Monday, January 26, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION: Part One of Two Parts

Suppose there was a place you could buy high quality building products at fire sale prices, and do it in the greenest possible manner to boot? Well, there is such a place--it’s your local architectural salvage yard. If you can live with a few little nicks and scratches, you may be amazed at the bargains you come across. 

A good architectural salvage yard
will have doors like this aplenty.
What? Build your esteemed project with someone else’s castoffs? Well, yes. And there are three good reasons to do so. 

First, the quality of older building materials is often superior to what you’ll find at modern home improvement stores. 

Second, salvaged items typically sell at discounts of fifty to ninety percent off new prices (some items are in fact brand new products misordered by contractors, rejected by customers, or discontinued by their manufacturers--occasionally, they’re still in their original shipping containers). Lastly, salvaged items are infinitely greener than new, so-called “green” products, since they already exist and consume no additional resources. 

But be forewarned: Buying from an architectural salvage yard isn’t for everyone. Unlike shopping at your local building emporium, you can’t just grab all the generic, Made-In-China goodies you need and be on your way. You need patience. It can takes months, in fact, to find just the right items for your project. 

On a really good day, you might find a
brand new high-end entrance door like this,
perhaps still crated for delivery.
You also have to remain flexible and willing to change your mind. For example, you may be looking for a pair of double entrance doors, but come across an absolutely beautiful single door with sidelights that works just as well--perhaps better. Far from being a drawback, having to keep your design options open will often elicit more interesting, less off-the-shelf solutions.  

Now, some salvaged items that can be especially good values:

• Front entrances are one of the most commonly replaced items in home improvement, so salvage yards are usually well stocked with them. Often, these are very fine old doors that have been changed out merely to keep up with some new design fad. If you’re willing to live with the patina that accompanies a previous life, you can get  a high quality front entrance for dimes on the dollar. Your best bet is to look for units complete with the original jamb and hinges, since fitting a new door into an existing opening can be very labor intensive. 

One of my local architectural salvage yards—
Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, California.
• Interior doors can also be a good buy, as long as you know exactly what to look for. Again, if you’re building from scratch (rather than just replacing an existing door), it’s better to buy the doors complete with jambs and hinges--”prehung”, in building parlance. Make sure each door has the  proper “hand”--the direction it swings--because it’s not cost effective to rehinge a door later. Avoid doors that are glopped with multiple layers of old paint, which is usually more trouble to remove than the door is worth. 

• If you’re restoring an older home, the salvage yard is also a good source of hard-to-find vintage hardware items such as lock sets, brass switch cover plates, ornamental heat registers, and the like. They may require some TLC to be put back in use, but their quality is generally superior to that of new reproductions--often including the stuff available from those ostensible “restoration” catalog houses.

Next time, some more salvage yard bargains, along with a few items to approach with caution.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Oh no— these steps are imperfect!

Sociologists like to complain about all the beautiful people that populate advertising and the media. Presenting all those Ken-and-Barbie types as role models, they say, sets an unrealistic standard for the rest of us. Home improvement shows have, in their own way, much the same effect: In their alternate universe, contractors are all pillars of Yankee virtue, project snafus are always resolved in the nick of time, and 45 degree miter joints always fit perfectly. What a disappointment, then, when our own homes are so often far from perfect. 

It’s just as well, however. Perfection is overrated--not to mention impossible--and we’d all be happier if we’d learn to settle for “near-perfect” instead. I couldn’t count the number of past clients I’ve known, for example, who suffered untold anguish over a tiny scratch in a countertop or a microscopic dent in a new hardwood floor.   

This dread of perceived imperfection is partly the fault of our materialistic, newness-obsessed culture, which conditions us to regard anything that’s less than flawless as worn out and needing replacement. It’s no accident that this cult of newness is also what keeps new home improvement goods flying out of stores and old ones pouring into landfills--good news for people who want to sell things, but not such good news for the planet.  

