Saturday, August 7, 2010

Our House Gets a Workout

Today, Todd and Michael came over to attach the small eyebrow over the front door. This has been planned for a while but the final design and construction took a back seat to those items required to move in. My original design was much more elaborate but as the house was built, complexity seemed wrong - distracting from the simple lines elsewhere.
The eyebrow is there for several reasons. Compositionally, it helps draw attention to the entrance by wrapping a horizontal line around the corner column. It also takes a small amount of summer sun off of the glass and brings down the scale from the cantilevered roofline above.
What was built is a light cedar frame that cantilevers 18" over the front door. One small rod is attached to the house at the corner to help hold up that corner. The rest of the eyebrow canilevers off of bolted connections into the trim. Weighing only 30 pounds, it couldn't be more simple to build and hang. The really great thing about it is that it was made from the small stack of leftover cedar siding and trim.
Our house is starting to get a workout. This past weekend, Carrie and I hosted 10 scouts from Scotland. The whole group stayed at our house for two nights after the Jamboree. Matresses covered most of the downstairs bedroom floors, but everyone seemed content with the accommodations; we gave them full run of the house. After having spent 12 days in the summer heat, I think they were glad to be anywhere it was cool.
On Friday, I borrowed the church van and shuttled these visitors around the city for a while. The first stop was a hike to the rocks and rapids of Belle Isle in downtown. With our recent rainfall, the water was moving pretty well; and they were able to see a group of kayakers test and play with the rapids for a while. They also did some rock-hopping before heading to Bottom's Up Pizza.
On Wednesday, we'll have another large group of people tour our house. This will be the August stop for Modern Richmond Tour. Fortunately, we already had some items planned this week that will help finish the house and make the tour more complete. Our long-awaited dining room table came today and fits well in the space. Window blinds will be installed and the windows will be cleaned on Monday.
We both wanted to do some cleaning and prep today but we lost power for the fourth time in 36 hours. Dominion is working on the lines around us and must be having some issues. Each time this happens, you can hear the hum of generators all around us. Hopefully tomorrow we'll get some of the more important things done.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Wrapping Up the Paperwork

This past week, we had our final "official" meeting with our contractor. In addition to making the last payment, we received a notebook of documentation we may need in the future. Inside this close-out binder is contact information for every subcontractor who did the work. There are photos of the wiring inside the walls just before insulation and wallboard covered everything. Also included are digital copies of the drawings in Adobe and Autocad format.
Since we chose to pay for the project through a cost-plus method, we maintained a notebook with all subcontractor invoices. These were put in a large notebook each month - divided by trade. After 8 months of work, this binder became very full.
One of the more interesting pages inside the closeout notebook is a document from Ace Waste that tabulates the volume of demolition and construction debris that they processed from our project. It was staggering to learn that 70 tons (140,000 pounds) of stuff went into the dumpsters over the past eight months. The good news is that 81% of it was recycled in some way. If we were tracking the project for LEED certification, we would get 2 points in that category.
Recycling this way was not free but was similar in cost to taking everything to the landfill. If the motivation is there, you can be more careful about what goes in the dumpster and also separate materials to get a higher percentage. We could have done more with the roof rafters and wall studs, but making them usable for future use would be labor-intensive. My guess is that it will soon be accepted practice (if not mandated by the locality) to recycle all construction debris.
Another item of paperwork at the end is the filing for the $1500 federal tax-credit for energy efficient renovation. The work that qualifies is the replacement of the HVAC system on the first floor. It can be earned only once - but there are a variety of ways to qualify if you're doing a project with a scope like ours; the most common are windows and doors, insulation, and mechanical systems.
Over the next couple weeks, we will be hosting a couple events and several overnight guests. On the 11th of August, Modern Richmond is scheduled to make a tour of our house. There are 50 or 60 people who are proponents of modern design and tour a property each month. The week before that, we'll be hosting a group of British scouts who are attending our National Jamboree in Caroline County. Some will be staying here for a couple nights and the whole group of 30 plus leaders will be coming over for a cookout one night.
The house is starting to feel like ours and being able to have guests use our house was part of the reason we did the renovation.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Move-in Plus 3 Weeks

We've been in the house now for a few weeks and there is still a pile of stuff in the rental house to remove. With the recent heat, it's been hard to get the motivation to finish. Ugh.

