Power Tools That Will Pay for Themselves

March 9th, 2012

A recent article in The New York Times quoted me on power tool choices, The Pragmatist: The Guilt-Free Handyman Shopping Spree

Snout Houses

January 9th, 2012

One of my heroes in the world of words is the late William Safire, whose “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine put the names, expressions, and locutions of daily parlance under his keen weekly scrutiny. Inspired by his example, I have long kept a list new labels and pseudoterms that find bubbling up into the working vocabulary of building and design, and given the wealth of “goodies”, I thought from time-to-time I’d present them here.
A building trend that puts the cart before the horse, architecturally speaking, is the so-called snout house – a house appended to a garage, rather than the other way around.

While attached garages are neither novel nor inherently offensive, what makes the snout house so noxious in some cases is its in-your-face orientation. Invariably, the garage not only faces the street (the better to make the shortest possible driveway distance), but also dominates the house by jutting out from the main facade to make the eponymous ‘snout’. Appearing in both new construction and remodeling – and well-rooted in Canada as well as across the U.S. — snout houses have become ubiquitous to the point of being infamous, especially when they harbor today’s multi-car garages.
Like many of today’s architecturally ravaging practices, the snout house seems to be the unfortunate offspring of the recent building boom economy crossed with modern building codes. A couple generations ago, the customary place to find a garage was as a freestanding building behind the main house, usually sited at a back corner of the property and close to the lot line. Such a layout however, requires devoting considerable turf to a driveway and often siting the house off-center on the lot. Since these luxuries have no payback for builders of modestly priced developments, over the past 15 years the common alternative has been to eliminate the long driveway — which allows building on narrow lots with minimal clearance — and then graft the garage onto the main facade as a two- or three-car appendage
Taken to its limit, the negative impact of the snout house is most obvious when seen in plan or from an airplane. In fact, in her book A Field Guide to Sprawl, Dolores Hayden offers an aerial photograph of typical snout house neighborhood: a phalanx of long, narrow houses packed cheek by jowl with attached garages all but taking over the front yards. Aesthetics aside, the practical complaints about snout houses are that, in a such a block, the extended multiple fingers of garages make it difficult to watch children playing with neighbors — even hard to find the front doors of individual residences.
Whomever coined this clever term has yet to be identified, but citations in print go back to a 1996 mention in the Portland Oregonian. Indeed, the PDX city has long been ground zero for anti-snout house sentiment, going so far as to regulate their construction in 1999. Though a reporter for the New York Times called the move an example of “ever-quirky” Portland, since then cities like Gainesville, Florida, have followed its lead.

Radiator Life

January 9th, 2011

Last night, as temperatures dipped with the first breezes of a newly arrived fall, our vintage hot-water heating system surprised us by coming to life for the first time this season. Though the warmth from 1910 radiators was welcome, it was also a subtle reminder that there was likely a time when heating a Victorian house wasn’t so simple.
After devising various “gravity” hot air furnaces in the mid 19th century, engineers began trying to heat buildings with steam boilers – already widely at work powering stationary engines, watercraft, and locomotives. The first successful system, devised in 1854 by New Englander Stephen Gold, used a small, low-pressure, wrought-iron boiler equipped with novel safety devices that dramatically reduced the potential for explosions, a common problem in the era. However, what really made the system practical was Gold’s patented invention: a pair of iron plates hung on a wall known as a ‘mattress’ radiator. Steam had its advantages for heating large buildings or in cities (where an offsite source could supply district steam) but, in the early days it was difficult to manage and always potentially dangerous, due to the need for pressure. Sometime between 1875 and 1885, an alternative system began taking hold in the form of gravity hot-water heating. Though tricky to install because they needed a closed loop of large-diameter piping between boiler and radiators, gravity hot-water heating systems ran at only 180 degrees and atmosphere pressure, making them easier and safer to maintain than steam and, by the late 1890s, the system of choice for heating large houses.
Along with forced-air heating (the blower-driven descendant of gravity warm air), steam- and hot-water heating systems (collectively called hydronic systems) have become integral parts of the houses they serve, and continue to provide comfort for today’s households in their original as well as modern forms. What’s more, as these systems evolved they’ve had a subtle but dramatic influence not only on homeowner lifestyles but also on the design of houses themselves. Central heating – especially with radiators that distributed heat more evenly through the house than gravity air – reduced the need to treat rooms as cells linked by a central hall that had to be closed off with doors to conserve heat from individual fireplaces or stoves. By the 1880s this new freedom from fireplaces allowed the flow between interior spaces to open up into what we now call the open floor plan.