There was a time in the middle of the twentieth century when some modern architects tried to convince us that flawlessness was in fact a requisite quality of fine architecture. Holding up the perfection of machine-made objects as a paragon, they designed buildings that were utterly reliant on the perfection of their surfaces, as if they alone would somehow be magically immune to the ravages of time. We need only look back at the many moldering and decrepit Modernist works still extant to see how abysmally wrong this thinking was. Predicating architecture on the notion of aesthetic perfection is as fruitless as predicating one’s life on eternal youth. 
Ah, now that's perfection—but only thanks to
vast sums spent in maintenance each year.
(Mies van der Rohe: Farnsworth House,
Plano, Illinois 1951)

All things--not least human beings--inevitably wear and show age, and once we accept this fact, we’re all the better for it. Yet Americans are strangely ambivalent about this process of aging, whether in themselves or in their environments. On the one hand, we profess to adore the sort of well-worn antiquity we find in places like Europe--a continent that’s notably old and beat up. But that quality doesn’t fare so well when we’re talking about our own homes. There, every tiny flaw becomes a cause for hand wringing.

 That’s a pity, because the inevitable dents and dings that arise through human habitation can just as well be viewed as a record of life’s events, forever frozen in time. See that scratch in the door jamb? That’s where Uncle Clem fell out of his chair on New Year’s Eve. Those scrape marks in the driveway? That’s where the bumper of our old Mercury used to drag. Rather than being cause for embarrassment or annoyance, such marks tell the colorful tale of time’s passage. How much more interesting that is than a flawless surface, and how much more human.

Oh no—she's imperfect!

Monday, January 12, 2015

ALL SHOW, NO GO: The Fad-Filled Kitchen

The typical "dream kitchen" of the
design magazine crowd is usually one like this—
big, busy, and slathered in stainless. 
“CHEF’S KITCHEN”. That rather pretentious term tells you a lot about what’s wrong with many of today’s kitchen designs. Dressed up in yards of stainless steel, and sporting appliances that mimic the commercial variety, they masquerade as restaurant kitchens, as if looking functional is the same thing as being functional. But no matter what fashionistas may tell you, a restaurant kitchen is hardly the best model for practical family cooking. 

To begin with, professional kitchens are designed on the presumption of having a full-time staff to operate and maintain them (which also explains why commercial cooking appliances can afford to have so many hard-to-clean cracks and crevices). Professional kitchens also have the luxury of sprawling over large amounts of floor space. Neither of these attributes apply to the average home kitchen. 

There’s a lot more to functional design than simply adopting the usual stainless steel, faux-restaurant kitchen garb. A true chef’s kitchen--that is, yours--demands less concern with how things look, and more concern with the way you cook. 

To design a kitchen specifically tailored to your cooking style, first measure the space you have available and draw up a simple plan. Then try out  a few different tentative layouts as a test bed for your ideas. All the old chestnuts of kitchen design still apply: There should be a compact work triangle formed by the three basic cooking areas--sink, stove, and refrigerator--ideally uninterrupted by traffic passing through it. The sum of the triangle’s sides should be no less than thirteen feet nor more than twenty-one feet. It should only take a few steps to get from one work center to another--a test, incidentally, that most of those sprawling “chef’s kitchens” fail miserably. 

Some kitchens are barely recognizable
as kitchens at all.
Once you have one or more basic layouts, mentally run through your usual daily cooking rituals in each of them to look for shortcomings. For instance, imagine cooking breakfast in each version, paying careful attention to small details such as where you store the cereal, silverware, coffee mugs, and so on. Is the microwave in a convenient spot? Where will the coffeemaker go? The coffee? The bread? The toaster? Minor as these things seem, they can spell the difference between a kitchen that’s a pleasure to work in, and one that’s a daily pain. Run through the same mental exercise for all your other regular mealtimes, as well as any special kitchen uses, such as baking, craft work, or holiday gatherings. 