Yesterday, I lugged my very heavy drawing table into the second floor loft. This will be a temporary situation for two reasons: First, I want to limit the amount of design-work I bring home. Second, we need a place to pay bills and set the computer.
We have decided to build a desk that matches the wood cabinets and will wrap around the northeast corner of the room. It was always anticipated to have a desk there, but didn't know if we'd find a piece of furniture or just build something in-place. We installed several receptacles for powere and data, but like other decisions we decided to wait until after we used the space for a while.
Right now at night, a person at the desk is a bit conspicuous to passers-by. But when the window treatments are installed we'll be hidden from the street but will still see the sky, trees, and vista across the river. The top-down/bottom-up feature of the window treatments provides that flexibility.
We just received our first full-month's electric bill. We weren't living there the entire month, but the HVAC systems were all running as if we were; to dry things out and test them. The electric charges were a good bit less than what we would normally receive in the summer before the renovation. That is really great news as we added 800 SF of conditioned space (50% more) and more-than-doubled the glass area of our house. Also, this past June and July were unusually hot. There are several factors that I attribute this reduction to:
  • The old house had very little insulation in it. We more than doubled the effective R-value on the remaining old house walls and have a very high value on the new construction.
  • The house has less air-infiltration than before. The expandable insulation helps as well as having new windows that seal tighter.
  • The old single-pane aluminum windows were all removed and high-quality insulated (R-3)windows are being used throughout.
  • The lights were hardly used before 8:30 PM. With so much window area and the open living areas, there is plenty of light to do most any task.
  • The HVAC systems have a higher SEER value and should be more efficient.

We'll continue to monitor the energy consumption throughout the year and compare it to old bills for the 30 months we lived in the house before starting the renovation.

Monday, July 5, 2010

First Event

One of the special features of our street is its vantage for viewing the July 4 fireworks at Dogwood Dell just across the river. We could see them from our front yard, but the best viewing is 100 feet down the road where you have a wide view looking across and down the river. The city closes our block at 8:00 PM so people can put their chairs and blankets on the road. Last night, there may have been 500 people on this little stretch of road.

Because this is such a fun night for our street, we left my family reunion in Kansas City a bit early so we could be in town for the first Fourth in our new house. Most of our neighbors have friends and family over beforehand. We invited some church friends over for ice cream before the fireworks - and of course a tour of our house. The tour doesn't take real long as it's not that big of a house.

The list of things remaining grows shorter but there are a few important items. Anyone that has moved recently will remember how long it takes to put everything away and get those little details taken care of like the newspaper service. With all the things to do, we still go over to the rental house to pick up the paper each afternoon.

The biggest trouble we've had is with our communications provider Comcast. There have been 6 appointments made and have yet to get our internet or telephone service installed - or the wires buried in the back yard. They did manage to get the cable TV hooked up on the third try. Our general contractor warned us that this would be a frustrating task - despite having our entire house pre-wired. The technicians are friendly but the issue is one of communication with the people on the phone making the appointments. Ironic, isn't it?

The next things happening at our house will be the arrival of the dining room table, the installation of the cantilevered trellis over the front door, and the window treatments. On the design-front, I will be taking Preston's landscape plan and adjusting it into the new layout of the front yard. Because I shifted the entrance walk more to the center, some of the plant locations will need adjustment. This re-draw will be done sometime between now and mid-August so new plants can be placed this fall.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Testing 1-2-3

We are in the process of trying out everything new at the house - not just to see if it works, but to see if it works as we hoped. With the high temperature in the 90's nearly every day this month, we've been giving the AC quite a workout. The temperature and humidity in the house is quite comfortable.

The lights are probably the biggest unknown as there are so many different types and varied ways to control them. It will take a while to know what switches control which lights. For the most part however, we're hardly using the lights. The sun is still up past 8:30 PM and with the large windows, there's little need to turn them on.

It's kind of funny and pitiful at the same time, but we've had temporary curtains on the large windows while we settle on exactly what to do. These large windows were wired for motorized blinds, but we just didn't want to spend the large amount of money on them until we experienced a few nights and mornings with the sun and traffic outside. We bought very cheap 60" curtains and tension rods that we put up and take down each day. It looks lousy from the outside and I'm sure the neighbors are worried that this is our ultimate solution.

I'm glad we waited - what I anticipated during design would have been a disappointment. Instead of dropping them from the top and covering the entire window, we'll raise them up from the sill - just enough for privacy. We both enjoy looking at the tree branches and sky outside while laying in bed. What we found is that a short shade on the bottom part of all front windows will give us complete privacy, keeping light and view at the top. The lights from neighbors' lamposts and cars climbing the hill below cast interesting patterns on our ceiling. In the morning, it is much easier to wake up with the large amount of light pouring in from this east side. Until the blinds come in, we'll make-do with the temporary curtains.

Having completed the house in June, the landscaping is the one part I knew wouldn't live up to my wishes right away. We put all the walls and sidewalks in but decided to landscape only what was necessary to stabilize the yard until the fall. Some grass seed and a sprinkling of straw was put down but without anyone being there to water daily, very little of it has come up. It has been too hot and dry. The grass is a lost cause but what weeds are there should help limit erosion. I am tempted to dig it up and start fresh but that would be pointless for another couple months.

