Author Archives: Jane Dagmi

Jane Dagmi

About Jane Dagmi

Jane Dagmi is the Communications Manager for Parlore, an interior design project management app, and a curious observer of the way people live, shop and decorate. Jane lives in the Ft. Lauderdale area with her two daughters, and takes on occasional freelance styling and writing jobs. Check her out on Google+!

Spring Cleaning? 8 Helpful Tips from Merry Maids to Ease You Through

As the countdown to spring cleaning begins, Debra Johnson, curriculum manager for Merry Maids, shares her wisdom to help get you through this annual household ritual with ease and purpose.

Spring Cleaning Tips

Photo: shutterstock.

Second only to a new mother’s instinct to nest is the desire to clean house at the first signs of winter thaw. Debra Johnson, a 16-year veteran of Merry Maids and now curriculum manager for the venerable 35-year-old residential cleaning company, is all too familiar with this annual urge. She knows that after a long winter, a home needs freshening up, and she also knows with our time-starved schedules, this traditional, near-epic task can seem insurmountable. To get the job done and allay unnecessary frustration, Johnson offers spring cleaning tips that are closely aligned with Merry Maids’ proven system and also helpful for everyday housework.

“No one wants to spend their entire Saturday cleaning house,” says Johnson, a proponent of both clean living and free Saturdays. While skeptics doubt the two can go hand in hand, Johnson knows otherwise. “Divide and conquer,” she urges. Break down the overwhelming task of spring cleaning into more manageable 30- to 60-minute cleaning sessions so it isn’t paralyzing. Select a specific area to tackle; for example, clean the master bath and bedroom one afternoon, and the living room and dining room the next.

Spring Cleaning Tips - Microfiber Cloth


Microfiber cloths occupy the top spot on Johnson’s list of basic cleaning supplies, because unlike other dusters, microfiber cloths grab dust rather than push it around. Johnson color-codes her cloths for use in different tasks like dry dusting or cleaning the kitchen, bathroom, or mirrors—and she keeps them straight. Microfiber cloths can be washed up to 500 times (on delicate with other microfiber cloths), so they are eco-friendly too.

Since organization expedites cleaning, Johnson recommends storing supplies in one portable carryall, such as a Rubbermaid tote. Make sure to have the following nine essential cleaning products and tools on hand: a general-purpose cleaner, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner and degreaser, a good scrub brush and grout brush, a vacuum with several attachments, a mop or steamer for hard flooring, and of course, plenty of microfiber cloths.

“Work from top to bottom and dry to wet,” instructs Johnson. Remove dust with a dry cloth before washing the area because the combination of water and dirt creates clingy gunk. When starting to clean in any room, work high first, tending to cobwebs, crown molding, ceiling fans, windowsills, ledges, and glass before hitting baseboards, doors, and light switches. Once the periphery is done, move on to furnishings, decorative items, and bedding. Spring is an excellent time to switch out curtains and flip mattresses.


Spring Cleaning Tips - Counter


Johnson warns, “Cook tonight. Clean up tonight. Don’t let dirt build up.” Cleaning frequently prevents dirt from settling in and becoming grime. Catching dirt early also makes it possible to rely on simple solutions like hot water, mild detergents, and dust cloths. To stave off soap scum, Johnson habitually dries the tile when she’s done in the shower. Keeping the door open and letting air circulate in a bathroom also helps.

There’s a general misconception that using more product will get a surface cleaner; on the contrary, too much of a cleaning solution builds up residue. Too much soap, for example, leaves floors sticky. In addition, when you use too much product, you waste time rubbing it round and round.

Spring Cleaning Tips - Roomba


A simple rule of thumb for keeping floors cleaner is to take shoes off before walking through the home. Another strategy is to place a floor mat or rug both outside and inside the entrance so dirt can fall off shoes before reaching other areas of the house. Although Johnson generally cleans her own house, she recently bought an iRobot. The iRobot vacuums the floor so she doesn’t have to. Johnson admits that the little cleaning machine has improved the quality of her life because she is spending less time cleaning floors. She recommends the machine for households with pet hair issues.

