Monday, December 23, 2013

CODE COLLISION: Part Two of Two Parts

Last time we looked at a number of modern building code requirements that make it either economically impractical or else flat out illegal for green builders to use recycled building materials, even though the cities enforcing these codes may officially encourage such reuse. Some of the issues we covered last time, such as the requirement for safety glazing in doors and windows, stem from modern ideas about safety that didn’t exist when many salvaged materials were created.

Yet safety concerns are not the main reason current codes make the legitimate reuse of salvaged materials difficult. Ironically, modern energy conservation mandates are an even bigger roadblock to reuse. In the case of windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting fixtures, energy efficiency standards all but mandate the use of brand new materials, since few salvaged materials can comply. 

The majority of salvaged windows, for example, are single-glazed and don’t meet modern requirements for thermal efficiency or air infiltration--shortcomings that usually can’t be remedied without spending more than an old window is worth. 

Salvaged plumbing fixtures often run afoul of energy efficiency standards as well. Most of the toilets available at salvage yards, for example, don’t meet the code-mandated maximum of 1.6 gallons of water per flush--in fact, some coveted antique models use as many as eight gallons. Likewise, the old faucets fitted to vintage sinks don’t have the flow restrictors mandated by modern energy codes. Achieving compliance usually means replacing the old faucets with modern ones, once again defeating the purpose of using salvaged items in the first place.

How can building departments reconcile the laudable practice of recycling building materials while maintaining modern safety and energy-efficiency standards? It would be neither practical nor prudent to forbid the reuse of salvaged doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, and lighting--many of a quality superior to new ones--simply because they don’t comply with modern building codes. These are, after all, the very same materials that are still in daily use in millions of American homes.

One way to acknowledge the reuse old materials as an alternate and equally valid way of saving energy would be for city building departments to grant “green credits” to people using salvaged building materials. These could be used to offset certain code compliance shortcomings, especially those having to do with energy efficiency.  

An even simpler approach would be to “grandfather in” various kinds of salvaged items, just as the noncompliant windows, plumbing fixtures and lighting found in the vast majority of houses across the nation are deemed acceptable because they were legal when they were installed. While such an exemption might horrify code enforcement officials, it would remove one of the major impediments to using salvaged materials in lieu of new ones.

It’s troubling that in the face of widespread interest in green building, today’s inflexible building codes remain on a collision course with the environmentally friendly reuse of salvaged materials such as windows, doors, plumbing fixtures, and lighting. One thing is for sure: City governments can’t continue to have it both ways, promoting aspects of green building on the one hand while outlawing them on the other. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

CODE COLLISION Part One of Two Parts

“Green buildings use durable materials that are salvaged, have recycled content, or came from rapidly renewable resources. These materials significantly reduce the environmental destruction associated with the extraction, processing, and transportation of virgin materials.”

So reads a prominent display in the building department of one of America’s most environmentally progressive cities. It’s meant to exhort architects, builders, and homeowners to reuse building materials that already exist--a worthy goal, to be sure.

The trouble is, the building codes enforced by the very same department often make it difficult or impossible to follow this policy. Nor is this just one city’s problem. Current building codes simply aren’t formulated with the reuse of salvaged materials in mind, leaving well-intentioned green builders caught in a classic Catch-22: As a matter of public policy, many progressive cities encourage the recycling of building materials, yet in actual practice, the codes enforced by these same cities often render the use of recycled material either economically unfeasible or just plain illegal. 

A common example: Modern codes require safety glazing in all glass doors as well as in many windows. Yet the overwhelming majority of glass doors gleaned from architectural salvage--not to speak of most windows--have plain glass which does not comply with these requirements. What’s more, the cost of reglazing, say, a pair of old French doors with code-compliant glass would typically far outstrip their value. Faced with this reality, most homeowners will either install such noncompliant items on the sly or else forego the whole idea of using recycled materials and buy new windows instead. 

As you might guess by now, the legal reuse of salvaged electrical items is equally problematic. Many local jurisdictitons, for instance, require all newly installed lighting fixtures to carry an Underwriters Laboratories label, a standard that many old fixtures-- even those rewired with modern components for safety--cannot meet. What’s more, many state energy conservation codes no longer permit fixtures that use traditional incandescent bulbs--which constitute the vast majority of the salvage stock--in rooms such as kitchens, baths, laundries and garages, further restricting the opportunity for recycling such items.