The Japanese Maple seems to have come through in fine shape despite being directly up against the garage wall. Todd built a wood frame around it for protection. That did its job.

However, the poor large dogwood was less fortunate. We had construction fencing around it for all but the final month. That month was brutal to it as the masons ran a backhoe under its canopy to access the front yard, then hit it many times while spreading dirt. This week, I picked off at least 40 dead, broken branches from its perimeter. To add insult, the asphalt pavers last week pruned it back on side that overhung the driveway so they could run their equipment freely. At least their cuts were clean. Dogwoods are tough trees but I hate to see this kind of stress put on it during super-hot weather. We'll water it generously; and if it survives the summer, it should be fine.

Hanging around landscape architects for years, I have a basic understanding of how to work around trees. They are an important part of any architectural project and when you are fortunate to have older specimens on-site to work with, go to extreme measures to keep them. It takes at least 20 years for a high-quality planted tree to obtain any real size. Here are my suggestions for working around existing trees:

First, if the tree is essential to your plan - consult with an arborist. I'm not talking about someone who cuts down trees and calls themself an arborist - but a person whose job it is to understand and save trees.

Second: never, ever drive heavy equipment under the canopy of a tree. Look up at the spread of the canopy and expect the roots to spread below the ground at least that much. The roots often lie just under the surface and are easily damaged. Heavy equipment compacts the ground and inhibits proper water drainage.

Third: do not significantly change the drainage pattern around a tree you expect to save. If a tree was in a damp area, keep it that way. If it was in a dry zone, keep it dry. I've seen people add two feet of dirt over the tree roots and around the tree's base. I've also seen people cut the ground away nearly up to the base. Expect bad results from these kind of changes.

Fourth: If you thin out a section of trees, know that trees which were inside the old cluster grew upward, reaching toward the light and may have few branches except at the top. On the good side, they are now exposed to more light which should encourage branches at lower areas. However, they are also exposed to wind that they didn't experience before and are more likely to bend and break. I've seen thinned-out pines snap like toothpicks in high winds. The thick grouping of trees that used to be around them blocked some of the wind - but now they take the full force alone.

As I said before, an arborist can help guide you if called on before work starts. On a project many years ago, there was a specimen beech tree just up the hill from where a foundation excavation was to occur. The arborist was on-site during excavation and gave very specific pruning instructions as the roots were exposed on one side. With clean cuts (and I suspect some chemical treatment) the tree came through very well. It was worth the time and money.

If you were wondering about the image at the top, it has nothing to do with the content in this post. If you couldn't figure it out, it's a sideways shot of the copper panels as they go through their patina process. The color is rather spectacular right now and in a couple months should be penny-brown.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Moving Week 2

Moving provides a great time to purge all those physical things that really don't have a purpose in your life anymore. When I was a kid, I collected things that I thought were valuable such as scout patches, coins, commemorative plate blocks, and arrowheads. There were also collections of post cards, baseball cards, campaign stickers, and things that reminded me of places I had been. None of these have any real value other than reminding me of my early years and the people associated with them.

As I get older, my ability to get rid of stuff is much stronger. I evaluate an item's "worthiness" to stick around by asking three questions. If the answer to any one is yes, then it can remain:
  • Was it used it in the last 3 years and do we expect to use it sometime in the next 3 years?
  • Could someone else put it to better use now?
  • Will someone else value it one day (or) will it just be seen as junk?
When we moved out last October, I was in the middle of my Wood Badge training class and didn't have time to properly clean out. We just put a tarp over the stored items in the basement and threw stuff in boxes. Now however, we have three full weeks to move back in and everything is getting much greater scrutiny. Some of our unneeded furniture will stay in the rental house with Ashley, but a few items will be given to a family new to this country and currently setting up an apartment. There will be lots of yard-sale items.

The most significant construction task this week was the over-paving of the driveway. Gone are those stone circles that we hated to drive over and were hazardous to pedestrians. The contractors added a 2" layer of asphalt for now. However, one day we would like to replace it with concrete pavers or another material that will better retain the storm water.

Over two years ago, Carrie gave me address numbers in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright to put on the house. It just didn't seem right to put them on the brick rancher that we were about to alter, so I put them away for the day we finished our little project. There were several occasions over the past 3 months when I went looking for them - through the 40 boxes in the basement. This past week I finally found them and put them up. It is my humble opinion that they look made for the house (or is it that the house was made for them?)