By the time you’re finished testing out several virtual kitchens designs in your head, you should know exactly where to find Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, the Swiss Miss, and Captain Crunch, as well as how many steps you'll need to take between each of them. Going through these mental dry runs will also allow you to adjust any shortcomings that come to light. When this happens, the real design work is done--you can be sure the kitchen will suit the way you cook, because you've already cooked in it in your mind. All that remains now is the sexy design-mag fun of choosing appliances, finishes and hardware. 

And by the way--while you might like to fancy yourself whipping up fresh strawberry crepes for the kids each morning, there’s also no dishonor in tossing a couple of frozen Eggos in the toaster. After all, it’s not Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen. It’s yours. 

Monday, January 5, 2015


Last time, we looked at the basics of designing an ideal bathroom. This time, we’ll get down to the fine points of fixtures, hardware, and lighting. All of these aspects need to be planned out in detail ahead of time, including the exact placement of bath hardware and lighting fixtures, which many people treat as an afterthought.

If space is at a premium, a cabinet-mounted lavatory sink is preferable to a pedestal sink, since it provides both counter space and storage. Either way, though, each lavatory bowl should have a towel bar or ring for face towels and a GFI-protected electrical outlet within arm’s reach. 

Good lighting places the fixtures to
either side of your face.
The so-called “standard” lavatory sink height of 32 inches dates back to a time when people were much shorter, and nowadays this height is usually too low for comfort. Since this is your bathroom and not Napoleon’s, make the lavatory sink high enough to use without having to stoop. If you’re using a ready-made lavatory cabinet, consider using a base to raise it to a comfortable height.

As for lighting, don’t fall prey to another antiquated standard--having a single lamp centered above the sink--because that’s just about the worst possible location. Instead, provide two separate light sources flanking each lavatory sink, located roughly at the height of your ears, and between two and three feet apart. If there's you're planning a full-width mirror, have it drilled to accommodate this lighting arrangement. Steer clear of recessed lighting fixtures and pendant fixtures that dangle in front of the mirror. Regardless of how trendy they look in the showroom, they’ll do a lousy job of lighting your face. 

On the other hand, this fixture location will cast
harsh shadows on your face. The mirror could have
been drilled to accommodate a better placement.
(Both images courtesy of Progress Lighting).
Don’t forget to find a spot for the toilet paper dispenser (a common oversight), and for heaven’s sake, make it within easy reach. Consider including an additional 8-inch deep cabinet for storing bulky bath sundries (the wall behind the toilet, about three feet above the tank, is often a good spot--it’s much more convenient than storing things under the sink). If space allows, provide yet another cabinet to accommodate underwear as well as a hamper for dirty clothes. Regardless of what moisture-fearing naysayers may tell you, having these things right at hand after a bath or shower is a real luxury.

Don’t even bother to include a separate shower unless you can make it really generous--a stall shower smaller than three by four feet has very little advantage over the typical tub-shower. If you’re lucky enough to have room for a good-sized shower, don’t forget to include a soap dish at a convenient height, a hook or two for washcloths, a niche for holding bath sundries, and a bench or at least a ledge you can put your feet on. Also, arrange the towel bars so you can reach the bath towels without stepping out of the shower.

Lastly, invest in a top quality, ultra-quiet exhaust fan with about twice the capacity recommended for your bathroom. The few bucks you’ll save on a cheap fan simply aren’t worth the earsplitting assault on your senses every morning. If your budget allows, consider a remote-mounted fan, which is even quieter and more powerful than a ceiling-mounted unit. Note that a remote-mounted fan can either be placed on the roof, or be mounted in an accessible spot inside the attic. 

Whether your bathroom is thirty square feet or three hundred, it’s the little conveniences that spell the difference between daily irritation and daily enjoyment. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Judging by the typical model home, you’d think that the perfect bathroom was a gigantic space with lots of glitzy surfaces and a monstrous whirlpool tub. In reality, this brand of bath design is mainly intended to make a splashy first impression on buyers--the so-called wow factor. The designers of such rooms don’t much care how comfortable they are for daily use.