On top of everything else, local restrictions dealing with lead paint and asbestos (the sale of both was outlawed only in 1978) can cause other problems for those wishing to use recycled architectural materials. Lead paint is practically a given on older salvaged items, whether doors, windows or cabinets. Asbestos shows up in old ironing board cabinets, clinging to the backs of old heating registers, and in vintage appliances such as toasters and heaters. In general, building officials tolerate the presence of these products in existing structures, but as regulations inevitably become more restrictive, these, too, may stand in the way of widespread recycling.

As if these troubles weren’t enough to discourage would-be green builders from using recycled materials (many of which are of far superior quality to newly-manufactured ones), the list of difficulties is far from complete. Next time, we’ll look at some more examples of building codes and green building efforts colliding head-on.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Back in the not-so-Jolly Old England of the Middle Ages, where many of America’s  building traditions originated, no one had ever heard of structural engineering. Instead, carpenters used common knowledge gleaned from trial and error and handed down over the centuries. With no way to analyze the strength of their buildings, they just built them as stoutly as they could, using massive timbers hewn from lots and lots of trees. 

For example, records show that one six-room, two story house built in Cambridgeshire around 1600 required seventy-two small oak trees to be cut down for the framing lumber alone. Seven more mature oak trees (which yielded wider planks) were sawn into floorboards. The total wood used was equivalent to about 68 acres of oak forest. A larger house could easily consume over 300 trees--more than 280 acres of woodland as it then existed.

Given the rate at which these houses gobbled timber, the English were already managing their forests for harvesting by 1200. Even so, over the next few centuries, the island famed for Sherwood Forest became the sparsely wooded place it is today.

Fast forward to America during the postwar Baby Boom era. Our houses are constructed with a light framework of slender wooden studs, doing away with the need for heavy timber. It’s a relatively efficient system--an average house of 1950 uses about 9000  board feet of framing lumber, or about 9 board feet per square foot (a board foot is a hypothetical quantity of lumber twelve inches by twelve inches by one inch thick). At a crude average of perhaps 200 board feet per tree, this means we cut down something on the order of 45 trees--mostly softwoods--to build a house. No matter how we, er, slice it, it’s quite a bit less lumber than your average English house of the Middle Ages required. 

But fast forward once again to the present, and you find a strange irony: Today, even though we manage to use even less lumber per square foot than in 1950--only about 8 board feet--the amount of wood we use has nearly doubled, to about 17,000 board feet per house. That’s back up to about 85 trees--even more than were used during the Middle Ages. 

What gives?

For one thing, modern building codes require wood-framed structures to withstand much higher wind and earthquake forces than before, and that takes more lumber and plywood. For another, houses also have more rooms, and hence more interior walls. 

But the main reason we’re back to gobbling wood is simply this: Today’s average house is much bigger--over double the size of a typical house of 1950. In short, we’ve wiped out all the gains we’ve made in using wood more efficiently, simply by using a whole lot more of it. 

Now, one bright spot in cutting down so many of England’s oaks is that some wonderful houses of the Middle Ages are still with us. How many McMansions will still be standing in 2500 A.D.?

Monday, November 11, 2013


Nowadays, when you’re feeling chilly, you just nudge your thermostat up a few degrees. Not too long ago, you’d have been in for a lot more effort: Until the 1880s, most American houses were still heated by an open fire. 

In those days, any room you wanted to keep tolerably warm had to have its own fireplace and chimney. This is one reason houses had such boxy, compact floor plans--the idea was to have as few of those expensive fireplaces as possible. Often, they were placed back to back so they could share a chimney. All this finally changed in the late nineteenth century, when the innovation of central heating made it possible to warm every room in the house with a single source of heat.

Of course, Americans were hardly the first to have central heating. As early as 100AD, the Romans used the hypocaust system, which conducted warm air from a fire into hollow spaces beneath a tiled floor. Ancient Korea may have used a similar system, called ondal, even earlier. By the 12th century, Muslim engineers had improved the hypocaust by using pipes--our modern heating ducts--which did away with the need for hollow floors.

The English had an early version of central steam heating as early as the 1830s, though it was of course limited to the fabulously wealthy. It took another fifty years for a proper central heating system to make it across the ocean and into ordinary Yankee homes.
Some central heating used steam or hot water piped to radiators, but most heated the air directly. Early systems burned wood or coal, which meant you were still liable to freeze unless you kept the furnace stoked. Later on oil and natural gas prevailed as fuel, since they could be fed automatically. 