Related: 10 High-Tech Gadgets to Make Housework Less Work

Don’t make closet clean-out and organization part of your routine cleaning; set aside another day for this. Closets aren’t dirty as much as they are messy. Organizing closets is a large job and requires a whole different set of skills, such as folding and straightening.

Antiquing vs. Distressing: 8 Tips on Creating the Look and Patina of a Genuine Antique

Celebrated DIY style maker, home blogger, milk paint purveyor, author, and photographer Marian Parsons—aka Miss Mustard Seed—gives advice on antiquing and distressing furniture.

Photo: Miss Mustard Seed

Marian Parsons—mother, wife, and creative soul—was crushing on hand-painted antique European furniture. She coveted the timeworn look but couldn’t rationalize the price or preciousness, especially with two active little boys in the house. Parsons had no choice but to replicate the look herself. She studied antiques, consulted an assortment of how-to books, and played around with paint and such, eventually honing her refinishing skills and garnering much fanfare. She took to blogging about her crafty escapades under the name Miss Mustard Seed, along the way creating a hot business and brand as she transformed furnishings into exquisite reinterpretations of their former selves. Here, Parsons discusses the differences between antiquing and distressing furniture, and gives tips on how to arrive at a new finish that looks old.

Photo: Miss Mustard Seed

Antiquing vs. Distressing
Antiquing and distressing are both used to simulate age and they’re often used in conjunction, but they are distinctly different painting techniques. When antiquing furniture, you add layers of paint and stain to achieve a grunge patina, whereas when you distress it, you remove the finish to simulate years of wear. Parsons urges anyone who is contemplating trying these techniques to first study genuine antiques and note where the paint has worn away or become distressed from handling and where the finish has become dark and antiqued from the accumulation of dirt over the years.

Choosing a Piece
When choosing a piece to refinish, Parsons considers style, price, and condition. She is drawn to the Empire, American Farmhouse, and French Provincial styles, and she looks for solid wood furniture with details such as serpentine drawers, beading, and turned legs that give a piece character and afford opportunity to play with the painted finish. Her basic rule is, “Buy what you love, but not something that is beyond your ability to repair…unless it is so cheap you have little to lose.”

Prepped to Paint
The most important prep step is sanding, although Parsons rarely spends more than five minutes on it. “You don’t want to scratch the piece, but rather rough it up enough to help with adhesion,” she says, recommending medium-grit sandpaper, such as 100, for the job.

Photo: Miss Mustard Seed

Create a Story
When you antique and distress furniture, you are essentially telling a fictional history. To create a piece that looks like an original, think about how it might have been used. As a general guideline, distress the high points that would frequently have been handled and bumped, and antique the low points or crevices where dust would have settled. Parsons warns, “Paint generally doesn’t wear away smack in the center of a drawer front. It wears away around the edges and handles.”

Type of Paint
Parsons has used many paint products and finds that milk paint, along with small bottles of craft store acrylic paints for decorative detailing, meets her furniture refurbishing needs. She loves that milk paint is natural, has a long shelf life, “soaks in like stain but looks like paint,” and dries matte. Parsons also likes that she can mix just the amount of milk paint needed for a particular project and can regulate the desired opacity. Milk paint, however, can be temperamental. She offers plenty of tutorials for the milk paint novice.

The Layered Look
To re-create the look of a beautiful antique that has been repainted over the years, Parsons employs a repertoire of resist methods, techniques that use Vaseline, beeswax, or hemp oil to prevent the second coat from adhering and permit the bottom layer to show through. Sanding with medium and then fine sandpaper will add to the patina.

Related: The Perfect Paint Brush—and How to Choose It

Photo: Miss Mustard Seed

Brush Basics
Parsons could not paint furniture without a nylon bristle Purdy 2-inch angled sash brush. The size and shape allow her to cut in neatly. For waxing she likes a big, bushy natural bristle brush that she can work into the deep carved crannies. A soft cloth is also handy for applying a wax top coat.

Finishing Touches
Wax and oil protect the painted finish. “Each time you add a top coat to milk paint, you will see a difference in the color and vitality of a piece,” says Parsons, who almost always applies one coat of hemp oil to a finished piece, adding layers for more sheen if desired. In addition, white wax (for liming), furniture wax (for butter-soft texture), and brown wax (for antiquing) deliver specific effects. As for hardware, Parsons salvages the original stuff but has no allegiance to tacky reproduction brass. Similar to the process of looking for the perfect earrings, Parsons often tries several knobs before making a decision, and when Hobby Lobby’s glass knobs are on sale, she always buys extras.

