Monday, November 30, 2015


Typical late-Victorian "Eastlake"
style door point to a
construction date around 1890

There’s a little parlor trick I like to pull when I’m doing architectural consulting at people’s homes. I ask them what year their house was built, and before they can answer, I quickly stop them with a raised hand. 

“No, don’t tell me,” I insist. After a brief show of Kreskin-like concentration, I give them my guess with a flourish. I seldom miss the construction date by more than five years. Often, I’m within two years, and occasionally I’m right on the money. The look of astonishment on the homeowners’ faces is always gratifying.

Like most parlor tricks, this one is easy to explain. It relies on a simple and rather prosaic yardstick found in every house: Its doors. Unless the place has gone through one of those ghastly home-improvement-emporium “renovations”—in which case the owners would not bother calling me in the first place—the doors are usually original to the house, offering a clear indication of when the place was built. 

Craftsman-era door,
suggesting a construction
date between 1900 and
1925 or so.
Right off the bat, a quick glance at the door panel arrangement will usually get you within ten or fifteen years of the construction date. For example, very tall doors with pairs of narrow vertical panels are a dead giveaway to Victorian era work, yielding a construction date between 1850 and 1900. This broad range can be further narrowed using another test: The more ornate the doors, the later in the nineteenth century the house was built. 

   Interior doors with a mortise lock
like this one (also seen in the
above two images) usually
indicate a house predating 1925 or so.
Doors with five stacked horizontal panels, on the other hand, indicate a Craftsman era pedigree--roughly 1900 to 1925. Those with a single large recessed panel indicate a vintage between 1925 and 1950 or so. Doors with no panels at all--so-called flush or slab doors--point to a modernist-era construction date between the early 1950s and 1980. Molded hardboard doors imitating various traditional panel arrangements point to a construction date between 1985 and the present.

The type of lockset that’s installed in a door furnishes other clues. If the door has a mortise lock (evidenced by a tall, skinny plate in the door edge and doorknobs fastened to a square shaft by setscrews), the house almost certainly predates 1925, although such locks were still used in basement rooms and garages for another decade or two.

"Cylindrical" locksets like this one
invariably postdate 1920,
the year they were introduced.
Knob styles vary widely, and offer
another clue to construction date.
This particular style was very popular
in the 1960s.
On the other hand, doors with just a small rectangular latch plate in the door edge invariably mean the house postdates 1920--the year when Walter Schlage invented the easier-to-install cylindrical lockset that quickly drove the mortise lock off the market. 

Doorknobs, too, have a tale to tell. Mortise locksets with ornate metal or glass knobs suggest late nineteenth century construction dates, while those with plain white, brown or black glass knobs are more typical of early twentieth century houses. Cylindrical locksets with knobs resembling giant glass jewels easily peg a home’s construction date between 1920 and 1935. 

Even hinges can provide clues. Ornate hinges with spiky ornamental pins typify Victorian-era houses. Hinges with plain leaves and ball-tipped pins hark from the Craftsman era, but remained popular through the Depression. Hinges with plain, flat-tipped pins indicate houses postdating World War II, while those with round-cornered plates are a hallmark of mass-produced prehung doors, putting a home’s construction date after 1970.

Monday, November 23, 2015


After 30 years in architecture, I still hear the same tired old wives tales circulated about remodeling. It’s amazing how long it can take to stamp out a wrong-headed concept. Here are some of my un-favorites:

Replacement windows: As far as energy savings goes,
they're basically a waste of money.
1. Bathrooms should be planned back to back to save cost. Rubbish. This chestnut goes way back, and probably stems from the practice of placing apartment house bathrooms back to back. You’re not building apartments, however, so the meager savings in plumbing cost--something on the order of a few hundred dollars--doesn’t justify straitjacketing your floor plan with a bathroom arrangement you don’t like.

