July 13, 2015

Renovation Update

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 7:27 am


We’ve just finished week 12 in our home renovation project.

People always ask how long it’s going to take. It’s a way to make conversation but it’s not what I want to talk about. It’s like kids asking “are we there yet?” on a car ride instead of think about the fun things you’re going to do on the vacation. We’ve been planning this since we bought the house nine years ago and hope to live here for at least as long again, so I’m not focused on the temporary disruption.

Maybe what people really want to ask is how much it costs. Let’s get that out of the way: We crossed the six-figure mark a few weeks ago, about halfway through the project. I’ll leave it at that.

The Process

We hired an architect, Peter Sachs, to design the project, and a builder who he recommended. You can renovate a single-family home without an architect, but it was a good investment. Thanks to his advice, we’ve avoided some mistakes and done things that will add to the home (and it’s value if we sell it) more than raw square feet. Some people hire design-build firms–one company that handles the architectural design and construction–so they won’t design something you can’t afford. I wanted to design what we needed first and then figure out how to afford it.

We’re paying our contractor on a time-and-materials basis. This goes against the conventional wisdom, Theory X, win-lose viewpoint I’ve encountered, where you’re supposed to have a contract and then get argumentative about sticking to it. Maybe I’m idealistic, but that doesn’t seem fair and or even realistic. Maybe some people just like the intellectual challenge of contract law more than the craftsmanship of their house. I’d rather trust the people working for me. Time-and-materials carries risk, but only in the economic sense that greater risk leads to greater reward. Since I’m not buying “insurance” against a change in plan, I save money if the contractor does. If things cost more, it is what it is, nobody “loses.”

And one of things we’ve gotten from our contractor is a lot of value engineering, saving us money by following the architect’s plan on the whole while finding more cost-effective solutions in specific areas. For example, using an in-wall toilet that takes up less space to avoid moving the entire wall, or buying a different name-brand window that he was able to get at a better price.

Our architect has been less involved in the construction phase of the project. From what I’ve heard, some architects choose paint colors and lighting fixtures and every detail, and while I’m sure ours would have us good advice in these areas if we needed it, he’s let us work these things out with the builder and other vendors, which is fine because I like picking out these details.

The Decisions

The first parts of the project were major but not needing a lot of decisions. I mean, having a giant excavator and cement mixer visit your house is pretty impressive. But, it’s a hole in ground filled with concrete, I’m not ruminating on the details. Now we’re into things where getting the details right now really matter: exactly where a door or outlet is going to is something that we need to get right now or we’ll be living with the repercussions for years to come. I’m telling myself, “you can do it this way, or that way”–sometimes, I need to let go of the idea that there is one right answer and I’m going to get it wrong.

I tend to obsess about the electrical stuff. I like a lot of light, but I’ve never liked the heat incandescent light generates, and I like bluish fluorescent light when I have to stay alert after dark and traditional warm yellows when I need to relax. Fortunately LED’s have made amazing progress in the past 10 years; they were too unusual and expensive when building the kitchen just 8 years ago but it’s easier to find LED’s now than the halogen bulbs we used then. Maybe I should have obsessed about windows more instead, but in all these years of thinking about lighting I’ve never given much thought to windows other than whether they’re double-pane or drafty. I’ve been researching online about home automation. It’s seems to in the same expensive-novelty-but-might-have-potential phase LED lights were 8 years ago. I want to try and experiment with it, but not until after the “real” construction.

On the other hand, a big part of this project is being able to delegate these decisions to your architect and builder. I think that comes naturally to some people–they have “a guy” they trust and don’t even want to think about the details. But not to me; professionally, I’m a “leaf node” about the details: business people and UX designers give me a concept and I’m the one who actually puts every bit and pixel in place and chooses the specific code. And on smaller home project, I’m a DIYer and enjoy working out the details myself, too. But on this project I’m the owner at a high level, and not the one who places every stud and screw, so it’s just the opposite of the role I play at work.


The Big Build

I’ve called this project the Big Build, because it’s for our family what the Big Dig was to Boston: it changes everything. (We were in Boston last night and events were going on on the Greenway and in the Seaport area–it really has changed things!) When we first moved into the house, we talked to a couple architects, both of whom gave us advice to do a larger project that we couldn’t then afford rather than improving the house piecemeal. We renovated the kitchen, but deferred almost all other major improvement and maintenance. People seem surprised how big the project is. It’s not that big in an absolute, McMansion sense; we’ll end up with around 2,000 square feet, maybe a little under. But our project is changing every room in and side of the house to some degree; even the rooms that aren’t changing much physically will be used differently.

