Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Masonry Heating--Not Just a Fireplace

Masonry heating is an ancient technology that is still in use today. A masonry heater is a beautiful architectural feature that uses a quick burning fire to heat up the thermal material of a chimney to radiate heat throughout the house. The radiant heat may last 18 to 24 hours. The thermal mass to absorb the heat is where the beauty comes in: these can be made from brick, stone, tile or stucco.

Kachel tiles are specifically made for this purpose and sometimes this type of heating may be known as a Kachel oven (kachelofen) or tile stove. Other traditional names may be used, like Russian or Finnish fireplace or Swedish stoves.

Because of their design, masonry heaters may also be called contraflow stoves. The principal of the heat transfer is to use a series of channels within the chimney to hold in heat.  A separate small chimney vent is used as a typical chimney is, as a smoke exhaust outlet.
A simplified representation of the contraflow heat channels. A masonry heat system would likely have a maze of contraflow chambers snaking through to hold the heat.

A peek at the construction of a masonry heater may help illustrate how the technology works, and what an impressive home design feature it can be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Efficient Pellet Heating

Traditional pellet stoves can look like a charming Franklin stove, but rather than burning wood they burn compact pellets. Pellet fuel can be made of wood chips, nutshells or corn kernels, offering a sustainable heat source. According to the EPA these pellets are the cleanest burning solid fuel technology.

The heat output for a pellet stove is determined by the rate of feeding pellets in from a fuel hopper.  Newer models can be controlled through a small computerized unit. The mechanical aspect consumes roughly $9 worth of electricity each month, based on typical utility rates. Pellets cost $180 to $240 per ton (they are sold in 40 lb. bags). Most households use 2 to 3 tons annually.

Installation for pellet stoves is less expensive than a fireplace. This is because they do not require a chimney to function. All that is needed is a simple vent. The exterior surface of the stove should remain cool, except for the glass door.

Pellet stoves require weekly cleaning, which can be a drawback for those who do not wish to adopt another household chore. Care must be taken to purchase appropriate pellets so that the ash output level of the pellet is compatible with the capability of the stove to handle the ash produced. Another concern is that they do tend to have complicated parts that are expensive to replace if they break, so attention to regular maintenance is important.

Pellet fuel technology is now available for operating traditional furnace and boiler systems. Although it may be less convenient than natural gas or fuel oil due to the volume taken by pellet storage, homeowners may save 40 to 60% on heating costs. Many specific questions about making the best heat stove selection can be found at The Alliance for Green Heat.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dreamy Basement Renovation Ideas

An unfinished basement means an uncharted world of possibility. In particular, it is possible to take advantage of things that might make the below level space unappealing at first thought, and turn that into the best part of your home.

The word den truly evokes a cozy ambiance. A basement often has lower ceiling height. Create the a perfect space for a retreat. Add a warm fireplace surrounded by low profile furniture to sink into. Enrich it with custom carpentry and wood paneling and that is just the right note for sipping cocoa on a winter's night. Even better, add a hidden door behind some shelves to conceal unfinished storage space in another area.

A dark basement can make an excellent area to enjoy a drink on the weekend. Think of a secluded speakeasy setting, with gorgeous salvaged wood trim to perfect the ambiance. Tin tile replica drop ceiling panels might offer practicality with a nod to the prohibition era. The basement is also perfect for a wine cave; perhaps a jewel toned wine bar to maximize enjoyment. Cheers!

Lack of light in a basement can also lend itself perfectly to a home theater room. There are many ways to do this, whether it is a traditional theater with terraced recliners for seating all oriented toward a big screen, wall sconces, and lights running along the floor. A more versatile seating arrangement with a built in entertainment center and game cabinet might do if you want to make the most of your finished square footage.

Another basement bonus is privacy. This could mean an ideal home office to keep work separate from home, while still being right at hand. It is also well suited to a guest suite. You may want to take advantage of the opportunity to keep the peace and quiet all for yourself and create an owner's suite downstairs instead!

Many people use the separation from the rest of the house to provide play space for their children, and the clutter they create so quickly. Built in cabinets and shelves help keep the space organized. Stained concrete flooring in some of the area offers a beautiful durable surface that kids can use for riding toys or skates, staying warm in the winter while getting the wiggles out.

Whatever your fancy, enjoy making your space your own

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Green Controversy: Wood Stoves

If a wood stove burns dirtier than gas or oil, can it be a green source of heat?

