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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uklars/sets/72157624192680258/.

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.