Architecture 101 - Some of Life’s Little Design Lessons

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1) Decide if you want inset or overlay doors - overlay doors will be cheaper (see picture brown is overlay, white is inset).

2) Stained or painted? Painted will be cheaper if you decide before construction begins.

3) Drawers are more expensive. If you want to keep costs down, keep drawers to a minimum.

4) Check with a local cabinet maker before going with a big box alternative. They could be pretty close in price and you'll get a MUCH better product. And your money stays in your neighborhood.


Roman architect Vitruvius laid these out at the end of the 1st century B.C.E. - FIRMNESS, COMMODITY & DELIGHT. Try applying these basic principles to your projects to see if you are going in the right direction.

Firmness refers to the building's structural integrity – is it going to be able to withstand nature's fury? Or even nature's everyday shenanigans – like a foot of snow in April?.

Commodity refers to the utility of the space – is there an efficient arrangement of spaces, are the mechanical systems too small (or too large) for the spaces?

Delight (everyone's favorite) refers to the overall style – is it beautiful; are the proportions lovely and, if you are lucky, does the space bring you joy?

Here are a couple of spaces that are joyful in very different ways:

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is loosely defined as anything that takes on an amusing or exaggerated appearance. Also sometimes referred to as “autoscape” architecture – it was meant to grab your attention as you drove along. We think that it is just plain fun! Here are a couple of our favorites. Do you have any particular favorites?

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Spring is here! If you are like me, you are chomping at the bit to fix up all of the little things on the exterior of your house that have been staring at you all winter. If replacing trim is on your list, here is some helpful advice. You have essentially three choices.

WOOD: You can go with painted wood – make sure to paint the back of the piece (which is known as “back priming”) and it will last longer. We recommend staying away from finger-jointing as that, anecdotally, seems to invite rot. Depending on the species that you choose, you could be replacing it in 3-10 years.

PLASTIC: You can also go with PVC or plastic trim. You won't have to replace it. It's easy to work with. But it will expand and contract with the weather – creating unsightly gaps. It is also the least healthy choice in terms of the environmental impact of plastic.

FLY ASH: We recommend using trim from the manufacturer Boral. It is made of 70% recycled material. The main component is fly ash – the leftover ash from power plants. You do not have to back prime. It is easy to work with. And it will never rot. It does not expand nor contract :-) It is a bit more expensive than the other two. But it is a one and done fix that will look great. So, next spring you can work on something more fun, like a mailbox that is snowplow-proof.

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When renovating our homes we see a lot of folks who want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." What we mean is they want to gut an entire bathroom because they don't like the color of the flooring or something else. Always try to look into changing something small before you go down the rabbit hole of a major renovation – especially when it comes to bathrooms. Bathrooms are usually one of your largest square foot costs in a project.

Some ideas for small changes: Paint; Medicine cabinets; mirrors; wallpaper – which is coming back in vogue. A little more money can get you: a relocated doorway; crown molding; or a new toilet. One place to get some ideas is a website called “Save the Pink Bathrooms.” If you are lucky enough to have a pink bathroom, we highly recommend checking this out before you rip out all of that lovely pink tile.


If you, like many these days, are contemplating adding a ramp to your house, it will be much, much easier for your loved one to negotiate the ramp if you make the pitch 1:20 (rise up 1 foot for every 20 feet of run) rather than the bare minimum of 1:12. Your loved one will thank you for it.

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If you are remodeling your bathroom (cost/sf one of the most expensive rooms in your house to remodel) think about installing handicapped accessible faucet. These don't require tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist. Look for the "ADA Compliant" indication on the packaging.

