Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The New Neighbors Next Door

Well, it's been almost two months since I last wrote a post... The New House Next Door now has our new neighbors living in it! These past months have seen some minor activity at the NHND - swapping a  non-working part in the hot water heater, touching up some painting, a bit of regrading, a 911 compliant street number sign, and getting the final inspection and Certificate of Occupancy from the building inspector.

The last contractors on the job - movers!
 Today was the big move day. Grandma and Grandpa have been packing and sorting through their life's possessions this summer and now they are in their fresh, new house! It's about half the size of their previous house, where they've lived for more than 40 years. It took a lot of planning and deciding and hard work - physical and emotional- to pare down their stuff and make this move. Now they have a space that is much better sized for two people and much easier to maintain than their 1840s farmhouse. (I hope I don't jinx anything - but NO MORE MOUSE TRAPS, for instance)

Welcome to your new home!
So, the new house next door to my house is all finished - but I've been thinking that every project I work on as an architect, is a new house next door to someone... so I plan to continue this blog and share some more of my work and thoughts about design with you. I won't be writing multiple posts per week, like I was, and I won't be able to be on site taking photos as frequently as I could with this project, but I hope you continue to find what I have to say interesting. Thanks for "listening" and stay tuned for more!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Final placement of this, Final installation of that...

I don't know what to title my posts anymore. The New House Next Door is really getting down to the finishing touches.
View from the Driveway (Southeast)

 This week, the front porch railing was installed. This railing was not actually required by code, because the front porch floor is not 30" above the grade, but a shorter than code-required guard rail was installed for looks and safety. While driving around looking at the older homes on this street, my in laws noticed that prior to current building codes, guard rails on porches were lower (or non-existent). They thought that the lower railing height, aligning with the window sills of the house, really looked so much better, and I'd have to agree!

Mechanical/ Utilitarian stuff in the Northwest Corner

You can also see the grass seed is coming up, the propane tanks have been moved into their final location against the north wall, the crawlspace access door has been painted to match the foundation wall parging, and the porch floors and exterior stairs have been painted.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Final Electrical

Now that the floors and walls inside the New House Next Door have all been finished, the electrician has been on site installing the final electrical fixtures and outlets. I learned that the sub contractors like electricians and plumbers that come in after the floors are finished work in their stocking feet! The inside needs to be kept clean, so all workers now remove their outside shoes before entering.

Inside Garage

Barn Light being installed outside garage

 Because the garage is detached from the house, the electric runs underground to that building, and comes up out of the ground outside the north side door. These wires were pulled through the underground conduit, which was placed and buried last fall, and the garage was fitted with light fixtures and electrical outlets.

Exterior Lights are required by every door

Outside, light fixtures are placed near entrances, and convenience outlets on porches, etc. The cutest idea that was implemented was the "Christmas Light" outlet - placed up high around the front porch roof. :)
Lighting in Bathrooms over mirrow

Shoe-less Electrician installing outlet in kitchen island

Light Fixtures are required over stairs

Floor Outlets can solve furniture placement dilemmas in large rooms
 Inside, special outlets in the floor and kitchen island have been installed, as well as all the light fixtures. The building code is quite specific about light fixture and switching locations - especially at stairs and hallways - so that one can easily get around without having to fumble in the dark. The code is also quite specific about the distance between outlets, so that extension cords don't become a safety hazard. (did you ever live in an old (not updated) place where there is one outlet per room?!)

Lots of folks like to grumble about the building code - or government rules in general - and some even try to "get away with" evading the code- but these rules are there to protect health and human safety and the more I work in this field, the more I try to impress this upon my clients. Of all the sub-contractors on the job site, I think electricians are the ones I've learned from most frequently about some code requirement.


Last week, the tile contractor returned to install the ceramic tile back-splash in the kitchen. This not only looks good, adding decorative detail to the wall above the counter, it is functional by providing a durable, easy to clean surface in this tough, working area.

Logistically, the things to think about when planning a back-splash, whether in a kitchen or a bathroom, are the pattern and size of tiles and how they are arranged around obstructions, such as electrical outlets and window trim.