Trendy Pendants

November 9th, 2010

It had to happen. Last week I discovered iron-clad evidence of the ever-growing popularity of historical design while riding coach in an El Cheapo airline. These days, the middle seat on two-hour flight can be just like study hall; there are certainly no distractions from a gratis soda or tiny packet of stale party mix. When you’re forced to read out of sheer boredom, it’s amazing what treasures you can encounter, and I found my nugget of gold in the In-flight Shoppers’ Magazine.
There on page 29, just across from the cordless wine chiller and the universal body hair clipper, was an unbelievable gadget: the Instant Pendant Light. With a mere $50 and a few turns of the hand, it offered any buyer the means alter their ceiling in seconds from nearly invisible recessed can lighting to an unmistakable shade suspended by a cord. Surely an astounding metamorphosis, but what really struck me was the write-up and the idea it was selling.
Now, it seems, it’s time to “update your old recessed lighting.” Yeah, but wasn’t recessed the high-tech lighting of the future when it started to invade kitchens and offices in the 1980s? Even better, the ad explains that way to get back in step with the times is to convert to a “trendy pendant light.” Trendy? Well I’ll be. Those of us who love old houses no doubt know that the lowly foot soldiers of early electric lighting well into the 1940s were simple, single-bulb-and-shade affairs hanging by cloth-covered cords — the very pendants marketed here as so soignée. What’s more, should the buyer miss the history point, the copy makes it clear that the “trendy pendant” has it all over the recessed can by virtue of its “Traditional Design”.
If an almost random cross-section of the population – airline passengers – are being marketed to in the most a-historical of places – an airplane — with a 100-year-old lamp design, is this the shape of things to come? As the saying goes, the only thing better than a good new idea is a good old idea.

Paint Your Victorian

February 4th, 2009

Like many folks repainting the exterior of a Victorian-era old house, my wife Shelly and I knew our 1880s Queen Anne would paint up nice – that is, once we figured out what historic color scheme would do it justice. The good news was, after over 100 years the house still had its double-body cladding: decorative wood shingles over novelty horizontal siding (or what they mysteriously call German siding here in Maryland). The less-than-good news was it had been painted all white decades ago, a common fate for large Victorian houses to simplify maintenance while bringing them more in-step with the Colonial Revival movement of the 1920s. The few early photos we inherited were, of course, all black-and-white and only hinted at relative differences in color and placement – not actual colors. What to do?

The thing is, with exterior colors it doesn’t really cost any more in materials or effort to come up with a cool, multi-color paint scheme that brings out the architecture and details of the building. After all, that was the point after 1860 when new paint-colors-in-a-can intersected with arty millwork to produce Victorian polychromy. However, if you don’t invest in a little homework and road-testing first, you can waste a lot in do-overs. Coloring drawings of the house with pencils, then testing paints on a back wall, Shelly and I narrowed our polychrome scheme down to two shades each of just two colors: ochre and green. This was a modest approach with colors that weather well and create a nice visual bridge to the earthy palette of the Arts & Crafts era.

We learned another valuable lesson from an old friend and historic color specialist, John Crosby Freeman, “The Color Doctor.” Our plan was to paint the German siding on the first storey the pumpkin-y ochre, and save the green for the hex-butt shingles on the second storey, but John set us straight. “Use the lighter color on the shingles,” he guided, “This way the shingles will cast stronger shadows and play up the texture of the decorative butts – which is the whole idea. (Also, the ochre looks more like the color of clay tile, which is what wood shingles are supposed to represent.) John went on to say, “Since the darker green won’t highlight shadows as much, it will work to your advantage on the German siding by downplaying the craters in the old paint job.” Sure enough, the color switch worked like a charm. What’s been your exterior color revelation?