Monday, January 26, 2009

33: Porch Sconces

I found these interesting lanterns at Shades of Light. I had seen a lot of nautical, Arts & Crafts, and modern styles of exterior lights, but I was looking for something that would have a hint of Western farmhouse style. The Catskills were actually a part of the United States' first frontier and "Wild West." These bronze outdoor hurricane lanterns are no longer available, but I highly recommend Shades of Light as a source for something unexpected. They've got lots of styles in their catalog and online.

I used a pair of the sconces at the front door and a single one by the back door. They came in two sizes, and I was very careful to find a size that worked with the scale of the house. I haven't done a lot of specifying product like this, so I didn't place my order until the house was under construction. I used poster paper and roughly sketched the sconces in both of the sizes that they came in. I highly recommend doing this. The drawings don't need to be perfect. After creating the silhouettes, cutting them out and taping them in place on the side of the unfinished house, it was easy to decide on the right size. It was also priceless in determining where to actually have them mounted on the house, which is a decision you definitely want to make with your builder.

I should also point out here that there was one thing that I found really disappointing with my decision to use vinyl siding on the exterior of the house. The product requires mounting boxes, which came in a standard size that is larger than the mounts of my light fixtures. It's a dead give-away that the siding is vinyl, but I like to believe (or hope) that the strong character of the light fixtures distracts from the mounts in the wall.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

32: Porch Ceiling Pendant

I found this great looking Moravian Star pendant light online at Shades of Light. At $450 it wasn't an inexpensive choice, but it gives the screened porch and that side of the house a nice touch of character. I put it on a dimmer (don't forget to consider this detail for most of your exterior lights). It makes it possible to set a variety of moods on the porch. I discovered after everything was in place that dimming the light at night also minimized the reflection of light on the screening...opening up the view from the porch after dark.

If you're on a budget, you're on a budget, but I decided to use exterior lighting that would give my new house a sense of a past...even if it's only in my imagination.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

31: Screened Porch

In the Catskills there's a serious "fly season," so there was no question that I needed to screen in part of the porch, the part that wraps around the side of the house and connects with the mud room. Oak Tree Homes had the foresight to also add screening beneath the floor of this part of the porch, which keeps flies and other insects from coming up between the planks. Flies, mosquitoes, whatever your challenge...make sure that you have as tight a seal against bugs as possible. As for screen doors, you can find them pre-made, but we ended up having them custom made. I wanted them as simple as possible, and I also had the issue of the 8-foot tall front door to deal with. It was more expensive, but the screen doors are very unobtrusive.

I've added a dark green wicker tea table and two wicker rocking chairs to my screened porch. With the windows open to the living room, I think of this part of the porch as the lungs of the house where interior air can freely exchange with the sweetly perfumed Catskills breezes during warmer weather. It's the also the perfect spot to watch the sun set in summer.

Friday, January 23, 2009

30: Porch Floor

Porch floors can become a lifetime maintenance issue needing a fresh coat of paint every few years to keep them in shape. Composite wood, on the other hand, doesn't wear, and I discovered that the painted look of some product isn't so bad. In the beginning it does loot a little on the shiny side, but it softens a bit in the first few months of sun exposure, and the faux effect should remain pretty much the same without any significant additional change.

The only catch with what I've seen is that there is only one color, this dark green, that I think looks anywhere near like the real McCoy. I just attended the National Homebuilders' Show in Las Vegas where I saw similar products that I wouldn't recommend. If you're looking for composite wood as an alternative to real wood, pay attention to the texture of the molded wood grain and the overall look of the product. My problem with a lot of composite woods is that you can see the particles in the composite, which completely ruins the effect of painted wood.

You also want to plan careful how it will be installed. You don't want an installation where you can see the ends of the planks. It's where the composite material shows. We handled that issue by designing the porch floor with a perpendicular plank that outlines the exposed edges of the porch, which also gives the floor a more finished look.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

29: Beadboard

Beadboard comes in 4' x 8' panels and is relatively inexpensive (as well as easy to install). My original idea was to cover the walls of the first floor with wide horizontal planks of wood that would then be painted. I wanted some architectural texture in the rooms, and I was very leery of using too much Sheetrock. Oak Tree Homes was open to the idea of wood planks but warned me that the wood would expand and contract depending on humidity, heat and cold throughout the year. They were concerned that the resulting ever-changing gaps would drive me crazy. Then when we began to take a scalpel to big ticket items in the budget, I quickly came up with an alternative approach.

