Wednesday, December 31, 2008

13: Porch Lattice

I'm still thinking about some of the exterior detail decisions I had to make. While I was surprised and happy with my decision to use vinyl siding on the exterior of the house, I didn't like the plastic option for the lattice that was specified for below the porches. So, I decided to use real wood lattice from Home Depot. While it'll need to be painted periodically, it has a texture that the plastic lattice lacked. It's subtle, but I like the shadow lines that the overlapping lattice creates. The vinyl version was completely flat. I also thought a lot about how to handle the color here. I saw old houses where the lattice and the face board trim was painted all one color (dark green or white). I also saw examples where the face boards would be a different color from the lattice. I decided to go with dark green on the lattice and white on the face board trim. I didn't want the color to become too heavy looking in all dark green, and I liked the way white face boards continued the vertical lines of the porch columns. This is a really subtle detail, but the face boards also have a rougher, less finished, surface than the wood of the columns and railing, which gives the exterior nice variation that I—at least—notice and like every time I see it.

Paint colors: Sherwin-Williams Cascades 7623 on the lattice and Sherwin-Williams Snowfall 6000 on the face board trim and porch railing.

Here are some photos of houses that provided inspiration for the porch lattice and other details.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

12: Front Steps Handrails

During the design process, I was always thinking about ways to give the house a sense of history—even if it was only fabricated. I didn't want all of the details in the design to be too uniform. Older houses usually have a layered look—you can often see how things were done to the house over time. In my study of old houses in the area, I realized that one those details is frequently the handrail on the front steps of houses. I noticed that they were often made of a different material than the porch railing of the house. So, I asked Oak Tree Homes to explore a metal option for the front step handrails. I shared some of my scouting shots of examples I had seen, and they first talked with their metal guy about fabricating something for me. This proved to be too expensive, but Eric at Oak Tree found a great alternative for a metal hand rail system sold through the Internet. We weren't able to get some of the details that I really wanted, like the balls in the scouting shot below, but the price for the new system fit my budget. It ended up being a really simple detail and we painted the steel (not aluminum, which would have felt too light) black. The rail is mounted into the slate tread and the columns of the porch. I wanted it to be delicate but strong enough to handle children swinging from the rail. Note: when using a new product to replicate the look of something older—like the rail in this case—pay particular attention to details, like the diameter for the railing here. Something too chunky, or on the other hand too small, would have ruined the effect.

Monday, December 29, 2008

11: Electricity Outlets

I recommend mounting electricity outlets low to the floor, ideally horizontal in the floorboard trim. Electric cords from lamps don't drop to the floor and then climb back up the wall to reach the outlets. And, the walls are simply left visually clean. I may eventually try painting these plates to make them disappear even more.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

10: Radiant Heat

Radiant heat systems are really easy to install during construction, and if there's crawl space under an existing house, the system can still be installed without too much trouble. Getting it under the second floor of an existing house would be a different issue, but the installation downstairs and upstairs went quickly in my house—maybe a couple of days for the whole system. I'm utilizing a closed loop hydronic system which means that water is heated and pushed through a network of plastic tubes stapled to the sub-floors of the house. Basically, there are two runs of the tube between each floor beam, and they're covered with a sheet of something that looks like metallic bubble wrap to push the heat up into the floor and house. My system is very basic with one zone for the first floor and a second for the upstairs.

There were a few things that I did learn about radiant heat:

- It works under most surfaces, but it never really makes stone surfaces feel warm. They just feel neutral, which is not bad at all. Upstairs I used engineered wood planks, which do feel a little warm to the touch, especially if something has been covering the surface for a period of time. But, no surface is ever hot.
- The rooms heated by the system feel pleasantly neutral in temperature. I keep my thermostats set at 69 degrees. As I understand the principle, warmth under foot makes you feel warmer than heat blowing around or radiating from above. I find that if the system is set at anything higher it can feel uncomfortably warm–but I guess that's very subjective.
- When I'm away for more than a day or two, I'll lower the thermostats to 55 degrees to conserve energy. It does, though, take six or more hours to bring the house back up to 69 degrees when I return. Radiant heat systems are not meant to change interior temperatures quickly. Think of them as slow, steady, efficient heat.
- It's a blessedly quiet system to operate and the interior air doesn't dry out from forced hot air, which is the worst in my opinion.
- My closed loop system is filled with plain water. Sometimes people will add a little anti-freeze fluid that can be purchased for a system, but with the insulation in my house, I'm not worried about any potential freeze situations.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

