck steps, for example, should be a minimum of six feet wide, and even wider if possible. In fact, if there’s nothing to stop you, make your steps the full width of the deck. The extra cost is trivial, and they’ll make a fine spot for sitting on warm evenings.

Fussy gazebos, such as this prefab one
made by a well-known company, won't hold up well
in the weather, and look wimpy and inconsequential outdoors.
•  Because the outdoors is so—well, big—structures and decks can look insignificant unless their scale is increased somewhat. For example, while an indoor breakfast room measuring 9’ by 9’ feet might be acceptable, an outdoor gazebo built to these dimensions will look positively dinky. It’s best to increase the scale of such structures
(including their ceiling heights) by about 20 percent or so over their indoor counterparts. Likewise, decks meant to accommodate outdoor furniture should be no less than twelve feet deep—otherwise, occupants will always feel as though they’re about to fall off the deck edge.

This gazebo is simpler, heavier, and will only
get better looking  as the years pass.
• Even railings need to be beefier in the scale of the outdoors. For instance, the usual 1/2” square wrought iron balusters commonly used indoors will look like gossamer when they’re installed outside. If you have your heart set on a wrought iron rail, try using 3/4” square balusters with commensurately heavy posts and top and bottom rails. Or, cap the top rail with a chunky piece of lumber such as a 3x4 (but use a good quality vertical-grain lumber to avoid splinters).

This combined steel (a.k.a. "wrought iron") and wood rail
avoids the gossamer look of most all-steel railing designs.
If you’re planning to use a wood rail, avoid finicky construction details that employ spindly stock such as 1x2s or thin lattice material. Aside from looking frail, such small-scale materials are highly susceptible to the ravages of weather and partying teenagers. They’ll look great the day they’re installed, and then fall to pieces not long after. In outdoor designs, the rule is simple: the bigger, the better. Use substantial lumber sizes, and try to avoid nominal 2” lumber altogether.

Certain kinds of joinery are also bad news outdoors. For all their vaunted beauty, miter joints seldom hold up well over time. Even the most carefully-constructed miters will eventually open up and look shabby within a few years (often, in even one season.) Simple, square-cut butt joints—especially ones with a healthy overlap that conceals shrinkage—are much more resistant to the effects of weathering.