The biggest material mistake some make is using grout instead of caulk along the back of the counter, where it meets the wall (the bottom of the tile on the wall). It is good practice to always use caulk, also called "sealant", at any junction of dis-similar materials or at a change in plane. Both happen here. The plane changes from horizontal (counter) to vertical (tile wall) and the material changes as well.

Friday, June 13, 2014


All last week, the floor finisher has been working inside the New House Next Door sanding and applying a finish to the oak strip hardwood floors. I've written two previous posts about the hardwood flooring and you can click here to read them:



The last two floors to be done (remember the bathroom tile floors were completed earlier), are the porch floors, which will be painted, and the mechanical room floor, which will have linoleum.

Linoleum is a natural material - made from the flax plant- and is therefore "green" and sustainable to use. It is also durable, economical, and comes in a myriad of colors and styles.

The mechanical room is a small room in the middle of the first floor to house the furnace, water heater, water softener, and electrical panel. It also has a floor hatch to access the crawlspace below the house. These mechanicals are so compact, that the room will also serve as a storage space, as well, with some sort of free-standing shelving unit.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Final Grading

It's June, and at schools and in class rooms here in New York, final grading is happening.

It's also happening at the New House Next Door.

All the scraped top soil that the excavator piled up last fall is now being spread around the site. Like the end of the school year, this is one of the last tasks after a construction project. Once he has it smooth and even and pitched for drainage, he will plant grass seed. I usually wait until after the site has recovered, usually the next year, after landscaping (plantings) and hard-scaping (walkways) have been installed, to come back to take final portfolio photos for any given project.

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Porch Stairs and Railings

The NHND has a full front porch facing the street and a small back porch that provides access from the backyard and garage area to the house and screened porch. Because of the way the grade slopes down toward the back, the back porch is higher off the ground and requires a 36" high (min) guardrail by code. The front porch is close enough to the ground that a guard rail is not required, however a low rail was decided upon for looks and safety. This lower rail, will look nicer due to it's more reasonable height - codes can make for odd proportions sometimes. (see post on egress window codes)

Back porch stairs
 The rails we designed are traditional and simple 2x2 vertical balusters between a horizontal top and bottom rail. The stairs and posts are a bit more special in the front, and a bit more utilitarian in the back. As is appropriate, the scale for the front entry is more grand than for the rear entry. Regardless of guardrail requirements, each set of steps requires a handrail on at least on side, since they have "two or more" risers.
Front porch stairs

All this code compliant carpentry boils down to one big fact here on site: No more climbing ladders! (and, folks, that means getting closer to time for a tour!)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


Outside water (rain) has to be taken away from the building and one way to do that is with gutters and downspouts. The most important thing, though, is that the ground the water lands on slopes away from the building. Good designers and builders have to "think like a water drop" when detailing exteriors, and bulk water run-off is no exception.

White box gutters being installed to the fascia

 The NHND has standard, white aluminum box gutters and rectangular downspouts - this is the most common and most economical choice and the right choice for this building. Like other "working" items on a house, gutters can be unsightly, (sorry gutter guys! it's true!) and one should plan well in advance for how they will appear, rather than just leave it to chance.

Metal half-round gutter

Other projects I've worked on have half-round galvanized gutters with curved brackets connecting to angled fascias. Decorative rain chains can be used in lieu of downspouts. Of course, rain barrels can be at the receiving end of all this water so you can water your garden without turning on your hose and increase your sustainability.

Detail: gutter returns around to the gable end

Another option to improve the look of plain gutters is to return the gutter around the corner, so the downspout can be less obtrusive as it comes down against the side of the building, without sticking out to "angle back" to the wall. Still another option is to design larger roof overhangs and forgo gutters altogether.


The plumbers have installed the heat recovery ventilator (HRV) and it's associated ductwork. This mechanical air exchange system works together with the exhaust fans (located in each bathroom) to maintain the indoor air quality.

