Monday, February 9, 2015

MONEY OUT THE WINDOW


Talk about misplaced priorities: In the name of saving energy, many people think nothing of spending tens of thousands of dollars on replacement windows. But at the same time, they’ll willingly limp along with an obsolete furnace whose replacement would have a far greater payoff, dollar for dollar, on both their their utility bills and their home’s comfort.

Still have an old "octopus" gravity furnace?
They look cool, but are disastrously inefficient
 (and often loaded with asbestos).
The bottom line is that, if improving your home’s energy efficiency is the main goal, replacing your windows is among the least cost effective ways to do it. Here’s why: 

Although glass radiates heat at a substantially higher rate than walls or ceilings do, it represents only a small fraction of a home’s exterior surface area. A typical 1800 square foot, one-story rancher, for example, will have a window area comprising something on the order of just 6 percent of the exterior envelope. 

In the same house, however, the ceilings represent a whopping one-third of the surface area. Therefore, the most cost effective way to improve energy efficiency in homes built before the 1980s is simply to increase attic insulation levels. 

Maybe your furnace has been upgraded to a
more modern forced-air unit like this one—
but don't feel too good about that either.
Its efficiency may still be awful.
So is replacing windows the next logical step for improving energy efficiency? Not by a long shot. Consider that many pre-World War II houses still have their original “octopus” gravity furnaces. If you have a basement, chances are that your house once had--or may even still have--this type of heating system. With their gas-squandering pilot lights and primitive heat exchanger designs, most gravity furnaces have dismal energy efficiencies of perhaps 60 percent (meaning the other forty percent of your energy dollar is wasted up the flue). What’s more, their thinly-insulated ductwork wastes yet more heat just getting it to the register grilles, quite possibly leaving you with a net efficiency of fifty percent or so.

Maybe your prewar houses has already had its old gravity furnace replaced with a “modern” forced-air units somewhere along the line. Or, maybe you’re not worried about your furnace at all because your house is only thirty years old. Alas, any forced air unit predating the 1980s is likely to have an efficiency of perhaps 75 percent--and that one-fourth of your energy dollar being wasted is nothing to celebrate.
A modern, high-efficiency furnace is
a much more cost-effective energy
investment than new windows.

Replacing your furnace with a modern high-efficiency unit (typically around 95 percent efficient or better) not only will yield big savings on your energy bills, but will markedly improve your home’s comfort as well. Most models have variable speed fans that are quieter and do a better job of maintaining a steady temperature. 


 Other improvements, such as automatic flue dampers and electronic ignition, finally do away with longstanding sources of energy waste that have hobbled furnace efficiency for over a century. Last but not least, the new electronic clock thermostat can be precisely tailored to your daily routine, conserving even more energy by turning off the heat at the times it’s not needed.

All in all, a new furnace and ductwork is likely to cost you less than new windows, and will probably have a much bigger impact on both your utility bills and your comfort. So why throw money out the window?

Monday, February 2, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION: Part Two of Two Parts

Is this the porch lamp
you've been looking for?

Last time we paid a visit to the architectural salvage yard--a place where, if you’re diligent, you can find quality building materials that are cheaper and greener to boot. Today we continue the shopping list with more potential bargains, though they may require some careful vetting first.

• Structural items. Many salvage yards stock a plethora of materials such as brick, wood and steel beams, sheet metal, structural hardware, and the like. If you happen to find exactly what you’re look for (or, more likely, something that’s close enough), you can save a lot of money--often fifty to seventy-five percent over lumberyard prices. Occasionally, you may have to massage your plans a little to make use of a real bargain, but that’s the nature of buying anything recycled.

• Lighting fixtures. In general, older lighting fixtures are of much higher quality than modern ones, with heavier parts and more durable finishes. However, you should expect to rewire all vintage lighting fixtures, since their old-style cloth insulation becomes brittle with age and can cause short circuits. Professional rewiring can add appreciable cost to a “bargain” salvaged fixture, but the added expense is still usually justified for a top-quality vintage fixture. If you’re reasonably handy with things electrical, you may also be able to do this work yourself.  

Or this window?
• Cabinetwork. It’s not uncommon to find very high quality cabinets at a salvage yard, since kitchens and baths are always being remodeled to keep up with current fads. However, beware of cabinets damaged during removal, or ones that are so heavily encrusted with paint that refinishing wouldn’t be cost effective. 

• Windows. Here’s a classic recycling dilemma: Currently, most state energy codes require new or replacement windows to be double-glazed, and at this time, only a small percentage of salvaged windows fill the bill. However, if you find a single-glazed window that you simply can’t pass up, you may be able to make tradeoffs, such as upgrading your insulation, that will keep you in compliance with the law. 
Or this pedestal sink?
They're all available
at architectural
salvage yards.
Modern building codes also require that windows in certain hazardous locations (and all glass doors) be glazed with safety glass, which is seldom found in salvaged items either. Since reglazing is expensive, make sure the code allows plain glass in the specific window locations you’re pondering.

• Plumbing fixtures. Like recycled windows, salvaged plumbing fixtures can be a real bargain, but they can also stick you with some insoluble code conflicts unless you’re careful. Most states, for example, require that newly installed toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. Older toilets can use as much as six or even eight gallons per flush, and there is no practical retrofit to bring them into compliance. Likewise, older faucets may not include flow restrictors and hence cannot comply with water conservation requirements. Until conservation codes are rewritten to reflect total water use rather than attempting to micromanage individual fixtures, reusing old toilets and faucets will remain a problem.

• Lastly, note that two materials now considered health hazards--asbestos, and paint containing lead--are both common in vintage materials. Traces of asbestos insulation are often found clinging to old ductwork, register grilles, and heating appliances, while virtually any prewar woodwork that’s painted can contain lead. Be informed, gauge your own level of concern, and buy accordingly.