While there are mornings I don’t relish contractors showing up at 7:00 a.m. I’m thankful that the dream I’ve had since childhood of a custom house is coming true!

March 3, 2013

Usability, Backward-Compatibility, and “Three-Way” Light Switches

Filed under: Design, House Blog, Usability — marcstober @ 8:40 pm

My nine-year-old daughter commented the other day that it was confusing to turn off the living room lights because you couldn’t just push it down to turn it off, sometimes you had to push it up and sometimes you had to push it down.

Indeed. It’s a so-called “three-way” switch, the biggest crime against usability that’s been foisted upon the world. These are the type of switches you use to control a light from two locations, like both ends of a hall. They look just like a classic light switch, that you push up to turn on and down to turn off; and they sometimes work the same (at least from the user’s perspective), but other times, depending on the state of the opposite switch, they work the opposite way. To add insult to injury, they’re called “three-way” switches when they can only be used in two locations. (Three-way refers to the wiring, with three instead of the usual two wires inside. In the rare occasion you need three switches, are you surprised that you need a four-way switch?)

As an aside, the typical toggle switch doesn’t offend me. Paddle switches with screwless wallplates are nice, but not necessary; I just want to fix the usability issue.

One solution would be a single push-button switch. In an example of what was old is now again, the 1950’s house I lived in as a child in the 1980’s had Honeywell Tap-Lite switches. (At least it did at first, my first exposure to electrical wiring was when my dad had to replace some 30 year old switches that failed.) Recently, Legrand has introduced push-button switches in its Adorne line. I think I might use these in my house.

An even better solution would be a switch that you could simply always push down to turn off. It could spring back to the center position, so if the switch at other end of the room was used it wouldn’t end up in the wrong position. But I haven’t seen such a switch for normal residential use.

The amazing thing is that all these switches are backward compatible. The living room switches above were a replacement for the original 1920’s two-button switches that failed after over 90 years of service! I like the character of those old switches (and there are reproductions available now), although the three-way version did have the same usability issue. But, I was able to swap out the 90 year old part with little more than a screwdriver. I think about this when I see USB charging ports that you can hard wire into your house now–will any new hardware and software of today be as compatible at the dawn of the 22nd century?

March 23, 2012

Recent Home (and Car!) Improvements

Filed under: Cars, Design, House Blog — marcstober @ 7:56 am

The say a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a few thousand of things I’ve been improving at home.

And yeah, there’s stuff I bought at Anthropologie and Etsy, and I probably should be posting this on Pinterest, and I’m a guy. Want to make something of it? 🙂

Direct link

January 6, 2009

Sad New from my Twenties

Filed under: House Blog, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 10:04 am

A building of restaurants and a dry cleaners in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston burned down last night. Cheryl and I frequented these businesses when we were dating and first married and lived in that area.

In similar but far less tragic news, a trendy floor lamp that was one of our major home decorating purchases when we lived in that area came crashing down this morning. The joint between the base and the rest of the lamp gave out after years of use (although it probably wasn’t made strong enough to start).

All of this just after my daughter turned 5. So we are officially middle-aged, not young.

I am glad we put fairly large ceiling lights on dimmers in the kids rooms (where we most recently had that lamp) when we moved into the house. It was exactly for this eventuality – I didn’t want to rely on portable lamps that break, have cords that are a safety issue, etc., either to make the room bright enough, or to make it dim enough for putting kids to bed. This is not the first time I’ve had a floor lamp break in a similar manner.

I will try to add pictures and links later if I get to it.

November 14, 2007

Picture hanging for the hardware-obsessed owner of an old house

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 11:04 pm

One thing I like about our old house is the picture rail incorporated into the crown molding. Picture rails are an anachronism; they’re a way to hang pictures without making a hole in the wall, but with today’s materials it’s easy to patch a small hole–even in old textured plaster walls–that only places like art galleries and office buildings that constantly rotate art need a hanging system.

I wanted to use the picture rails but it took a while to find hardware I liked. Molding hooks are easy to find at a local hardware store or in vintage designs through reproduction catalogs, but they require a wire to be looped around a hook, creating more visual noise on the wall than I wanted.

Eventually, I found a system that worked. At the top was a specially designed hook holding a cable with a finished end that hangs straight down. The cable is not picture hanging wire that you can twist and tie but wire rope or “aircraft cable” that is stronger and more flexible (and probably easier to hang straight without kinking). The effect is very clean and “architectural.”

The fun part is the cable grippers with an integrated hook, that attach to the art instead of a regular picture hanger and can be moved up and down without tools. You cannot get anything like this at a local store.

