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.