Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Build a foam core model before building a house

Fresh out of architectural school, the summer of 1990 presented many job search challenges, much like what graduates are facing in today's economy. Not able to find a job in my field of choice, I settled on a position with a start up company that was nestled in the far reaches of what was to become the Cummings Center in Beverly. An English lad by the name of Peter Lloyd took a chance on me and hired me to work in his new shop called Woodtech. My very first assignment was to turn some 2D plans into a 3D model to help the owner see what the massing would look like before the construction plans were finalized. Modeling never crossed my mind as a career path but I jumped all over this opportunity as I had completed a few foam core models in college.

Today most designers utilize Sketchup or some other form of computerized 3D modeling to help clients visualize their projects before construction starts. Back in the day the technology was not yet available for CAD 3D so we had to go "old school" and I found it to be extremely effective. It was a fairly simple way to show clients what their homes would ultimately look like and it allowed us to present them several options, especially roof lines which are difficult to show on paper. Although we don't like to admit it, the models also help us designers and builders work through some tough design challenges that even we can't visualize on paper. Over the years I have seen many roof plans that just don't work well and a simple roof model would have made every one's life easier. Most roof drainage problems could be minimized with these modeling techniques.

One of my first large projects as the owner of Meadowview Construction had me facing a challenging roof dormer project where the clients were having a hard time deciding what the roof would look like and the budget implications of each option. Much to their surprise I arrived at our next meeting with a model laid on the tailgate of my truck for them to see how things would look. Not only did this enable them to perfectly visualize the final roof design, they were blown away with this extra service that they ultimately signed a contract to work with us. We take a tremendous amount of pride in going above and beyond what is expected (and paid for)and it has been a major factor in our growth as a company since 1996.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Do my granite counters emit dangerous levels of radon?

Recently I have heard this question from at least 2 clients for whom we installed granite counters. Following a story published by The New York Times in July 2008, consumers started to question whether they made a mistake by choosing granite for their homes. They had frightening images of the Three-Mile Kitchen island. The reports were about granite counters that contained radium which can emit radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer.
While some granite counters have been found to give off trace amounts of radon, very few granite countertops pose a real threat. The EPA has even issued a statement saying that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that granite countertops are a source of radon. EPA lists a safety limit of 4 picocuries per liter of air so if you are worried, pick up a home testing kit for about $25. If you see levels above the EPA's limit, call in a specialist.

I have included a few web links that explain this topic in more detail.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's all a big front

It always strikes me how common it is to see people place all the emphasis on the front of their house. Do we only care what passersby think when they see our house and are we so self conscious that we feel the need to present a certain image of our home but only on the front side? Something can be said for good curb appeal, especially when selling your home but it almost always seems like the emphasis is placed solely on the front facade. Take a look around when you drive by homes. How many homes do you see with shutters just on the front? Ninety nine percent of them are just for looks and don't function properly nor are they sized correctly for the windows. Since when did plastic shutters just on the front of the house become an acceptable aesthetic feature of a home?

Another tactic that originated hundreds of years ago is to install more expensive wood clapboard siding on the front facade while using lesser expensive cedar shingle siding on the other three sides. This made sense back then but not in today's labor market. Back then it was difficult to get long straight pieces of wood clapboard so it was reserved for the showy side of the home while the easier-to-manufacture shingles would suffice. With today's labor rates so high it is far more costly to install wood shingles because the average house has about 25,000 shingles and 50,000 nails to install. Do the math!

Many new homes have a stucco or faux brick front facade with vinyl siding on the other walls. this seems like more of a McMansion feature including the 25 foot tall white columns.

When investing in landscaping I bet that most people start with the front, probably to give a positive first impression to visitors. How many people actually spend any time in their front yard if they also have a back yard? The general feeling is to shift all the activities out back where the deck or patio is. I would love to experience the feeling of the old days when people actually preferred to sit on the front porch and interact with their neighbors. There is nothing like a well-designed front porch to enjoy the morning coffee and newspaper. Does anyone still get the newspaper?

When budgets get challenged I have often seen windows get scaled back by using a traditional divided lite pattern on the front windows and the other windows are a cheaper alternative with less detail. Who are we fooling? Besides, the back needs loving too. It's funny because sometimes I see homeowners try to paint their own house and they start on the front facade. If it was me and I didn't do a lot of painting I would make sure to practice out back where nobody can see the ladders set up for months on end. Then if I wanted to hire someone they wouldn't have to redo the entire front of the house to fix up my mistakes while my neighbors watched.