The ideal bathroom has many requisites, but vast size, acres of granite, and a whirlpool tub aren’t among them. What really counts is having generous space where it’s actually useful, and having all the elements of your daily bath ritual right at hand. 

One of my favorite "wow factory only" designs.
If you have 300 square feet to spare,
you can have a tub like this, too.
For starters, here are some basic rules of thumb that can be applied to most any living space, but that are especially essential to bathrooms: 

• Natural light trumps artificial light. Basically, this mean you should buck the usual bathroom standard--a paltry, high-placed window--and insteadprovide the biggest window possible. And don’t let privacy worries restrict the window size or placement, since you can always augment privacy using window coverings, exterior screening, or planting. 

• Natural ventilation trumps mechanical ventilation. Don’t rely on a puny exhaust fan to ventilate a naturally humid room like the bathroom. Fully-opening windows such as casements or awnings are ideal, but generously sized sliding or double hung windows will work too if they’re better suited to the style of your house. If you can provide cross ventilation with two windows spaced some distance apart, all the better.

• Usable space trumps “wow” space. If  you’re more interested in genuine comfort than impressing your neighbors, delegate your bathroom space to useful purposes, not to grandiose statements like huge, seldom-used whirlpool tubs. For example, few bathrooms have adequate storage for bulky items like toilet paper, extra towels, and bath sundries. Sure, you can cram them into the lavatory cabinet, if you don’t mind rooting around on all fours to get them out. But a generous cabinet at eye level is much more convenient. Likewise, when you shower or bathe, it’s a real luxury to have a cabinet with clean underwear and another hiding a laundry hamper, all within arm’s reach.

The vastly impractical vessel sink,
current darling of interior designers.
They're already showing up in the salvage yards.
• Function and ease of maintenance trump trendoid design. The current poster child for utterly impractical bathroom fads is the so-called “vessel” sink, which sits atop the counter rather than in it, trapping spilled water and all manner of nasty gunk underneath. Then there are those elaborate glass shower surrounds which look so dazzling in staged magazine photos, but which require ceaseless cleaning under real life conditions. For my money, an old-fashioned shower curtain is simpler, cheaper, doesn’t clutter up the room, and is also easier to maintain--when it starts getting grungy, you can recycle it as a drop cloth and buy a new one. 

You can probably come up with your own favorite impractical features, but you get the idea--simply keeping up with current product fads is no basis for an intelligent bathroom design.
Next time, we’ll take a more detailed look at what makes for an ideal bathroom--including the choice of fixtures, hardware, and lighting.

Monday, December 22, 2014


 When it comes to aesthetic matters, a lot of men seem almost embarrassed to express their opinions. That’s not too surprising, considering the longstanding stereotype of males whose work deals with the way things look. Architects, designers, and other aesthetes are typically seen as being, shall we say, a long way from the guy on the Brawny package. You needn’t look any further than the popular media to find them routinely depicted as effete prima donnas.  

Every macho man's dream—a U.S. Army Cat D9
with bulletproof glass in the cab.
Rather than risk such associations, many males feign disinterest in how things look, and instead make a pretense of concern for the more manly nuts and bolts of building. They feel compelled to ask questions about lumber grades or circuit breakers, pointedly leaving those sissified aesthetic judgments to their fairer partners.

This is all pure swagger, of course. Men are at least as susceptible to appearances as  women are, and one look at the things typically bought or used by males will confirm this. Power tools, pickup trucks, bulldozers--even items that ostensibly are purely functional, such as jet fighters--are all carefully designed to include the aggressive styling cues that are known to push men’s buttons. Strong colors, chunky lines, and a visual suggestion of weight are all used to impart a look of masculine toughness and durability that panders to the male’s own wishful self image. 