Finally, the grand piano was moved yesterday afternoon. It adds another lower-scale element into the tall living room and its black color plays off the metal railing nearby. Other than the residual items at the rental house, the only things not in the new house are tables and chairs purchased from Mitchell Gold. These are scheduled to arrive next Saturday and will complete our living room, dining room, and loft.

If only we could get the cable guy to come.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Over the next couple weeks, we will be putting furniture back in the house. If you saw the last post, we had art and books spread all over the floor. Carole Hochheiser-Ross came over this past Sunday evening and within 30 minutes had located every item we had sitting on the floor. I thought we had way more stuff than what she would use but amazingly at the end, every item found a place of honor.

When designing the house, there were several walls set-aside for special pieces of art we had collected over the years. None of it is very valuable, but together it is an interesting blend of Carrie's tastes and mine. Carrie is less timid in color choices and has a preference for yellows and reds while I tend to favor greens and blues.

Tonight, Carrie and I hung a few of the paintings on the wall. The locations were as Carole prescribed within an inch or so. Each one was placed to maximize its impact on the space and help direct or frame a view. Maybe you can see some of that in the images with this post.

Staging is part of the design process, but it must work with the way residents live. Houses and furniture placement can direct behavior to a point, but if it is contrary to the way people live they won't use the space. This can be seen in so many of the "traditional" houses in the suburbs. These houses are replications of a way of life 250 years ago and the floor plan no longer describes how modern families live. Go into almost any of these houses and you will see a formal living room and dining room that are rarely used. All the activity occurs in the kitchen and den in the back.

In a city like Richmond, more than half of the houses exhibit a colonial style and floor plan. That's what the real estate agents say the market is and that's what most spec contractors build. Any deviation from what everyone else has is said to be risky - "you need to consider what the next occupant will want".

Our thinking was the opposite. Let's build a house that closely matches the way we want to live for the next 20 years:
  • Since we both like to cook and the kitchen is the most used space in the house, why not put it where it is the most accessible and where the users can see and communicate with others. Don't bury it in an isolated part of the house.

  • Connect all the public spaces so they flow together and allow natural light to get deep into the house. Use walls sparingly for structural needs, to create privacy, and gently define different functions within the house.

  • Create spaces that will adapt as we progress in years - enjoy the dramatic river view from upstairs but have comparable accommodations downstairs for when we are less mobile. Have an upstairs master and downstairs guest room now, then reverse it later.

  • We'll embrace modern styling because we both appreciate the beauty in simple, clean lines. Much of the modern design that the public sees is poorly done and out of any context with neighboring buildings. If contemporary design is done thoughtfully and quality materials are used, it will be embraced.

  • Instead of buying a second home or condo, create a home that feels like a vacation house or bed-and-breakfast. Have a location with a great view and feels like it's in a recreational area. Since time is precious to both of us, choose a site near those places we frequent.

We'll continue to post occasional essays and images for a little while as we start using the house. If you are driving by one day or will be viewing the Byrd Park fireworks from our street, please don't hesitate to stop in and have a look. We hope you like it as much as we do.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Moving In

Most of the punch-list is complete and the multi-phase move started today. There will be no marching bands or ribbon-cutting - just a gradual slide into the new/old house (or is that the old/new house). This rental house has been fine but with window AC-units, it is hard to control the temperature. Carrie decided two weeks ago that once a bed was in the house, she would be sleeping there regardless of anything else not being there. The bed frame was delivered yesterday and the mattress came this morning - so guess where we'll be staying tonight.

We moved a few things today - kitchen items, artwork, pottery, and my architecture books. Carrie wanted to make the kitchen operational. The art, books, and pottery are there to allow my partner Carole to come and tell us where she thinks these things should go. Since Carrie and I have differing opinions on placement, we asked her to do this for us - even before we started the house. Carole has impecable taste and has been staging for hospitality clients her whole career. Knowing that we might start moving in this weekend, she made me swear not to put anything on the wall or bookshelves till she could see it all. As directed, it is all on display around the living room floor.

The next phase of moving will be "musical-chairs" Monday. I've hired a couple friends to move a few pieces of furniture and many boxes that will come with us. Following that, they will move Ashley's stored furniture into the rental house. There will be several items that will stay in the rental house that she and a friend will be taking over on July 1. If you're confused, don't worry, I am too. It's a good thing that there is no time-pressure other than my impatience to be done with it all.

The final design item on the house is what I call the eyebrow. It serves no technical purpose but is something I've been kicking around since we started the project. Its main purpose is as a scale device and to help identify the entry better. It also provides a counterpoint to the vertical lines on the front elevation. At one time during design it was much larger, made of copper and was quite complex.

If I've learned anything over 30 years of architectural design, graphics, and writing - it's that when something doesn't feel right, boil it down to that which is essential and take another look. I think this process applies to any type of creative challenge.