9: Manufactured Stone

I had originally wanted the foundation of the house to be covered in stone, but it was one of the line items I compromised on when the builder and I went through the budget looking for places to trim. Mark at Oak Tree Homes suggested simple stucco, which actually ended up looking great. I had spent more than a year documenting details on old houses in the region. Occasionally, I'd find foundations covered in what appeared to be concrete, so the stucco doesn't seem particularly out of place with the locale. I hated to lose the stone look entirely, so I decided to keep it for the foundation of the steps on the front of the house. I actually liked the variety it added to the base of the house: stucco, lattice (under the porch) and stone. Mark had advised me the manufactured stone was a much more practical choice the trying to utilize stone from my property, which would never be able to stack and grout very permanently. He really opened my eyes when he showed me the variety shapes and colors that I'd have to chose from with the not so real alternative. What we used are basically brick faces molded to look like a flat field stone and colored to blend in with the native stones. The treads are slabs of real slate. I've thought about trying the old trick of spritzing stone with diluted yogurt or buttermilk to encourage the growth of green moss, but I now think I'm going to leave it alone letting nature decide what to do. One of my reference photos:

Friday, December 26, 2008

8: Hiding Vinyl Seams

Vinyl siding comes in panels and mine happened to be 12 feet tall. As the crew was about to start installing it on the house, I realized that I could hide where the panels stopped and started on the side of the house. Those seams are one of the worst give-aways that the siding on a house is faux and not real. It looks like two pieces of paper overlapping. By starting with a new panel at the foundation, all the way around the house, one horizontal seam would be hidden by the porch roof line and a decorative plank strip on the other two sides of the house, and then the second row of panels needed to reach up through each of the four gables would give me a natural opportunity for a second decorative plank that I already knew I wanted for the gables. Fortunately, I realized all of this just before the crew started, so it was a simple request for them. In fact, it saved them a lot of cutting and the look is, well, seamless.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

7: Hanging Plates

I found a set of fish plates (with one piece inexplicably missing) that had belonged to my great-grandmother, and I decided to hang them in the dining area of the house. While I liked the look of the plates, alone they seemed too old-fashion and fussy. So, I decided to create a visual narrative and give the whole arrangement a shot of energy by mixing in some of the wonderful decoupage plates designed and sold by John Derian. Taking inspiration from the fish motif and local trout streams, I imagined a very loose stream-to-table story by adding two small platters with clam shells and a toad plus a few small plates with a lemon and orange slices, a swallow, and an ant. I first organized the composition on the floor in front of the wall using the two larger platters as anchors in the middle. Then with plate hangers, which can be found at hardware stores, I started with the anchors and hung the rest of the plates according to the plan on the floor. I did use a tape measure to help with the spacing between the plates, but I also realied on a good eye and kept my anxiety in check when I had to adjust a few nails. Make sure that you use good picture-hanging nails, which are more needle like than regular nails and will leave barely noticeable (really un-noticable) holes if you make any mistakes. FYI, did you know that everyone has one dominate eye that is more accurate in judging alignments? It's usually the eye that corresponds to your dominate hand, but it's easy to test. With both eyes open, hold one finger in front of you at full arm's length and align it with an object in the distance. Then test each eye by closing one first and then the other. The dominate eye will still have the finger in alignment when you test it. With the other eye, your finger will be obviously out of alignment with the object.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

6: Behind, Below and Above

During construction document, document, document. Use a digital camera to take pictures of things that will eventually be covered up by Sheetrock, wood, flooring and even the ground around the house. I tried to make sure that I shot everything I could see before it was covered, and I've already returned to those photos more than once for reference. Here's a list of things you might document, but it's not a definitive list. Digital photos cost nothing and the reference images could prove invaluable in the future:

1. Plumbing in the walls
2. Electric boxes for switches
3. Framing around windows
4. Utility pipes connecting to the house
5. Septic holding boxes near the house
6. Chimney flues
7. Attic crawl space
8. Lighting electrical boxes in relation to wall studs

Photograph anything you can imagine that you might want to know more about (or remember what it looks like, how it was installed and especially where it is exactly) but won't be able to see after it's covered. Why waste time and money guessing if you ever need to know?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