It is true that wood burning stoves produce more fine particle emissions than gas or oil, but depending on your circumstances, they can be a green option. They are not suitable for urban areas for all kinds of reasons beyond concentrated emissions.  However, if you live on a rural lot and have access to naturally felled wood that you can use to fuel your stove, this can be a great choice. Other important considerations include the availability of storage space to keep your wood dry, as well as any transportation costs associated with bringing volumes of wood to you. If you have to move heavy logs far and wide, it may not be the greenest choice.

There are two types of wood stoves: catalytic and non catalytic. A non catalytic stove is cheaper, but offers fewer advantages. The catalytic version takes less wood because it burns more slowly. The slower burn also means less smoke emission, and--perhaps most critically to the homeowners--can burn overnight without needing to be reloaded.

Choose the right stove for your needs, if this turns out to be a reasonable source of winter heat for your household. Size will be related not just to the volume of your home, but also to it's efficiency in terms of insulation and window and door seals.

Most important of all, winter is coming. Stay toasty warm!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hardware Store Cleaning Hacks

Who doesn't love using something you already have hanging around to tackle a job quickly and thoroughly? I noticed that a number of the things you might find in a hardware store can be put to good use for home cleaning and maintenance--especially a few of the big, aggravating chores.

Here are a few that seemed worth hanging onto.

  • A plumber's snake to clear out your downspouts
  • A paint roller wrapped in a dryer sheet with the long arm extension will dust your fan blades
  • Goo Gone gets hardened sap off of vinyl siding
  • A length of plastic pipe taped to your vacuum hose to reach tall cobwebs in the corner (or alternatively, and probably easier, a wrapping paper roll)
  • A cordless drill and buffing wheel or specially designed brush head for cleaning showers
  • A plastic putty knife for soap scum removal

Family Handyman is an especially good resource for these not-so-routine jobs.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fun Furniture Finds at Smokestack Studios

Smokestack Studios has just come to Downtown Frederick with a new store on Market Street. Since we are finally choosing furniture for the space that Harmon Builders completed for us several years ago, even though it has been a long wait, the timing could not be more perfect.

The studio brings an original point of view to Frederick's home interior furnishings and accessories. I stopped in and spoke with Sarah from the Smokestack Studios design team today. She kindly showed me around, pointing out the hanging pulley lamps from founding designer Christopher Ritchie, along with a spectacular table lamp created from the original headlamp of a Model T. These one-of-a-kind accessory pieces are excellent for punctuating a space with a breathtaking focal point.

The details brought in through repurposed mechanical pieces are classic, yet what is old manages to strike a modern note with the early industrial hardware and metal elements. Living today's lifestyle in an older home, a blend of contemporary clean lines and vintage details aligns our needs with our taste and space. The Harmon Builders team replicated original 1920's carpentry in our home addition; maintaining the integrity of the home was a priority for us. The aesthetics on display in Smokestack Studios showroom offer a striking way to balance the same preferences and showcase the architectural details.

A peek at a piece from Smokestack Studios: clean lines, mechanical elements and warm patinas.

Designs from the "barn" line are custom created to highlight the beauty of reclaimed wood. Some of these are coming from local barns, perfecting environmentally sustainable practices by marrying them to the local heritage. It is always a pleasure to find more green resources available to our community and for our homes.

The studio is hosting a grand opening reception Friday, September 12th from 5-7pm with bluegrass music by Rattlesnake Hill. They offer complete design services in addition to the retail showroom.

Smokestack Studios
154-A North Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
*Next door to the also fabulous Cakes to Die For!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Resources, Renewable Resources

If you are building or remodeling, or want to change systems in order to take advantage of some renewable energy incentives available to Maryland residents, these are some good starting points for fact finding.


Maryland offers a Geothermal Heat Pump Grant Program. It is a $3,000 rebate incentive on systems meeting the program requirements, which are listed here.
This two and a half minute video by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy succinctly explains the technology behind geothermal heating and cooling.


The Residential Clean Energy Grant Program is another rebate incentive program, worth $1,000 for a residential photovoltaic panel system meeting the specifications of the program. 
Informational articles relating to solar systems and an exhaustive list of frequently asked questions and concise answers can be found at the Clean Energy Authority.


The Windswept Grant Program offers a rebate incentive, as well, worth $3,000 for a residential wind power generation system meeting the program requirements. Links on the U.S. Department of Energy WINDExchange page illustrate wind activity in Maryland and provide a small system customer guide to help determine if wind is a sensible solution for your residence.

Last but not least, the Maryland Energy Administration offers a wealth of information for Marylanders regarding EmPOWER Maryland, and all energy related topics. 

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields...and the ground temperature maintain a steady 55 degrees for your heating and cooling needs!