Getting to Know HGTV’s “Kitchen Cousins”

NJ-based builders Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri, who began their TV careers in the kitchen, are now hard at work on the whole house, and beyond.

Kitchen Cousins

Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri, HGTV’s Kitchen Cousins . Photo: HGTV

The kitchen has always been considered the most important room in the house, the warm heart of the home. When you add in a couple of good-looking brawny thirty-something Italian guys from Jersey—armed with sledgehammers and power tools, construction expertise, and lots of positive energy—the kitchen gets undeniably hotter.

With renovations worth pinning and Nielsen rating worth tweeting, Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri, HGTV’s well-known Kitchen Cousins, are applying their talent for remodeling to the rest of the house in a new series, Cousins on Call , which launched earlier this month.

“Cousins on Call is a much bigger show with many more facets,” says Anthony. The “Jersey Strong” premiere was a gratitude-filled collaboration with Ellen DeGeneres and featured an intense, nearly sleepless six-day mega-makeover for two Jersey Shore EMS responders, whose shared home was severely damaged in Hurricane Sandy.

When the renovation was revealed, nary an eye was dry. For the cousins, that episode hit home. “We’re both emotional guys,” says Anthony, “and the ability to give back to those who gave to so many other people is really cool.”

Kitchen Cousins Post-Sandy Beach Shack

Post-Sandy eye candy: A repurposed surfboard makes a great bar in a backyard beach shack.
Photo: Anthony Carrino

Not every Cousins on Call episode reaches the same level of feeling, but for Anthony and John, helping people define and design comfortable, efficient, and personal spaces is always a gratifying experience. The two view themselves as problem-solvers dedicated to providing creative solutions that enable people to live and function optimally and without waste. They attribute their success to an honest approach to design and would rather have some fun than create unnecessary drama for TV’s sake.

There are of course challenges and moments of increased stress. “I can’t tell you a single job where I opened the walls and stuff was the way it should be,” says Anthony, recalling a construction career that unofficially began at age ten, when he helped his father with an extension on their home. About 14 years later, Anthony and Alfonso Carrino co-founded Brunelleschi Construction. A little while later cousin John was recruited into the family biz.

Kitchen Cousins Headquarters

BrunCon is headquartered in an 1896 firehouse.
Photo: Alex Goodlett/The Jersey Journal

BrunCon, as it’s usually abbreviated, develops underutilized urban structures and turns them into dynamic mixed-use properties. In the process, the company strives to retain as much of a structure’s historic vibe and existing materials as possible while making the building strong, safe, and technologically current. BrunCon also makes eco-friendly choices when possible, preferring tankless hot water heaters, spray foam insulation, low-E windows and low-VOC paints.

Before the advent of “Cousin TV,” Anthony and John were starring on Brunelleschi Construction’s Vimeo channel, piecing together videos that detailed some of the company’s big Jersey City restoration projects. The duo’s ease on camera was evident; the familial warmth was genuine and endearing. A friend of theirs sent a reel to a producer, and a show deal followed. Kitchen Cousins launched in October 2011.

The kitchen was a great place to ingratiate themselves to a large HGTV audience hungry for tips and ideas on how to tackle a daunting kitchen renovation. Anthony explains, “There is an order of operations, and planning is absolutely paramount to having a successful renovation.”

Speaking as contractors and designers, they offer some hard-earned wisdom:

1. Figure out the basics of what you want to achieve. Keep an inspiration file of magazine tear sheets and design-blog printouts to share with your contractor.

2. Understand the way an estimate works. The first estimate is based on everything the contractor can see. Once the walls are open, expect a minimum 10% contingency fee.

Geometric Backsplash

Adding black grout to a white tile backsplash accentuated the modern geometric design.
Photo: Anthony Carrino

3. Splurge on the backsplash! The eye is drawn to the backsplash, and because it is a contained space, it’s a great area to step up the quality of materials.

