Wednesday, February 3, 2016

THE GREENEST WAY TO BUILD: Use Stuff That Already Exists

During the 1950s and 60s, when
Victorian architecture was held in
contempt, many an interior like this one
met the wrecking ball.
Unlike Europe, the United States has never had many reservations about demolishing its old buildings to make way for the new.  The vast array of exquisite materials squandered during the Modernist era— when ornamentation was held in contempt—could make a grown person cry. After World War II, countless Victorian homes filled with ornately-milled hardwoods, marble, leaded and colored glass, brass and bronze were blithely destroyed to make way for the sedate, blank surfaces of the “new” age. 

Nowadays, any green designer or builder worth his salt recognizes the value of quality salvaged items. Yet ironically, long before the green movement, it was wrecking contractors who first saw value in such items.  Over the years, their equipment yards became stockpiled with items hastily stripped from old homes in the last bleak hours before the Caterpillars arrived. These stockpiles eventually grew into organized salvage yards featuring a huge array of architectural materials.   

With money as scarce as it is today, many remodelers have turned to salvaged materials as a way to save a few bucks. And rightly so: If you know what to buy and what to avoid, the salvalvage items can be a real bargain. With luck, you may even come across an architectural treasure or two. Don’t expect perfection, however; remember that these items have already lived one lifetime. Consider a chip or scratch here and there as a badge of honor. 

All these windows once graced the interior
of someone's old house. The lease we can do
is to give them a second life.
(Photo courtesy
Probably the most useful salvage buys are metallic items like high-quality cabinet hardware, railings, escutcheons, grilles, scutcheons, grilles,  They’re easily stripped of paint and reused, and their quality is generally far higher than similar items you can buy today.  Also worth searching out are fireplace mantels and other stone or marble items that are very expensive purchased new.   

Panel doors can also be a bargain as long as they’re in good condition. Except for really one-of-a-kind items, though, don’t bother buying doors that are badly weathered or otherwise damaged; repairing them simply isn’t cost effective. Also, try to use salvaged doors in new openings made especially for them, not in existing openings. Modifying old doors to fit an existing opening (or vice versa) can be a real headache.  

Salvage yards frequently have leaded or colored glass windows, too. Many have interesting muntin patterns or
Knobs, anyone? You won't
find ones of this quality
at the local Big Orange.
unusual shapes, and can fit nicely into remodeling plans.  However, the more mundane types of double-hung or casement windows are seldom worth buying for new construction (nor will they usually meet modern energy codes). By the time you’ve gotten them properly refinished and in smooth working condition, you’ll wish you’d simply bought a new window.  Save your rehab efforts for windows that are worth the time.

Salvaged plumbing fixtures must also be approached with caution.  Many old toilets, for example, are difficult to connect and few will comply with modern water-conservation standards. Pedestal sinks, on the other hand, are easily retrofitted with modern water-conserving faucets, and are often a bargain. Avoid the cast iron variety and look for the higher-quality chinaware type, however.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


It’s now been over a century since the once-flourishing school of design known as the International Style represented the highest hopes of modernist architecture. Though it fell far short of its expectations, it did leave us a valuable lesson: that even the most learned of good intentions can’t always make for a humane environment. 

The buildings of Walter Gropius's Bauhuas school,
completed in Dessau, Germany in 1926.
The International Style was really more of a social philosophy than a style. Its roots reach back to post-World War I Europe, where widespread social problems convinced many architects that a revolutionary change in architecture was in order. To them, this meant discarding every trace of the historically-based styles of the past, and replacing them with a completely “modern” architecture. 

The most famous proponent of these radical views was a German school of design known as the Bauhaus. By the late Twenties, the Bauhaus was proposing austere new forms of architecture meant to provide the masses with clean, dignified housing, workplaces, and civic buildings. At the same time, they theorized, these buildings would raise the moral and spiritual levels of their occupants.  

The Bauhaus rejected ornament as a useless trapping of the elite and replaced it with the so-called "machine aesthetic", producing  buildings that were intentionally stark and severe.  Traditional pitched roofs were discarded in favor of flat roofs with little or no overhang.  Windows were replaced by great walls of glass that frequently couldn’t be opened, and walls were left plain and invariably painted an antiseptic white. Such designs soon began to find favor throughout Europe.