Friday, August 22, 2014

An "Oldie" but a Goodie

I am impatient to share the latest beautiful work in our home by Harmon Builders, but this post is old news. The last remaining detail for the new work is carpet installation (scheduled on our own), before we move into the awesome new bedroom they just finished in the basement level of the family room addition also done by the Harmon team.

That project transformed our small 1920's shed bungalow into a more modern floor plan. Our younger daughter was born at the same time the Harmon team wrapped up the initial project. As a seven year old, she needs more space and a closet. Because she has the largest bedroom in the house, our soon-to-be middle school student  has been storing her younger sister's toys. This isn't ideal (for any of us)! We could suit everyone and gain a guest room by moving out of the small upstairs master bedroom.

The girls no longer need us at arm's length, so we will be using the basement as a complete master suite with a quiet den, bathroom, and adjacent laundry in exchange for tolerating the low ceiling height in the original basement. We will soon be in a more spacious bedroom with his and hers closets below the added-on family room.

As part of the shuffling around, we are finally to the point of replacing furniture bought for other rooms with things we want specifically for that space. I was emailing some pictures of our family room to ask for help with selecting an entertainment center. It occurred to me that I have never shared the living room that we love every day as much as the day it was done.

Living room addition 2007: 10 casement windows, sliding glass door exit to added deck, and two skylights flood the room with light and a vast sense of space when the shades are open. 24 x 24 inch ceramic tile floor, laid on diagonal and beadboard wainscoting.

Pass through space with bar height counter open through the former exterior wall into the kitchen, door to added powder room visible on the right side of the room. Walkway into kitchen opened where back door previously existed. Not shown: coat closet to the right added a closet to the main floor. Modern necessities with 1920's architectural details; Harmon Builders replicated the trim carpentry to match the original structure.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Bathroom Before & Afters

I ran across a slideshow of brilliant bathroom remodels. This Old House published their Reader Remodel Contest results from 2013. If you are planning a bathroom renovation, there are some great images to look through for ideas.

My personal favorites:

  • Clawfoot tubs, especially with a pop of colorful paint on the exterior (I've done this in a remodel before; the painting part is simple) 
  • Stained concrete counter top
  • A pretty beadboard bathtub alluding to the architectural style of the period during which the home was built
  • Use of a large double-fauceted sink where a double sink vanity would not fit--clever and stylish solution to a common problem
  • Floor-to-ceiling tower shelving that also serves to define the space between two sink areas or separating the toilet and vanity
One more concept that grabbed my attention was a renovation in Minneapolis that incorporated salvaged wood from downed trees in the area by a company called Wood from the Hood. I'm not aware of anything like that available in our region, but the idea is brilliant.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Making the Useful Beautiful in Universal Design: Grab Bars

William Morris is most known for being quoted that you should have nothing in the home that you don't know to be useful or beautiful. It is exciting to see his philosophy applied to utilitarian things such as grab bars. At last they are seen turned into decorative elements or combined with other details to become more functional and beautiful.

Grab bars in bathrooms can be integrated into corner shelves, soap dishes and shower head mounts in showers, or conveniently serve dual purposes with decorative towel bars or toilet paper holders. Like all of these other details, they are found in popular finishes like oil-rubbed bronze or stain nickel, and can even be made of wood. The only difference is that they must be anchored sturdily to hold the weight of the user.

Less often installed, but also useful, are bars that are mounted along the edge of kitchen counter tops. These can be used as handrails to roll a wheelchair user around the kitchen space, and can serve dual purpose for kitchen towels and for hanging kitchen tools in convenient to reach places.

 Grabcessories can be found through many of the large retailers. American Standard has the Invisia Bath line that includes faucets with curved surround bars. On-line retailer Grab Bar Specialists carries many different manufacturers and extensive universal access products. They have almost anything imaginable--a potentially wonderful resource for anyone wishing to put together a accessible bathroom.

“The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.”--William Morris

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deck Maintenance for Safety

Did you know that May was Deck Safety Month? I know that was news to me.

A story in the news of a deck collapse at an inn on Pawleys Island in North Carolina called deck safety to my attention. You occasionally hear of a home deck failure when people have overloaded it with party guests, and the idea is pretty terrifying.

Deck failures typically involve aging materials and failures at attachment points. People don't think about it much. They realize wood can rot, but nails can decay as well. An annual inspection can help you be sure your deck structure is strong and safe. A professional inspection can be performed if you are unsure yourself.