4. Hang pendants over a breakfast bar or island. Pendant lights provide a lot of mood, shape, and light. And they don’t have to be expensive.

5. Invest in multipurpose furniture, such as a stainless steel table on casters that can be wheeled into position—as a prep station, dining table, etc.—as needed. A piece like this is especially useful in a small kitchen or rental apartment.

6. Balance the new with the old, industrial, and organic. Juxtaposing grainy old lumber with industrial steel makes an open kitchen feel harmonious and inviting.

Aside from HGTV and BrunCon projects, Anthony and John have a new passion project. Rust and Grain is a collection of objects such as farm tables, cutting boards, and coasters made from reclaimed lumber and new wood scrap. R&G, as it is logoed, blends a respect for classic hardworking materials with a commitment to sustainability and enables the cousins to get back to building and making things. “It keeps us in touch with the tangible aspect of the job,” says Anthony.

Rust And Grain Products

Photo: Rust and Grain

Despite the crazy pace, the cousins insist on spending one day a week at Brunelleschi Construction’s home office, and they also carve out personal time to refuel. Anthony spent New Year’s in Istanbul. “For me,” he says, “inspiration comes from seeing things I have not seen before.”

From small wooden houses to patterns in fabric, shapes of tile, and colors in the market, Anthony’s Flickr is now filled with images a thousand times more alluring than any imaginable travel brochure’s photos.

The cousins also try to get to the gym; they like reconnecting in a stress-free zone. Anthony says, “Sometimes we’ll be working out and somebody’ll wave and say, ‘Thanks for showing Jersey City in such a great light.’”

If you can’t get enough of these cousins, be sure not to miss their “delicious” 7 Secrets to a Successful Kitchen Renovation.

Meryl & Chris: Renovation and Romance

With his-and-hers DIY specialties, the talented couple behind Picardy Project are a match made in home improvement heaven.

Picardy Project's Meryl and Chris

“It’s Chris’s shop that I also use,” says Meryl Phillips describing the 20’ x 20’ garage work space that she and her boyfriend Chris Miller share in Oakland, CA. Meryl and Chris have been going out for seven years and renovating their house for four. On the Picardy Project blog, Meryl documents every change she and Chris are making to the c. 1926 Storybook house, and almost every project requires some maneuvering through their well-equipped garage.

It wasn’t always a nice place to work. In fact, when they moved into the house in 2009, the garage was in precarious condition. They attempted to repair it themselves but soon realized the problem was over their heads. “We love DIY,” says Meryl, “but it’s important to understand what is out of one’s range.” Professional engineers came to fortify the structure, and $7,000 later (this reflects a reduced rate since Meryl and Chris pitched in and helped), the romantic renovators had a sturdy, plumb, earthquake-proof and re-roofed space.

Now structurally sound, the work space is stocked and organized. It isn’t heated, because it never gets that cold in Oakland, but it is wired, so the couple can work at night and listen to their favorite NPR podcasts, such as “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.” Since Chris and Meryl both work day jobs, renovation projects happen after hours, weekends, and during vacations. Meryl, who minds the replay machine among other duties for the Oakland A’s, is most productive in the winter, when baseball season is over.

Meryl Chris Picardy Project Blog Stars Wine Crate Storage Garage Workshp 3

Meryl and Chris DIY-ed their workshop, outfitting the 400-square-foot, sawdust-covered space with hanging lumber storage, a pegboard wall, and plenty of shelves and usable surfaces. The most unique part of their storage system is a wall unit made from repurposed wooden wine boxes. Chalkboard labels on the front of each box ensure that every hand tool and paintbrush goes back in its proper place.

“We have learned the value of having the right tools,” says Chris, who has been collecting the necessary implements for renovation. For large projects (rebuilding a corner of the house) to smaller projects (hanging window treatments), the renovators are equipped with every saw and drill imaginable.

Chris’s table saw takes center stage. It is the only power tool that makes Meryl uncomfortable. She says, “All those safety warnings just freak me out that my hair is going to get caught or something.”

Meryl Chris Picardy Project Blog Stars Table And Radial Saws Garage WorkshopMeryl prefers miter and radial saws. Her dad showed her how to use the latter early on. He is the one who introduced her to the wonderful world of home improvement. She tells of his messy and disorganized workshop and how she feels compelled to organize it for him, but has refrained, since he insists he knows where everything is.

