REMODELING ARTICLES

The Angles have the look

We live in a square world.  Well, not really.  Nature, after all is pretty free form.  But, when it comes to our man made structures, 90 degree angles are the norm.  So, what's the problem with that? ...read more

the design criterion

What do you think is the single most important step in the remodeling process? Finding the right contractor? Negotiating the best price? Selecting the most appropriate materials? Actually, the answer is ...read more

kitchen tricks

In the process of designing a kitchen, it’s easy to adopt standard practices. After all, most of us have grown up in houses with kitchens.  How difficult is it to observe what we’ve used, take the best of what works, and finalize the plan? Shouldn’t it be just that easy? The problem is ...read more

the "magic" of glass

Any time you walk into a room, your eyes look around and survey the environment.  Then  your brain calculates the perimeters and makeup of the space.  When the calculation is complete, your brain then gives you a "read out" of the results.  What you get is ...read more

focus on ceilings

Let’s face it, most people hardly give ceilings a second thought. After all, it’s just a big flat area over your head. Everyone has ceilings in their home and no one is going to be terribly offended if ...read more

the european invasion

When I was building a home for myself back in the early 1980's, I wanted to find an antique-looking brass faucet for the kitchen sink.  I looked everywhere to find someone who made such a fixture.  No luck.  The American faucet manufacturers ...read more

selecting a contractor

Many people who love their homes have changes they would like to make - changes that will make their home even better.  However, when the time comes to seriously consider making a major change, most people are faced with ...read more

 

The Angles have the look

We live in a square world.  Well, not really.  Nature, after all is pretty free form.  But, when it comes to our man made structures, 90 degree angles are the norm.  So, what's the problem with that?  Nothing, for the most part, except that it gets boring after awhile.  And, the fastest cure for architectural boredom is angles.

Angles are unexpected.  They take us off guard because our brains are so conditioned to seeing the same old rectangular shapes.  But, angles are also tricky.  Too many, or in the wrong direction, and the effect winds up to be confusing and disorganized.  The truth is that if you stick to nice, square lines, you'll never offend anyone.  Of course, you'll probably not inspire them either.  Angles are worth a little bit of risk.

Ordinarily, when we speak of angles we mean lines which are at 45 degrees to other lines.  However, some houses have architectural features at odd angles and you can use these to establish a dominant angle.  We're careful to use only one other angle in conjunction with the standard ninety degrees.  If we mix multiple angles the effect is likely to be way too busy.>

Decks and patio spaces are probably the easiest place to integrate angles into a design.  That's because there are only flat surfaces to work with and adding angles is relatively simple.  Once roof lines get involved in the design everything gets complicated, real fast.  We determine points of focus and make the angles highlight these areas.  For instance, half of an octagon makes the patio lines turn in to provide terrific definition for a seating area.  The result is a cozy, self contained nook; exactly what you want to achieve.

Conversely, bend the angles outward to lead the eye to some feature in the yard; a fountain, garden, or swing, for instance.  Combining angles so that some lines bring the focus into the patio with those which focus out into the yard makes for an interesting appearance.  Add multiple levels to this scheme, which further emphasizes the angles, and the result can be truly outstanding.

Most houses are constructed with the rooms and structure in an array of rectangles.  This is mostly because it's easier to construct, and it's traditional.  However, angles can be introduced into the walls of most homes with pleasing results.  The majority of the walls in a home are partition walls and not necessary to the structural integrity.  They're there to divide the space.  As such they can be removed or relocated to suit your needs or desires.  An angled wall can open a view to an adjacent space or transform an ordinary room into something special.

But, probably the most usable space for angles inside the home are on it's surfaces.  Walls, floors, and ceilings can all benefit from materials being applied in a diagonal fashion.  For example, instead of the usual boring tile in the tub or shower area, an interesting pattern can be formed by turning some, or all, of the tile on an angle.  The effect is much better and the cost difference is negligible.

Or, consider angles in the layout of cabinets when it's time to remodel the kitchen.  The effect can be dazzling.  Even sinks and ranges can be set on a diagonal to create a one-of-a-kind effect.

Ultimately, the imagination of the designer is the only limit.  Used with care and creativity, angles provide some of the most visually entertaining treats in all of architecture.  When considering a remodeling project, that's worth keeping in mind.

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the design criterion

What do you think is the single most important step in the remodeling process? Finding the right contractor? Negotiating the best price? Selecting the most appropriate materials? Actually, the answer is none of the above.