All of these early “gravity” heating systems relied on the fact that hot air tends to rise (or more accurately, that gravity makes the denser cold air sink). Of course, since warm air just wafted its way into each room through big ducts, the furnace had to be located below the living space--one reason older houses had basements even on the West Coast.

Once individual rooms no longer needed a bulky and expensive fireplace for heat, houses could be laid out much more freely. The characteristic rambling floor plans of late Victorian houses such as Queen Annes--among the first adopters of central heating--were a direct outgrowth of their liberation from the fireplace.

After World War II, central heating systems began using a fan to actively push warm air through the ductwork. These so-called forced air units could use smaller ducts than the old gravity furnaces, and could be located anywhere in the house, even in the attic.

Thanks to our increasingly urgent quest for energy efficiency, today’s central heating systems make even those postwar units look antiquated. Gone forever is that consummate energy-waster, the standing pilot light, and many forced air units now boast efficiencies in the high nineties--about double that of old gravity furnaces. Electronic burner controls and programmable thermostats make it easy to forget that your furnace is even working. But don’t: next time you turn up the heat, think about how far we’ve come in just a hundred and twenty years. 

Monday, October 28, 2013


For centuries, the drudgery of having to climb long flights of stairs ensured that buildings were seldom more than six or seven stories high. The least desired apartments in ancient Rome were those on the top floor--just the opposite of our modern preferences. This held true until the late nineteenth century, when elevators began to be incorporated in tall buildings. 

Elisha was here.
Yet the elevator isn’t  quite as modern an invention as you might think. The Roman architect Vitruvius reported that Archimedes built his first elevator around 236 B.C.  In 1743, Louis XV commissioned a personal lift to link his apartment in Versailles with that of his mistress.  Eighty years later, the painter Thomas Horner and the architect Decimus Burton collaborated on an “ascending room” that hoisted visitors to a 37-meter high platform from which they could view the London skyline.

Still, the general public remained understandably wary of such devices, since a single broken rope could send the hapless passeners plunging to their doom. This attitude began to change in 1853, when Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated his “safety elevator” featuring the first failsafe means of arresting the elevator’s fall should a support rope fail. Otis’s elevator went a long way toward easing public anxiety about riding on such contraptions, and in 1857 Otis installed the first public elevator in a five-story department store in New York, and in 1861 he patented an elevator powered by steam. Hydraulic and electric elevators eventually followed, finally obviating the need to climb endless flights of stairs in tall buildings.

Yet Otis’s product (which, in fairness, was greatly refined by a number of lesser-known inventors) would have remained a curiosity were it not for some concurrent trends that made taller buildings both more economicallydesirable and cheaper to build. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the price of downtown land in rapidly expanding cities such as New York and Chicago began to skyrocket. This put pressure on developers to pack more building volume into the same amount of real estate, which meant only one thing: Build taller buildings. 

Yet the push to pile up more and more stories presented a problem of another sort. Large buildings of the late nineteenth century were still built of masonry and required thicker and thicker walls the taller they became. As an example, one of the last tall masonry buildings of the era, Chicago’s Monadnock Building, carried its seventeen stories on ground floor walls six feet thick. This kind of ponderous and expensive structure simply wouldn’t do if tall buildings were to become practical. Fortunately, a new building material--steel--solved this problem just in time. Steel was enormously strong in relation to its mass, meaning that even the tallest building could now be supported by a relatively wispy “skeleton frame” of girders rather than by hundreds of tons of stone or brick. 

By the late 1890s, the historic confluence of high real estate prices, the safety elevator, and the introduction of the steel skeleton frame set off a national boom in erecting tall buildings. The age of skyscraper building had begun.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Passive solar design is nothing new--vernacular builders have known its principles for millenia. From the Middle East to China, both rich and poor alike have traditionally used the sun’s free energy for comfort. 

Western architects, on the other hand, often seem to have considered themselves above designing with the sun in mind. American colonial houses, with their foursquare symmetrical facades, already hint at the New World’s general unconcern for solar orientation. Perhaps this is because many of our forebears from England, Holland, and other sun-challenged Northern European countries seldom found sunlight worth bothering about. 

Ironically, though, it was modernist architects, who claimed to put rational design above all else, who set a low point in concern for solar orientation. Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of others who were uncommonly attuned to nature, modernist architects seemed barely to acknowledge that the sun existed except as a means of casting dramatic shadows. In their determination to discard all vestiges of the architectural past, it seems, the modernists also discarded traditional building wisdom gleaned over millenia. 