Philip Johnson's famed Glass House in
New Canaan, Connecticut in 1949.
After World War II, American architects such as Philip Johnson also became hooked by the refreshingly different International Style, hailing it as the only “honest” form of architecture. Johnson’s austere “glass house” in New Canaan, Connecticut and a handful of homes by other architects quickly became widely-copied International Style paradigms.  
The style’s largely theoretical basis was lampooned by opponents such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who once skewered the famed International Style modernist Le Corbusier with the comment, “Well, now that he's finished one building, he'll go write four books about it.”   

Nevertheless, hack architects and tract builders rushed to copy International Style homes.  Their abence of ornament made them cheap to build, and they had the cachet of newness.  By the Fifties, such houses, dubbed “flat-tops” by their detractors, were appearing everywhere. 

But problems appeared just as quickly.  The unshaded glass walls either admitted too much sun and made the houses unbearably hot, or else allowed vast amounts of heat to escape in winter.  The minimal areas of solid wall made them more vulnerable to earthquake damage.  And after all the futurist hype died down, most people found the stark, undecorated architecture predictable and oppressive.  

Alas, in the hands of less able practitioners,
much International Style design ended up
looking like this.
What went wrong? One problem was that the International Style's roots were foreign, and were seldom suited to United States’ climate or lifestyle. Worse, it was a movement based on academic theory rather than time-tested architectural evolution.  And most ironic: Because its clean functionalism lent itself to austerity, it was too often copied by architects and builders who passed off miserly design as Modern design, leaving us a legacy of mediocre buildings. 

These problems spelled the eventual doom of the International Style.  Like many things, it worked better in theory than in fact. Good intentions were simply not enough. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


The Temple of Apollo, one of Henry Hoare's
follies in the garden of Stourhead.
How about an obelisk in your garden? Or a sun temple? Or a dripping, moss-covered grotto? The garden of one famous English estate boasted all of these features and more. It was called Stourhead, and these architectural elements, called follies, were artfully placed along a meandering circular path nearly two miles long. The garden and its follies were designed in 1744 by an amateur landscape designer with the unenviable name of Henry Hoare.   

A folly  is an architectural structure in the landscape that exists for no reason other than to add interest. Follies were all the rage in English gardens of the late 1700s, when they were an integral part of an architecture and landscape design movement known as the Picturesque. The movement espoused pretty much what you might guess—designs were meant to be artfully composed and, well, pretty as a picture. Stourhead was in fact literally based upon a landscape painting by Claude Lorrain done a century earlier 

Spooky, no? A gaping mouth is among the many
unusual follies in Italy's Bomarzo Gardens,
dating from the sixteenth century. 
Alas, most gardens don’t have room for Stourhead’s highly creative follies. But a folly doesn’t need a lot of room to be effective. The same design elements that worked for Hoare and others during the golden age of English landscape design can still be used to lend Picturesque elements to your own garden.

•  Gazebos are a time-honored garden folly.  Whether square, octagonal, or round, they make a fine endpoint for a garden path.  .

Try looking beyond the usual 4x4-and-latticework construction — the more exotic the design, the better.  Gazebo designs of a century ago featured everything from unpeeled logs to river rock to iron columns and onion domes. In fact, the whole point of a folly is to go a little nuts.

•  A bridge can form the centerpiece of a garden with suitable terrain.  It can cross either a dry rockbed or actual water.  The scale needn’t be large; look at some of the diminutive bridges found in Japanese landscape architecture.  It’s just the act of crossing from one side to the other that engages people’s interest.  

Do make sure that the bridge actually crosses something (not just flat ground).  Even more important, make sure that there’s something worth reaching on the other side—another folly, perhaps, or just a bench on which to sit and enjoy the surroundings. 

•  Small fountains or pools can add immeasurably to the pleasure of a garden.  Besides mere 
Grottoes were another favorite folly. This
shell-encrusted 18th century example is at
Mount Edgecumbe Country Park in
Cornwall, England.
appearance, the soothing sound, cool touch, and refreshing smell of water are a banquet for the senses. For this reason, famed gardens such as Stourhead contained whole networks of artificial ponds and creeks. But a tiny garden can benefit from water as well. You don’t need a torrent—even a small basin fed by a trickle of water can transform a garden into an oasis of tranquility.