5: Slate Tile Source

I knew what I wanted for the floor before I knew exactly what to ask for. The tile business is funny in that it can be hard to find some of the simplest tiles. I've been told that this is because it's too easy for companies to out price or undercut each other with the simplest materials and designs. I knew that I wanted slate tiles for the first floor of my house, because I love the cool touch of stone tile and the blue-green-gray color of most slate. What I didn't know was how to ask for something smooth (honed not gauged or natural cleft) with the variegated pattern in the stone you see here. So, I went to the Web and started searching for slate. In the process I not only learned more about what I was looking for, I found a great online source for tile. Some people might think it's crazy to buy tile long-distance and pay to have all that weight shipped. But, the Brazilian gray slate I chose was purchased and shipped across the country from California all for a price less than what I thought I might have to pay for something local. If you're looking for stone tiles, check out They've got a nice array of materials, and you can get samples before committing to a large order. The tile I bought has worked out beautifully. The variations in color, which almost look like marbleized paper to me, keep the tile from ever looking dirty. Tip: When you're placing an order, think about ordering 15% to 20% over the actual amount you need. Contractors always recommend about 10% to cover any breakage during shipping or installation, but with stone it's hard if not impossible to get matching tile later. Stone comes from quarries, and the quality, color and pattern of the stone can change significantly from one spot to the next in the quarry. You don't want to find yourself in the future needing to replace or add tiles that can't be matched. We ended up using all of the tile I ordered because some pieces came plain with no variations in the color—remember stone is a natural material—so I hope I don't end up learning this lesson the hard way.

Monday, December 22, 2008

4: Warm Hearth

We're getting a lot of snow this week, and I've been thinking a lot about how much I like my Tulikivi fireplace. I had originally thought I would buy a wood burning stove for the house, but the wise people at Mountain Flame convinced me to push my budget and invest in this Tulikivi. I'll admit that I had a serious panic attack early one morning after placing the order. I was spending 3 times more than I had planned to spend on a Rais wood burning stove. But, I'm glad I listened to them and found the money to go this route. I think of the Tulikivi as a machine as much as a fireplace. It's so much more efficient than a regular fireplace, and once it's heated it emits the most relaxing heat from the soap stone. There are many styles and designs. I chose one of the more simple ones, and Mountain Flame added a bench that wraps nicely around the corner of the wall in the living room. Stone cold, it takes about three loads of wood to get the soapstone up to a room-warming temperature. The bay front glass doors give maximum viewing from just about anywhere in the living area (even a bit in the kitchen) and allow easy access. I really like the fact that they keep sparks and hot coals from popping out. The Tulikivi features several levers that allow you to control the rate of burn by controlling the flow of air into the fireplace. Internal vent chambers move the heat and exhaust around inside before sending it up the chimney, which really maximizes the heat from the fire. Below the fire chamber is a door with a drawer inside to catch ash. Like I said, Tulikivis are really efficient. The one maintenance issue is with the glass doors, they have to be cleaned periodically depending on the amount of smoke and soot generated by the fire. But, even that little chore is easy with a little spray and wipe.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

3: Sized Right

One of the reasons I chose Oak Tree Homes to build my house was because they had the ability to work with me on the design and plans for the house. I started with a very simple plan from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company that we enlarged and developed into a house that would fit my lifestyle and location—28'x28' not including the porches as you see it here. While I'm interested in the philosophies and benefits of living in a small house, I learned a few realities of building. 1. The smallest house isn't always the most cost/value efficient. In other words, when you're working with standard materials, you don't want to find yourself with a design that involves a lot of cutting down standard materials (leaving and paying for waste) just to get a smaller structure. 2. Pre-fab houses are not inexpensive yet...unfortunately. I explored a number of pre-fab options but discovered that most of them were priced without the fees for a septic system, well for water, electricity, plumbing...a number of details that are pretty important if you're expecting to do more than camp out temporarily in your house. 3. Those details will be costly line items in your budget. 4. But, once your builder determines a budget, you can go back line by line and explore ways of trimming costs. There are always options. 5. I can't imagine building a house with a builder that I couldn't trust the very least. Trust in something like this is everything.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

2: Small Houses Can Make Wonderful Homes

In 2001 I rented a small farmhouse for summer weekends in New York's Hudson River Valley. It was a simple little building that was packed with character and charm. There was nothing fancy about it, but it became the stage for many wonderful weekends and an escape that fateful September. About the same time, I ran across a story on a young architect named Jay Schafer and the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. I connected with his small space philosophy and couldn't forget the appeal of his little houses. Check out the designs. I purchased one of his simple plans for a 16'x16' two-story cross gable house. While I ended up building something a little larger and much more detailed, his tiny house was where it all started.

Friday, December 19, 2008

1: Just The Right Spot

Placing or positioning a house on the site is more important than you might ever imagine...and it probably won't cost you much, if anything, to take as much time as you need to do so. I first spent a couple of years visiting my property in different seasons and noting things like where the sun rises and sets throughout the year. Then as the actual design of the house took shape I started imagining the views I would have from doors and windows. I even went as far as using inexpensive surveyor's tape from the hardware store to outline the floor plan and experiment with the position of the house on the ground. It was a really useful exercise. I could literally stand on the plan where a window would be and imagine how the sun would enter the house...asking myself questions like, did I want my bedroom on the east side of the house to wake up at the crack of dawn? During the darkest days of winter, what orientation of the house would give me maximum sun inside? Should I give guests in the guestroom the distant mountain view (which I might someday lose with tree growth) and keep the (protected from potential neighbors) view across valley for my bedroom? There are hundreds of details you can imagine and questions you can ask yourself at this point with simple tape outlining the floor plan on the ground. As fortune would have it in my case, one week before we actually broke ground on the house, I realized that the entire floor plan needed to be flopped from left to right, because I wanted the back service door of the house to be on the same side as the driveway, which I didn't want crossing in front or back of the house. At that point, it was a few simple clicks on a computer keyboard to make the change. A few weeks later it would have been much more complicated...if not impossible to get it right.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Year Later