I think Maine has a different culture because I have never seen so many spare cars sitting on front lawns with trees growing up through their rotted-out carcasses. Perhaps there is not as much pressure to conform to a certain "look". Several local neighborhoods in my area even have rules about what you can have in your front yard, even excluding the overnight parking of vehicles in the driveway. One feature I like to see on homes is a boldly-painted front door. It is a nice departure from the norm and it shows a little personality without going over the top.

One thing I noticed on a recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island was that the ocean-front mansions consider the back the front. Logic would suggest that as you drive in the front gates that this would be the front but in fact the front was the side that faced the ocean. This must be so that all the people on their boats can see what an impressive house they had built. If you ask me it's all just a big front.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kill those pesky germs in your sponges

It should come as no surprise that our kitchens harbor the lion’s share of our home’s bacteria, although my first guess was the bathroom. Germs are rampant in the kitchen and I read somewhere that one germ cell can multiply into 8 million within 24 hours. Yikes! Whenever you use a sponge or dish rag to clean your dishes or wipe off your counters there is a good chance that you are also spreading germs. Washing the dish rags or towels once a week is a healthy habit to get into and I have even heard of some folks soaking them in bleach or running them through a cycle in the dishwasher. Dishwashers only get up to about 140 degrees so this is not the most effective way to kill bacteria. My preference is to put them in the microwave. Make sure they are rinsed in cold water so they don’t burn and then turn the microwave on for 1-2 minutes. The sponge is going to be super hot so be careful when removing it. I have not tried this on cotton dish rags but I assume it will work just as good.

Tips for washing towels (and bed sheets):

  • With energy conservation on everyone’s mind I am seeing people switch over to all cold water for their wash cycles. Cold water is not good at killing or removing bacteria from towels. If your machine has a hot rinse cycle I would recommend this or maybe saving up all the towels (and bed sheets) and running an entire load of just hot water for these. Hot water (120 degrees or greater)kills bed bugs where cold water doesn’t.

  • Never use liquid fabric softener on towels or dish rags because water just sheets off instead of being absorbed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser really works

It came right off the wall with little effort and saved me a lot of time, aggravation and money. Wouldn’t it be great if this happened all the time on a remodeling project? A final walk-through with a client at the completion of a project usually reveals any last minute items that were overlooked before a final check is released. On this day, the only item that surfaced was a pencil leveling mark that was used to place the wall mirror. The mirror was mounted away from the wall so if you looked in from the side you could barely see the pencil mark but it had to be fixed or the client would always remember it. I asked Cory to go out and grab the Magic Eraser from the van while I removed the pivoting mirror. While I held the fancy mirror Cory soaked the Magic Eraser in water and rung out any excess. Carefully rubbing the white eraser over the pencil marks quickly removed the marks with no damage to the painted wall. Something so simple left the client very impressed and in a matter of minutes we had the mirror back on the wall and a check in hand.

This Magic Eraser is an amazing scientific discovery which became available in stores around 2003. I think the formulation was originally intended for another purpose but someone must have discovered that it worked well at removing dirt and the rest is history. The box says you can use it in the kitchen for appliances, counters, faucets, tile and grout as well as just about any other place in the house like the bathroom. After you squeeze out the excess water you rub the eraser on a dirty surface and watch with amazement as the dirty lifts off like magic. It works great on pencil, pen, markers, crayon and grease. I would caution not to rub too hard on painted, glossy or shiny surfaces because it might create some microscopic scratches.

Where it really shines is removing soap scum from glass shower doors. Soap scum is hard to remove with common household chemicals so I can’t believe it works so well. When using it on glass you can try two things. First drench the eraser and don’t squeeze it out before rubbing over the soap scum. The soap scum tends to be hazy and if the sponge is too dry it spreads the haze all over the glass. After you sponge the entire glass surface you can finish up with some paper towels or dry newspaper (newspaper works great on glass in lieu of paper towels). Another option is to pour some Dawn dish soap on the Magic Eraser which will give it a little extra help to clean those stubborn streaks. The soap seems to lubricate the surface nicely and you’ll need to rinse it down with clean water. Hot water works best as it will evaporate quickly with no need for paper towels. If you want to kick it up a notch you can also add a coating of Rain-X after the glass is dry. If you’ve ever used Rain-X on your car windshield you know how well it repels water.