•  Other follies are limited only by your imagination—Stourhead’s obelisk, for example, was a scaled-down version of a monumental Egyptian form.  Locate follies at natural stopping points in the garden or where they frame a vista or a favorite plant. Nor does a folly need to be monumental; even something as simple as a bench, bird bath, or sundial can effectively add an unexpected element to the landscape.   

Monday, January 11, 2016


Many entrance locksets look more or less like this one.
They don't all have the same solid feel, however.
This happens to be the real deal from Baldwin Brass.

Even in their cheapest homes, tract builders will usually spring for a good quality door and lockset at the front entrance. Why? Because marketing studies have demonstrated that a good solid-feeling front door leaves an impression of quality that carries over throughout the house.  Developers refer to this sometimes-illusory impression of quality as “perceived value”. 

Whether illusory or not, the same trick can work for your own home. You may not have the budget to install hardwood panel doors or top-quality lockset(what most people refer to as "doorknobs") throughout your house; that could run to many hundreds of dollars per door. But chances are you can afford a good-quality front door and, even more important, a first-rate entrance lockset. 

If your house has an old, substantial lockset that doesn't
quite work right, for God's sake, fix it,
don't replace it.
Many prewar homes have beautiful front doors equipped with really substantial locksets. If you’re lucky enough to still have yours, for God's sake, don’t replace it. Any decent finish carpenter can repair a sagging or scraping front door fairly easily. Likewise, a balky lockset can be taken to a locksmith for repair. 

On the other hand, if your is flimsy, uninteresting, or truly beyond repair, consider replacement.  The choice of door designs (and price ranges) is vast. However, most entrance doors fall into one of three basic categories: Steel, fiberglass, and wood.  The price variations between common versions of each are surprisingly small, so choose them on merit, not cost.  

This fiber glass door is practically
a dead ringer for wood,
and it'll never warp or rot.
Steel doors won’t warp--the main reason they’re marketed for residential use.  Many also have good insulative value. On the down side, they can rust and dent, and many are embossed with grossly exaggerated woodgrain patterns that aren’t very convincing on close inspection. 

Fiberglass doors combine the warp-resistance of steel with excellent insulative value and a much more realistic woodgrain look.  They can be planed and sanded, and are designed to accept either paint or stain (although the staining procedure is different than for wood).  A carefully finished fiberglass door presents a fairly convincing copy of wood, while requiring less maintenance over time.

Still, nothing has quite the heft of a solid wood door. Genuine wood presents a look and feel of quality that neither steel nor fiber glass can match—one reason the latter products are so anxious to imitate it. Yet wood doors do have their drawbacks, including susceptibility to warpage and rot, so-so energy efficiency, and a need for vigilant maintenance. 

A mansion or just a regular house with a nice door?
From here, who can tell?
Once you’ve found a door that suits you, think about investing a good-quality entrance lockset.  There are lots of manufacturers to choose from, but only a handful make truly first class products. Look for quality locksets at better hardware and lumber dealers, and ask a sales assistant for help. Many styles are available with matching door knockers, doorbell escutcheons, and the like. Because not all finishes are always in stock, you may have to order a few weeks in advance. And be prepared to pay several hundred dollars for a decent-quality entrance lockset, and more for paired doors.

At these prices, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a cheaper lockset that “looks just the same”. Don't fall for this ruse; I guarantee that it won’t feel the same, or last the same. Remember what builders have known for decades: you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Have you ever been to a house where you had to skirt the gas meter or sidle around garbage cans to get to the front door? Or one where there was such a bewildering array of doors, you weren’t sure which one to knock at?

There's no doubt where the front door is
on this elegant Colonial style home.
The front entrance is seldom very high on people’s remodeling priorities. Yet, just like that old saw about first impressions, it’s your home’s entrance that people notice first. It’s practically impossible to rectify a bad impression made at the front door. Tract-home builders have known this for years—even in the cheapest house, they’ll never cut corners on the front door. They know that a strong impression of quality here subtly colors a visitor’s perception of the whole house.