Well, it's been a long time since I posted here. Practically a year! I took possession of my new house on December 19, 2007. I make a point of saying "took possession," because the work for me was only just getting started. I had to furnish the house. And then spring and summer arrived...and everything outside was just too tempting. I've been bad with posting (it almost feels unfaithful), and I'd like to make amends.

Before I start again, there's something I have to share with anyone about to build or undertake a major renovation: prepare to give over most of your life to the process, and know that there's no way you'll be prepared for everything.

That being said, I'm committing myself to 101 days of 101 things I've learned, tips I'd like to share, as well as a lot of products and furnishings I've fallen for in the process of building and furnishing my little farmhouse at Twilight Field. Think of me as the friend you ran into at a cocktail party last week who just finished what you're about to start. Take my posts to heart or with a grain of salt.

Starting this Friday, December 19, 2008 check in daily for a new entry. Or, visit whenever you feel the desire. You can always catch up. I learned a lot and will simply enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with building a house from the ground up.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Spring may not seem to be the most obvious time to talk about fireplaces, but here in the Catskills the nights are still cool. In the depths of winter, a roaring fire feels like a necessity of life. On a really cool spring night, it's more of a real luxury. Daylight stretches into later hours, and a glowing fire is just the thing to take the chill off the house.

When I was first working on the plans for my house, I thought I wanted a modern wood-burning stove. I was avoiding a full blown traditional fireplace for budgetary reasons, and I had seen some really good looking wood-burning stoves. I had visited Mountain Flame in Arkville, New York, to look at the Rais stoves but ended up being sold on a soapstone Tulikivi.

All of this was about the time that I was having panic attacks over the reality of what it costs to build a new house, but Marcia Olenych, who owns Mountain Flame with her husband Brian, is a wise, soft-spoken saleswoman. After a couple of conversations, she knew what I wanted (and needed) better than I did. Before I knew it, though, I was committing to a soapstone fireplace that was about 3-4 times more expensive than what I thought I was going to spend on a fireplace...or stove.

A few nights later, I woke up around 3am in a panic that I was spending so much more than I had originally planned. But, when I stopped by the showroom on my way upstate the next weekend, my anxiety had diminished and Marcia's calm demeanor convinced me to relax and find a way to pay for the Tulikivi. It's what I needed.

Manufactured in Finland, these fireplaces operate with the precision of a machine and all the wonderful heat and beauty of an open hearth, maybe even more so. My order was placed in early July, and the "firebox" was here and installed by November.

Marcia had helped me select a simple bow-fronted design that Brian customized with a side bench, which wraps around a projecting corner of the living room. The Tulikivi anchors the room and the soapstone surround gives the house a wonderful sense of permanence and weight.

Back in the winter, 3-4 "burnings" would heat up the stone, and the fireplace would radiate a soft warmth for hours. I eventually learned to close the damper after the last wood had burned to coals, and I'd often find the fireplace still warm the next morning. These fireplaces are really efficient. Last summer during a visit to Mountain Flame, I noticed that the Tulikivis in the showroom actually helped cool the space. Protected from the sun, they'd hold the cool of the night when the day heated up. Their stone mass seem to have many benefits. So, I'm looking forward to seeing if the same thing happens here this summer.

But, back to the operation of the Tulikivi, they take a little getting used to. Unlike traditional fireplaces, they offer a couple of ways to control the intake of air, which allows you to really control the burning of the wood. At first, I wasn't sure about the glass doors, but they help radiate the heat and prevent smoke or sparks from spilling into the room. The doors do have to be washed daily when you're burning fires, but the little tint of soot comes off easily with a cleaning spray. I discovered it works better with newspaper rather than paper towel, and it's now simply become a part of my fire-making ritual.

When I lit the first fire back in the winter, the house seemed to come to life and take it's first breath of air. I don't regret one penny extra that I spent on this Tulikivi. I enjoy every minute it's filled with dancing flames and radiating its soft warmth.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


As I've discussed in previous posts, I made a number of compromises/decisions in the building process to reign in costs. At the same time, I've made a point to keep some of the building materials real for "substance." The house has a small footprint, so I knew that I wanted to use the same flooring throughout the first floor. I wanted something natural, pretty and—most importantly—easy to maintain.