I now keep plenty of Magic Erasers on hand at all times including in the work vans. You never know when you’ll have a mess to erase. I am sure there are hundreds of other uses and I’d love to hear of them if you’d like to leave a comment.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Washing machine advice

Today started out simple enough with plans to finish painting a small mudroom and laundry area but ended up with an important lesson about washing machine maintenance. As part of any proper painting job we moved out all the contents of the room including the washer and dryer so we could work comfortably. When we slid out the washer we noticed the floor was wet and the black rubber hose had a small bubble in it. Either of these two problems could have caused some major expensive damage had they not been caught early on. Let me address these two issues in more detail:

-A bubble in the water hose means that the inner portion of the hose has been breached and it is only a matter of time before the thinner outer wall of the hose will burst. A burst washer hose can release about 500 gallons of water an hour and they never burst when you are home. They always burst when you are at work or worse yet, vacation. You can only imagine how much damage this $8 hose can cause. First off, make it a point if you haven’t already, to replace the black rubber hoses with the new braided stainless steel hoses which are virtually burst-proof. The black hoses are about $14 and the braided stainless hoses are $20. If you ask me the $6 is a cheap insurance policy. Second, have your plumber install one of these manual shut off valves so you can quickly and easily shut off the water whenever you are done washing your clothes. Get in the habit of shutting it off each time you are done. Make extra sure you shut it off when you go away for any length of time. There is an even better option which I recommend whereby an automatic valve opens up the supply of water once the washing machine is turned on. The valve senses the flow of electricity and opens automatically while closing after the machine shuts off. You can even get an optional sensor which sits on the floor by the machine that can sense if any water is leaking and tells the valve to shut off if the machine is mid cycle.

-These days most clients want their washer and dryer on the second floor closer to the source of the dirty laundry but what happens to the rooms below if the machine leaks? I have repaired many a ceiling due to leaky washing machines so what I recommend is to install a pan below the washing machine which is attached the the main drain in your home. It doesn’t take more than a trickle of water to create a stain on the ceiling below and mildew or mold is possible too. The pan can be basic plastic with a PVC connector or a custom copper pan which would made up by your plumbing supplier. A pan basically drains away any water resulting from an internal leak or overflow but I have never seen an overflow. The washing machine we moved today appeared to have an internal leak which was not obvious but the water that was on the floor was pretty minor so we installed a plastic pan which will collect any drips. The plan is for the water to evaporate on its own but it warrants keeping a close eye on in case it gets worse. If the valve is shut off after use then there will be no chance of the machine leaking other than when it is in use. That is where the water sensor comes in handy. The water pan will do nothing to collect any water that leaks from a burst hose so the auto shut-off valve is the key defender here.

Additional tips:

  • If you have a front loader the seal around the door is airtight so it’s a good idea to leave the door open for a while so you don’t trap in the moisture causing a musty smell

  • A machine that is not leveled properly will probably shake and wobble. Take the time to adjust the leveling feet and get it as close as possible

  • You can buy this vibration control platform which will supposedly reduce vibration up to 95%

  • Some washing machines have a balancing device called a Snubber which can wear out over time. Check out this link for some good info about replacing a worn-out snubber.

In a future blog I will discuss dryer safety tips

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Making the decision to recycle

Recycling seems to be the buzzword these days and with good reason. The thought of all this stuff ending up in the landfill when it could be reused or recycled has really been eating at me lately. Many of my daily habits or routines involve the consumption of items which could easily be recycled. Take for example my morning coffee-iced coffee usually comes in a clear plastic cup with a lid and if you look close you will notice a triangle with a number inside of it, in this case the cup is # 5 and the lid is #6. It turns out that the town of Ipswich (where I live) accepts both of these items so I have learned to gather up all my cups and toss them in the recycling instead of the trash. It’s a good start, but ultimately I would like to learn a better way to reduce my use of these cups. It might be as easy as not buying the coffee and making my own but maybe I could bring in my own reusable plastic cup or mug. The latter option seems more feasible since I don’t like making iced coffee. I found that Cumberland Farms now has $.99 iced coffee and it’s not too bad, certainly good enough to keep me from spending $2.50 at Dunkin Donuts. The good thing about Cumbies is that it’s self-serve so I can bring in my used cup and reuse it. Dunkin’s would probably object to this for health reasons. I am simply suggesting that maybe we could all take a closer look at some of the most commonly un-recycled items and see if there is something we can do about it.

I have a 5 step system that I recommend to my clients (and friends/family) to start recycling at home which I will address in a future blog but the first step is to admit that there is a problem with the current system. If you are currently doing nothing to address the lack of recycling in your household then that would be a great place to start. Without admitting there is a problem it is unlikely you will be able to effectively address the problem. Many towns are starting to make recycling mandatory which is great for many reasons but unless you have a good system in place it can be a huge inconvenience. I have even heard of some municipalities who have fines if you don’t recycle. Some trash pick-up companies won’t even take your trash if they see any items in the trash which can be recycled. It is hard to enforce but if the trash trucks refuse to empty your trash then what choice do you have? Every family will have to come up with a system that works for THEM which may be different that their neighbors. I can testify that in the end it is pretty easy to implement a system which works well for you. If you are having trouble getting started then I would be happy to do a consultation either by phone or at your home. Please take that first step by admitting that there is more we can do and do some research because there are so many resources available online.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Never run out of gas for the grill

It never fails for me. At some point during the summer I go out and fire up the grill, bring out the marinated meats and then start grilling to discover a few minutes later that the propane tank is almost on empty. With a pile of guests showing up any minute I panic when I remember it's Sunday afternoon and all the stores are closed. Even if I had a spare cylinder it'd probably take 10 minutes to make the switch-out which would screw up the cooking of the expensive meats. Why does this always happen?