The owners of the inn where the collapse occurred in June said that the deck was not in disrepair but was water-logged and could not hold all the weight. This illustrates how important it is to keep the surface sealed, not just for appearance and longevity, but for safety as well. With our recent painting project we decided we wanted the deck painted to coordinate with our window trim. Lionel applied Duckback Deck & Dock, an elastomeric product from Sherwin Williams that seals, fills in cracks, and helps prevent slips and falls when walking. Harmon Builders also specifies Benjamin Moore stains for their deck projects.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

When It All Comes Together

The Harmon Builders team has done a number of projects for us recently, starting with replacing our windows and front door last summer. Things are coming together beautifully. I have always wanted to live in a home that looks just how I envision it should, and I finally feel like I have that.

I know Lionel Lloyd of The Painted Finish is planning to take some "real" photos, so I just snapped a few to show some of the details I love. Lionel is a true artist, so I look forward to seeing his work. I am so happy with everything that I am excited to share it!

Mahogany door from the Eagle Window and Door series by Andersen.

Kwikset lock set: Ashfield in Rustic Bronze

E-Series Eagle Windows from the AW Architectural Collection to replicate original sash and bow windows. Aluminum clad exterior in cinnamon toast color.

Sherwin-Williams paint on the siding and red porch ceiling, gray trim paint by Farrow & Ball. Restored center columns that had been knocked out by a previous owner. Copper gutters. Farrow & Ball is locally available at Patrick Street Interiors.

Gutter and rain barrels.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Customize the Space Under Your Stairs

One of the best accomplishments of custom building and remodeling is that a custom project can make the best use of under-utilized spaces. One often overlooked spot in a home is the space under a staircase, and there are some truly brilliant ways to make something special out of those few available square feet.

Several ingenious ideas can make a special feature under the stairs for bar spaces. This can be done a few different ways. The first is a small counter and cabinet space tucked under the steps, with wall mounted storage for glasses and bottles. Another option is a pull out drink cart that slides in, out, and all around on a set of casters. One more elaborate possibility is to have a bar extend outward in an L-shape or curve that connects under the stairs and has storage tucked under the stairs, both behind the extended counter top in the area beneath the staircase, as well as storage under the extended counter space.

More recently home magazines are featuring pull out shelving that functions the same way pull out cabinetry works in the kitchen.  In this case a cabinet front door pulls forward from the wall with shelves behind that roll on drawer glides. Given where staircases are usually located these could be perfect for shoes and bags or linens.

Most often you see a closet. Using the exact same space planning that you would for a closet, you can reinvent it as a fantastic playhouse space, turning the miserable cupboard that Harry Potter lived in on its ear. This could also be the perfect spot for a built in crate space for the dogs to give your furry family their own special place in the home.  Desk space, a reading nook, a powder rooms or wine cellar style storage are other brilliant uses for this little spot in your home.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Space Planning Tools

Harmon Builders built our fabulous addition about seven years ago, and every day we love how it has made our home more beautiful and livable. Since then we have shuffled around pieces of furniture that we already owned, and we are only now buying most of the furniture that we specifically want for the space. To my amazement, there are many free room layout programs available online that are great fun to play around with and give a high quality image of your interior floor plan.

I have spent the most time trying out one by Autodesk. The same company makes professional software for architects and interior designers, but their free web based tool is quite user friendly and enjoyable to use. You can toggle between 2D and 3D, drag and drop shapes, alter dimensions, and experiment with an actual catalog of real products.

This feature might also be useful for a homeowner during the early planning stages of a project, to get a better feel for what the end result will be as you make decisions. Freshome has a list of ten free online room layout tools to check out for these purposes. I have not experimented with any of the available tablet apps, but one that is highly rated for the iPad is Home Design 3D, which is also free.

Whether you are imagining a new project, you would like to start furnishing one years after completion, or anywhere in between, these planning programs are not only practical tools but exciting ways to get the creative juices flowing.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Water Gardens to Swim In

A stunning lily pond landscape feature would be a dreamy addition to any backyard. How much more magical would it be to have a water garden that we could swim in?

A natural swim pond is a chemical free pool with a natural aquatic plant filtration system to remove contaminants. The water garden of plants like cala lilies and cannas, horsetails, lotuses and grasses deprives would-be algae of nutrients and attracts friendly insects to manage pesky mosquitoes. Rocks attract beneficial bacteria. The plant garden is separated from the swimming area by a retention wall.

My sketch of the system. A pump, swim area, and plant regeneration zone, which incorporates plants and rocks behind a wall separating the swim area from the regeneration zone.
A simple water pump for circulation is the most technical of equipment required. A waterfall feature can be both beautiful and help with oxygenation of the water, which helps the plant life thrive. Some natural pools do not need to be drained over the winter. You simply allow the plants to follow their natural cycle of dormancy, and if it is cold enough the swimming pond may even be used for ice skating.

