Monday, January 26, 2015

SEEKING SALVATION Part One of Two Parts

Suppose there was a place you  you 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


“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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

VANDALIZING REMBRANDT


A while back, I had a chance to walk through a wonderful old villa designed by one of the top California architects of the 1920s. The house was a lyrical Spanish Revival design, carefully integrated into its hillside site, and surrounded by pools, gardens, and terraces designed by an equally famed landscape architect of the era. 

I’m being coy about names and dates (and omitting actual photos) only because, when I was there, the place was in the midst of a sweeeping “renovation” that I don’t have many kind words for.

Despite an apparently vast remodeling budget, the owners turned to a “designer”--that is, a person not legally qualified to use the term architect-- to carry out their project. Now, granted, I have an obvious bias toward hiring a licensed architect, especially when tampering with the work of an acknowledged master. But judge for yourself.

How some folks remodel a beautiful old home.
The designer had gutted an entire wing of the meticulously-detailed old mansion right down to the framing. He then commenced a remodeling program that managed to include every McMansion gimmick to be found this side of Las Vegas. In the “improved” kitchen, for instance, ceilings were riddled with recessed lighting fixtures, countertops slathered with glitzy granite, and cabinets lavishly custom built from acres of This Year’s Trendy Wood. Any space that was left over was crammed full of glaring stainless steel appliances.

In place of the original home’s understated elegance and subtly patinated finishes, the remodeled wing was transformed into a showcase of conspicuous consumption.

In design circles, there’s always been a debate about how an older house should be remodeled. Some argue that any changes should remain true to the original, right down to disguising modernities such as dishwashers and refrigerators. Others believe that since we no longer live in the past, it’s silly to be bound by its aesthetic. As a colleague of mine once put it: “Saying ‘My kitchen should look old,’ makes about as much sense as saying, ‘I must fly to Europe on a biplane.’” 

All the latest gadgets.  For this year, anyway.
Of course, neither of these viewpoints are necessarily the right answer--they’re just the two extremes on a spectrum of choices. Despite our fondness for the good old days, there were plenty of lousy houses built back then, just as there are today. And if an old house was carelessly designed in the first place, changing its original form, even substantially, can sometimes bring dramatic improvement. 

On the other hand, when an old house is masterfully designed and lacks only the contemporary niceties of efficient heating, ample electrical outlets, and modern appliances, a much more delicate touch is in order. Gutting a perfectly good house just to accomodate the latest gadgets and fad finishes is not just unnecessary, it’s flat-out stupid. In a few years, after the momentary sugar rush of “modernization”  wears off, both the architectural and monetary worth of the house are inevitably diminished. 

As our aforementioned designer friend was seemingly unaware, it’s important to exercise some judgement on how--and how much--we choose to remodel. It’s one thing to “improve” somebody’s paint-by-numbers effort. It’s another to vandalize a Rembrandt.

Monday, October 13, 2014

PHONY BALONEY


The other morning I stopped at a local mom-and-pop coffee stand to grab some breakfast. I was about to settle for a toasted bagel when a charmingly hand-lettered sign near the register caught my eye. 

“Homemade Breakfast Sandwich,” it read. “A toasted english muffin with crispy bacon, fresh eggs, and medium cheddar cheese.”
Although I wouldn’t dream of ordering such a thing from the typical fast-food joint, the handwritten sign and homey locale made it sound pretty enticing. Visions of bacon and eggs sizzling on the griddle wafted into my head.

Breakfast, from Mrs. Monsanto to you.
Imagine my reaction when, perhaps thirty seconds after I’d ordered it, the proprietor handed me a scalding hot yet soggy something-or-other straight from the microwave. The “fresh eggs” were some sort of prefabricated, pale-yellow patty, the bacon a pre-fried strip of salt, and the “medium cheddar” a glossy orange square of Velveeta. So much for a “homemade” sandwich.

Now, it happens that this shop’s owners were recent immigrants from an Asian country famous for its fresh, healthy cuisine. Why, I wondered, would they even offer greasy, salty, precooked American pap that’s just a simulation of actual food? 
I think the answer is that we Americans, old and new alike, are slowly but surely resigning ourselves to accept fakery in everything we buy--even those of us who, like the coffee shop folks, ought to know better. 

The construction field is no exception. Wannabe building materials--the architectural equivalent of junk food--are rapidly becoming the default standard in remodeling and new construction alike. Consider the typical building project: On the outside are Styrofoam moldings meant to look like cement, or cement moldings meant to look like stone, or plastic moldings meant to look like wood. On the roof you may variously find asphalt shingles masquerading as cedar, concrete ones masquerading as clay, or rubber ones pretending to be slate.
Mom told me if you can't say anything nice, then just shut up. 

Exterior walls are liable to be dressed up in vinyl or pressed sawdust siding, usually embossed with an outrageous caricature of wood grain. Windows, more often than not made of polyvinyl chloride plastic, will have fake grids thrown in to make them look more like the genuine wooden kind. 

Inside you’ll find pressed sawdust doors also straining mightily to look like wood. Underfoot are “hardwood” floors that are actually plastic laminated over a photograph of the real article, or perhaps “linoleum” flooring that’s made out of yet more PVC. The kitchen countertops might be “stone” conjured out of polymethyl methacrylate and aluminum trihydrate.

Now, many of these wannabe materials are ostensibly used to save money, and granted,they may sometimes be cheaper than the genuine article. Yet if you figure in theall-important cost of labor, there are plenty of fakes--imitation stone countertops and artificial slate roofing are good examples--whose price just barely undercuts the real thing, if at all. Not to mention that the lion’s share of imitation materials, many of which are petroleum based, are inherently less green than the things they seek to imitate. Which ought to make us think twice about what we choose to build with. Put another way: Do we hold out for genuine cheddar, or just settle for Velveeta?