In the country, it's inevitable that the outside world will get tracked inside. So, I wanted something for the floor that would disguise dirt. I knew that I liked slate, but all I really knew was that slate can range in color from an almost purple to blue, gray and even black.

A quick Google search led me to, where I found the perfect slate tiles. Here's what I liked about them and what I learned:

- I bought large 18" x 18" square tiles, because I wanted fewer rather than more grout lines. Sometimes bigger is also better in a small space, because it's less busy and cluttered looking. I also had the installer lay them on the diagonal starting at the front door. I think the diagonal plan makes the floor look more expansive. The tiles don't look confined as they might if they were laid square to the the room.

- Slate can range from a very plain appearance to very variegated. I really like the variations of color, although I did make sure that it didn't include the extreme ends of the slate color palette: dark purple and black. I found Brazilian gray slate at with beautiful figuring, almost like marbleized paper. The mud season has started in the Catskills, and the marbleized look of the stone does a great job of disguising light tracks from wet and/or muddy shoes.

- Always order extra, beyond the amount recommended by the seller for breakage in shipping. Given variations in the material, some of my tiles had no figuring at all. After the best tiles were chosen and installed on the first floor, we realized that we had just enough to tile a portion of the basement (the laundry area). Later, the builder advised me to buy an additional box of the tiles to keep on had for possible breakage in the future. If I waited until something was broken, I'd probably never be able to find something similar. It's already a bit of an issue, because the seller in California is out of the product at the moment. So, I'm hoping what he's getting in will be similar. It may be obvious, but stone is quarried and for consistency it's best to get all your stone material from the same quarry...even the same area of a quarry.

- Honed refers to the finish of the surface. It's smooth, but not slippery the way polished would be. Gauged surfaces are rougher.

- I did order the tile over the Internet (after buying a sample to check in person). The material was very heavy, and there was a significant shipping cost, but the price was so good that it didn't price the slate out of my reach. Besides, it was exactly what I had been looking for, and I couldn't find anything similar locally.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Using Every Space

On the kitchen side of the partial wall, I found additional storage space. Between the back splash and the lowest open shelf, I had Oak Tree create a series of one bottle-deep shelves that are perfect for oils, vinegars and spices. These things are up off the counter but within easy, unobstructed reach when cooking. I also like simply seeing the line-up of bottles. Oak Tree added the panels of bead board, which makes the niches look nice and finished even when there's nothing in them.

Faux Stone

If you've been reading my posts, you know that I didn't start building this house with a budget. I've had to consider (and make some compromises in building materials) along the way, but I now believe that all of these variations from my original ideas have resulted in a house that will better serve me rather than vice versa.

In the kitchen, I had decided to go with Corian for the counter tops, but when I started working out the details with Cindy Miller of Empire Baths & Kitchens, she strongly urged me to reconsider. Her concern was with the fact that I wanted dark counters (to blend in, even recede) in the design. She explained that Corian actually scratches and cuts fairly easily, and she believed that CaesarStone would be less expensive. Was I surprised? You bet. I've known about CaesarStone for a few years. It's a manufactured stone that's make with quartz and looks very "real."

As it turned out, she was right, and the resulting installation is beautiful. I went with a polished surface, because I like the glow and feel that they look really clean with a quick wipe. The design of the kitchen also called for back splashes behind both the stove and the sink. Here, I really wanted the material to have the look of real stone, because the back splashes are very prominent. Behind the stove it rises to just over six feet where it meets the vent hood, and behind the sink it rises to meet the first open shelf.

I chose a color of CaesarStone called Raven. It's very dark, but not severely black. I wish my photos had more detail because the material has a pleasing lightly mottled appearance, almost like fossilized remains in real stone.

For the sink I chose Kohler's simple farmhouse style. With limited space I think your one sink needs to be deep and generous in size. You can pile it with dirty dishes as well as dump in a basket of garden vegetables that need to be washed. Counter to what most people would expect in a farmhouse like mine, I chose Kohler's modern Simplice faucet. I like the bold, clean almost pipe-like shape and the easy to use single lever water control. Another unplanned surprise that I've become addicted to is the retractable spray nozzle that comes right out of the faucet. It's efficient and makes clean-up extremely easy.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Both Sides

I like to think that I know a lot about kitchen design, but I have to admit that I had the help of a kitchen designer when I planned this kitchen. Cindy Miller of Empire Baths & Kitchens in Utica, New York helped me organize the cabinetry and appliance configuration. Empire sells Plain & Fancy kitchen cabinetry, and Cindy worked with my request for open shelves and a plan that would maximize storage. The kitchen also has to function as a passage from the back door and stairway to the living/dining space on the first floor.