While these steps are certainly important, there is one issue that transcends them all. It’s creating a clear-cut image of exactly what the remodeling is intended to accomplish. It may seem that this would be an obvious step to take, but you’d be shocked to see how often this is either overlooked or given short shrift.

I call this process, defining the design criterion. Whether you’re working on your own, with a designer, or with a contractor, the objective will be the same. Others might use different terminology than design criterion (I happen to like it), but this step in the design process needs to be given a place of extreme importance.

Every job is comprised of two separate objectives - the physical and the aesthetic.  When it comes to the physical, I’m not referring to the actual construction process. I’m referring to specific physical needs.  If your project is a room addition, what functions will take place in that room?  What furniture arrangement will be used?  If it’s a kitchen, what types of storage are needed?

Here’s a tip: Don’t fall into the trap of jumping to early conclusions. A much more effective solution may evolve during the planning process. Define your needs, and then look for the best way to meet those needs. Do the necessary research on this or get help from professionals who can expose you to other, better solutions.>

The aesthetic aspect may be a little more difficult at first, but this is the part that yields some of the most interesting results.  Begin by standing back and taking an objective look at your home as it is now.  What elements do you like?  Which do you dislike?  Look through as many books and magazines as possible to pick out room settings and architectural features that appeal to you.  Stretch yourself and find pictures you like, but which may be more extreme than what you’ll probably end up with.  By stretching your imagination, you open yourself to the possibility of creating a unique, one-of-a-kind environment.

Every time you make a decision regarding the physical layout, weigh its impact on the artistic appearance. Every time you choose something for its beauty, contemplate how functional it will be in the plan. Remember that it’s not one or the other. You can improve your home with something that’s both beautiful and functional.

It’s this combination of physical needs and aesthetic desires that forms the design criterion. However, this isn’t the ultimate goal. To arrive at the final objective, the budget must be applied to the design criterion. But once the criterion is clearly defined, all the choices to be made throughout the entire project will be a simple matter of determining whether they support the criterion or not. Materials can be chosen and evaluated at many different levels – from downright cheap to very expensive – and all of them might support the criterion, albeit at different levels of quality.

The important thing is to have an absolutely explicit vision of how the final product is supposed to look. This will act like a weather vane to keep you focused on the end result.  It’ll, also, help you in selecting and working with the designers, contractors, and others who’ll be helping you transform your dream into reality, since you’ll invariably seek out someone who shares your vision.

Understanding this process will help you to be actively involved and feeling in control of your project, while allowing others to use their expertise in turning out the finished product.  You’ll be more confident about selecting everything from the contractor to the floor covering. Good luck!

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kitchen tricks

In the process of designing a kitchen, it’s easy to adopt standard practices. After all, most of us have grown up in houses with kitchens.  How difficult is it to observe what we’ve used, take the best of what works, and finalize the plan? Shouldn’t it be just that easy?

The problem is that even if it turns out to be functionally correct, the result may be visually boring.  That’s when it pays to bring in a little radical thinking to break the monotony.

The basic philosophy behind these tricks is simply to look beyond the usual. If we want to do something really special, we need to stretch our imaginations. Every designer has a bag of tricks to overcome problem areas or chase away the blahs and here are a few of my best.

Pulling cabinets - Cabinets come in standard depths; 24” for base cabinets, 12” for wall cabinets. Normally, these are set flat against the wall, but they don’t have to be. In kitchens with marginal counter space, base cabinets can be pulled off the wall 3” to 6”. The additional depth this gives to the countertop means that appliances and other utensils sit back out of the way giving usable work space in front of them.

Pulling a sink base out 3” makes an interesting offset with the surrounding cabinet. Or, do it in reverse - pull all the cabinets out 3” except the sink. When you step up to the sink, the countertop wraps around you making access to the work surfaces more efficient.

Wall cabinets are less frequently pulled out, but there are times when it’s appropriate. For example, a wine rack sometimes looks better protruding further than the other cabinets.

Reducing cabinet depth - Make base cabinets on one side of a  small kitchen 18” or 21” deep and valuable space is gained to move around in.  Even a few inches can make a world of difference.

This technique works well for breaking up a long stretch of wall cabinets.  If they’re all the same depth, it can be pretty boring.  Make one a focal point, reduce the depth to 9”, perhaps put in glass doors, and enjoy the new look.

Alter cabinet height - In the old days, most wall cabinets came in standard 30” heights or built to the ceiling. Today, many cabinet lines are made with 30”, 33”, 36”, and 42” heights.