BATHROOM FAUCETS PART 2: All operable parts on a handicapped accessible faucet shall not require more than 5 pounds of force to operate. For more in depth information on choosing a faucet check out this guide:


Achieving repose with an informal exterior requires a trained eye that can recognize restful arrangements that are not exactly the same. You'll still need to balance around a central axis but you'll need to fire up your imagination in order to do so. The successful result is often more subtle than a formal arrangement. The pictures below show a lovely example from our favorite Sears kit homes by mail, the Parkside. Compare this with last week's Milford. Both feel balanced. Traditional Japanese architecture (and art) brought informal balance to a new level. Here are some examples.

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We can define balance as the state of repose. When it comes to your home's exterior you'll want to ensure that you balance doors, windows, porches and dormers around a central axis. You can do this formally or informally. Formal balance is, in essence, symmetry. It is easier to use because it can be measured. It is quiet and dignified. The pictures below show a lovely example from our favorite Sears kit homes by mail, the Milford. =. Stay tuned for a post on informal balance.

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There are ways to make a square look well-proportioned and elegant. Let's go back to our beloved Sears kit houses and the house style known as American Foursquare.

Look at “The Castleton” below. It's a box but there are several proportional aspects that make it visually interesting. Notice that the windows are all rectangular – even the ones up in the attic. This draws your eye along the long side of the rectangle and takes focus away from the box. Additionally, there are 2 different siding materials used. The change in material does not cut the house in half so again, your eye does not see a box. [Notice the bump out on the side elevation – it cuts through the line that marks the change in siding – once again we see that lines are meant to be interrupted.]

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In part 2 of our quest for elegant design, we will explore the idea of proportion. These are the relationships of the parts of a house to the house as a whole. You'll want to have these relationships create and hold interest in your viewer.

You may have heard of the Greek or Golden Oblong. This is a rectangle where the short end is 2 units and the long end is 3 units. In essence a rectangle that is comprised of 6 identical squares. See the image below. While identical squares are difficult to achieve in a house facade there is a take off of the Golden Oblong that is known as the “Rule of Thirds” which is considered to be more beautiful than a symmetrical shape – a square. Just for fun, I've used images of Sears Kit Houses to illustrates the Rule of Thirds.

“The Malden” is the black and white drawing. Imagine if you drew a straight line from the centers of the left and right dormers down to the ground. This would create equal thirds. The house isn't symmetrical but see how lovely the differences look just because they are equal proportions? The house holds your interest as you run your gaze across it.

Our second Sears house in the black and white photo is “The Crescent.” The porch columns define our thirds – see the floor plan labelled C3259A. The eaves of the gable roof over the porch interrupt the lines of the thirds. But lines are meant to be interrupted – every now and then.

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In our quest for elegant design let's start with harmony. Random House states that harmony is “A consistent, orderly or pleasing arrangement of parts.” Here you will see two front entrances. The entrance below uses an arch to provide a graceful transition from the horizontal and vertical lines of the porch to the pitched roof. Additionally, the columns look like they are holding the arch in place – the way arches were intended to work. In the entrance on the righ, the arch isn't supported by columns at all – so it looks a little odd. Also, the pitch of the roof over the entrance is too steep compared to the roof of the house itself.

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When you are examining your home's design there are 5 principles that you should use to determine whether or not it is Good Design and therefore, elegant:

1) harmony, 2) proportion, 3) balance,

4) rhythm, and 5) emphasis.

We will post about each of these in the upcoming weeks.


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When renovating a kitchen that you plan to cook in you need to think about functionality. There is a rule of thumb known as the “work triangle” that you will need to keep in mind. The work triangle is an imaginary line drawn from the center of the sink, to the center or the stove to the center of the refrigerator and then back to the sink.