I bought the whole system from a company called Hang Ups. They have a website but are clearly more of a business-to-business operation; it’s not like ordering from Pottery Barn.

August 27, 2007

Is a gallon of paint worth $54? And other notes on painting the office

Filed under: Consumer, House Blog — marcstober @ 7:32 am

Over the past week or so I’ve been spending my evenings and weekends prepping and painting our home office, a task that involved a lot of prep work, a new high-tech paint, and being mistaken for a pro.

The office is a unique little room, separated from the living room by French doors with lots of windows. A lot of houses in the area built around the same time have a “sun room” that projects out of the house, with windows on three sides, and maybe not heated well, but this room is a little different because it’s a regular room, not projecting out. Whatever the original purpose was, we use it a lot like the first-floor home offices present in a lot of better homes built within the last ten years, for paying bills, holding papers and computers, and we are even hoping it can be a place for grandmothers to stay once the baby comes. It’s one of those “old is new” things we really like about this house.

Another thing we like about the house is that, except in the bathroom and kitchen, it has its original plaster walls and ceilings. On the first floor the walls are textured. But, like any active octogenarian, it has some wrinkles, or more precisely cracks, and this room also had some water stains on the ceiling from what must have been a leak in the roof. Actually, the walls are in very good shape for their age, while the house has settled such the nothing is level the old plaster coming loose from the lathe is really cosmetic and worth saving both for its character and because replacing it with drywall would just be unneccessary. So, this is not really just a painting project but a mini-renovation and redecorating project to get the room in better shape, including patching the walls. Patching plaster is something I’m not very good at, though I get a little better every time. The basic plan is to widen cracks and remove the crumbly bits (down the lath in a couple areas) and fill with setting-type joint compound (“setting” in that it doesn’t dry per se but hardens from within after mixed with water, like concrete or, well, plaster), then sand smooth or until I can’t stand the dust even with a dust mask. Actually, next time I may try web going over the partly-cured plaster with a wet sponge, a technique I gave up on once in my last house before I knew to use the setting-type compound. I will say that I’ve gotten the mixing of the compound down, about 4 parts powder to one part water, which is a prerequisite skill as well. Fortunately the texture on the walls is rather random so it hides the patch work, rather than highlight it as some textured finished would, and this room was a good one to get practice on.

The leak in the roof scares me but it seems to be old, we haven’t see any evidence of an active leak and from what we know the house got a new roof a few years ago. The best home improvement advice I read once was to first try the simplest and least expensive thing that will work, which in this case meant painting over the stains with an oil-based primer. Then paint the ceiling. I love the look of a fresh, white, velvety-soft-looking ceiling.

It’s a small room and we wanted a deep color that would “pop” the room off of the living room, making it feel like a separate, cozy area and work well with the reddish gumwood molding and French door. We chose a pumpkin-like orange called “buttered yam” (second choice was “pumpkin pie”) and the color really feels like comfort food; it reminds me of being in my grandparents’ den (orange naugahyde sofabed and manufactured wood paneling on the walls, circa 1970). Our last experience with dramatic color was not good: red paint that didn’t cover and dripped off the walls like ketchup (Cheryl said like blood), and people though we’d attempted some decorative painting technique. This time I was prepared to use a special primer and as many coats as it takes. At first I’d dismissed Benjamin Moore’s new Aura line of paint as overpriced, but then I did the math: I’d need a least two $36 gallons (paint plus tinted primer) of regular paint, maybe I could get by with one $54 gallon of Aura for less? It might actually save money. I’ve found Benjamin Moore paints better than Home Depot’s Behr paints that I used to buy, and the fact that in this house there’s a store five minutes away with better service makes it the obvious choice in terms of getting things done. They paint salesman gave me the advice that, contrary to usual good painting practice, I should let the paint dry after cutting in the edges when using this paint. This worked well, and really shows the best part of the Aura paint which is the synergy between fewer coats and a fast drying time, allowing recoat in as little as an hour. We did need two coats but no more, resulting in four “batches” of painting and drying (cut in, dry, roll, dry, cut in second coat, dry, roll second coat) within about six hours. With other paint it would have taken at least ten hours (three coats with four-hour drying times) which means I would have been in painting mode all weekend and less time for the rest of family life; this is the biggest difference, plus I didn’t need that second gallon so I saved money, too.

Because of the woodwork, I also did a lot of masking with this job, using that plastic film with masking tape along one edge. In rooms where I’ve painted moldings, too, I’ve sometimes tried to “freehand” the edges, because all the masking takes more time than the painting and isn’t always perfect anyways, but in this case I resigned myself to spending more time prepping than painting and the results turned out pretty well.