These variances are not just to accommodate different ceiling heights.  They can be used to vary the lines of the kitchen and add interest.  Why not use standard 30” H wall cabinets everywhere except over the range? Take that one to the ceiling. Or, taller cabinets on the ends with shorter cabinets in between? This creates space to display plants, dishes, or other objects.

Mixing finishes - Most people look at cabinets and make a decision on a specific wood or color and go with it throughout. Why not use different colors together for accent. The all white kitchens which are prevalent, today, could be warmed up by introducing wood elements. Focal point, open shelf, and specialty cabinets, together with crown moldings and other trim done in soft stained tones makes for a beautiful contrast. Bolder results can be achieved using black and white or light and dark stains.

Recessing a refrigerator - Larger refrigerators are wonderful to use.  But, the depth of them can be a real problem in a small kitchen. They can be recessed into the wall allowing us the luxury of large size with only the doors sticking out beyond the cabinets. The overall gain may only be 3 or 4 inches, but in a small kitchen, that works wonders.

Angles - Because the average kitchen has the cabinets backed up against the wall, any angles which are introduced make a big impact. For instance, a “U” shaped kitchen is efficient but can look bland. Angle the sink in one corner of the “U” and the range in the other, and the whole kitchen takes on a designer look.

Peninsulas and islands are excellent candidates for setting at an angle. Watch for all the possibilities for introducing this important trick. The only guide line with angles is that a little usually goes a long way, so don’t over do it.

There are many other tricks which improve the performance and personality of homes.

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the "magic" of glass

Any time you walk into a room, your eyes look around and survey the environment.  Then  your brain calculates the perimeters and makeup of the space.  When the calculation is complete, your brain then gives you a "read out" of the results.  What you get is not a factual accounting in feet and inches, but a subjective, overall feeling.  It accomplishes all this in a fraction of a second and you are hardly aware of what's going on.  However, the impression you get is powerful.  Either the room is friendly and feels good, or it feels foreign and uncomfortable and you don't want to be there.

We can make good use of this phenomenon by controlling what your eyes see.  And, probably no other material affects that vision quite like glass.  Glass is. . .well, transparent.  Your eyes really don't see it at all.  This makes it wonderful for visually opening up small rooms or adding interest to an otherwise boring view.

All too often you can walk up to some small window in a house and see a terrific view; a view that should be displayed and highlighted.  But, because of a builder's oversight or insensitivity, it is all but lost.  Imagine how stimulating it is to enlarge that window and create a scene with all the excitement of an ever-changing masterpiece.  The whole mood of the room changes.

The important question to ask is, what are your eyes focusing on?  It is possible to have a significant amount of glass in a room and still not achieve a sense of openness.  This is true in most instances where the windows are divided into smaller panes such as is prevalent in many traditional homes, or where there are shutters or other window coverings.  These things keep you from focusing beyond the glass.  This isn't without value, mind you.  It's a matter of controlling these factors to suit your goals.

Naturally, the most significant factor affecting how your eyes see a room is the amount and placement of glass.  A room can have a lot of windows and still seem closed in, if they are small and spaced all around the room.  This would be valuable where you want to "rein in" a large space.  Conversely, you would put all the glass together to open it up.

Probably the most dramatic effect possible is attained by having floor to ceiling glass over a wide expanse of wall.  This is made more possible today because sliding glass doors are available as wide as 16'.  These huge doors provide the additional benefit of having two sliding sections in the center which when fully opened give nearly 8' of actual opening to the outside.

When rooms are opened with this much impact, what is on the outside of the glass becomes extremely important.  This space, in fact, becomes a part of the room, itself.  A beautiful patio or deck with attractive landscaping, which compliments the interior of the room decor, makes for a stunning effect.

The view to the outside isn't the only use of glass.  There are occasions where you want interior rooms separate from each other and, yet, each room is too confining by itself.  Consider interior glass doors to provide the visual link between the spaces.  Both rooms benefit from this feature.

We have been talking about views up to this point.  But, there is also the issue of what comes in.  These days it seems everyone wants to get as much light in their house as possible.  Naturally, large chunks of glass in the wall accomplishes this pretty well.  And windows and glass doors aren't the only way to get light into a house.  Skylights, which we have covered in past issues, offer a dramatic infusion of light from overhead.  Even the dingiest of spaces are magically transformed with the addition of these funnels of light.  They can be used anywhere there is access to the roof.  They're perfect for baths, closets, hallways, or any other area that needs brightening up.