I simply took the texture that I had originally planned for the walls to the ceiling and switched from what would have been a labor intensive installation on the walls to easily installed beadboard panels for the ceiling of the living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

28: Faux Ceiling Beams

Ok, they're fake. The ceiling didn't really need the support of beams, but I wanted this architectural detail for the first floor. There were some details, though, that I just couldn't imagine and specify for Oak Tree until construction was underway. I remember times during the initial planning stages when I thought, "if I just had four walls I could figure it out." Fortunately, Oak Tree understood, and helped me solve a few details later during construction. Once the house was framed and the interior rooms were being finished with Sheetrock and trim, Oak Tree mocked up a couple of samples in two different sizes.

When we held them up against the ceiling it was immediately clear that the larger size I had thought would be the answer—I wanted them to look substantial and real—was way too big. The next issue involved figuring out how the beams would meet the ceiling. For this, Oak Tree suggested a very simple crown molding that would wrap the room and provide a clean end for the beams.

I'm really pleased with the results. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

27: Ceiling Height

The height of ceilings can have a huge effect on the mood and experience of the rooms in a house. I grew up in the Deep South and have always been attracted to rooms with high ceilings. Here in the Catskill Mountains, I decided to not install central air conditioning, or any air conditioning besides ceiling fans in the two bedrooms. It's rare that there isn't at least a light breeze blowing across Twilight Field and the summers are mostly mild.

Even though the foot print of my house is on the small side, I knew that I wanted to push the height of the rooms as much as possible, which is how I ended up with nine foot ceilings on the first floor, 10 foot ceilings on the second where the rooms are much more partitioned by walls, and a tall house. During the design process, I realized that I wouldn't need an attic with access for storage, because the full basement would give me plenty of storage space. Although the valleys created by the cross gabled roof are steep and cut sharply into the four corners of the house, I also decided to push the second floor's ceiling up to 10 feet and let the roof's valleys cut into the four corners inside. These bump-outs (or bump-ins) are most noticeable in the bedrooms, but they're really not that noticeable. In fact, I think they give the rooms a little character. As you've read before, I was very conscious of trying to incorporate things into the design of the house that would help keep the rooms from feeling like new, perfect boxes. Sometimes that meant letting a few "imperfections" happen and dealing with them logically. In this case, I decided to paint the bump-outs the color of the walls, as opposed to the color of the ceiling, so that they wouldn't create sharp visual points pulling the ceilings down.

Monday, January 19, 2009

26: Shingles

The original plan was to give the house a metal roof. I really like the look of a standing seam metal roof on a house in, say, a deep red—from the very beginning I knew that copper was out of the question. But in the budgeting process, I decided the metal roof was going to be one of my money compromises. Obviously, the material is pricey, but I learned that what can really make the costs of a metal roof go through the roof—pun intended—is when the installation involves a lot of cutting. My house has a cross gable roof with four peaks, one on each side of the house, and would have involved a lot of cutting of the metal. Oak Tree Homes pointed me toward the most affordable alternative, asphalt shingles. I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of options in that world. So, I started looking at asphalt shingle roofs everywhere and noticed a few things that I incorporated into my specifications that give the roof texture so that it doesn't look like a boring flat surface.

I chose a color that has variations in the single panels. I believe it's called Colonial Gray, which simulates slate. My house looks particularly tall, because it's two stories with a fairly small foot print. It's also situated on a gently sloping hillside, so most of the roof is high above. You rarely have the opportunity to see it up close, which helps with the visual trick of simulating slate. Now, I'm not so delusional to think that it "looks like slate." When you really stare at it and think, it's not. But the overall effect is pretty good. I should also add that I chose a shingle style that has an irregular pattern when installed and a thicker profile (thickness of the shingles) to create shadow lines for more texture like real slate would have in the sun.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Sorry I haven't posted in the last few days. My pug Jack's health took a turn for the worst, and he passed away early Friday morning. As you might guess, the whole event left me more than a little disoriented and depressed. He was a fine old pug who lived a full life. He was my faithful companion and saw me through many events in my life, both good and bad. He will be missed greatly, but I've been able to take some time this weekend to reflect on the wonderful experiences we shared. I'm really grateful that I'll have memories of him in this new house. Although he didn't like the stairs and had to be carried in either direction, he did have his favorite spot on the sofa where he could keep an eye on just about every corner of the first floor. He also loved the porches—in warmer weather. Whenever I was working outside and looked toward the house, he'd invariably be positioned in a spot watching my every move. House Beautiful recently filmed me giving a tour of the completed house, and sure enough Jack showed up in the final edit right by my side or waiting patiently for me to come downstairs. The videos can be seen on the House Beautiful website. I'll be back to the 101 posts tomorrow.