The first thing I would suggest (at a bare minimum) would be to have an extra propane tank on hand at all times and when one is empty make sure it gets filled right away. They have a tendency to get thrown in the garage and people usually forget to fill it up until both tanks are empty. On a job a few years ago we discovered an easy solution to this age-old problem and it was as simple as hooking up the gas grill directly to the home's natural gas piping. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying it was simple nor do I recommend you attempt to do it yourself because any work on gas piping should be performed by a professional (plumber). We work with several of the area's best plumbers so feel free to ask if you need their names.

When purchasing a new grill you might have the option of getting it set up for propane OR natural gas so you first need to determine the fuel source. Propane is more common in rural areas with limited natural gas underground piping and propane has twice the amount of BTU's per unit at natural gas. But with natural gas being about 1/6 the cost even with the efficiency being half of what propane is, you still end up spending about a 1/3 what propane would cost. With the small amount of gas you use I think convenience is what you are really paying for, especially since you will need to pay for the plumber to do the piping. If you already have a grill and need to switch over to a different fuel then you will need to see if you can get a conversion kit from the grill store. Otherwise you might need to upgrade your grill. Another thing your plumber will hopefully check is the regulator which adjusts how much pressure the gas will be under when it arrives at your grill. Too much or too little and it'll likely not work correctly. The gas pipes will need to be sized properly with a shut-off near the grill or where it exits the house and I would also suggest installing a Quick Disconnect fitting so you can easily remove the pipe without the need for any wrenches. There will need a flexible hose coming off the hard pipe exiting the house so the grill can be shifted without disturbing the fittings and causing a gas leak.

A common trend I am seeing is for folks to install outdoor kitchens on their property and with good planning this can be an amazing space for your family to enjoy during the warmer months. Even during the cooler months the space can be outfitted with those upright patio heaters you see at restaurants in California.

After I installed several of these hook-ups for our clients I decided to switch over to a charcoal grill which I have not regretted one bit. As much as I like the speed an convenience of gas, the smell and taste of meat cooked on charcoal is so much better, especially with wood chips thrown on for good measure.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Flatscreen TV over a fireplace?

Plasma TV over the Fireplace? I am here to dispel the rumor that you cannot put a flat screen TV over a fireplace but you do need to take a few precautions. First, understand that flat screens operate safely in a temperature range of 32-100 degrees so you need to find out how hot it gets above your fireplace. Simply tape a thermometer to the wall at the lowest point where the screen would hang and get a rip-roaring fire going. Since the TV sticks out 3-4 inches you might want to mount the thermometer out 3-4 inches to simulate where the actual screen would be. After a while check to see the temperature readings. If it is at or above 100 degrees then it is too hot to have a fire and turn on the TV together, but as long as you don't try to do both you will be fine. The TV can be stored (or hung on the wall without a fire) at about 120 degrees without damaging the display, but I doubt many people keep their house at 120. Sometimes it's a matter of moving the TV up a little. Every mantel is different and if it sticks out far it might deflect heat much better than a puny mantel. Heat can also radiate out from the chimney so it's important to let the fire burn for a while, maybe an hour or more to get an accurate reading. TVs are designed to operate at a low-medium ambient temperature so manufactures will void the warranty if the TV was operated under high ambient temperatures for an extended period of time. On the flip side, if the TV gets too cold them the performance will start to degrade. I guess the moral of the story is don't bring the TV outside on Superbowl Sunday if you live up Nawth.

Proper air flow is important so recessing the TV in the wall is not a great idea and when you want to upgrade from a 42" to the new 50" model you will have to rip the wall apart and enlarge the opening. Having the TV up so high puts it well above the optimum viewing height so you will need a good sturdy mounting bracket which can be tilted. If you have ever been in a sports bar you know what I mean as all the TVs seem to be staring down at you from the ceiling. Although it's fine for a while, watching a TV with your head tilted back might cause some neck fatigue so be prepared for this possibility. Optimally you want the center of the screen at eye level when seated in your comfy couch or Lazyboy. On the flip side, maybe one way to get the children to watch less TV is to make it less comfortable by placing it high on the wall.