When installed sometime in the next couple weeks, the eyebrow will be nothing more than a 5 1/2" horizontal line that will extend slightly past the light-colored trim around the door. A thin steel rod matching the interior stairs will be welded to a 3" plate - providing support at one end. The wood part of the eyebrow will be made from the left-over cedar trim boards and siding. To my thinking, it couldn't be any more efficient or elegant. I hope it works.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Walk Through is Tomorrow

After 7 months of construction, things are about to wrap up. Tomorrow is the "walk-through" where Carrie and I check out each aspect of the house and with the contractor, create a list of all unfinished items or details that need more attention. Having been in the house nearly every afternoon for the past month, I am certain the list will be very short.

We will also be receiving the final invoice too. Yeah!

Today the house was cleaned thoroughly so I decided to take a series of photos. They can be found on my Flickr site at:

The one big remaining issue is the finish on the floors. The contractor was not happy with the way the stain took to the floor. There are several light patches that are quite noticable. It is my understanding that the floor finisher will be coming back on Friday to remove the layer of poly over the stain - then applying a new layer of poly with a stain additive. This may darken the entire floor area which would be a good thing - as long as the light patches are no longer noticable. I have faith that our contractor will see that it looks great before handing the house over to us.

Though the official hand-off is Saturday the 12th, Todd told us that it would be possible to move some items into the house as early as Tuesday - assuming the floors are dry and acceptable. There is no big hurry - but we may hang a few paintings and start the furniture delivery process next Friday with our bedroom set. After that, we'll have a gradual move-in over the following two weeks: moving the piano and some furniture from our rental house, the washer and dryer, the furniture coming from Mitchell Gold, and numerous boxes in storage.

It will be bittersweet to finish this project. On one hand, we are very eager to make use of the many cool features of the new house - like central air conditioning, a dishwasher, and a shower that you can turn around in. As for me, I will also be very glad to have no more decisions to make. After a while, it can become a chore.

On the other hand, I will miss the anticipation of coming by the house each day to discover what was done. For the past two years, I've held the design in my mind and then on paper. As with all projects I work on, it's very cool to see it come to form. There are always a few things that don't work out exactly as anticipated. Considering the complexity of the project however, I couldn't be more pleased with how things came together. The craftsmanship and attention to detail are superb.

Thanks to Michael, Todd, and everyone who worked on the house - and filled in the details where my design left off.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Exterior Lights

As you can tell from the images, the electrician wired the outside ground lights. For fun, I turned everything on inside the house and lit the exterior ones as well. It is striking for a photo, but a bit overkill for normal use. Once we occupy the house, it won't look this lit-up - as there will be shades to cover some windows and all the lights won't be on all at once.

The exterior lights serve a couple purposes - to light the house for special occasions and to also provide security illumination around the house. We are able to turn them on from a few places within the house - including the upstairs.

As the landscaping gets placed, I may move some of the ground lights away from the house a bit. They are LED and use very little electricity relative to the wattage they put out. Their color is very true. The electrician told me that there is about 18" of extra wire to make adjustments. Right now, the two on either side of the Japanese Maple are just a bit too close.

The ground lights have 6 very small LED lamps within each fixture. There were similar ones with only 3 or 4. I researched these as best I could but couldn't find any lit examples of the ones I selected. The catalog was written for electrical engineers but with some help, I was able to understand most of it.

Atlantic Electric (the store that I bought them from) had them installed outside their store and told me to come by at night to look at them. However, each time I went by at night, they were never turned on. With nothing to serve as a real-life example, I just crossed my fingers that the light levels would be what I hoped for.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 31

Again this week the progress was most visible on the outside. The masons put the finishing touches on the sidewalks and walls, then set the paver blocks for the parking area off the street. There will be a concrete strip that contains these pavers - there mostly to define the pavers and signal that this zone is not part of the public street.

Seldom will a car be parked there and I anticipate the wall will be used mostly by bikers who occasionally take a break at the top of the hill to make adjustments or catch their breath.

Some time after we move in, the stone circles from the driveway will be removed and a layer of asphalt will be added . Todd suggested we do this replacement after the move so the move itself won't damage the surface. That makes sense.

The most asked question about the property renovation has been about the three stone circles in the driveway - and if they are to remain. I usually joke and say how much we have come to love them - but quickly say that they "unfortunately" will be removed.

Landscape workers spread topsoil and mulch today as they finished final grading and seeding. The only question today was whether to put mulch along the wall as I indicated in a drawing. The landscaper suggested not doing so at this time - leaving it grass.