RIP Jack (5-30-95 to 1-16-09).

Monday, January 12, 2009

25: Alternative to a Coffee Table

Sometimes a large coffee table is just not the right choice for the area in front of a sofa. In my living room, which is on the small side occupying an area approximately 14'x16', I decided to use smaller tables instead of one large table that would fill up the space and be completely immobile. My solution was a pair of these interesting little galvanized metal tables. They're sweating-glass friendly, easy to move around as needed, and add a nice hint of farmhouse style to the room. They're from Mothology. You won't see the metal cone tables on the company's website, but they can be purchased by contacting them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

24: Water Pump

I also made the decision to add a pump to the well, which will insure that the flow of water is always consistent. The pump allows me to dial up the pressure if I ever want or need to—like when I have house guests and everyone is showering while we're also running the dishwasher or the washing machine. So far, I've never changed it. The set-up in the basement is very easy to access, and Oak Tree Homes recommended I turn off the pump and close the water intake line from the well whenever I'm going to be away from home for more than a few days. As Mark explained, it's just a good idea to insure that I don't return from being away for an extended period to find that something happened with a toilet or an appliance (things do happen) and the pump kept working away flooding the house for days.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

23: Drilling a Water Well

Drilling for water was something that I knew nothing about. But, like the septic system and utility lines, it's one of the more expensive line items in a construction project.

I still don't know a lot about drilling, but there are some things you just want to have done well and efficiently without having to pay much attention. In my contract with Oak Tree Homes, I had an "allowance" of $6,000 to cover the digging of the well. This meant that my contract covered costs up to $6,000. If it cost more, and you can never predict exactly, I'd have to cough up more money. Oak Tree Homes brought in a drilling company that put in my well by slowly pounding their way down through the ground as opposed to a much quicker—and what I would have expected—drilling method. Mark of Oak Tree explained that while it takes longer, they've had much more success with getting a good well with the pounding technique.

No one explained exactly why it works better, but the well is working beautifully...and I'm not asking any questions. I've got clear, almost sweet water. In the end, the drilling cost a little less than budgeted and the extra money covered something else in the contract that went a little over budget.

Friday, January 9, 2009

22: Tankless Water Heater

I decided to use a Baxi tankless water heater for all of my domestic hot water, as well as the heating needs of the radiant floor system in the house. More and more people are replacing their expired hot water tanks with one of these new models from Europe. Why has it taken Americans (and American manufacturers) so long to catch on? When I first spoke with my local electricity provider, they made me think that it was a bad idea by mumbling something about these machines being very energy demanding. They're not, and I went with a model that runs on propane. I later found out that the local electric company sells tank hot water heaters....wonder why they tried to dissuade me?

Tankless water heaters are extremely efficient in that they only heat water on demand. That means water when you need it for as long as you need it. I guess that doesn't sound very green, but you get the idea. I won't be keeping a tank of water heated 24/7 when it's not needed. Here's a picture of my Baxi. You can also see the faily simple the radiant floor system mounted to the right on the wall. When the interior thermostats call for heat, the system runs water through the Baxi, and these pipes send it to the appropriate plastic tubing that winds back and forth beneath the floors. It's a closed hydroponic system, so it uses the same water over and over again. There is minimal evaporation over time, but the system simply pulls in fresh water as needed. It's all amazingly compact.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

21: Window & Door Lintels

I borrowed an easy idea from a couple who are friends and designers in East Hampton, New York. Give windows and doors a simple lintel—almost Shaker-like—detail. Here I added a half inch overhang to both sides of the 6.5" wide top board framing each window and door. A nice little touch that really cost nothing extra.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

20: Dark Green Window Sashes

I didn't have a lot of color options for the exterior cladding on the Andersen windows I chose for the house. Fortunately, the dark green option looked substantial (not a flimsy aluminum-like color), so I color matched it in Sherwin-Williams paint.