Hence, modernist icons such as Mies van der Rohe’s famed Farnsworth House featured exterior walls entirely of glass, pointedly flouting millenia of common sense for the sake of aesthetic purity. In such houses, the unfortunate owners roasted in summer, and in winter sent countless BTUs fruitlessly to their doom. This same sense of aloofness from nature produced modernist apartment buildings with whole facades of balconies facing north, all predictably dark and uninhabited except by stored bicycles.

As thousands of years of vernacular building are once again confirming to our newly-green generation of architects, nothing is more necessary to a home’s livability than careful solar orientation. For buildings designed from scratch, this demands an awareness of exactly where and when sun will enter during the course of the day, taking into account not only theoretical sun positions but also man-made barriers such as neighboring buildings. 

Some rooms, such as breakfast rooms (and for the hard-to-rouse, bedrooms) should receive sun during the morning hours, and therefore require an easterly exposure. Rooms that are used throughout the day, such as living rooms and kitchens, are best given southerly exposures. Rooms with afternoon usage, such as dining rooms, should ideally face west. Rooms that are only briefly occupied, such as bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages should bring up the rear, receiving the least desirable northern exposures.

Beyond these basics, it’s important to acknowledge the seasonal changes in the sun’s altitude as well as the significant variations in where it rises and sets. Overlook these fine points, and you may find that a breakfast room that’s awash with light on a June morning will be sunless in the depths of December, just when you need old Sol the most.

This isn’t to say that every house should be ablaze with sunshine, though--in some climates, more sun is the last thing you want. Good solar orientation also demands an awareness of when and where you don’t want direct sun. Always bear in mind, though, that a house that gets too much sun can be easily fixed, while a house that gets too little often can’t. 

Monday, September 23, 2013


In nineteenth century America, the only way an architect could view historic architecture was to go see it firsthand (usually on another continent), or else find engravings of it in books. Since architects of the era were much less likely to travel than their modern counterparts, engravings ended up being their usual reference. Mind you, the engraver unavoidably put his or her own spin on the thing they were illustrating, and this subjectivity, along with a frequent ignorance of historic context, made it hard for architects to get a real grasp of historic styles--one reason for the almost cartoonish nature of so much Victorian architecture.

Often-fanciful engraved illustrations, such as this scene of a procession
making its way to the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, were once
the only way architects could view historic architecture from afar.
All this changed in the 1890s with the introduction of the halftone process, which used thousands of tiny, variously sized dots to reproduce the full tonal range of actual photographs. For the first time, photos could be faithfully reproduced in mass publications such as magazines and newspapers, without the subjective distortions of the engraver. 

The National Geographic was among the first magazines to replace line engravings with halftone photographs, but architectural journals were also fairly quick to make use of the new process, As early as 1898, The American Architect and Building News published a popular series on Colonial architecture. After World War I, when many mainstream architects and builders became smitten with Europe’s vernacular architecture, photo features of historic architecture began going further afield. 

By the 1920s, architects were routinely referring to trade journals packed with photographs of European vernacular buildings, whether English, Spanish, or French. In 1926, Architecture magazine began a regular series of portfolios featuring authentic renditions of traditional European vernacular details such as iron railing, garden pools, and window grilles. Spurred by such information, architects explored increasingly exotic styles, whether Moorish, Indian, or North African.

The Depression and the advent of World War II put an end to America’s fascination with European and exotic architecture, and for the next half a century, trade journals instead published equally influential photo spreads on what they presumed to be the future of architecture: Modernism.

Ironically, while traditional detailing is once again all the rage, modern renditions of historic styles--or for that matter, copies of 1920s revival styles which were themselves copies--seem both less erudite and less charming than the originals. Decorative features such as columns, arches, and moldings are misused, overused, or carelessly thrown together in ways old-time prectitioners would have found laughable. This problem is merely troubling in modest tract houses, but epidemic in expensive custom homes, whose larded-on detailing is at once overblown, graceless and and clumsily proportioned--much closer to Victorian-era pastiche than to the refined revival styles of the 1920s and 30s.

Despite the blizzard of informaton to be had on the Internet, we architects seem to have a much lazier grasp of traditional design than did our predecessors. Today’s brand of pastiche strains to evoke the easy charm of tradition, but more often the result is plain old bedlam. It’s a far cry from our colleagues of the 1920s, who composed their “informal” designs with utmost care, and who always kept an eye on their faithful photographs.