For over 20 years, I've worked as an editor at several shelter magazines, and I've seen an uncountable number of kitchens—some great ones worthy of publication and many forgettable ones lacking good design or cursed with poor planning. I've also had the benefit of getting to learn more than the average person about many appliance lines and cabinet manufacturers.

Plain & Fancy is a family owned business based in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Last summer, I had the pleasure of actually visiting their factory and was surprised to find out that there was still a lot for me to learn. First and maybe most important is an explanation for "off the shelf," factory made custom, and custom cabinetry. Off the shelf cabinets are the kind that you find at sources like Ikea. Each unit of the cabinet (or box) is a predetermined size and you can outfit any space with them, but you're not necessarily getting cabinetry that "fits" your space exactly. I'm not implying that there's anything wrong with "off the shelf" cabinetry, but you don't get anything close to a custom design.

At the other end of the spectrum is custom, which is most often thought of has cabinetry made by a craftsman in his workshop, or something close to this scenario. This means that you can have made just about whatever your heart desires in just about any way possible for the craftsman. You can also expect a price you probably can't imagine.

In between is the best of both worlds. Cabinetry designed to order, but made in a factory. In the case of Plain & Fancy, imagine a woodworker's workshop but on a factory scale. My visit last summer was fascinating. The first impression was that you could literally see individual kitchen installations working their way through the factory. There was a lot of white, the owners laughing and sighing at the same time admitted that most people want some shade of white. But, I did spot something more daring in red, and a number of installations working their way through the assembly line with the occasional accent color like black or blue...or red.

The beauty of cabinetry produced this way is that you get the much better price of cabinetry made "en mass" so to speak but the almost unlimited options of cabinetry made in one man's workshop. There's also the benefit of quality control and numerous layers of supervision. All in all, you get well made, beautiful product. I chose a vinyl interior for my cabinets, because it's less expensive, and I think that cleaning and maintenance will be easier. The drawers and the cabinet interior shelves are wood. They're beautiful, but this brings me to two of my favorite details. It may be common now, but I wasn't aware of either feature. All of my lower cabinets are outfitted with shelves the slide out for easy access. Why would anyone not have these? It makes the storage much, much more usable and accessible. And, last but not least all the doors and drawers are fitted with something I think is called "soft close," meaning that nothing slams shut. When you close a door or drawer a mechanism catches them just before fully closed and slowly finishes closing with no sound. Like I said, this may be standard, or becoming standard, but I'd never experienced how blissfully quiet it makes a kitchen—especially important in a small kitchen that's so open to the rest of the living space.

The open shelves in the kitchen were made by Oak Tree, and they did a beautiful job. Again, this is another example of how important tear sheets can be during the design process. As it turned out when I organized the many magazine pages I had been accumulating I had maybe 6-8 examples of open shelf brackets, all with slightly varying designs. Mark and I looked at them closely and came up with my design. The shelves sit slightly back on the brackets to give the brackets a little more definition and help slightly break up all the horizontal lines of the all the upper shelves. We also nipped off the front bottom corner of the bracket arms, which seemed a little sharp projecting forward at eye level. I think they did a beautiful job.

Kitchen Ingredients

While the footprint and general design of my kitchen was a part of the original architectural plan. Oak Tree and I decided to wait until the house was framed and enclosed before we made the final detail plans for this area. As you can see, the kitchen is separated from the main living/dining room of the first floor, but we were able to keep it partially open to the rest of the house. When you're in the kitchen, you don't feel like you're separated from what's happening in the rest of the house, but when you're in the living/dining room, you don't feel like you're also living in the kitchen. Lower cabinets give me concealed storage, but open upper shelves allow light to flood through the space. Glassware, china and some service pieces are easily accessible, even on display.

The design of the partial wall separating the kitchen from the rest of the first floor was crucial to this working. Most importantly, during construction I was able to mock-up the lower part of the wall with plywood to determine the minimum height that the solid part needed to be so that when you are standing in the dining area, you don't find yourself looking through the open shelves and into the kitchen sink.