In the way that one decision is built on the next in process of designing a house from scratch, Cascades SW7623 became the color I used for the inside of the window sashes. I knew I wanted a dark color, because I'd seen it used in this way on older homes. I'd also taken pictures a few years ago of windows painted like this in a showhouse in Bridgehampton, NY. (Don't forget to tear and take pictures of details and things you like long before you start designing. They'll make the design process so much easier.)

The dark color here is crisp and tends to disappear (except in winter) against the landscape seen through the windows. At night the sashes are virtually invisible, which makes the windows appear larger and more open to the outside. It's a handsome vintage look that I think most people never consider.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

19: Cafe Curtain Rods

Rejuvenation is a great online source for vintage looking hardware. I found cafe rods (particularly like the way they mount) and cafe pinch rings for the curtains. I chose the oil rubbed bronze finish to match the window hardware that I'd already picked for the Andersen windows. The cafe pinch rings are probably not the most secure way of hanging curtains that will definitely get some use in opening and closing, but they didn't require any additional sewing to attach them, which was a blessing during my make-it-yourself curtain project.

Monday, January 5, 2009

18: Cafe Curtains

As I covered in 17: Blackout Shades, privacy isn't much of an issue in the country, so I don't need a lot of window treatments. I came up with a two layer design: black blackout roller shades mounted inside the window frames with simple white cotton cafe curtains over the lower half of the windows. The combination of the two gives me a lot of flexibility. I usually keep the cafe curtains pulled together over the lower half of the windows leaving me lots of blue sky (or star studded night) above.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

17: Blackout Roller Shades

With plenty of privacy in the country, I didn't want a lot of window treatments in the house.. I'm of the school that window treatments should have a function...and function. I'm not opposed to a decorative approach, but I find gratuitous, immobile window treatments irksome. For Twilight Field, I came up with a design that gives me a lot of flexibility in the control of light coming in through the windows, and for uniformity I used the same treatment on every window in the small house. In fact, the uniformity helps them disappear to a certain degree.

The first element of the window treatment, and the foundation for the whole design, is a simple blackout roller shade in black from Next Day Blinds. The style I chose is called Tropez in polyester with the texture of a simple cotton. Black doesn't come with a blackout liner, but it's not necessary in this color.

I think most people are initially startled by my choice of back shades, because most people think that white is the only neutral. I disagree. I also like the honesty of the roller shade design. I mounted them inside the window frames and left the rollers exposed. I don't feel they need to be hidden. In fact, at night the when the blinds are pulled down, the blinds look like the night sky and the windows almost appear to be still open—they don't make the small rooms close in on themselves like white or any other light color would.

During the day, they give me extensive control over the light when I need it: to sleep in late, nap in the afternoon, dim the room for better TV viewing, even softening the light by pulling them down to different levels. One of the core ideas behind the original design of the house was to have the house feel like a folly in the field with light pouring in from all sides. It worked, and the light is fantastic. The vintage look of these roller shades adds to the farm house style, but their function allows for a wonderful and varied experience throughout the day.

Let me add that Next Day Blinds is a fantastic resource. While they do offer an on-site measuring service, it was simple enough to follow their direction and take my own measurements. With shipping time included, I had all of the blinds within a week. A couple of weeks ago, one of the rollers stopped working, and Next Day Blinds couldn't have been more accommodating in getting it repaired immediately. Tomorrow, I'll cover the cafe curtains, the second element of the window treatment design.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

16: Tile on the Diagonal

There are not a lot of options for how a tile can be laid on the floor—especially if they're all square. But, laying them on a diagonal or alternately square with the room can have more of an impact than you'd imagine. The size of the room, the size of the tile and the color of the tiles all play into making this decision. My tiles are 18"x18" squares of a medium gray/blue slate. I used this tile throughout the entire first floor of the house, so I decided to have them set on the diagonal. Why? The floor plan is not large and the diagonal plan makes the rooms feel more expansive–a squared-off plan can feel more confining in a small space. Beware, though, because a diagonal plan can become very animated in appearance. I used only one type of tile. Alternating colors can become very active even in a squared-off plan.