Monday, September 9, 2013


Homeowners these days are amazingly facile with architectural jargon, thanks no doubt to the gaggle of home-improvement shows on TV these days, not to speak of the wealth of information on the Internet. But while lots of folks now know their antae from their astragals, as it were, a few stubborn terms are still routinely confused--sometimes even among architects. Here are the usual suspects:

Cement/concrete: Cement only refers to the powder that hardens when you add water. If you add sand and aggregate to the mixture, though, you get concrete. So strictly speaking, a cement mixer should be called a concrete mixer. 
Sash/window: The part of a window that moves is called the sash. The whole shebang--sash, jambs, sill and everything else--is called a window.

Mullion/muntin: A mullions is a heavy vertical or horizontal member between adjoining window units. Muntins are the narrow strips of wood that divide the individual panes of glass in traditional sash. In the case of so-called “simulated divided lites”, grilles resembling muntins are either sandwiched between double glass panes or else installed over the outer surface of the glass to give a divided look.

Trim/casing: On the outside of a house, the decorative frame around a door or window is called trim, while on the inside, the same thing is called casing. Go figure.

Sliding door/pocket door/bypassing door: The term sliding door refers only to the sliding glass variety that usually leads outside. Those interior doors that disappear into a slot in the wall, on the other hand, are properly called pocket doors.  To make things more confusing, the type of paired closet doors that slide past each other aren’t called sliding doors either--they’re called bypassing doors.

Girder/header/beam. In wood frame construction, a heavy horizontal member is called a girder if it’s below floor level, a header if it’s over a door or window, and a beam if it’s pretty much anywhere else.

Wall/partition: Structurally speaking, a wall is always bearing, while a partition is always nonbearing. In most houses, the exterior walls and at least one wall running down the middle of the house are bearing, while all the other walls--er, partitions--are nonbearing. Since these two varieties aren’t always easy to tell apart, it’s prudent to call in an architect or engineer before you go tearing out either one.

Shingle/shake: Wood shingles are sawn by machine and are relatively thin. Wood shakes are larger and thicker than shingles, and are split from a solid block of wood rather than sawn.

Flue/vent: Both of these things stick out of your roof, but a flue exhausts combustion gas from a fireplace, water heater or furnace--anything with a flame--while a vent leads those nasty gases in your plumbing system to the atmosphere. 

Banister/Baluster. Banister refers to the entire railing on a staircase. Balusters are the individual uprights in any railing, whether on a stair, a balcony, or whatever. So it’s fine to slide down the banister, but you probably wouldn’t want to slide down the balusters.

Monday, August 26, 2013


How many structures have qualified as the tallest thing ever built? Surprisingly, it’s a pretty small club. 

We don’t know much about structures of the distant past, of course. But we do know that if you’d been hanging around Giza in 2570 BC or so, you’d have found the spanking-new Great Pyramid soaring some 481 feet into the sky--high enough to hold the title of tallest manmade structure for nearly four thousand more years. 

The Great Pyramid was finally overtopped around 1300 by England’s Lincoln Cathedral, whose spire was said to stand 525 feet tall.  Alas, this record-breaker was wrecked by a gstorm in 1549, ceding the honor to St. Olaf’s Church in Tallinn, Estonia--whose spire was barely three feet shorter--until this too burned down after a lightning strike in 1625.

Thereafter, the title to seesawed between a series of German and French churches--first St. Mary’s in Stralsund, Germany (495 feet tall, but guess what?--another lightning casualty in 1647); then back to France’s Strasbourg Cathedral (1647, with a 469-foot spire). It took the Germans over two hundred years to reclaim dominance with the spire of St. Nikolai at Hamburg (1874, 483 feet), only to have the French embarrass them again two years later when the cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen topped out at 495 feet.

The Germans ultimately won the spire wars in 1880 with the stupendous 515-foot tall northern spire of Cologne Cathedral, but this also turned out to be the last hurrah for Christianity’s long monopoly on erecting super-tall buildings. Instead, a secular structure--and one in the New World at that--claimed the title of World’s Tallest Structure for the first time. After being long delayed by a shortage of funds and then by the Civil War, the Washington Monument finally reached its full height of 555 feet in 1884 after 36 years under construction.

Yet this triumph was short-lived. Five years later, France once again reclaimed ownership of the World’s Tallest Structure, this time delivering a walloping knockout punch with its 986-foot Eiffel Tower. So complete was the Eiffel’s domination of the height race that it managed to retain its title right through the flurry of skyscraper building that took hold of America after 1900. Only in 1930 was it finally bested by New York’s 1,046-foot Chrysler Building.