1. The sum of the length of the 3 sides should not exceed 26 feet.

2. Each leg of the triangle should be no shorter than 4 feet and no longer than 9 feet.

3. The triangle should not cut through an island or peninsula by more than 12 inches.

4. No other major traffic pattern should cross through the triangle.

This works in kitchens of all shapes and sizes - galley, U-shaped, and L-shaped kitchens. I've shown a tiny galley kitchen below that illustrates this. This kitchen is for a 575 square foot house for a retired couple. The refrigerator is an under-counter model.


is so important for us since we spend 90% of our time inside. Some houseplants can clean our air of common pollutants. Good old NASA did the work for us. I'm heading out to my nearest garden supply right now :-)

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A word about fences. If you decide to use one for your outdoor room try to add a little visual interest. The picture below show an arched gate and a reducer (on the right.) These add visual interest. You could also think about using lattice on the upper portion of your taller fences to relieve the severity of solid boards. Don't be afraid to be creative.

More fun with fences: Interesting fences also make interesting shadows —>

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Lots of us are taking care of elderly parents or have had an injury ourselves or simply have worked out too much. Many principles of universal or accessible design can benefit us all.

This week we'll look at everyone's favorite - grab bars. Unless your are extremely handy you should hire a professional for this. Make sure that you secure the bar to either a wall stud or a solid surface that is secured to your wall studs ("blocking"). The 2 images below show you where to install grab bars near your toilet. They should be between 33-36" above the finished floor.

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Tip for the day. Use D-shaped handles on your cabinets instead of round knobs. They are MUCH easier to grip. You've got plenty of choices for any design style :-)

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If you're choosing door hardware think about using lever handles, not the round door knobs. Lever handles don't require grip strength nor the ability to twist your wrist. They are also great when you've got your arms full of groceries or a dog leash. An elbow can open a door!


There are many times when a wheelchair ramp comes in handy. If you are temporarily in a wheelchair or if you have a relative who wants to visit these are a necessity. While the code requires that the slope of the ramp be 1:12 (a 1-foot rise over every 12-feet of length) it is much, much easier for a wheelchair user to propel themselves up the ramp if the slope is 1:20. Make sure that you have enough landings to provide a resting spot.

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An adjustable or hand-held shower head can be used when you are seated or standing. Flip it to the massage setting and hit your calves after a particularly grueling 7-mile run. (Gold fixtures are making a comeback.)

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The entrance to your house is the first thing that visitors see. There are ways to have a little fun that we'll explore this week. There are cool window arrangements on some doors. If you don't have a big budget a new color can spice up your front door.

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Another front porch item that you can play with is your house number. Here are a few examples.

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Doorbells can be fun! I've used the old-fashioned mechanical twist on a side door in a home with residents who are hard of hearing.

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An attractive mailbox can spruce up your front porch either as a splash of color or just a cool design. Notice that some "antique" mailboxes include a spot for newspapers :-)

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A nice welcome mat can add fun or color. AND it does double duty as a way to clean dirt and street toxins from your shoes and especially your winter boots.

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This week I'm going to give you some tips to green your home, and maybe save a little money in the process.

With winter coming up, it's a good time to do a little air sealing. Some weatherstripping for doors and windows and a tube of caulking for sealing up cracks will go a long way. Here is a more detailed list from our Department of Energy.

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80% of dirt inside a home is tracked in on the bottoms of our shoes. An inexpensive way to keep up to 75% of these toxins out of your home is to install a heavy duty walk-off mat at each exterior door. The bigger the better! This way dirt, pesticides and other pollutants on your shoes won't make their way into your house. It's even better if you have shoe storage!

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Another way to green your home is to check on the water.

Fixing any small drips in your home can save a bunch of money. One small drip per second adds up to 3,000 gallons of water a year. That's about 180 showers.

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Certain plants can help remove Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from your home. Bromeliad is best for removing all VOCs but Jade and Spider plant also work well. Dracaena removes acetone - good for a nail salon.

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Additionally, you can save on your hot water bill by turning it down to 120 degrees. If it is higher than this you run the risk of scalding yourself. 120 is hot enough for cleanliness. Also, make sure to insulate your hot water pipes you'll raise your water temperature 2-4 degrees by not losing heat on the trip from your heater to your faucet. Here's a great article on how to do this yourself - brought to you by the Department of Energy.

That concludes our “Greening Your Home” week!