Last Saturday, I roasted a chicken in the house for the first time, which was almost like a christening of the kitchen. It was the first real test of functionality and just as important the experience of cooking here—everything was perfect. In this rest of this post and a few following posts, I'd like to share some of the ideas that enable it to work so well. While I have nothing against big, really tricked out kitchens, I like to think that what we've designed here is proof that something more simple can work just as well and maybe even feel special. I can't help remembering a conversation that I had with one of the architects that I met with when I was just starting to think about building a house. He had a house not that far from me and couldn't understand why I wanted to build a small-ish house, especially since it would mean a small kitchen. In his mind the kitchen needed to be big enough to accommodate a large gathering of friends when cooking. Well, if he happens to come across this blog and post, I think I've come up with a design that doesn't involve a kitchen the size of a small house with lots of unused counter space, and something that functions equally well whether I'm cooking alone or entertaining friends.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Upholstery Arrived

I've been a little too anxious to talk about it a lot, but last month I posted a photo showing swatches of the fabrics I'd ordered for the upholstery coming from Lee Industries. Seven pieces arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that they look great. I was worried, because I'm not an interior designer. Thanks to my career with shelter magazines, I've developed an eye for combining colors and patterns. But, putting together a scheme of fabrics is not as easy as it might sound. Fortunately, I've been studying the work of interior designers for over 20 years and developed a certain instinct. At least, I have a good sense for what I like.

So after pouring over hundreds of fabric samples in a to the trade showroom where Lee sells their full line in New York, I came up with a scheme of fabrics for the upholstery in the living room that was built around a beautiful silk ikat. If you're reading this before the end of March and just happen to be going to (or in) London, there's a wonderful show at the Victoria & Albert Museum on ikats from Central Asia.

The big question mark in my design plan was, would this fairly busy pattern work on a seven foot long sofa. So, what do you think? I tempered it with a pair of dark navy cotton denim covered club chairs that are fantastically comfortable without taking up a lot of room and an arm chair with a high back in a faded blue floral printed on cotton.

It's really looking great in the room. I'm sharing pictures hesitantly, because I'm not finished. TK are pillows all in the blue and white scheme but in various patterns and designs. A friend gave me a nice piece of old Fortuny, which is going to look fantastic piled on the sofa with other patterns. I'm also working on a rug and simple white cafe curtains for the windows.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Between the inside and the outdoors

I found the perfect bench for the mud room, which is actually an enclosed continuation of the side porch that connects to the back door and porch. I've definitely seen larger mud rooms, but this roughly 12' x 6' space serves fine. In my part of the world you need plenty of hooks for coats, totes and other things that tend to collect inside the exterior door you use the most. You also need a comfortable, sturdy place to sit down when removing shoes or boots.

Eric came up with a really nice design when he added a row of small square windows just above eye level in the exterior wall. They frame a great view of the mountain ridge across the valley and flood the area with light. Along the bottom of the window frame, we installed wooden pegs, and below all of this I've added Ballard Designs' Levanto 3-seat bench. It couldn't fit better. The worn black finish doesn't feel too perfect or precious, and the woven rush seat adds a great texture in the space. The side and back doors open all the way to the wall framing the bench on each side in warmer weather, so I know that this piece is going to get lots of use year round....and at the $299.95 price, it's a great find.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


I love fabrics. For years they've been one of the more interesting subjects I've followed in my career as a magazine editor. Colors, designs, histories, stories, crafts, new technologies and materials—textiles are simply fascinating.

My appreciation for the role and skills of interior decorators also continues to grow, maybe in a way that I couldn't have ever fully appreciated without going through a decorating process like I am right now. Last month I placed an order for eight pieces of upholstered furniture from a company called Lee Industries. (That's a story I'm going to save until later when the furniture arrives.) One of the perks of my job is the relationships I've developed over the years with home furnishing manufacturers and the "inside" access I often have to that world.

Twice a year I attend the International Home Furnishings Market in North Carolina, more commonly referred to as High Point (which is the small Southern town that has long been the center of the American furniture industry). In brief the visit is one continuous series of appointments to see new designs from the largest pieces of furniture to the smallest accessory. Of course, I have my favorite appointments with some companies who make beautiful furniture and always inspire ideas for stories with their designs.

Some of these companies have names that people even only slightly familiar with the industry would recognize, but there are other companies (like Lee Industries) who are designing and making furniture that is truly affordable and accessible (but usually as private label for large retail and mail order sources. But, I'm getting ahead of myself, and I want to talk more about Lee when I can actually show pictures of the pieces I've ordered.

In the meantime, I wanted to talk briefly about what a challenge it was to pick the fabrics from swatches (small roughly 4-inch square samples). Wow. More power to the skills of decorators! I mean, I've looked at fabrics for so long and thought it wouldn't be too challenging to pick a few that would work well together. I do like color (but not crazy color) and layers of pattern, but it's been interesting process (also a little nerve racking). My choices were even narrowed down in that I only chose fabrics from Lee Industries' collection of fabrics. So the options were a fraction of what they could have been if the entire world of fabrics were open in this exercise.

So, the fabrics above are the ones I've selected for the living room. The order was placed in early January...and I've just gotten word that delivery will be in the next couple of weeks. More later. In the photo above, you'll see an Ikat (a favorite type of woven), a cotton denim (like the contrast with the silk Ikat), a woven Persian-ish fabric, a classic natural linen and a faded printed floral. I can't afford to make any mistakes that will need to be replaced. I think these are going to work together, but things can change significantly when a pattern is on a large piece of furniture...and various shades of blue don't always work together. And, then there's the factors of the paint colors in the room and the colors of the Brazilian slate floor. More later....