The diagonal plan also require a tile layer to make more cuts and potentially more complicated cuts. With the living and dining room dominating the first floor, I decided to have him start the plan with a half tile centered on the front door of the house. I knew that once rugs and furniture were in place, this would be the part of the floor most visually I wanted it to look the best. I actually used a piece of chalk and roughly sketched out this plan on the sub-floor earlier to make sure that it was the right approach. I continued the sketch all the way across the room, because I also wanted to see how the diagonals of the tiles would hit the stone Tulikivi fireplace, which has a few diagonals of its own. Fortunately, the diagonals were on very similar angles and the plan wouldn't need small cut pieces to fill in around the fireplace—I didn't want a lot of little cut diagonal pieces filling in the plan as it met the other walls and objects like the fireplace.

Friday, January 2, 2009

15: Porch Railing

I looked at a lot of porches on old houses as I designed the details for my porch. It's a forgotten room of the house and a window on the world. When the design of a porch works, there's no better place to watch the day go by in summer—almost magical at twilight when the sun fades and the stars start popping in the sky.

I had noticed that on many newly built houses, porches often looked like prisons hidden behind tall, dense railing. I realized that building codes probably had something to do with the excessive height, so I asked Oak Tree Homes to check the codes to find out how low I could have my porch railing.

The porches of old houses can often have railings that are only knee level, which might be great for someone perching for a few minutes but are a potentially dangerous height when the drop to the ground is more than a foot or two.

So, keeping within our local building code specifications, I used white packing tape to mock up the railing after Oak Tree had put in the simple columns. Sitting in a chair, I made sure that I could still see the view when seated—important! And, I even went further mocking up the banisters (my tape was about the same width that they would be) to find the exact amount of spacing that would give the porch a little sense of privacy but again not spoil the view of the ground around the house. All it takes is a roll of tape and a tape measurer. It's always good to get an idea of how a built-in detail will look...even if it's only a rough impression. You'll have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. I also found it really helped having a "visual" for the discussion with the builder and tradesmen—again even if it's only a rough impression of what you want.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

14: Exterior Doors

I once thought that I would only use "real" materials for the building of my house, but as I learned about new products on the market—and the realities of my budget—I quickly re-thought things. And, I'm glad I did. In the end, no one wants a new house to become a black hole of maintenance and repairs.

Neighbors across the valley have a really lovely mid-19th century farmhouse, but before it recently sold, I watched the previous owners spend a lot of time (and money) getting things into working order. For instance, the beautiful French doors on an addition to the back of the house are solid wood...and at a certain point had warped and swollen to the point that they wouldn't close completely. Nature can really take a toll on a house, and solid wood doors are not as impervious as you might think. They react to moisture, freezing and thawing—a pretty destructive combination for most natural materials. To get the French doors working again a carpenter had to remove them and plane the edges. And, I'm sure it won't be the last time that those solid wood doors have problems again.

I made a mental note, and when I started specifying materials for my house, I turned to some friends in the industry who know a lot more than I do. One is a former magazine editor who now works for a marketing and public relations firm representing Therma-Tru exterior doors. Their fiberglass doors amazed me. They won't have the weathering and maintenance issues of wood nor will they have the denting, rusting or scratching issues of similar metal doors. While they offer a number of interesting door styles, I decided on their very basic Smooth-Star line, which has the look of painted wood (you paint it the color of your choice). It fits perfectly with my updated farmhouse style, and it comes in two standard sizes. This last detail was especially important for me because I had made a decision to go with 8' doors throughout the house, except for the exterior doors opening to the back and side porch, which are the more typical 6'8" height. In the Smooth-Star line, I was able to get the front door in a very affordable 8' size that adds significantly to the lofty atmosphere of the living and dining room while going with the more standard size in the same style for the other two exterior entries. The doors have been in place for a year and look fantastic. The paint is holding beautifully, and they're incredibly energy efficient. They also have a nice weight to their swing when you're opening and closing them—the kind of subtle detail the is very important to me.