Chris helped his mom with things around the house and remembers watching endless episodes of “This Old House” when he was younger. He has always liked figuring things out and signed up for classes in carpentry and electric at the community college, worked in a paint store and tile center, and reads extensively on the subject. He subscribes to Fine Home Building and Family Handyman and recommends Michael Litchfield’s Renovation for any DIYer’s library.

Meryl and Chris met innocently in a record store and have chosen to plunge into the dirty world of DIY together. Recently back from their Renovation Road Trip, Meryl explains their secret to not breaking up: They know what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are and work accordingly.

While Meryl favors the design end, Chris likes building it and figuring it out. She says, “The biggest thing is relinquishing control when you know you’re not the one who knows more. Chris might roll his eyes at a design idea I have, he’ll raise concern…but in the end he knows I’ve got a clear vision… and then he’ll realize that I was right.” A sense of humor, of course, is always a good thing too.

Mobile Homes: Then and Now

From their travel trailer beginnings, mobile homes have evolved into finely tuned—and in some cases rather luxurious—permanent, full-time abodes.

Mobile Home Design

Photo: JDagmi

In Elkhart, IN, at the Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Housing (RV/MH) Hall of Fame, resident historian Al Hesselbart has created a library dedicated to the evolution of the mobile home. Having begun the job with no prior knowledge of the subject, Hesselbart read all of the books before putting them on the shelves. Now the self-taught authority makes frequent public appearances, has been inducted into the Tin Can Tourists Hall of Fame, and will be giving a keynote speech at China’s first national RV conference in Beijing.

Hesselbart is good for a dynamic industry that still suffers from stigma (“trailer trash”), myth (“factory-built homes are not as strong as traditional homes”), and general confusion—is a manufactured home a vehicle or a house?

Though the metal trailers of yore bear little resemblance to the energy-efficient open-floor-plan manufactured homes of today, outdated attitudes and judgments remain. Hesselbart and industry executives, passionate architects and designers, the Manufactured Housing Industry (MHI) and state-level trade organizations are all on a collaborative mission to inform about the past, present, and future value of manufactured housing.

Mobile Home Design - Continental Trailer

Photo: Portable Levittown

In the beginning, trailer travel was primarily recreational, as vacationers realized that it was a fun, budget-friendly way to tour the country. When the Depression hit, however, families who had lost jobs and homes packed their lives into these crowded campers. Though originally never intended as full-time dwellings, manufacturers identified this as a new trend.

The trailer home rose to the occasion during WWII as emergency housing on military bases and employee lodging near factories engaged in war production. With hundreds of manufacturers dispersed throughout the country, portable trailers were conveniently and quickly wheeled to locations, and over time, average square footage increased and livability improved.

Related: Manufactured Housing Through the Years

By the 50s and 60s, trailers were viable domiciles and mobile home ‘parks’ had sprouted up along the outskirts of thousands of towns. A typical park had a central shower and laundry facility with outhouses placed between every two units. The mobile home offered modest, affordable housing for young and old alike in all regions of the country.

In June 1976, the term “mobile” was officially set aside and replaced with “manufactured”, as The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) set national standards to improve the quality and safety of these homes. Bruce Savage, industry veteran and consultant to the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) explains, “The HUD code has evolved, and the guidelines are fairly strict, but how they are achieved is up to the manufacturer.” A certification tag attached to each transportable section verifies inspection to this standard. Since 1976, the HUD Code has been updated several times.

Building homes in a factory makes sense. Joe Stegmayer, CEO of Cavco, says the factory construction process is “efficient and consistent.” At Cavco, it takes on average 7-10 days to complete a solid, system-tested home with a relatively high degree of finishing (painted dry wall, appliances installed, window treatments hung). In a controlled environment, homes are built by the same skilled workers every day, no matter the weather; materials are purchased in large quantities and delivered hassle-free; and precise measurements translate into reduced waste and a tight build.

Once delivered, a manufactured home can be hard to distinguish from a traditional site-built one. Savage says, “The enhanced aesthetics make these homes easy to place in traditional communities, both suburban and urban.”