For much of architectural history, front entrances have been a focal point of a home’s design. In Colonial New England, for example, the front door was often flanked by sidelights and topped by a pediment, setting it apart from an otherwise austere facade. The front door in Victorian homes was often reached by a dramatically broad set of steps, and in bungalow homes, it was dramatically framed by that ubiquitous front porch carried on tapered columns.  

Bungalow-era architects loved to use elaborate
porches to call attention to the front entrance.
All of these design strategies ensure that the entrance is clearly apparent from the street. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s glaringly exposed to view—just that its location is obvious to an unfamiliar passerby. Architects call this principle “demarcation”. 

There are lots of subtle ways to demarcate a front entrance.  The most common is to surround the door with an architectural form such as a pediment or other type of trim—as in the Colonial-style example above. Another traditional strategy places the door in a recess, on a projection, or under a roofed porch, as was common in bungalow homes.  

Don't force people to walk on the driveway
to get to your front door. Give people on foot
their own approach from the sidewalk.
Don’t consider any remodel complete unless you’ve given your front entrance its due. Here are some planning tips:

•  Don’t place an unsheltered entrance door flush with the front wall of the house; it’ll create an unwelcoming “side door” or  trailer-door effect. 

• Don’t bring the path to the front door past utilities such as gas or electric meters, or past unsightly storage areas for trash or the like. Keep these kinds of features out of the visitor’s line of sight.

• Don’t force visitors to walk on a driveway to get to your front door. Provide a separate walking path, or at least set aside a portion of the driveway paving using a different color or texture so it’s clearly meant just for those on foot.

You can make porch steps too narrow, but
you can't make them too wide. Six feet wide
 is minimum; more is better.
•  If you plan to provide a covered entrance porch, make it at least six feet wide—enough for a person to stretch out both arms without touching either wall. Anything less will feel cramped and uncomfortable. Also, make the porch at least four feet deep (six feet is better), or it’ll feel cramped when more than one person is waiting outside the front door.  A cheaper alternative to building a projecting porch is simply to recess the front door. Again, make the recess at least six feet wide, and not less than two feet deep. 

• Lastly, if your house has several doors facing the street, make sure your front approach aims your visitors toward the main entrance. Your front door may seem obvious to you, but that's probably because you live there. 

Monday, December 21, 2015


The late Malvina Reynolds best expressed the modern image of stucco when she sang about “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.  In the years since World War II, the mention of stucco has usually prompted snickers, its image cheapened by dreary G.I.  housing and monotonous design made infamous by tracts such as Levittown, New York and Daly City, California--the real-life inspiration for Reynolds’s lyrics.

Little boxes made of ticky tacky?
Actually, stucco is much more durable than wood.
But stucco’s history is long and dignified. The ancient Greeks applied it over rough stone to get a smooth surface that could be decorated, and the Romans mixed it with marble chips to obtain a brilliant interior finish.  The magnificent frescoes of the Renaissance were painted onto a form of wet stucco. It’s still the finish of choice in Mediterranean lands.                

Stucco is still unmatched for beauty and versatility.  It’s far more durable and fireproof than wood. It can be formed in limitless ways, and the final or “skim” coat can be colored to almost any shade, and will never fade, peel, or need repainting.  

America’s golden age of stucco began with the California Bungalows of the 1920s.  These squat little homes, which were eventually  built from coast to coast, quickly demonstrated the material’s economy and design potential. Contractors found that, unlike siding and shingles, stucco went up quickly and would conform to any shape.  Better yet, stucco could make a humble house look substantial:  By applying it over a hollow wooden framework, for example, a porch column could be given Herculean proportions.  

Not bad for a stucco house, eh? The famed
Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California,
(designed by architect Julia Morgan and
in 1919) made brilliant use of stucco.
The Mediterranean style homes of the thirties also put stucco to good use for mock adobe walls and arches. Its ability to form compound curves made it perfect for the bulging shapes this style demanded.

After World War II, the pressing need to house tens of thousands of returning GIs made home styles turn strictly utilitarian.  Stucco was used because it was cheap, but little attempt was made at creativity.  The dreary legacy of postwar tract housing gave stucco its undeserved reputation as a slapdash, built-on-the-cheap material.