The latter, ironically, had perhaps the most fleeting reign of all. It was unseated the following year by its downtown neighbor, the Empire State Building (1,250 feet), which retained the title for the next 36 years.

Although we usually think of skyscrapers when we consider super-tall structures, any freestanding structure qualifies, and thus the next two world height records were set by communications towers--first Russia’s Ostankino tower (1967, 1,772 feet) and then 
Toronto’s CN Tower (1975, 1,815 feet). The latter owned the trophy for the rest of the twentieth century. 

In 2000, however, Canada’s pride was quietly surpassed by a building still under construction in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Designed by architect Adrian Smith, the 163-story Burj Khalifa (known as Burj Dubai prior to its opening in 2010) sets the modern record at 2,722 feet, or just over a half-mile high. It's far and away the world’s tallest freestanding structure--for the time being, anyway.

Monday, August 12, 2013


The word “renovation” implies they you’re replacing something old and worn out with something new and better. Yet too many so-called renovators simply replace things that are old and substantial with new ones that are cheap and flimsy. That’s not renovation--it’s more like ruinovation. 

If every modern building product were better than its counterpart of fifty years ago, meaningful renovation would be easy. But they’re not, and so it isn’t. While some things really have improved--modern heating systems, for example, are vastly superior to those of years past--the sad fact is that many building products are mere wisps of their former selves. 

The euphemistic “economic pressures” that corporate types like to talk about--put plainly, “greed for fatter profit margins”--are the real culprit behind the declining quality of so many building items. The practice of outsourcing to cheap labor overseas means many name-brand products are now manufactured in places with indifferent or nonexistent quality control, regardless of what manufacturers claim to the contrary. The fact that many venerable American brands are now haphazardly manufactured in Third World countries may do wonders for corporate profits, but it won’t do wonders for your home. You’ll merely be replacing things that have lasted twenty-five, fifty, or even a hundred years with new ones that’ll break in four or five.

Therefore, before you replace any item in your home in the interest of sweeping renovation, ask yourself two questions. First: Does it still serve its purpose well?  If so, it shouldn’t be high on your renovation agenda--certainly not for reasons of fashion alone. 
Second: If it no longer serves its purpose, can it be fixed? Here’s where many stalwart Americans seem to have lost their Yankee grit. We’ve slowly come to believe the fallacy that throwing things away and replacing them with new ones is easier and cheaper than fixing them. In the case of many items in a house, however, this is just plain bull.

Windows, for instance, are a frequent candidate for ruinovation, due mainly to cunning marketing by window replacement companies. Many people are talked into replacing their windows to save on utility bills, but the truth is that, in an average house, heat loss through windows makes up a relatively modest fraction of total energy use. Therefore, upgrading your home’s attic insulation or even replacing your furnace would probably be a much more cost effective way to conserve. 

Moreover, no matter what the problem with a home’s original windows might be, chances are it would take less money, effort, and resources to have them repaired by a local window shop than it would to replace them wholesale with new ones. The fact that this approach also best maintains a home’s original style is just icing on the cake.

But whether we’re talking about windows, doors, flooring, hardware, or plumbing fixtures, there’s little to be gained by replacing sound original items en masse just to experience the briefest thrill of newness. On the other hand, there’s much to be lost: As often as not, you’re actually be downgrading the quality of your home, and spending good money to do it.

Monday, July 29, 2013


There are two ways to build. One is to strive for absolute visual perfection, and then wage a desperate and invariably losing battle to preserve it. The other is to accept that perfection is not just unattainable, but also unnecessary, thereby making time’s passage an ally instead of an enemy.

Much of modern architecture, and especially the work of International Style architects, was predicated upon the former approach.  Worshipping at the altar of the machine, modernist architects strove for flawless surfaces and absolute precision of detail. Alas, in the case of many modernist works--including some of the most renowned examples--any state of perfection that may have existed began to decay the moment the buildings were completed. 

After a few short years of sullying by weather and the ordination wear and tear of human habitation, those the sparkling white walls and razor-sharp corners came to look more than a little tatty. It’s been the good fortune of many modernist icons--say, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, or Corbusier’s Villa Savoye--to be known mainly through old documentary photographs in which, frozen in time, they can remain forever crisp, clean, and stunning. 