When it's necessary to make a room appear more generous than what it really is, mirrors can perform a similar function to that of windows.  Again, we're controlling the line of sight.  You can't really see a mirror, only the reflection.  This trick very nearly doubles the apparent size of the room.  Used in confining areas like small bathrooms or entry's, the effect is startling.  It seems almost impossible to make that much difference with such a small addition.  Keep in mind that the relative significance of the change is in direct proportion to the size of the mirror.

Glass can be used in other interior areas, as well.  Putting glass in cabinet doors, for instance, creates interest (if the contents of the cabinet are appropriate, of course) and expands the spaciousness of the room.

Pound for pound, you would be hard pressed to surpass the results that can be created with well placed glass.  Whether you incorporate it into a new addition, or use it to reshape your existing house, there's nothing like it for giving your eyes a visual treat.

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focus on ceilings

Let’s face it, most people hardly give ceilings a second thought. After all, it’s just a big flat area over your head. Everyone has ceilings in their home and no one is going to be terribly offended if they’re nondescript. This is the accepted norm.

That’s exactly why ceilings hold out such promise for improvement. Since no one expects anything other than the norm, anything creative tends to really stand out. And, because there is such a large space involved, even a little embellishment makes a significant impact. Keep in mind that the object here is not to make ceilings the focal point of the room; that would be a big mistake. The idea is to enhance the existing space and give it a finished, custom look. Pick up any magazine which features nice homes and look at the pictures. A high percentage have interesting ceilings which richly enhance the overall look.

Let’s start with the space where the wall and ceiling meet. Since this area goes completely around the room, anything placed here acts to frame the ceiling. The simplest way to do this is with crown molding. This comes in a variety of sizes and styles to suit almost every taste. But the real gains can be made by combining several different shapes to make one, large crown. This produces a beautiful, impressive look to any home. Traditional homes can make great use of this technique, but even contemporary or modern styles can benefit. It’s just a matter of designing the molding to fit the situation.

A more prominent way of framing the ceiling is by modifying this area with sheetrock. A dropped soffit can be constructed so the ceiling has different levels to it. Crown molding can be added at the wall, inside the soffit, or both. In addition, the soffit is a perfect place to install recessed lighting. Or, the sheetrock can be angled between the wall and ceiling to form a tray ceiling. It looks just like a tray that has been inverted. Variations on these two techniques can be used in almost innumerable combinations or sizes to customize any home.

Most of the techniques which involve the whole ceiling use texture to impart interest. No, I’m not referring to that ubiquitous sprayed on acoustical texture. That stuff is so overused that it borders on being trite. There are other kinds of texture which are much more attractive. Wood planking is the first thing which comes to mind. This can be painted or stained and can be finely milled or rough hewn. It all depends on the look you want to achieve and what will best compliment the room.

However, there are other textures besides wood. Old fashioned tin ceilings have made a resurgence in recent years; and, for good reason. These come in many different patterns and can be left natural or painted any suitable color. In the same vein, molded plastic trims, domes and other pieces made for ceilings provide interesting texture and design. These are normally used in more traditional homes, but with a little creativity they’ll work with other styles, as well.

Sometimes, textures can be developed with materials not normally used in this area. Wallpaper, stenciling, or even fabric, can produce a dramatic effect. This needs to be handled with care, however. Remember the basic rule - the ceiling should enhance the room, not steal the attention from it. It’s probably best to be subtle rather than risk being too bold.

One of the most common ways of developing an interesting ceiling, is to vault it at the same angle as the roof pitch. Most people think this must be done at the time of construction. But, as long as there is attic space to expand into, a vaulted (or cathedral) ceiling can be accomplished in an existing structure without much problem.

All of the above ceilings can be enhanced with the addition of beams and cross ties. In fact, for shear simplicity these are hard to beat. They don’t have to be structural, either. Decorative beams are easy to construct and install. Some are made out of foam to make installation easier.

It doesn’t have to end here. The possibilities are limited only to the imagination. How about skylights or custom lighting? What about all the different textures possible with plaster? When it comes to ways of making a room exude style and appeal, all you have to do is look up.

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the european invasion

When I was building a home for myself back in the early 1980's, I wanted to find an antique-looking brass faucet for the kitchen sink.  I looked everywhere to find someone who made such a fixture.  No luck.  The American faucet manufacturers had Henry Ford's old concept of product.  Any color you want, so long as it's chrome.