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, at
prices well below new.
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 good day, you might even find
brand-new high-end doors like these,
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 our 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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

FAD KITCHENS: All Show and No Go

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, December 22, 2014

FEAR OF THE FABULOUS


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. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A DOOR DICTIONARY

Dutch door in a classic Hugh Comstock-
designed cottage in Carmel, California

A door seems like a simple enough thing. Yet visit your local door showroom, and you may think the salesperson is speaking a foreign language. In a way, he is: it’s the arcane terminology of doors. 

Most of us are familiar with that old residential standby, the hinged door. But other doors have less obvious names. The ones that slide into a hollow space in the wall are called pocket doors (not, as you might think, sliding doors). Paired doors that slide past each other--often used for closets--aren’t called sliding doors either; they’re called bypassing doors. As a matter of fact, the only sliding door that’s actually called a sliding door is the glass kind that leads out to your patio.

Each individual door is called a leaf. Hence double doors are said to have two leaves; with the one that’s usually opened being called the active leaf. Those narrow pairs of doors that are hinged together in the middle--also common for closets--are called bifold doors. Doors that are split in half horizontally are called Dutch doors. Doors that swing in two directions are called double acting doors. 

Doors with glass in them, which most of us call French doors, are more properly called glazed doors. Each pane in a glazed door is called a lite, and the wooden bars dividing the lites are called muntins. Hence, the typical glazed door having one vertical muntin and four horizontal ones is called a ten-lite door.

The doorknob is the part you see;
the lockset is the part that does
the work.
Broadly speaking, there are two styles of doors. The first, known as panel doors, were common from pre-Victorian times through the Depression, and were built of solid lumber enclosing varying numbers of recessed wo
oden panels. Designs ranged from six panels in Colonial-era homes to four in Victorian ones to a single large panel in homes of the inter war era. Panel doors made a big comeback in the 1980s, though most are now just one-piece moldings made to miimic the real thing.

Go on, get your butts out of here.
Modernist-era homes such as California Ranchers, on the other hand, typically had doors with completely plain, flat surfaces. These are known as flush doors, and they can further be classed as hollow core or solid core, the latter being more durable and also more expensive.

Door hardware has its own arcane terminology. What most of us just call a doorknob is properly referred to as a lockset (the knob is just the visible part that turns). The direction a door opens is said to determines the “hand” of the lock: a door that’s hinged on the right and swings away from you, for example, is said to have a right hand lock. 

As for what you and I call hinges, door professionals rather inelegantly refer to them as “butts”. To make things more confusing, butts are counted by pairs, not by the piece. Hence, a door with a hinge at the top and bottom is said to have a pair of butts, while a heavier door that requires three hinges is said to have one and a half pairs of butts. 

Listen, I  just pass this stuff along--I don’t make it up.

Monday, December 1, 2014

NIGHTMARE ON PALM STREET


A while back, driving through an old and well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, I came upon a charming street flanked by swaying palm trees and lined with classic Craftsman bungalows. Practically all of them had stout columns of river rock, massive beamed porches, and lovely leaded glass windows--in short, all the attributes today’s bungalow connoisseurs covet.

Classic bungalow in Alameda, California, circa 1911.
There was just one problem: Although the original architecture of those homes had been remarkably consistent, at least half of the them had been badly mauled by inept modernizations or ham-handed expansions that had taken place in earlier years--erstwhile ”improvements” that in the long run destroyed their architectural value.


By far the most common transgression was the replacement of the original wooden windows with clumsy, glaring white vinyl windows ones. These windows are today’s equivalent of the cheap aluminum sliders that defaced so many fine old Victorians during the postwar era. Regardless of what vinyl window sellers may claim, and regardless of what kind of “historical” muntin patterns they may offer, these windows are not suitable for installation in any vintage home style--least of all the emphatically woodsy bungalow. 

Another great bungalow, this one with not-so-classic
vinyl replacement windows.
But a nasty outbreak of tacky windows wasn’t all that had gone wrong on this erstwhile remarkable little street. Some homeowners had apparently found their premises a little too cramped and, lacking enough property to add to the back of their homes, instead built enormous, looming second story additions that were the visual equivalent of a jackboot stomping on Bambi.

Other less egregious but equally irreversible damage was done by owners who, in an apparent attempt to keep up with some color fad or other, had painted over their bungalows’ natural river rock on columns and chimneys.

The sad thing about these various desecrations is that they were all unnecessary. Old wood windows, for example, can generally be repaired for less money than it costs to install second-rate vinyl replacements. Moreover, the energy savings gleaned by switching to double glazing--the motivation for many replacement projects using vinyl windows--is trivial compared to the same investment made in a more efficient furnace or higher insulation levels.

A bungalow addition gets off to a bad start.
Note the overpowering mass, uncharacteristic hip roof,
 and the means of extending the chimney.
Additions, even on a tight site, needn’t detract from a home’s architecture. Even second story additions can be designed to minimize their visual presence, with detailing that blends in with the original architecture rather than clashing with it.

Neither should the foregoing suggest that it takes a big budget to thoroughly wreck a vintage house--all it really takes is one trendoid fool with a paint brush. While painting a house solely in to keep up with color trends is merely a waste of time and money, painting over natural stone or brick for the same purpose is self-inflicted sabotage. The damage is, for practical purposes, irreversible, and the punishment is inevitably meted out when it comes time to sell.

Take that lovely little palm-lined street, for example. The very owners who refrained from “modernizing” are the ones whose homes will be valued most highly at sale time. The ones who made inadvisable and half-baked “improvements” end up the losers.