For now, that's the way we'll leave it. With the summer nearly upon us, it's unlikely that the grass planted today will survive through a typical Richmond summer - unless we water it generously. Plants have a much higher survival rate if planted in the fall; when they have all winter for root growth. I may re-transplant selected plants back into the front yard over the summer but most landscaping will start in September. Knowing that I love to piddle with plants, there will be no end.

Before the renovation project began, I moved many front yard plants into a "nursury" in the back and a few other at the edge of the front yard. Now that the outside construction traffic is over, some will move back.

While Carrie and I were checking out the house tonight, a young couple and their two kids stopped by to inquire about the bluestone walks. They are planning a patio and were curious to learn the name of the stone. Unfortunately with so many selections made over the months, I can no longer remember anything specific. For future reference, we'll make a list of material choices and contractors who installed them in case we ever want to make changes or need maintenance.

The kitchen received its final touch last week as the glass countertop was put in place. It cantilevers into the dining room about 10" and is anchored through the granite with stainless posts. This is a small detail overall but it really adds some sparkle to the space and keeps the kitchen connected to the dining room.
Today, part of the handrail to the basement was put in place. Todd and I had a couple conversations about how it was to connect at the top. For now, we have a plan but if it doesn't look right or is rejected by the building official, we'll try something different.
As one of my Hanover friends likes to say: maintain "rigid flexibility".

Sunday, May 23, 2010

First Impressions

This weekend was a time of family celebration as our daughter Ashley graduated from VCU with degrees in Music and German. That brought both sets of Granparents as well as my sister and one of Ashley's cousins to Richmond.

They have all been following the construction progress on this site and were finally able to see the house in person. My dad (who built an addition onto his house when I was a teenager) follows the blog closely and said he felt like he had already been there after seeing all the plans and photos.

The progress this week has been very obvious to anyone driving by. The stone wall along the street and the sidewalks are finished now. The piles of dirt from the excavation were removed. This certainly cleans up the first impression of the house. We are both very happy with the wall and the steps. The only hardscape items that remains are the single parking spot and the cobbles that edge the landscape zones. The walls are a nice way to extend the architecture to the street (and) the front sidewalk allows visitors to approach the house more directly.

Now that the hardscapes are in place, it will be a lot easier to imagine and plan for the landscaping suggested by Preston. This evening, I took pictures from the windows to see where we might want to plant taller plants or trees. I don't want to block the views from the house - but frame them with plant material. It would also be nice to have a tall tree somewhere between the street and house. Streets always feel better when trees canopy the road.

I altertered the hardscape plan that Preston created a bit in order to save some money but the basic concept is there. He suggested that the sidewalk from the driveway approach the front door from a greater distance than it was before. Also, the sidewalk from the street is shifted away from the porch. I did not want visitors to walk in a straight line to the front door. There is very little symmetry about the house and it wouldn't be consistent to do that with the walks. Besides, paths are less interesting if straight.

Just as the landscape is easier to conceptualize when the house and hardscapes are in place, there are two other things that I've been waiting to finish until now. The first is the eyebrow over the front door. The second is the privacy treatment on the windows.

While there is no need for additional shelter from rain, I've always had in my mind to place a scale device like a trellis over the door. This would also add a horizontal line across the front face to counter the strong vertical windows. It will extend about 3 feet out and wrap around the corner.

The window treatments will be necessary to give us some privacy at night. For the front bedrooms behind the large bay windows and the living room window, we have pre-wired for motorized shades over this area. Since the windows wrap around three sides, we will need 3 synchronized motors on each floor.

One of the important design ideas was to face the bedrooms toward the view knowing that this was also nearly due east. We are up above the treeline on the other side of the river so we can see the sunrise very low above the horizon. Having the orange-red light coming into the room in the morning is very cool.

To better understand the interior visibility at night, I turned on all the lights and took a series of photos at dusk. Even with the protective film still on the glass, you can generally tell what is visible inside and what is not.
Unless it's very cloudy, interior spaces are not generally visible from the outside. Even with the lights on inside, the light level is so much brighter outside you have a hard time seeing detail. Light levels typically found inside a house with lights on will vary from 30 to 100 footcandles. Outside levels on a sunny day can range from 100 footcandles on a cloudy day to 10,000 in bright sun. No wonder that during the day, lit rooms will appear dark from outside.
What the images do tell me is that some well-placed landscaping will create some privacy for the living room from those driving down the road. That window is 28" above the first floor and the floor is 6' above the road. Because of this geometry, the street view of people seated in the living room is mostly blocked already. This information may impact our strategy for window treatment in that room.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Details, Details

After a couple days of rain, work started back in earnest. The folks from Stonee Masonry are in force working on the street wall and the sidewalk. They are laying the bluestone in a mortar bed and have almost worked themselves to the driveway now. The stone on the retaining wall will be 24" high. Most of the area between the street and the wall will be planted - with one space paved with concrete pavers in the middle. This should be a very nice addition when finished.