Tony Lucas, Cavco senior architect/designer, works with developers around the country designing regionally styled elevations. He welcomes the challenges—designing profiles for challenging sites, for example, or utilizing materials that are attractive but also high-performing. One example of mobile home design ingenuity: Hinged roofs enable homes to be elevated at installation while still managing to meet transport requirements. Siding options, once aluminum and vinyl only, now include stucco, brick, and rock.

Inside of a manufactured home, architect Tony Lucas says the greatest stride has been the transition to sheetrock. Suzanne Felber, a.k.a. The Lifestylist, stages model homes and loves the mainstream fixtures, fittings, and decorative options now available. Concrete countertops, tiled backsplashes, and large kitchen islands are increasingly common. As Felber says, “The industry is incorporating trends that we see everywhere.”

Despite all the style changes, the tell-tale sign of a manufactured home is the permanent chassis. At Paradise Cove and Point Dume Club, two mobile home parks in Malibu, CA, David Carter sells million-dollar trailers. “Buyers strip the old mobile homes down to the metal chassis, build out to the maximum allowed, and then put a regular stick building on top,” Carter says. People own the homes and lease the land (for up to $3,000 per month, depending on the lot’s size and location).

Mobile Home Design - Briny Breezes

Photo: JDagmi

Across the country, in Palm Beach County, FL, Mayor Roger Bennet presides over the town of Briny Breezes, a 488-home mobile park community. Tin Can Tourists from the North started to stake out Briny in the 30s, back when it was little more than farmland. The community later thrived as a tropical paradise for snowbirds, or “Whiny Geezers” as Mayor Bennet’s daughter teasingly dubbed them.

Briny residents own their homes and have shares in the co-op that owns the land. In 2007, developers sought to buy out the Briny-ites. Mayor Bennet laughs, “We used to be a trailer park, and then all of a sudden we’re a quaint seaside village.” The deal fell through along with the economy.

While the desire to live beach-front has led some to places like Briny Breezes and Paradise Cove, the typical park dweller has other priorities. Kevin Flaherty, VP marketing at Champion says, “In the family communities, people are looking for an affordable home with security. In the adult community, they are often driven by a desire to minimize their housing investment so they can protect their savings.” Flaherty adds, “Buyers appreciate that they can purchase just the home and not have to liquidate as much money, since they are renting the lot.”

Mobile Home Design - Champion Homes

Photo: Champion Homes

While the construction of manufactured homes has gotten more solid, Toni Gump, former editor of Upwardly Mobile magazine, believes the future of mobile home communities is getting shaky. Speaking about the situation in California, Gump says, “Many of the oldies are disappearing, since the county or city doesn’t get enough tax money from them and doesn’t care about protecting our most vulnerable.” She has also witnessed bullying by management companies. On the flip side, Gump says, “The majority of today’s manufactured homes are ‘in set.’ When they’re placed on regular lots in cities and counties, they avoid a lot of bureaucracy, plus you get a nice home for less.”

For more on the evolution of factory-built homes, don’t miss our Mobile Homes Timeline

Photo credits: Photos credits: Vintage ad courtesy of Portable Levittown; Escape Series Log Cabin, bottom, Champion

Sheds Reach New Style Status

Deciding to transform a shed into a workshop and studio proved to be the ideal choice for one PA-based entrepreneur.

Shed Design

Photo: Mary Jane McCarty

On the day that Mary Jane McCarty’s prefab shed was delivered, it was raining cats and dogs. But the Bucks County, PA, resident’s spirits were not dampened as she giddily awaited the arrival of her new design studio.

As the brawny, young, and determined delivery man, Glen, transferred the shed off of the flatbed truck, maneuvered it through the mud, and positioned it into place, Mary Jane watched with admiration. The bad weather presented such a challenge that “it almost toppled down the bank,” she recalls, “but Glen pushed on and never stopped smiling.”

Mary Jane purchased her shed from Sheds Unlimited, a family-owned and operated business in Lancaster County. The Amish Mennonite Stoltzfus tribe, now led by John and Steve, has been building sheds, garages, and other small spaces since 1988.

Over the last five years, the Stoltzfuses have noticed a slow and steady rise in business. Sheds have always been popular for storing cars, garden stuff, and equipment, but John Stoltzfus says an increasing number of people are using sheds as offices or living quarters.