Don't think for a minute that aircraft aren't
intentionally styled to push men's buttons.
Nor is it accidental that so many tools have names suggesting firearms or other things that explode--hence, nail gun, screw gun, calking gun, spray gun, heat gun, drywall bazooka, water blaster. I own an electric drill--a relatively benign tool as these things go--that’s nevertheless sold under the formidable-sounding name of “Magnum Hole Shooter”. Well, hell yes, pardner--what kind of pasty-faced wimp would settle for just drilling, when he could be out shootin’ himself some magnum holes?

The point is that men are just as easily moved by a certain curve or color as women are--we just feel weird admitting it. We might buy that Magnum Hole Shooter for its fire-engine-red case, or its musclebound styling, or even its swagger-filled name, but we’ll never admit as much. Instead, we’ll mumble something about how Dad’s old Hole Shooter lasted thirty years, and even then it was only the trigger that busted.
Well hell, let's go shoot us some dang magnum holes.

Given all this macho posturing, it’s no wonder that when it comes to discussing the aesthetics of his own home, many a man will pointedly stay out of the conversation. He’ll leave it to his gentler partner to hobnob with the architect, who’s probably been classed as a bit deficient in the macho column anyway. And he’ll profess that he doesn’t much care what the place looks like, as long as the garage will fit his table saw.

This reluctance to take an aesthetic stand is too bad, really. After all, a home, beside being a man’s castle, is very likely also the biggest investment he’ll ever make. Since he’s going to have to live in the place, he needn’t fear having an opinion on how it should look. Even if he comes off a little pasty-faced now and then. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


The other day I was strolling through a local shopping center when I noticed a colorfully ragtag quartet of young travelers camped out in the little plaza outside a chain coffee store. They were presumably hitchhiking across the country, their entourage complete with two friendly mutts and a couple of beat up guitars.  The whole bunch was in high spirits, although judging by their looks, they’d been on the road for a long, long time. 

 Coming a long way, but for what?
At first I was reminded of my own teenage travel adventures, when my friends and I had cheerfully slept on sidewalks or railway station floors, immune to the disapproving frowns of the locals.

But then I began to wonder how similar our experiences really were. The plaza these travelers occupied so happily was ringed by one-hundred-percent corporate chain outlets, from the ubiquitous coffee bar, to the familiar purveyor of ersatz tacos, to the giant home-improvement outlet, with its inevitable parade of customers driving off with screen doors tied to their roofs. 

It was a place at once utterly familiar and utterly forgettable, without a single feature unique to this particular corner of America. Nowadays, there’s nothing unusual about these kinds of ultra-generic locations--in fact, they’re becoming almost inescapable. Hence, what these kids were experiencing--the simple exhilaration of travel notwithstanding--would have been pretty much the same whether they’d been in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, in Lansing or Laredo. Here they were, gloriously free and ready to take in the United States, yet for much of the time the places they went all looked the same.

Could be anywhere. Is it your town?
Don’t get me wrong. America is a land of incomparable natural contrasts--of mountain, desert and prairie, of oceans of water and oceans of wheat. Mother Nature has blessed us with plenty to see and this, one hopes, will never change. Yet the places where we actually spend most of our time--the erstwhile charismatic cities, the formerly charming whistle-stop towns, and the increasingly vast stretches of bland, lookalike suburbs in between--have less and less to distinguish them as the years pass. Our nation’s once culturally distinct landscapes are slowly congealing into a homogenized, study group-induced, corporate marketer’s idea of nirvana, in which one business plan conveniently fits all because every crossroads is interchangeable. Only the backlit plastic signs need their logos swapped now and then.

Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon? Bet you
can't tell me.
History is cyclical, of course, and it may be that the insidious spread of global megabusiness is just a phase that will grow and then wither--and along with it, the bland, calculated, one-size-fits-all corporatization of America and the rest of the globe. Still, given today’s frenetic electronic linkage of everything and everyone--and the apparent glee with which young people experience it--we might just as likely be on a one-way trip to Blandville. 

 As I watched those four scruffy kids in the bloom of youth, strumming on their beat up guitars, I felt a little sorry for them. They were traveling America, all right, but they were always ending up in the same place.