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.