This week we will look at our crystal ball and see what the future has in store for us in terms of cool architectural advances.

First up, a better plastic. This article is titled: “Scientists Have Made Biodegradable Plastic From Sugar and Carbon-Dioxide.”

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Next up, “roads that heal themselves” — these would come in soooo handy.

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Next up, here's another little gem that will help those of us in colder climates. “Scientists Create Road Surface Material That Can De-Ice Itself.”

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Our fourth addition to Futurama Week is the article titled “Stanford Scientists Are Making Wireless Electricity Transmission a Reality.” Wouldn't this be great to charge your car as you were driving it?

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Last, but certainly not least, is the article titled, “New Materials Conduct Electricity at the Speed of Light.” Imagine conducting at 299 792 458 m / s!

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We hope you enjoyed Futurama Week! Stick around to see what else we have in store.


This week we will talk about roofs, the good, the bad and the ugly (and the pretty.)

In the picture on the left the roof overpowers the building. Not good. The roof on the right breaks up the roof with small gable dormers and one larger gable over the entrance. Also notice the smaller roofs on either side of the large middle roof which further break up the roof line.

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A hip roof is one where all sides slope downward to the walls. Here are some cool hips. Please notice that both examples have given our eyes some relief from the long steep slope with small dormers. Bonus beauty of cool shingles in both examples. The variant colors in the right roof adds rich visual interest.

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A Shed roof has only one sloping plane. These were popular in Midcentury design on the 1960s-70s and are popular again today. A variation on the shed is the butterfly roof. If these roof pitches are too shallow you need to be very careful about water ponding on your roof and making its way into the building :-(

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We are most familiar with gable roofs - a roof with two sloping sides and a gable at each end. Here are some fun gable roofs.

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These are the most difficult to keep water from infiltrating and snow from accumulating. But they offer opportunities for a little design fun. You may recognize a couple of these examples below.

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Thank you for reading along about roofs this week!


Most of us have double-hung windows in our homes. These are the windows that have 2 sashes - both of which move. They are different from single hung windows which only have one sash that moves. Double hungs are especially great in the summer when you want to ventilate your home with fresh air. Just open both top and bottom a bit and you will create some pleasant ventilation.

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Here's a little something that lots of folks forget - do not paint the sash channel nor your parting bead. These should be free of paint so that your sashes can slide easily.
P.S. If you break your parting bead while removing your window sashes replace it with Douglas Fir 1/2" x 13/16". The 1/2" dimension could also be 3/8" but the 13/16" is important to maintain. You can have these made special at your local lumber yard.

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Sash cords can break, making it much harder for you to lift your windows. This is a relatively easy fix. But make sure that you use actual "sash cord" cotton rope. Make sure that you clean away wheel rust. If you need to replace any screws make sure that they are stainless steel. ALWAYS WATCH OUT FOR LEAD DUST. WEAR AN APPROPRIATE MASK.

Here is a neat "How to" webpage with tons of pictures:…/Window-Restoration-How-To-Re…/

It is best to have weather stripping on your windows. The pictures below show refurbished 1950s wood windows with new metal weather stripping. Metal weather stripping doesn't add friction so your windows will still go up and down easily. Zinc will cost about half as much as bronze weather stripping. BUT bronze will last 30-40 years. If you are very handy, you may be able to do this yourself. Otherwise, a local window repair shop can do this for you.

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There are many things that you can do to preserve your old wood windows that won't break the bank. While the marketing gurus have touted replacement windows for years the truth is that they will not last as long as your original wood windows will. The payback on replacement windows is 100 years! Also, remember that when they say "No maintenance" it means that when the window fails you'll need to replace the entire window.

<— Here is a great book by John Leeke on all of the aspects of repairing old wood windows. Lots of great pictures and easy to follow instructions.

Thanks for following along with Double Hung Windows Week!

We've done lots of construction on our Lake Cottage. Check out the video of the trailer we replaced:

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