If they thought it strange to have a request for brass, imagine what they'd have said if I requested, oh say . . . red?  "You want WHAT color?  Hey Joe! There's some nut case out here that wants a red faucet.  You got any spray paint?"

Then the Europeans began to shake things up a bit.  They began to import designer faucets and sinks to this country in order to fill a niche for their products.  The large American manufacturers hardly noticed.  Why should they care if these designer products captured .001% of the market.  They would still own the lions share.  After all, if they could produce a first rate chrome faucet for $125, why would anyone, except the wealthy, spend $600 or $800 just to get something that looked a little different.

Except that it didn't happen that way.  Homeowners were hungry for something different.  And, discriminating buyers were willing to pay for well engineered, beautifully crafted fixtures with loads of style.  So what if these things were expensive?  After spending thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars on a kitchen, a few hundred extra to get just the right look was worth the price.

Well, the Europeans had a field day and began to take more and more market share from the Americans.  One company after another began to see the US market as fertile ground for developing new profits.  And, lo and behold, the local manufacturers woke up one day and began producing their own Euro looks.

All this has been great for the consumer.  The wealth of product that is available today, in everything from faucets to appliances and cabinets, is truly astounding.  If you can think of it, it's probably made.  Plus, the miracle called "quantity of scale" and competition have come into play and caused prices to drop.  Today, a modest increase in budget can open the door to many more interesting and appealing products for the kitchen or bath.

And by the way, if you go into most plumbing showrooms today, the only problem you'll have with red faucets is deciding on which one to buy.  Of course, once you see the black ones, or those that use both chrome and color together, or polished brass trims . . . you get the idea.  Have it your way.

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selecting a contractor

Many people who love their homes have changes they would like to make - changes that will make their home even better.  However, when the time comes to seriously consider making a major change, most people are faced with the question of whether or not it makes "economic sense."

This is where the focus sometimes shifts away from accomplishing specific goals to finding the best "deal."  In an effort to get the price of a home improvement project into an acceptable realm, it is easy to become prey to those contractors who will work "on the cheap."  This can turn out to be phenomenally expensive, not to mention excruciatingly frustrating.  Assuming that you're not going to be taken in by one of those types, here are the best ways to get a contractor who will provide a quality job for a fair price.

There are two traditional methods of choosing a contractor: 1. the competitive bid process and 2. the negotiated approach.  In the competitive bid process a third party design professional fully specifies the project and helps to assemble a list of pre-qualified and roughly comparable bidders (usually three).  The drawings and specifications are then delivered to these bidders for competitive pricing.

What makes the competitive bid process attractive is that it would seem to assure the lowest available price.  This is not necessarily so, but at least it feels comfortable to many people. The disadvantage to this is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the homeowner/designer partnership on one side and the contractor on the other.  By stating that the low bid probably gets the job, you are ensuring that items not clearly stated in the bid documents will not be included in the pricing by the bidder.  In addition, most contractors can cut corners and still meet the specifications of the job.  Remember, they're trying to find a way to be the lowest price.  All these areas can become items of contention later in the form of the dreaded "change order."

In the negotiated approach, the homeowner selects the contractor early in the process without competitive bidding.  The homeowner makes this selection based on information from several sources, including the contractor's history of satisfied clients.  The result is that an excellent working relationship can be developed before proceeding with construction.  The level of confidence that evolves establishes an excellent foundation for working toward the common goal - to create a quality project which meets the client's budget and provides a reasonable profit for the builder.

An advantage to the negotiated approach is having the contractor's expertise available early in the project.  This is particularly true if he also provides the design function since he must then be sensitive to the budgetary requirements.  The negotiated contractor normally assumes responsibility for ensuring that all costs are included in the original estimate, not just the ones the designer remembered to document.  Finally, in a project as sensitive and individual as your own home, the benefits of relying on a trusted team member rather than an unknown bidder seems apparent.

There are important elements of selecting a contractor which seem obvious except that they are often ignored.  The contractor should be licensed and insured (both General Liability and Worker's Compensation).  The job, if structural or very substantial in size, should have a permit issued by the local building department.  A regular payment schedule should be set up based on work in place.  And, a written contract stating precisely what is to be accomplished should be provided.

Finally, in establishing the value of real estate, it is said that there are three things that are important, "location, location, location."  Well, the three most important factors in qualifying a contractor are "references, references, references."  The contractor should have many of them and they should all attest to his quality, timeliness, cooperation and enforcement of the warranty.

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