Inside, the wood doors are being re-hung with the lever hardware. The brushed nickel finishes are now going in around the house. This includes the exposed light fixtures, the door hardware, and kitchen appliances.

One of these light fixtures is a little different from the norm. It's the dining room light over the table. It came as an 8 foot metal beam that is to be bent to the desire of the owner. To make this happen, I created a drawing at full scale showing the "s" curve that would be interesting and would also spread the light evenly over the table. Five pendants will hang from this beam. Todd took my drawing and created a pegboard that would help him fashion it to that shape. This can be seen in the adjacent image.
Also showing up yesterday are the caps on the railings. These provide a lighter touch and contrast well to the black metal and darker floors.
Perhaps the most anticipated arrival today is in the kitchen. The appliances and cabinet door pulls are going in. These have been stored in our rental house garage since February. Todd and someone from Clines showed up at the house this morning to gather them and begin uncrating and wiring. By noon, the microwave was in and the dishwasher was about to go in. I suspect they will all be in-place by the time I go home from work.
This weekend is a big deal for our family as Ashley graduates from VCU. Her grandparents and my sister will be coming for 3 days to see her get the diploma and celebrate with us. We had originally hoped that the house would be complete for this event, but the weather over the past 6 months didn't cooperate.

Nevertheless, it takes little imagination at this point to see how everything will be at the end.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Floors and Hardscape

The yard is officially a mess. However, the hardscapes are going in and will add another architectural layer to the project. The wall along the steet will be covered with stone to a 24" height. The top of wall and sidewalk will be bluestone as seen in the photo on the right.

Though not required, I wanted to create a more formal/urban connection to the street. Somehow it just seems more neighborly. To accomplish that we will have 3 sets of two steps that rise from the street. The wall sits back two feet from the property line and will accomplish two things: making the usable area of the yard easier to maintain (and) creating a single parking space in the right-of-way. That one parking space will be outlined with cobbles and topped with gray concrete pavers. The rest of the area between the wall and street will be landscaped in a way to restrict additional street parking.

It is already too hot to install landscaping, so we'll wait until September to start that. At that time, we'll being to move some of the plants that were pulled away from the house during construction. These are currently stored in our back yard and along the side of the front yard. They have held up ok during this time. The contractors will do their required seeding of bare areas for erosion control measures, but that will most likely be temporary until a permanent stand of grass can be developed.

Inside, the floors are sufficiently dry to walk around. There will be one more coat of poly to go down once everyone is finished inside. The deep color changes the way you perceive the space a bit. There is much more contrast with the walls now and the reddish color expands the spectrum slightly from just the oranges and browns. Our furniture and artwork will further expand the range of color.

To see the most recent set of images, go to my Flickr page:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's So Red

As you can tell from the image, we gave the contractor the green light to start building the stone wall, steps, and sidewalks. With a backhoe to do the digging, it doesn't take very long to make a big mess. They started this in the morning and by the end of the day, they had excavated for the retaining wall, dug up the old sidewalk, and poured the wall foundations.

It is shocking to see the deep red color of the dirt - so much iron in the soil. Perhaps it's a good thing our wood floors will be a reddish color. They are almost a perfect match for the dirt. In a bit of rationalization, my story will probably become this: that the brick stain color I chose came organically from the natural color of the soil. That sounds like something an architect would say.

Carrie's favorite color is red and she's been looking for a way to use red in the house. The floors should satisfy that craving. The image showing the floor is taken from the kitchen door. The image doesn't adequately show the true color due to the blueish-tone of the kitchen lights that lit the photo. Trust me they are a deep brownish-red.

We can't go into the house because of the wet floors - now coated with a layer of poly. There will be one more layer applied when this one is dry. The floors already warmed up a good bit from the time they applied the stain until now. The floors will be a strong contrast to the lighter colored woods and walls.

It'll be exciting to go back into the house when everything is dry. I suspect it will dramatically change our perception of the spaces once again.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

All About the Floors

This coming week will be all about the floors. Most everything else inside is done except for a couple light fixtures and the kitchen appliances.

The floor sanding started on Friday and will continue early this week - then the house will be closed to all others (including me) until the staining and finishing is complete. The old oak floor-boards are a bit more orange than the new boards, but when the stain is applied this variation should be gone. This process will take several days so don't expect new photos until that process is over.

In the meantime, I've included a few images that show some of the specialty lights. They will all be adjusted once the furniture in in-place - for the desired effect. There will be plenty of light at night, and with dimmers and switch control we should be able to easily adjust the amount and location of light. The lighting designer (Diana Ades) who helped me spec the fixtures edited the number at an early point. I'm glad we did that as there is ample light already - with a few still to be powered.