Finally, I put a couple coats of Holloway House floor polish, as-seen-on-TV, on the floor. It’s not a substitute for refinishing, but at least it doesn’t just look neglected.

The best part of the whole experience? Going in to National Lumber in jeans, a t-shirt, and boots, the cashier at National Lumber asked me if I had an account, like I was a contractor. At least it looks like I know what I’m doing. 🙂

August 16, 2007

The Hidden Cost of Doing Little Things to Save the Planet

Filed under: House Blog, Politics — marcstober @ 1:29 pm

My father always made a big deal about turning off certain appliances when we weren’t using them; now I’m the dad and it’s my job. Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles (even a new book on the topic) about how doing little things–like unplugging cell phone chargers (I’ve seen this in a few places recently) and turning off or unplugging other appliances that draw small amounts of current (I like the term “flea” power)–can save a lot of energy.

I just came across an article in the Wall Street Journal (an news outlet which, like PBS, I find worth paying for to get a perspective that differs from the rest of the media herd) that confirms what I’d thought all along: devices that don’t do much generally don’t use a lot of energy.

This is important because efforts to encourage people to do things that are easy, like unplugging a cell phone charger or reusing a plastic bag, are likely to consume our psychic energy and make us feel good without doing things that, from a scientific basis, could really make a difference. It’s the unbreakable laws of thermodynamics from basic physics: things that create a lot of light, heat, and/or movement consume a lot of energy. A light bulb that could burn your hand while illuminating the room is a lot bigger problem than some device with a little LED that gets just a little warmer than room temperature.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to do the big stuff: either it’s expensive and hard to know if it’s worthwhile, or it would require unacceptable changes in life. Right now I’m trying to find someone to insulate my attic, which I’ve decided, even at a cost of more than a thousand dollars, is the biggest difference I can make; even getting someone to come give me an estimate is a hassle. But keeping my house uncomfortably cold, or not using the car, are not realistic options. Newer houses are better insulated than mine will ever be, but tend to be bigger—according the WSJ article above, they have more than 45% more space to light and heat than those built a generation ago.

I’m not going to lose sleep worrying if I’ve done enough little things to save the planet; I’m going to lose sleep over the big ones.

July 2, 2007

Finally, the kitchen is done

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 10:07 pm

I know I haven’t been much of a houseblogger; maybe I’ll do better when I’m doing my own projects. In any case, while it’s still fresh, I put together an album to document not only how things came out but why we did them that way (the magic is in the details):

January 21, 2007

What’s Ikea’s deal with hex keys?

Filed under: Tools — marcstober @ 8:36 pm

I’m someone who believes you should use the right tools to do a job, and take advantage of the best tools available. Which is why, even though just about every piece of Ikea furniture I’ve bought comes with a little hex key that is arguably the right tool, I’d much rather use my cordless drill-driver than drive a couple dozen screws by hand. Now, this would be really easy if they just used ordinary Phillips screws but not so much when you need a hex key – a metric one at that.

(Actually, I have an interesting history with hex keys. The summer before my junior year in college I worked at the Holo-Krome factory in West Hartford, assembling sets of Sears Craftsman Hex Keys. 10 hours a day, but I earned enough to buy a used car by fall. When I left, the manager advised my to stay in school – as if assembling thousands of identical hex keys sets wasn’t enought to convince me to seek better opportunities.)

Anyhow, I really lucked out and found a set with metric hex bits in the bargain tool bin at National Lumber this afternoon. (It turns out that Ikea’s Trofast uses 3mm hex screws, in case anyone wants to know.) Of course, the set also includes the same Phillips bits I already have several of. So, why doesn’t Ikea just use Phillips screws in the first place? The product had Phillips screws, too, and they expected you to have your own screwdriver for this; wouldn’t it be cheaper not to include a hex key at all? We’re not assembling precision aircraft parts. Or couldn’t Ikea at least sell the bits? I suppose everyone else puts together Ikea furniture without complaining, but I think there are some design aspects that could be improved.
(As a disclaimer: use the above advice at your own risk and when in doubt, follow manufacturer’s directions over mine!)

January 17, 2007

We have an orange square, a dumpster, and no kitchen

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 4:10 pm

Window with Orange SquareIt’s official: our house is a construction site. We have our very own “orange square” (building permit); and Steve brought in a big dumpster and demolished the kitchen. Nothing new built yet, although tools and lumber have started to appear.

Temporary KitchenThe temporary kitchen is not so bad. It’s like being on vacation. What do we need a new kitchen for anyway? The harder part is never quite knowing when things are going to change.

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