While still benefiting from avoiding the chemicals, an alternative gravel filter can be used instead of the plant garden. This allows you to replicate the appearance of a traditional pool, if that is your preference.

According to Houselogic, the costs of construction are comparable to traditional pools, but without the maintenance expenses required for chemical care.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Student Project: $2 Monthly Energy Bills with Craftsman Architecture

This delightful post from Grist features a student design Grand Prize winner in the Department of Energy's Challenge Home Competition. It is a gorgeous Craftsman with a universal access floor plan, boasting $2 per month energy expenses.

Even better, there was actually a tie: the other Grand Prize winner's home is a 3 story town home incorporating passive design features.

Check out the links to see details about these awesome innovative designs and get ideas for your next building project. Congratulations to these students for expanding the horizons of beautiful and innovative design.

Front elevation sketch of Grand Prize Winning Craftsman *near zero energy* home design by students at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse University, and Onodaga Community College.
Grand Prize Winning Craftsman floor plan from the DOE Challenge Home Competition.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Stylish Details: Decorative Switch Plates and Vent Registers

Recently I took my children to visit the Eisenhower Farm. The 18th or 19th century home adjacent to the Gettysburg Battlefield was renovated and added on to 1953. Because it was about the same time my grandparents built their own home, it reminded me a lot of their house in terms of the details. These same details were the things that my daughters fixed on--without me even pointing them out--when we toured. The switch plates and vent registers were not made of plastic or flimsy metal like they usually are in modern homes. I went hunting to find what is still available in a similar vein.

House of Antique Hardware has an array of mainly bronze and brass switch plate covers that are organized by architectural style. There are quite a lot of tiny masterpieces of different materials from different on-line retailers. Finished hardwood, both elegant and whimsical molded resin and traditional porcelain or ceramic tile covers are some of the options.

Register covers are another item we commonly overlook as purely functional, when there are some truly lovely pieces out there to make a functional item into a beautiful detail that enhances the home.

Based upon how truly amazed my girls were to see these things, I cannot help but imagine the impact they bring to a custom building project...or what a difference they would make if I changed them out in our home!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Building with Paper!

Earlier today I stumbled across something that made my jaw hang in awe. Slate-ish it is called, and it is a tile for floor or wall application that looks impressively like slate, but is made from post-industrial paper waste. I was introduced to Paperstone through Harmon Builders, so I already knew that paper based counter surfaces can be durable enough for use in wet bathrooms and kitchens. This got me thinking, "What other building materials are made from recycled paper?"

Another company manufactures a product similar to Paperstone, called Richlite, that was initially designed for use in skate parks. 100% of the paper used is recycled, bonded with PetroFree resin and colored with natural pigments.

Some less hardy indoor uses for recycled paper materials include wall sheeting. Paper cannot be recycled into paper in a continuous cycle, because the fibers don't stay intact. Since odds and ends of scrap drywall often become waste, this is the perfect application for a recycled paper product that can be remade into a larger piece of wall board. A similar interior solution is paper bricks that can be molded and stacked to create interior walls. This is being considered as a potentially helpful material in earthquake prone areas.

Recycled newspaper is useful as wall insulation, and it is also recycled and added into asphalt and concrete.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Attractive High-Traffic Flooring

We are looking at making a large unfinished room in our walk out basement into a bedroom. Once our kids are heading off to college, the basement area will be reconfigured to take advantage of the walk out into the yard so it can be used for entertaining. Hopefully our students will bring their friends home to visit, after all! Looking at floor coverings that will suit these seemingly opposite purposes has brought me to consider some interesting choices.

Finished concrete flooring offers many different choices. Simply going with polished concrete would put a marble-like shine on the gray surface. There are also gorgeous stains that add a rich, textured warmth to the hard surface and offer many options. Stencils are another way to make a concrete slab into a unique aesthetic. This video makes the process look tedious, but illustrates the environmentally friendly products available and the range of flexibility in design potential.

There are also diverse types of tiles that should be quite simple to put down over concrete. One I had never considered before is interlocking deck tile. With the many colors and textures available and the option to install them to create a pattern, an elegant and interesting look should be simple to achieve and easy to install.

FLOR Tiles have been on my radar for a long time. They are easy to install (whereas wall to wall carpeting is not) and this company really offers amazing design range. Many of their products are fun and vibrant, and they use recycled content and are recyclable. Their "House Pet" style is designed to be outdoor friendly. A similar product that has a heartier look and a great green factor is Tire Tex recycled tire carpet tiles.

I'm still on the hunt. The problem isn't that I don't like anything, it's that I like everything!

