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.