Carrie returned from an 8-day road trip to the West and was able to see the progress this weekend. The lights that graze down across the fireplace stone got her attention quickly. These really show the color and contrast of the stone.

We are both eager to have certain amenities that we've done without for the last few years. For Carrie, it's no-doubt a kitchen with countertop space and appliances that actually work. In both houses we lived in since moving into the city, taking a shower has been a claustophobic experience. The Riverside house had no dishwasher or space to prep meals.

I joke that the light in my bedroom closet will be my favorite luxury. For three years, I haven't been able to really see my clothes in the morning - reduced to selecting pants by how the fabric feels.

A few other things that are now in place are the bathroom mirror and the frame for the glass between the upstairs rooms. The only other wood item in the house is the cap on the metal rail. It is a simple rectangular design and should add some warmth in contrast to the black metal.

Only 4 weeks to go.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Week 28

Some final details are going in this week before floor sanding starts on Friday. The most obvious is the garage door. As you can see from the image, it is made of cedar that matches what was used on the rest of the house. It is in four panels and after 3 coats of sealer, went up in one day. I am very happy with the way it looks and am eager to use the garage again. The previous door didn't work for the past two years and we chose not to replace it until the renovation was under way. During that time, we didn't park cars inside and had to pull everything out (including the lawn mower) through the old sun room.

The electrician has been at the house all week installing the many electric fixtures. I think he's had quite a workout since many are low-voltage and/or specialty pendants. The most challenging ones are probably the beam fixtures that are mounted high. These can be adjusted once powered up so we can control the way the light is thrown. These can be directed at the ceiling to bounce a general light to the room or to a wall where the light will splash across the wall with a little more drama. I imagine we'll do a mixture of both.

I am told that Costen will start the sanding of the old and new floors on Friday. Our last finish decision is the floor stain. Anyone making a finish selection like this should always have a sample area done to see it in the actual location. A small sample "color chip" cannot reproduce these conditions and a computer image is also unreliable.

The contractor put samples of our three best-guesses by the front door to help us make that choice. I was pushing for a reddish tint so the cabinets would contrast and appear more blond (and) to keep the color palette from being too brown. You can probably guess which of the three samples below is my favorite.

With this floor work going on next week, the house will probably be less accessible for casual viewing. There can be little-to-no traffic in the house once the sanding and finishing begins. There is wood floor in nearly every room of the house so it will take several days to complete.

With one month to go, the obvious missing parts are the landscape and hardscape. We got the price back from the masonry contractor on the bluestone sidewalks, retaining wall, and pavers at the street. I think we'll go ahead and get that done now but wait until fall to put in the grass and most other plant material. Richmond weather is usually too hot and dry after April to try to grow grass without a lot of babying. The best time to plant is always in the fall when we start getting regular rains and it cools down. Plants will then have all winter to develop their root system.

To view additional images go to my Flickr page at the link below:

Saturday, May 1, 2010


The house's first resident moved in last week. A little robin built a nest on the porch beam, very close to where one has been each year we've been in the house. Their preferred spot was between the house and a roof drain. With our new round gutters, birds can't nest there anymore. In coming years, I imagine we'll have a few more guests with all the nooks created by the exposed framing.

In the last few days, accessories and some details have been going into the house. The tile backsplash in the kitchen is now in. There are 1" blue glass and stainless tiles within the off-white larger ones to add a touch of color. The stainless tiles add a bit of sparkle and will blend with the appliances and plumbing fixtures.

Speaking of plumbing, the faucets and valves can now be seen in each shower and sink. They are Kohler products and were selected by Carrie over the internet. The toilets are from Toto and have dual-flush features. Everything has a clean, modern look.

The exterior light fixtures are also on the house. They are from Hubbington Forge and have a bit of "Craftsman" appearance. Though I would by no means call our house a Craftsman Style house, these are simple enough to be compatible. Picking out exterior light fixtures was very challenging. Ninety-five percent of what one finds is Jetsons-modern or overtly Colonial.

The interior light fixtures are being detailed and should be making an appearance soon. Diana Ades from Lighting Virginia helped me make many of these selections. The cool ones are low-voltage and will create some drama on the walls and ceiling.

Next week will likely see the garage door go up. It is sitting in the garage and is finished with cedar boards - looks real good. Ever since we took out the line of evergreens along the driveway, the garage opening is visible from Riverside - when approaching from the east. For a brief time, I considered using a painted door, but since it is so large and visible, cedar made the most sense. With all the brick on the garage, the door will bring the cedar around the corner for some balance.