Monday, April 7, 2014

April Showers Bring Landscape Alive

As the home I have been posting about nears completion, the landscape design is the next thing in the works. These April showers should be softening the ground for some new landscaping to go into the soil. This will make the beautiful front porch setting and fabulous back deck areas ready to enjoy when the sun finally comes out!

Here is a sneak peak at the proposed layout. The front walkways and a back patio will use an exposed pebble aggregate finish. This can be an inexpensive means to create an organic feel for walkways and patios. The link provided is not to a local service provider, but does offer some nice views of aggregate used in landscape design.

Intitial landscape design proposal. 
More of this project will come after the installation has been completed--keep following the team's progress for before and after photos!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Delight is in the Details

The home the Harmon team is wrapping up for retirees gave me my first opportunity to see a completely custom home in the completion stage. I keep returning to that sense of awe as the custom details were being installed--the vision behind the home coming alive before our eyes.

This compass mosaic in the entry is a nod to a career in the U.S. Navy.

Double sink custom maple cabinetry vanity with striking faucets in the owner's suite bathroom.
Mosaic glass detail in the owner's suite shower. The newly installed grab bar is visible on the right and adjustable height and hand held shower options are accessibility enhancements that can benefit anyone who may be having a bad day.

A wider view of shower details shows a built in bench. This is another accessibility accommodation that can benefit anyone. Often the same details once considered matters of ADA compliance make it easier to accommodate young children, thus the frequently heard term universal design.

We were there as sinks, counter tops, faucets, and fixtures were being installed--much of the icing on a cake for a custom home. It is true that everyone loves the frosting!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Retirement Home Design Details

The home the Harmon team is finishing up for soon-to-be retirees was especially interesting to see as the finishing details were beginning to go in. The culmination of the design choices was striking: a structure was magically becoming a home right before our eyes.

The homeowners took care to include elements that reference their experiences together, which makes for a wonderful celebration of their family life. The exterior gives a nod to the architectural history of Williamsburg, VA where they lived while attending school and began careers. Referencing a career as a Naval historian and professor at Annapolis, there are also some nautical design motifs. One (not pictured) is a compass rose mosaic in the entry hall.

Sink for the grandchildren's space in the basement bathroom; a whimsical blend of the nautical theme with youthful flair.

The team installing stone kitchen counter tops with custom cabinetry constructed in the Harmon Builders' cabinet workshop.  Not seen in this photo are nautical-style pendant lights (over bar).

My previous post called attention to the beautiful counter surfaces that color match with the adjacent cabinetry. The photo above allows you to better appreciate that. Search a little to find the lovely stone flooring peeking out of the cardboard protecting it. It pulls all the colors together and is gorgeous in its own right.

Built-in buffet and pair of hutches in the dining room.

The dining room I described (also in the post linked above) extends toward the back of the house and is sized to accommodate large family gatherings. This beautiful piece of custom cabinetry is crafted to make hosting adult children and young grandchildren easy to accomplish.

I look forward to sharing more about the home in an upcoming post. There are some energy efficient technologies in use in this home, as well as practical considerations that are determined by building codes, which have been both exciting and interesting to learn about.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Building a Dream Home for Retirement

I had a lovely morning seeing the Harmon team in action. My mother and father in-law, Anne and Jim, let me come along with them to see a stunning home that the Harmon Builders craftsmen are working on for homeowners who are retiring to the outskirts of Frederick. My in-laws are interested in finding or building a home that will allow them to live on one level, and the Harmons let us have a look at a project that incorporates many of the same needs they think will be priorities for their next home.

Besides offering single floor living, the home has ample space to accommodate large family gatherings. A long dining room will allow the whole family to be seated for Thanksgiving dinner, and a beautiful kitchen appointed with Paul's custom cabinetry opens into the living area. The open floor plan is great for those multi-generational celebrations. It also enhances accessibility if at any point a member of the family were to experience mobility limitations. The basement has guest rooms, a bath, and a common area to hang out in. The space includes a mini-fridge and small counter space to store snacks and breakfast items for visiting grandchildren.

Paul measuring to hang glass front doors for the stemware cabinets over the wine bar.
While we were there, counter tops were being installed all over the home. The owners have made some beautiful design decisions. We got to appreciate the wow factor of seeing the finishing touches go on. Most of the kitchen has natural, light-stained maple cabinetry. An island and wine bar are done in a lovely green that makes a beautiful contrast. The stone tops coordinate with the paint colors--a neutral stone paired with the stained cabinets and a green stone that perfectly matches the island and wine nook (above). The adjacent living and dining areas are painted in a creamy yellow.