The inspired stucco design of the Bungalow era isn’t lost, however—it’s just dormant.  Here are some ways to capitalize on stucco:

•  Take advantage of its plasticity, or ability to be modeled into any shape.  Stucco can easily form arches, vaults, and even compound curves.  All that’s required is a rough wooden framework that approximates the final shape.  Turrets, serpentine walls, and bulging forms are just a few of the possibilities.

But stucco was just as adaptable to more modest homes,
such as this 1920s-era California Bungalow.
It's still a great choice today.
•  Use stucco to suggest mass and solidity.  Handle it like masonry, not like exterior wallpaper.  Make design features such as columns stout enough to look structural, using the same proportions that stone might require.  The Bungalow builders excelled at making inexpensive wood-framed homes look very massive, and using stucco three-dimensionally was the key to this trick.

•  Use stucco’s many available textures.  If you’re adding onto a home with an unusual stucco texture, find a contractor who’s willing to match it. If you’re building a new house, take a drive through some prewar stucco neighborhoods.  You’ll find a huge variety of textures, each the “signature” of its creator.  You’ll also find a lot of great design ideas. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


When I hear people say, “They sure don’t build houses like they used to,.”  I think to myself, “Yeah, and it's a good thing, too.”

Granted, the quality of many items in new homes--doors, paint, hardware, and so on--can’t measure up to that of their vintage counterparts. But when it comes to actual structure and infrastructure, there’s no comparison.

This would never happen to a modern house, because
modern framing systems have shear walls.
Starting at the bottom of things--the foundation--modern houses are already way ahead. Prewar foundations had little or no reinforcing steel in them, which is why sticking doors and crooked floors are so common in vintage houses. Thanks to increasingly stringent codes for earthquake safety, modern foundations contain plenty of reinforcement., which has the added benefit them level and in one piece. 

Building codes also require today’s houses to be much more robustly framed than their predecessors, many of which had shockingly weak structures. Victorian houses, for instance, typically sat atop tottering “cripple walls” that made these already spindly and top-heavy structures even more susceptible to earthquakes, hurricanes, and flood damage. Today, the use of inexpensive metal framing connectors such as joist hangers and tie  straps produce far stronger houses at a very modest additional cost.

Galvanized water pipe was used
through the 1950s. This is what
most of it now looks like inside.
Modern building infrastructure such as plumbing, heating, and electrical systems are also leagues beyond their vintage counterparts. Take plumbing systems, for example--prewar homes typically used rust- and occlusion-prone galvanized steel water piping. Most modern plumbing systems, on the other hand, use durable, trouble-free copper. 

Likewise, houses predating 1940 or so employed knob-and-tube wiring systems with cloth-insulated wires that were embrittled by heat and attractive to rodents. Worse, these systems were protected by simple plug fuses that could be (and often were) circumvented by clueless owners--the infamous “penny in the fusebox” trick that led to many an electrical fire. 

Knob-and tube wiring like this was common from the
1900s until World War II. As you can see,
a lot of it is an accident waiting to happen.
Modern home electrical systems, on the other hand, use circuit breakers that can’t be tampered with. They also provide ample electrical capacity and plenty of outlets, doing away with the tangles of dangerous extension cords so ubiquitous in old houses. 
And speaking of fires, it’s no accident that fewer deadly fires occur in newer homes than in older ones. Rather, it’s because today’s building codes require interlinked smoke detectors, and many codes now also require fire sprinklers as well. Together, these improvements have dramatically reduced the incidence of fatal house fires.

These old furnaces were cool to look at, but
were dismally inefficient. They can't hold
a candle to today's modern forced air units.
Lastly, and perhaps most apparent to us in day to day life, new houses are far and away more comfortable and energy efficient than their old-time predecessors. Although we like to think of homes from the “good old days” as being warm and snug,  most lacked wall and attic insulation to conserve heat and instead relied on huge, wasteful gas furnaces to keep them warm. 

Thanks to modern energy efficiency standards, however, gone are the days of huge furnaces that lost over half of their heat energy up the chimney or by radiation from poorly-insulated ductwork. Today’s high-efficency furnaces, coupled with other features such as mandatory floor, wall, and ceiling insulation, mean modern houses are many times more energy-efficient than grandma’s cottage was.
Given all these improvements, next time you hear someone say, “They don’t build houses like they used to,” tell them they’re absolutely right.