2.  The best way to improve your home’s energy efficiency is by installing new double-glazed windows. Poppycock. In most houses, windows represent a very small fraction of the total heat loss. By far the most heat is lost through ceilings, so attic insulation is the best place to put your energy-efficiency dollars. Once that’s done, consider installing a higher-efficiency furnace and ductwork. Replacing your windows is far down the list of cost-effective energy improvements.

This year's fad: Grey.
Chasing the "latest" color trends is a great way
 to make your house look dated.
3. Remodeling is the perfect chance to choose finishes in the latest colors. Balderdash. Unless you’re aiming for a remodel that’ll be painfully outdated in five years or so, avoid “current” colors like the plague. Choose colors because you like them, not because you read about them in some trendoid home magazine.

4. Skylights are the best way to get daylight into your house. Malarkey. Skylights are a good last resort to improve daylighting, but adding windows should always be your first choice. Why? Because 
Skylight: They're beautiful, but
they can't do what a window can.
 they’re passive solar devices naturally attuned to the seasons, letting in more low-angle sunlight in winter when you want it, and excluding it in summer when you don’t. Skylights do just the reverse. They also look out of place on many styles of homes, particularly those built before World War II.

5. Point-of-use (“tankless”) water heaters are the most efficient way to heat water. Maybe, maybe not. Tankless units can be just the thing for certain applications, such as bathrooms that are remote from the water heater. But their efficiency is typically oversold, with efficiency ratings based on rarified laboratory conditions that are seldom reflected in actual installations. They’re also complex and subject to erratic response under low flow conditions. What’s more, if saving space isn’t your primary concern, there are a number of conventional storage water heaters available with efficiencies in the mid-nineties, some at surprisingly reasonable cost. 

Recessed can lights:
Beware the Swiss Cheese ceiling.
6. Recessed “can” lights are the best way to modernize a home’s lighting. Piffle. Recessed lighting is useful for very specific purposes--highlighting permanent objects or architectural features, for example--but they do a lousy job of general illumination. This is because cans are inherently directional, creating a pool of light beneath them, rather than diffusing light throughout the room. They’re also terribly overused, leading to the notorious “swiss cheese ceiling” effect seen in so many remodeled houses. Be sparing in your use of recessed cans--and if you have a house predating World War II, think twice about using them at all. They’re literally a glaring anachronism in most older homes.

Monday, November 9, 2015


A hand-drawn "as-built" floor plan is fine, as long as
your measurements are accurate. Or...

Last time, we looked at all the un-sexy preliminary steps that are necessary enroute to designing a home addition. Not one of them, you’ll recall, involved any drawing. Rather, there was a lot of preliminary wish-list making (creating the program), fact-gathering (the survey), and ensuring that what you want to build conforms to local zoning codes (your conference with the local planner).

Now, armed with the confidence that your scheme won’t get blown out of the water by unanticipated restrictions, you can move on the the next step:

...if you want to get fancy, you can use a
consumer-level CAD application such as Sketchup
to show your existing house.
• Measure your existing house and draw the floor plan to scale, whether on paper or using a consumer-level drafting program--there are several available at a reasonable price, and others that are free. Take your time and measure carefully, as the success or failure of some designs can come down to mere half-inches.

• Using the existing floor plan you’ve drawn--and following the planner’s guidelines for the area that’s buildable--determine how the addition will communicate with the existing house. Don’t settle for a half-baked solution such as passing through a bedroom--provide a proper hallway even if it means having to recoup the lost space someplace else. At this stage, you’ll be wasting your time if you’re making neat, careful drawings. Just hang loose, drawing rough bubble-shaped rooms on inexpensive tracing paper. Don’t get stuck on one idea right at the outset--try out as many different solutions as you can.

But DON'T waste your time trying to do preliminary
design on the computer. Rough bubble diagrams
drawn with pencil and paper are much faster and
 less of a creative constraint.
• Still using rough bubble diagrams, determine the ideal solar orientation for each of the new spaces. Typically, major living areas such as family rooms should face south where they’ll get maximum sun. Kitchens and breakfast rooms ideally face east to southeast, while bedrooms are faced to suit the sleeper’s preference for morning sunshine or the absence of it. The least important rooms, such as the garage, secondary baths, laundry rooms, and the like, are given the least desirable northern orientation. Don’t expect perfection, but remember that a decent attempt is better than nothing. 