We learned a lot about the considerations that Jim and Anne will want to think about as they decide what steps they will take moving forward. Thanks to the Harmons for taking the time to give us so much valuable information. It's always a pleasure to see what amazing things they are working on. I can't wait to see how this home turns out and share more about it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ceiling Fans for All Seasons

I can remember back in the days of watching Trading Spaces designers ripping out fans on nearly every show. Coming from Texas, I was always thinking, "There is no way these homeowners will stay sane and happy without that thing!" The truth is that the fan is your friend in any climate, and in all seasons. Yes, some of them are ugly, but many offer an opportunity to add style to a room. Add a light kit and you can find some even more unique combinations.

Obviously fans can save energy in the summer season. The trick is to be sure you raise your thermostat about 3 degrees and run the fan instead, to make the air feel cooler with the breeze created. This is more energy efficient than cooling the room with air conditioning alone. It can also mean more days of opening the windows and not needing the AC at all.

In winter, set the switch on the fan to a clockwise direction and run the fan on the lowest setting. This pulls air up in the center of the room so that it displaces the warm air that rises to the ceiling. This redistributes the heat around the room and minimizes the demand on your heating system.

Outdoor fans on your porch can make you more comfortable in the summer, and they are the best non-chemical way to keep the mosquitoes away.

Check out reviews with photos of a variety of styles on Top Ten Reviews. This blog post from Little Green Notebook addresses the compatibility of ceiling fans and style with some nice photography, as well.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snow Day! Tips for Digging Out

As I sit watching rapidly accumulating snow, I realize I am already breaking maybe the most important rule of snow removal. I definitely should have made a pass...or three...over the walk out front to stay ahead of this thing. This storm is going to be a tough workout for our shoveling muscles.

There are a few other things to think about to protect your property. Avoid leaving snow piled up around foundation walls. The melt and refreeze cycle can create cracks, and once they start they will gradually get worse. Also clear piles away from wood siding so that it doesn't eventually create water damage as it melts. Use a plastic shovel on wood or composite decking. A metal shovel (or shovel that has a metal blade) can dig into these surfaces and make damaging grooves. Finally, pulling a metal rake over your shingles along the edges of your roof can help prevent ice dams from forming. Just be sure you are in a safe position when you do this!

Plants and landscaping can also be damaged.  It may sound odd, but shrubbery that has become loaded with snow is more likely to be damaged by attempts to remove it than by leaving it there. The deicing agents you use can be hard on grass and landscaping. Certain plants are more sensitive to these, you may want to choose an alternative for traction in the area, or apply salt products sparingly near the plants that require special consideration.

I always dread shoveling the snow, and invariably once I get started I feel invigorated by the activity and the cold air. Hopefully I can talk myself past the dreading stage and out to the endorphins sooner rather than later! Best of luck and stay safe out there.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Windows and Indoor Comfort

As I sat here without electricity, I found myself (for at least the tenth time this winter) glad for our lucky timing. We replaced our old nearly 100 year old windows for modern, low-E, double paned ones just this past summer. Ahhhh. Summer. But I digress. Immediately afterward, I was trying to convince the kids that they didn't need the shades open for the light so much as they needed to leave them closed and keep the heat in the house.

In our situation, better windows were worth the expense. They will provide excellent value over time if you are in a drafty old home. If you have decent windows already or are making decisions for new construction, it may be worthwhile to take a look at the effects of your window coverings. They can make a difference in reducing heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer, and they are are great way to add color, texture and style to your home decor.

For the winter, insulated cellular shades are optimal for keeping the interior warm. Conventional roller shades offer some modest benefit as well, especially if you combine them with lined draperies for a layered effect. An interesting tip when you are in a pinch, your power is out, and aesthetics aren't your first concern--even lining the windows with bubble wrap will be a help. As a bonus, you can still get the natural light, too.

Planning for your needs during the summer months offers some interesting style options to shade your windows that you may not have considered. Awnings can add unique curb appeal and are a great way to reduce heat gain. Metal awnings aren't adjustable, but can be built to suit your taste and are more durable than canvas types. Adjustable canvas awnings come in many styles allow you to control the light so that you can still let it in on chilly winter days like we are experiencing. For an inexpensive benefit that will not dictate any style choices, even a discreet surface film will have modest benefit. Indoors, louvered blinds are popular, but don't offer much thermal protection. If you like this style best for your window treatments, consider solar screens on the outside.

Have fun thinking about what you would like to choose for your warm weather comfort. Maybe enjoy your design magazines with a cup of hot chocolate!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Piping Hot Water!

Whether building a new home or replacing a worn out appliance, a staggering array of water heater technology is available for modern households. Water heater selection may seem like the dullest of tasks, but choose wisely and you can see tremendous energy savings. Because there are so many factors involved, including size, efficiency, fuel, and the expenses of both the equipment and energy source, some careful research will be helpful.