Which brings us to the other approach--the idea of building timelessly. If it really can be done, why do we architects manage to do it so seldom? Perhaps it’s because building in sympathy with time’s effects, rather than being eternally at war with them, requires us to give up the cherished ideal of visual perfection, and to accept the disturbing fact that no matter how hard we try to forestall it, Mother Nature eventually has the last word over everything we build. 

Despite such rather daunting opposition, however, many architects still seem hell bent on flouting time and nature. With expectations bordering on delusion, they specify glossy paint over steel that’s ineludibly doomed to rust, demand great swaths of flawless stucco that’s bound to become laced with cracks, and devise complicated color schemes whose maintenance will soon be neglected by generations with differing taste. 

The modernist faith seems to die hard, however. Many architects continue to subscribe to the idea that buildings can and should feature flawless, mechanistic finishes. This may help explain why so many relatively new buildings seem to have weathered their brief years so badly. 

Ironically, it’s been the very buildings that were held in contempt by “serious” modernist architects--the revivalist designs of the early twentieth century--that have aged most gracefully. Some of these were painstakingly authentic copies of historic styles, while others were carried out with a theatrical flourish bordering on caricature. However, in no case did their architects regard perfection as an ideal, or natural aging as an enemy to be overcome. Today, despite the passage of so many decades--many of them spent in neglect--these buildings have lost none of their original vitality. On the contrary, time has been very kind to them, burnishing many into a state of venerable grace that even their architects could never have imagined. 

Or could they?

Monday, July 15, 2013

MONEY MISSPENT Part Two of Two Parts

Last time, we talked about the worst places to save money when you’re remodeling. Windows, roofs, and exterior finishes came out on top as lousy places to cut corners. So how and where can you save some money without sabotaging your project for the long term?

The strategy is simple: Save money on items that can be easily removed and upgraded later on, not on items that have to last the life of the house. This may mean you won’t get some things on your wish list until later--but at least you’ll have made sure it’s possible to get them. Here are some good candidates for cost cutting that will still allow for relatively painless upgrades later on:

• Built-in appliances. Buying less costly kitchen appliances is one of the simplest yet least exercised ways to save money--probably because we’ve been conditioned to demand kitchens with huge built-in refrigerators, restaurant-style stoves, and all the other bells and whistles so beloved of appliance marketers. When you’re building on a tight budget, though, mid-grade appliances will serve perfectly well--in fact, they’re often just the same high-priced units with the extraneous gimmicks deleted. What’s more, since the dimensions of built-in appliances are standardized, the old units can be easily removed and replaced with fancier stuff when money becomes available.

• Kitchen and bath cabinets and countertops. Cabinets may seem very permanent, but they’re actually fairly simple to remove and replace. This makes using budget cabinetry for the short term a fairly open-ended way to save money. When it’s finally time to go for that fancier kitchen, the old cabinets needn’t go to waste--they can live out a second life in the garage.

As for countertops, pricey materials such as granite and its artificial knockoffs have insinuated themselves into even modest kitchens and baths of late, but there are some perfectly serviceable alternatives for the budget conscious. Ceramic tile and--dare I say it--plastic laminates are two time-honored standbys that can cost you thousands less than slabs. When it comes time to upgrade a kitchen or bath, the countertops and cabinets can be replaced together.

• Plumbing fixtures (except showers and tubs, which are more or less permanent) are also a good place to save a few bucks in the short term. While the price of items such as kitchen sinks, lavatories and toilets can vary by a factor of ten, for the most part they all do the job adequately. Later on, when you find that you absolutely must have that designer toilet with the hand-painted flowers on it, it’ll be no problem to swap out the old one.

• Floor finishes such as carpeting and sheet vinyl, and hardware such as interior door locksets and cabinet latches are all easily replaced, allowing you to buy less expensive products in the interim while still being able to upgrade when money becomes available. 
As hard as it is to put off those goodies you’ve had your heart set on, it helps to know that, when the time is right, you can still get exactly what you want. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

MONEY MISSPENT Part One of Two Parts

As anyone who’s remodeled will know, there’s practically no limit to how much you can spend on a building project. Now, for people with money to burn--and judging by the traffic in high-end design showrooms, there are plenty of them--it may seem perfectly reasonable to blow a few thousand dollars on a Scandinavian dishwasher or a hand-painted Majolica toilet with gold hardware. For the rest of us, though, there are more cost-effective places to invest remodeling dollars. 

This makes it all the more puzzling when I come across projects in which budget-conscious homeowners pinched pennies on basic building materials, yet happily shelled out serious money for the latest fluff in countertops or exotic appliances. While this approach my provide instant gratification, it makes little sense in the long run. 