Mary Jane Mc Carty Shed Shop Interior Bob VilaThe fact that sheds are getting larger may be one reason for the shift. Two-story models from Sheds Unlimited can store up to two cars and boast a full upstairs and full-size stairs. These deluxe models are trucked in two parts, and a crane truck is needed.

Mary Jane simply wanted a bright and inspired place to create. The talented seamstress, who fabricates one-of-a-kind pillows, lampshades, and other soft goods from mostly antique European textiles, was tired of working in a dark, cold basement. She looked into renting a space in town, but the cost was prohibitive. She entertained building an addition onto her home, but decided against the costly. Then one day Mary Jane looked at her sturdy and useful Amish garden shed and had an epiphany.

Searching online for modest pre-fab structures, Mary Jane honed in on Sheds Unlimited, a reputable Pennsylvania manufacturer. Soon she took a drive to the company’s headquarters in Gap, PA, to check out the workmanship and was instantly smitten with the authenticity of the company and quality of the product. “They use horse and buggies and scooters to get around,” she says.

It didn’t take long for Mary Jane to order one. Just six weeks later her shed was ready. (Most people, like Mary Jane, want sheds that are assembled for them, but there are also customers who order the DIY shed kit and build their own.)

The 12’ x 30’ “Classic Wood Workshop” cost $10,000, including the foundation, delivery, insulation, painting, and electric hookup.

Once set into place, Mary Jane checkerboarded the raw wood floor with vinyl tile and added two ceiling fans. This winter she found that one space heater adequately warmed the studio and this summer, she’ll test out an A/C window unit.

While basic construction is the same for all shed models, there are a lot of individual style and color choices to make when ordering. Though earth-toned neutrals have always been popular, John Stolzfus sees a recent surge of interest in avocado green. Other decisions must be made on window and door styles, shingle color, flower boxes, weather vanes, cupolas, and venting.

Naturally, the look of the inside is up to the owner. Mary Jane’s studio feels light and cheerful, thanks to generously sized thermal windows, sliding doors, and Mary Jane’s unfussy yet sophisticated feminine style. After she moved in the necessary furnishings—sewing machine, worktable, and shelves—there was enough space to create a cozy sitting area, where clients could relax and view the collection or collaborate on a project.

Mary Jane Mc Carty Shed Shop Unfinished Interior

Her first spring in the new studio passes with doors and windows flung open. Mary Jane takes a work break on the brick patio just outside her studio and assesses the situation. She is thankful that clients no longer have to trudge through her kitchen and down to the dark basement. “It has worked out beautifully,” she smiles, “and I’m so much happier.”


Photos courtesy: Gridley + Graves Photographers

Chicago’s First Prefab Modular House

This is the story of the C3—a trailblazing modern prefab home that ushers in a new approach to city dwellings.

Chicago's First Prefab Modular House

Photo: Square Root Architecture + Design

One unusually warm and sunny November day, a giant 225-ton crane deposited five prefab house modules onto a 25’ x 125’ plot of land in Chicago. Many people came to watch this unprecedented show, including Kathy and Michael Caisley, the couple who had bought the house. Also in attendance was Jeffrey Sommers, the architect who had designed it. This is the story of the C3—a trailblazing modern prefab modular home.


Jeffrey Sommers started thinking about prefab modular building roughly eight years ago. The C3 was four years in the making. C3 stands for Cube, Cut, Copy. The name—which has a math vibe consistent with Sommers’ Square Root Architecture + Design firm—describes the steps taken to conceive the original prototype. “It also has references to modular construction and the repetitive assembly line process,” Sommers says. Designed initially without a client, Sommers incorporated “all of the knowledge of previous clients’ requests for what they wanted in a dream home.” Words and phrases that kept coming up were “modern”, “energy efficient”, “sustainable”, and “affordable”.

The C3 is Sommers’ architectural translation of this conscientious vocabulary. Kathy and Michael Caisely knew the language well, yet it took four years for Chicago city officials to understand its meaning. “We were repeatedly told that no one would ever be able to build a prefab modular home in Chicago,” said Kathy Caisely, “and thus a challenge ensued.” John Gueguierre, senior VP of Hi-Tech Housing, the Indiana company that built the C3 modules, says, “The intense work on design and accommodating Chicago requirements stretched over 2009 and the first half of 2010.”