Water heaters are fall into two major categories: conventional storage (tanks) and demand type water heaters. Demand heaters, or tankless, lose some heat as the water circulates around the house. Storage tanks lose some heat at the tank, as well as during circulation. Since they use different energy sources for the heat, it is not a simple, straightforward determination that a lower amount of heat loss is better. Most homes use gas or electric for heating water, and a tankless water heater to replace a storage tank using the same energy source is simple and will be more efficient. The improved efficiency is more noticeable in households that use less hot water. This is simply because the water is not cooling off during storage if it is not held in the tank for long.

Solar water heaters in this region will have a storage tank and use an indirect method of heating the water; in warmer climates this may not be case since the water can be directly heated by the sun and circulate through the system. Because Maryland has temperatures below freezing, a heat conducting liquid is pumped through the solar collectors and into a heat transfer coil that heats the water. Since your solar heat is free, the loss of a portion in storage may make sense. Solar collection requires dedicated panels for heating this liquid, so the installation will be more complicated and expensive than simply replacing a gas or electric water heater tank.

Geothermal heat pump water heaters can be installed alongside a geothermal HVAC system if you are building a new home or replacing your heating and air-conditioning with one of these. Because the installation of a geothermal system is expensive, it is not likely to be a cost-effective choice if it is just a decision about the water heater, but as a pair these make great sense. These systems take heat from the ground during the winter or from the air during the summer and use it to heat the water.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Four Seasons on Your Deck or Patio

Now that it is the season to consider construction projects that may come to completion during the warmer months, this tends to be the time for homeowners to start dreaming of a new deck or patio. As you think about this while it is still chilly outside, it is exciting to consider how you will be using the outdoor space year-round. If you are not able to choose a project that includes masonry work with a large chimney as part of your back yard landscape feature, this is the season to get a chiminea, fire pit or fire table at a bargain price.

There are many table styles to choose from, including coffee table height, dining tables, and bar tables. The bar height tables obviously move the heat source up and away from the deck surface, which may be advantageous, and many of these will hold a propane tank concealed in the furniture design. Low fire pits and tables radiate heat in all directions, but smoke is also dispersed everywhere along with it if you are burning wood for your heat.

A chiminea or traditional fireplace will radiate heat forward and smoke up and away. Be cautious of the  hazards present when any of these are situated on or near wooden decking, with the danger from heat and stray embers.

Move free-standing heat features away from plants, trees, railings, walls and furniture. If the product is specified for use on a wood deck (check the manual to be sure), it should be placed on a pad of fire resistant tiles. Gas pits and tables are safer than wood burning ones, since they won't release hot embers to be carried away in the wind. With wood, be sure to use a fire screen. If you have one constructed or choose to make a basic fire pit yourself, it is also easy to make a spark arresting cover.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Energy Efficient Lighting

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are currently the most efficient light bulb technology available. Compact fluorescent light, or CFL, bulbs are an efficiency improvement over incandescent lights as well, though not as efficient as LEDs. CFLs also contain a small amount of mercury is cause for concern for some people, especially if a bulb is broken and the mercury released.

The average American family spends one-fifth of their household energy expenses on lighting the home. This can be reduced by about 80% by switching from incandescent bulbs to more efficient LEDs (Forbes). This is not just better for the household budget, but also easier on the environment.

Many people have a bad impression of the color quality (also called temperature, though this doesn't have to do with heat to the touch) of the light that these new energy efficient bulbs produce. With LEDs you do have a choice in the matter, though.

LED bulbs have been widely adopted in commercial spaces, for street lighting, and in office buildings. Until recently, they have been considerably more expensive than customers are used to paying for light bulbs. As technological advances have been made in production, the falling cost is making them a much more attractive option.

When selecting bulbs, they are now labeled in lumens. This accommodates the modern lighting technology's differences in efficiency, where we used to select our bulbs by wattage when everyone was using incandescent lights. A helpful chart is available to anchor the terminology to the familiar incandescent light intensity; a 60 watt incandescent bulb would be 800 lumens.

LED lighting also has some true wow factors. You can buy them in strips, which are simple to cut to the needed length. These are ideal for kitchen and bath lighting under cabinets and toe kicks, for stairways, and also can be used for artistic lighting effects. Even better, some of these lights will last 20 years.

The National Resources Defense Council has a great bulb buying guide that compares different technologies, their green factors and their costs.

Energy Star offers a helpful interactive light selection tool as well, in particular for choosing different bulbs for different functions and locations.