HRV vents out of the attic wall in the back of the house

 Typical residential construction didn't used to have systems like this. It used to be, the building envelope (dividing line between inside, heated space and outside) was leaky enough to provide plenty of fresh air. Todays tighter building envelopes (look at previous posts talking about CI - continuous insulation- for more info) don't allow for a free air exchange (which means we use less fuel to heat and cool our homes- yay!) so we need to provide a mechanical exchange.

This is done quite simply here at the New House Next Door. The two bathroom fans exhaust warm, moist air out. On it's way out, it passes through the HRV, where the heat from that air is removed before the air is expelled to the outdoors. The HRV pulls fresh outside air in, transfers that recovered heat to warm the outside air, and then deposits the fresh air into the house.

The other part of this system that is important to mention is that the attic, where the ductwork and the HRV are located, is conditioned space. Ductwork should always be located within the building envelope for the best efficiency. (see the spray foam insulation applied directly to the underside of the roof sheathing in the picture below)

Ductwork in a conditioned attic - as it should be


The built-in divider to separate the living room and dining area has been built and is being painted. It also frames the bay window. I designed a set of small, low shelves with columns either side of a wide opening. Touches like this add character and can be designed to give a level of separation between spaces that is quite different than what a wall with a wide opening would feel like.

When I designed New House Next Door, I followed principles that can make a small house feel not-so-small. One of those principles is open public rooms (including long, diagonal, and shared views) between rooms. This was a tough sell at first for my in laws, who I was designing the house for. They live in an old farmhouse with large rooms, each of which is separated from the other with walls and doors. Today's designs tend to be more open, more informal, and because open spaces can share light and views, they can use less square footage, but still feel large.

The public spaces at the NHND are organized to be mostly open between kitchen, dining, and living, as well as to the outdoor room- the screened porch. Services, like mud room, bathroom, and mechanical room are enclosed - and one room on the first floor -the library- is designed to be able to be closed off and private. Famous "Not So Big House" architect Sarah Susanka coined the phrase for this one closed off room in our new open layouts to be "the away room". It is a very valuable concept and one I employ regularly in my designs because it works well for human nature. Being all together is fine for some of the time, but sometimes, you just need to go off alone, shut the door - and have a little separation.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Counter Tops!

Kitchen counter tops are synthetic solid surface material, which allows for an under-mount sink (a neat a clean look)
Closet in artist's studio has simple plastic laminate counter top with small sink for washing brushes. This less expensive counter top material needs a drop in sink to cover the cut edge.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Kitchen Finishes Continue

Wall oven and Pantry Closet
The kitchen is looking more finished at the New House Next Door. Some appliances have been installed, electrical outlets and light fixtures are in, the crown molding above the wall cabinets has been applied, and the cabinet door knobs and drawer pulls are attached.

The future owners did a little "sweat equity" last weekend- they worked on the kitchen island top themselves... They got a deal on a butcher block top, but it needed to be cut to fit their island's size, and then a finish needs to be applied to seal the wood.

Owner participation is a great thing. Of course I greatly encourage it during the design process, but even during the building process, it's great for the future residents to feel they had a hand in helping create their new place. There are projects that use donated funds to build low income housing, like Habitat for Humanity - and they require the future owners to work a minimum of hours on the construction of their house. It gives a connection and sense of ownership that is hard to come by otherwise, and it has been found to increase the new owner's ability to keep and maintain their new home for the long haul.

Screened Porch (Sun Porch)

Outside, the sun porch/ screened porch got it's screens installed into the framed openings. I designed it to be finished from the exterior, but to save money, the interior of the porch has been left unfinished for now. Finishing the interior will be a future task for my FIL and DH to work on together someday once we are neighbors.

This is what I'd call an "outdoor room". (click here to read on my website about The Outdoor Connection) The room can be accessed from french doors in the living room, or from the back porch. It is open on three sides, making one really feel as if one is outside when in the space (as opposed to a screened porch that is only open on one or two sides feeling more enclosed). To state the obvious, a screened porch gives one more protection from the elements, and can be used more of the time than a simple deck or patio. (rain, buggy evenings...) This screened porch extends its use even more, by switching into a sun porch during colder months.