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Roller Shades

I've been living in the house for the past month with no window coverings. I'm in the country with no neighbors close enough to necessitate them for privacy, but I do need the light control during the day and just feel more comfortable at night when I can cover the windows. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I need window coverings to do and just as importantly what I don't want them to do. I knew that I didn't want a look that was too fussy but a style that was more in keeping with my retro farmhouse look.

A few months ago in the House Beautiful office, I was looking at the film we had shot of a house in Saratoga Springs by one of my new favorite interior designers, Nancy Boszhardt. (See the bedroom in project #6 of her portfolio.) Senga Mortimer, our editor-at-large and someone of immense taste, commented on the chic dark roller shades in the bedrooms. They looked crisp, bold and above all honest. I knew immediately that this was my solution, but it took me months to track down a source. Ironically, the source found me—a mail order catalog called Great Windows. And, they offer next day delivery for many of their products! With 14 tall windows to dress, though, I wanted to make sure that the Tropez roller shades I found were the right choice. The darkest color they offer is black, so I ordered one last week to make sure it would be the right choice. I chose a spring loaded, inside mount style.

The box was waiting at my door when I arrived at the house on Friday, and I hung roller shade Saturday morning. I had a little trouble installing the brackets with a Phillips head screwdriver, but when I switched to the nut driver it was easy. I know a lot of people are nervous when they're expected to take their own measurements for an order like this, but I had followed Great Windows' guide and the Tropez was a perfect fit.

I'm going to order the remaining 13 roller blinds that I need this week...and will have a project installing them to look forward to next weekend. Luckily, I'll have a little help from my father who will be visiting.

The roller blinds are phase one for the window treatment plan. Now I'm looking for cafe curtains to layer on top of each window. I'm going in this direction, because cafe curtains in a simple white linen or cotton will give me filtered light for privacy over the lower have of the windows, and most of the time this is all I'll need. In fact, the only reason anyone will probably ever use the roller blinds upstairs in the bedrooms is when they want to sleep late. Light and views are a big and wonderful part of the experience in every room of my house. So the cafe curtains won't block any more than is necessary of either. In fact, they'll leave the sky showing in all it's glory (day and night) through the upper half of the windows. But, then I'll have these wonderful black roller shades for light control when needed.

Oh, I ordered the regular Tropez roller shades, without the light block lining, which would have made them white facing outside the house. Regular roller shades roll off the back of the roller, which with the light blocking liner would have made my roller white at the top of the window—not the look I wanted. The good news is that the regular black Tropez doesn't need the lining. It's perfect.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Winter Reverie

I returned from the Christmas holidays to a new house, but I couldn't let this season go by without at least a little holiday cheer. So, for New Year's Eve I strung Christmas tree lights along the front porch. I'm sitting inside on a rattan sofa that I bought in barn sale in the Hamptons and eating at a folding card table, but my string of Christmas lights make it feel as if I've been here for much longer. Tip: I knew I was going to want something like this for holiday decorations and for a string of Chinese paper lanterns on warm summer nights. So, I had the electrician install an electric outlet in the ceiling at the end of the porch...and better yet...connect it to a switch inside the front door. BTW, that's a gorgeous full moon rising over the ridge behind the house.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back in Touch

First, I have to apologize for not keeping my posts up-to-date and timely. The truth is that I was overwhelmed by the pressure in finishing the house. The original completion date was mid-October, which I knew from the beginning was unrealistic. But, then things started slipping, and it was Thanksgiving with a lot still to be done before I could occupy the house. In fact, on December 9, the kitchen was still unfinished (see the photo above), and there were things to finish everywhere I looked inside. Mark made a valiant effort to finish by Thanksgiving, but too much time had been lost in September and October. It just wasn't possible.

I had been renting an apartment in a nearby town, and the lease was expiring. I was also going away for the Christmas holidays. So, to say I was beginning to feel squeezed is putting it lightly.

The good news is that I'm now in the house. I took possession on December 15. Then it started snowing; then I made the mistake of assuming I could move the few things I had in the apartment in my myself; and then I was gone for the holiday. I was fried, tired and disoriented. When I came back from Christmas to spend the New Year holiday in my new house, I had a hard time simply feeling present. Not to mention I now have to furnish the house. I have some furniture, but no upholstery, no dining table, no master bed, etc....

I'm going to save the finished construction pictures and share them over the upcoming weeks. I'll leave you for now with a few more pictures from early December—not much longer than a month ago!