•  Only now should you begin sketching out some preliminary drawings using straight lines. Whether you’re working on paper or computer, pay careful attention to crucial minimum dimensions such as the width of hallways (rock bottom minimum,  three feet wide), stairs (ditto), clothes closet depths (two feet minimum), and kitchen aisles widths (no less than four feet). You’ll be sorely tempted to cheat on these minimums in order to wedge in just a few more of the features you crave. Don’t--you’ll end up with a nonfunctional and obviously amateur plan. Always err on the generous side.

The irony: If your addition design is really successful,
no one will ever notice it.
• When you think you’ve included everything you want--or you’ve tossed out the spaces or features that simply don’t fit--you can finally begin the “hard-line” drawings of your floor plan using a computer or drafting tools. Note how many steps were necessary before even getting to the portion of the work that most people consider “architecture”. 

It’s the willingness to lay this often tedious groundwork that distinguishes a thoughtful, well-designed end product from standard amateur-hour bungling. Whether you choose to tell admirers how much work your project entailed—or whether, Like Frank Lloyd Wright, you claim you shook it out of your sleeve—is up to you.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Tired of people asking how he came up with his brilliant designs, Frank Lloyd Wright once famously explained,

“Why, I just shake the buildings out of my sleeve.”

Wright liked to say he just
shook designs out of his sleeve.
Not likely.
It was mostly Wright’s puckish sense of humor talking when he claimed to conjure fully-formed concepts out of thin air. Yet today there’s still a widespread misperception that architects design by invoking some kind of arcane creative voodoo, and that ideas just flow onto the paper without effort.

Alas, there’s a lot more hard work than magic involved in designing a building. This is a great advantage to non-architects, though you might not realize it. It means that if you’re methodical and willing to carry out what is often a tedious process, you, too, could shake a decent design out of your sleeve.

Suppose, for example, that you want to build an addition onto your house. Long before you ever put pencil to paper or finger to iPad, here’s what you need to do:

• Come up with what architects call the “program”--basically, a wish list for your project. As a minimum, it should describe what kind of rooms and spaces you want to add, roughly how many square feet each will require, and which rooms will have to adjoin each other. The program can also include more abstract requirements, from general atmosphere (sunny, restful, dramatic, or whatever) or any other qualities you have in mind. In general, the more complete your program, the smoother your design process will be.

A survey such as this one
will show where your
property lines are—and they
may surprise you.
• Obtain a survey from a licensed civil engineer or surveyor showing where your home sits on your property, as well as major artificial and natural features such as outbuildings, utilities, rock outcroppings, sloping land, large trees, drainage swales, and so on. It should also show any rights-of-way, reserves, or easements that could prevent you from building on the land.

• Add up the total square footage of the addition as dictated by your program and, if it seems that there’s enough room on your property to accommodate it, proceed to the next step (if not, downsize your plans accordingly). Armed with your survey, set up an appointment with a planner at your local building department to discuss your proposed addition. Begin by requesting the property setbacks--the minimum distance you must keep structures from the front, side, and rear property lines. Next, ask for the maximum allowable building height in your neighborhood. 

Your local planning department
will tell you your zoning,
which in turn will tell you
where you can build,
and where you can't.
As obvious as these steps may seem, they’re commonly overlooked by do-it-yourself designers, who typically rush directly into drawing detailed plans only to find out that their ideas don’t comply with one or more of these restrictions. Far from being an antagonist, a good planner will be a great help early on, pointing out such potential booby traps, and perhaps even suggesting alternatives that’ll help you circumvent them. 

What you’ll take away from this meeting are the following crucial bits of information: How many square feet of addition you can build, where and how high you can build them, and whether or not you need to notify your neighbors in order to do so. Next time, we’ll use that information to begin--finally--designing your addition.