If you’re portioning out a tight budget, work that’s permanent and integral to the quality of the house should take precedence over superficial features that can easily be upgraded later on. Some examples:

• Windows are among the most conspicuous features of any project, and the standard of quality they set--whether for good or bad--carries over to everything else.  Therefore, regardless of what kind you choose--wood, metal, or plastic, sliding, casement, or whatever--buy the very best quality you can afford. Your windows ought to last the life of your house, and given their paramount importance to style, function, and energy efficiency, they’re a lousy place to cut corners.

• Roofs are another in-your-face indicator of quality, not to mention that little matter of keeping out the rain. Despite this, Americans--unlike almost everyone else on the planet--still tend to think of roofs as disposable. We choose relatively shoddy roofing materials and then resign ourselves to replacing them every fifteen years or so at substantial cost. That’s a pity, because in addition to the usual suspects of shingle, shake or tar-and-gravel, there are many kinds of roofing--concrete tile, clay tile, metal, and natural and artificial stone--that will last the life of the building. Only you can determine which roofing type will be most appropriate for your project, but don’t base your choice on cost alone. 

• Exterior finishes, like windows, make a very conspicuous statement about your home’s style and quality. You can guess the rest of the story: If you’re using stucco, invest in a first-rate plastering contractor--there’s a huge range of quality among them. If you’ve chosen to use siding, invest in genuine wood rather than plastic or composition wannabes. For wood shingle exteriors, choose the best grade available. 

Likewise, use top quality lumber at exterior window and door trim, bargeboards and fascias. These areas take a real beating from the weather, and economy grades just won’t hold up. If you feel guilty about using natural resources such as redwood, as I often do, remember that a quality product installed once is a far better use of resources than a cheap one that has to be replaced again and again. 
Now--having blown a big chunk of your budget on top-notch windows, roofing, and exterior finishes, where can you save some money without permanently ruining your house? We’ll look into that next time.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

POWER STRUGGLE Part 2 of 2 Parts

The American landscape was forever changed by the arrival of electricity in the late 1890s. What’s surprising, though, is how little it’s changed since. To a time traveler from a century ago, our cars, plans, and Blackberries would surely border on the miraculous, but the old wooden power poles that march down our streets would look perfectly familiar.

As we noted last time, America’s electrical distribution system grew out of an earlier technology--the telegraph, whose infrastructure was already largely in place by the 1860s. And while rural areas might have just one set of telegraph lines paralleling the local railroad track, by the century’s end major cities were already bristling with telegraph poles carrying stacks of ten or more crossarms and scores of cables. 

Given the rush to electrify urban areas, the basic infrastructure of the telegraph network was borrowed for electrical distribution as well, with one difference: Unlike low voltage telegraph wires (and later on telephone lines), alternating current power lines carried lethally high voltages and therefore had to be strung high above street level, on poles with heights of thirty feet, forty feet, or even more. As electrification advanced from cities into suburbs and finally into rural areas, the wooden power pole became a familiar and even welcome symbol of progress. Amazingly, this same basic infrastructure--little changed from its roots of 150 years ago--can still be found on most any rural or urban street in America. 

The splintery, weatherbeaten poles that march drunkenly down our streets are so ubiquitous that most of us no longer notice them, but they’re not invisible to everyone. Europeans, for one, stare in disbelief at the chaotic tangles of wire and wood that clutter our streets, no doubt wondering how the most advanced nation on earth could make do with an almost comically primitive-looking network of electrical distribution. 

Ironically, the very fact that the United States pioneered electrification is one reason we’re saddled with such an antiquated infrastructure. Nations that once lagged far behind the United States in electrification have since benefitted from the leapfrog effect, which bypasses first generation technologies in favor of those that have had more time to evolve. Exurban China, for example, which only began to be widely electrified after 1950, now has a modern distribution system that’s substantially underground. What systems remain overhead are carried on simple and maintenance-free concrete poles that blend in with the streetscape.

Europe was electrified only slightly later than the United States, but was served by the fact that it didn’t have America’s abundant supply of timber. Hence, European streets generally have power lines carried on concrete poles, with notably neater results. 

A century and a half have passed since Samuel Morse’s fateful decision to put his telegraph lines overhead rather than under the ground, and ever since, those notably anti-aesthetic forces of economics and expedience have largely ensured that overhead is where they’ll stay. So it’s a good thing that all those half-decayed poles, rusty transformers and tangles of wire have become invisible. To us, anyway.