It faces south and west, looking toward the back yard and the Catskill Mountain View. With the "Combination Door" inserts we used, the screened panels can easily be swapped for glass panels with the turn of a few screws. Once glass is inserted, this space actually has the ability to gain heat from the sun, both for the sun room, and, when the french doors are opened, for the house as well. During the warm weather months, the roof of the screened porch actually helps keep the house cooler, by shading the western-facing living room glass doors.

So, for summer, a shady, insect-free, breezy respite. For early spring and late fall, a space to catch the diminished sun after/before a cold winter. And for sustainability, the ability to actually help heat and cool the house. That's a hard-working space!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The New Workshop Next Door

Work at the NHND is moving slowly now, getting the final fixtures installed and such.

But! Here on our property, we have started a new outbuilding project that's in the early framing stages and is moving fast. This building will be a two-vehicle car port and a one room wood working shop/studio space. (click here to go to first post about this project)

The foundation and site work is very low-impact by design. Piers reach below grade to frost and support a wood floor system. 2x4 walls support a scissor truss (higher in the middle) roof. The truss is also designed to perform well in terms of energy code, by having a "raised heel" to have more space for insulation above the wall (that spot is traditionally a weak link in the insulation/thermal barrier). The walls will be sheathed with continuous insulation, as well as insulated within the wall cavity. This 23'x23' space will be high, and dry, well lit and warm - all things DH's current workshop in the basement is not. Yay!

In terms of zoning and site planning design, this building was designed to meet the Village's codes and pattern book. Since the one end of the structure is for cars - although not a technically a garage, I located it back 20' from the front of the house, to keep it secondary - as an outbuilding should be. The workshop part will have a front porch facing the street, and our driveway became a circular shape, with two entrances/exits. There are always restrictions regarding how much of the site can be covered by building footprint, and we were careful to meet all requirements and presented our site plan to the planning board for approval last year.

Concrete pier foundation with wire, fabric & gravel under building

Wood framed floor system for workshop/studio space

Raising the last wall of workshop
Roof trusses

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bathroom Fixtures

First Floor Bathroom Fixtures
The plumber has installed the pedestal sink, toilet, and faucets in the first floor bathroom. The faucets have lever-style handles (both tub/shower and lavatory - aka sink) with porcelain inserts, which looks classic and meets universal design standards for ease of use.

Now that the painters have finished inside, the chair-rail and cove moulding will be painted and installed above the white bead-board wainscot. Next will be light fixtures, medicine cabinets, glass shower door, and toilet room accessories (grab bars, towel bars, tp holder, robe hook, etc.) to make the bathroom complete! (and re-hanging the door, of course!)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Final Parging

The parging over the above-grade part of the foundation - remember the below grade portion gets water-proofed- (click here to read post about waterproofing)  was completed this weekend.

The color the owners selected is quite light - you see a big difference from the first layer parging "scratch coat" pictures posted last week, but, oddly, not a big difference from the light blue XPS insulation that's been visible until this point. The GC spread straw around the perimeter of the foundation to help prevent mud splashing up onto this new, light grey finish when next it rains. (like it has onto the bottom courses of siding at the garage building)

The exterior is slowly stepping closer to being completely done. All that's left is porch railings and stairs, sunporch glass/screen inserts, exterior electrical fixtures, final placement of propane tanks, final grading, final driveway, and planting grass.

View from the backyard

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Wainscot - what a cool word, huh?

Wainscotting is any type of wood finish on a wall, usually for the lower half, under a chair-rail. This is a traditional finish that was used to make the lower part of a wall durable, so that when furniture banged against it, the wall remained un-scuffed.

Nowadays most houses have gypsum wall board all the way to the floor, but sometimes in a fancy library or dining room you might see wood paneling as a wainscot; or in a cottage-style home - in lots of magazines these days- you'll see fresh, white bead-board wainscot in a mud room or a bathroom.

Installing white bead-board wainscot in the bathrooms is the way I detailed the NHND and a few other bathrooms I've worked on. It lends a classy feel and looks sharp against the colored wall above. When I went next door to take a photo, my camera battery was dead, so for now I'll post a generic drawing of wainscot styles and show you a photo next time.

Examples of some traditional wainscot styles

Friday, May 16, 2014


A new exterior finish was started this week. The stucco crew came and secured the 2" rigid insulation to the concrete foundation wall, scratched up it's surface, and applied a base or scratch coat over fiberglass mesh. No more blue insulation board visible around the NHND's foundation!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Stair Railing and Closet Shelving

The stair handrails and closet shelves/clothes rods are installed. The interior trim is all done - including on the oval window, which isn't shown in this photo. The oval trim is made of a flexible synthetic material that will be painted to look like the rest of the wood casings.

Clothes closets have a simple rod with shelf above. Storage closets have shelves. By design, the New House Next Door has a lot of closets- 3 on the first floor, and 4 on the second floor! Two of the most unique closets are the one under the stairs and the one in the painting studio. (the largest second floor room will be used by my MIL as her painting studio, rather than as a master bedroom- view her fantastic work here on Face Book)

The under the stair closet has a sort of magical "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" quality to me because the coats will be hung across the width of the space, as usual, but one would part those coats and slip behind them to access the shelves against the back wall. I specified double doors for this closet, so that when open they do not block the hallway - a problem in their current house.

The painting studio closet is a wide closet with double doors. Inside will be a counter with a sink, for cleaning brushes, with storage shelves above. The second largest bedroom has a walk-in closet with a pocket door.

The largest storage area, though, is the attic. There is a pull-down stair from the studio ceiling to access the attic. The roof was framed with what is called an "attic truss", which leaves the center, highest space free of diagonal truss chords, so it is usable space. (click to go to wintertime post about roof trusses)

Smallest Bedroom Clothes Closet

Painting Studio Closet- see plumbing for sink poke through wall

Perfect for Hide and Seek - the Closet under the Stair
Attic Pull-Down Stair - before trim

Monday, May 12, 2014


Many a box truck has been pulling up in front of the New House Next Door delivering cardboard boxes with light fixtures, toilets, faucets, screen/glass inserts for the sun-porch, and many of the other finishing touches needed before the new owners can move in.

In our barn, we've recently had another kind of delivery. Yesterday- yes, on Mother's Day!- our dairy goat Peach gave birth to a single bucking. His name is "Canyon" and he sure is cute!

And here's a picture from a delivery we received last month: 11 baby chicks we ordered from a nearby hatchery. They came in a small box through the post office.

Nothing says spring like baby farm animals!

Happy Mother's Day, everyone!

Friday, May 9, 2014

God is in the Details

"God is in the details" is a quote from famous German-American minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe.

Inside Corner, where two door casings come together

That's the stage we are at inside at the New House Next Door. I wish I could say I designed all these interior trim details in advance, but the truth is that some of the ingenious details around inside corners and such are discussed and made on site by the carpenter, Scott.

One thing I did specify is a tall baseboard and substantial three-part casing in the rooms, and then a smaller base and more minimal one-piece casing in the closets. The tall base is nearly the height of the baseboard radiators, and helps make them less obtrusive. (click to go to post about designing hide mechanicals)

Smaller beaded 1x4 casing and base in closets

Larger Three-Piece Moldings and 7 1/4" Colonial Base in Rooms

Today the stair guy is on site to install the newel posts, spindles, and handrails on the interior stair. This is very detailed, finish work and will be a real feature in the house. We discussed exactly where the newels will go and how they will be securely anchored to be really sturdy. Photos to come next time!

Also today, the electrician is on site doing the finish electric work now that all the interior painting is done around switches, fixtures and outlets. (Painters are also around caulking and touching up.) He is installing paddle switches, which I selected because of their ease of use (Universal Design - anyone can easily flip a switch, even with an elbow or shoulder)

Slides into gap @ Radiator
Meitered Return on Baseboard ...