C3 Prefab Floor Plan

Once green-lighted, Sommers rallied the players. The project demanded energy and landscape consultants, a green rater, solar specialists, and other LEED-minded professionals. With project radar set on LEED Platinum certification, Hans Fedderke, Helios Design Build’s project manager, prepared the underground utility work and the foundation. Hi-Tech Housing gathered LEED-appropriate construction materials and built the C3 modules inside its warehouse. From the first nail to shipment of the modules was about 15 days.

C3 Prefab Containers

It was an industrious endeavor, which involved routing the 20,000-40,000 ton modules through urban streets. “The actual distance would only require about a four-hour drive,” Gueguierre notes, “but we needed to make sure we could work within the eight-hour time span of the street closure permit.” Naturally, prior to installation day, there was a dry run to verify overhead clearances. Caisley says, “If we just wanted a ‘house’, the C3 wouldn’t have made sense. This was a ‘project’ for us in partnership with Jeff—to build the first LEED Platinum prefab modular house in Chicago. It was bigger than us.”

The original prototype first had to be scaled down to fit the lot size. Then Sommers and the Caisleys tweaked the 2,039 square-foot interior. Whereas the original floor plan proposed 1.5 baths, Sommers maneuvered the plan and plumbing to reap 2.5 baths including one en suite bath in the master bedroom. They modified the original four-bedroom plan into a three, simply by ripping out a closet and turning that 4th bedroom into a den. The staircase was revisited too. Caisley says, “We wanted a floating staircase. Well, floating staircases are expensive. Jeff was able to provide a beautiful, very open staircase that fits our needs, and we don’t miss the alternative!”

C3 Prefab Kitchen

The C3 has a HERS rating of 46. While it still awaits LEED certification, here are some of the energy-saving features that contribute to its high rating and level of sustainability.
- solar thermal panels and on-demand water heating
- exterior siding that is both low maintenance (Galvalume corrugated and fiber cement boards) and reclaimed (barnwood).
- Mostly LED and compact fluorescent lighting
- Ductless heating and air conditioning system with zone controls
- Low VOC water-based sealants and finishes
- Water conserving plumbing fixtures and energy star appliances

The Caisleys have lived in the house for 15 months, and their utility bills are sizably lower than the 1,200 square foot, two-bed and two-bath condo from whence they came. The water bill maxes out at $20. Because of the great insulation and ample natural light, the Caisleys don’t often use heat or A/C. Beyond super low utility bills, the smart configuration includes a backyard, a second floor deck, and a one-car garage. To Caisley, the house, rich with amenities, looks much more expensive than it is.

C3 Prefab Outdoor

Jeffrey Sommers wants to see more prefab housing in his city, and after enlightening the Department of Buildings and working through the kinks with the Caisleys, his vision appears more do-able than ever. Through Living Room Realty in Chicago, a company that specializes in “mindful, urban living,” Sommers is now able to offer customizable green homes priced at $150 – $250 per square foot. To increase its marketability, C3 has taken on new meaning: Create, Customize, and Conserve—which any potential homeowner can certainly comprehend. Since the Caisleys kind of co-pioneered this prefab possibility, perhaps there should be an honorary “C” for Caisley.

Check out the time-lapse video below to see how the modular components were delivered and installed at the site:


Photos courtesy of Mike Schwartz Photography

Miami Beach’s Newest Green Home Goes For Platinum

The Florida Green Home Design Group strives for LEED Platinum certification with its 2020 Alton Road Project.

2020 Alton Road - Rendering

2020 Alton Road, Miami Beach, FL. Photo: The Florida Green Home Design Group

Almost everyone by now should be familiar with the phrase LEED-certified—a program developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to promote Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. With respect to residential design, a LEED-certified home accrues credits (points) based on the degree to which mindful design and sustainable performance considers region, site, non-toxic and local materials, and the implementation of systems that conserve and reuse water, manage waste, ventilate air, and promote wellness.  According to the USGBC, as of August 2011, 12,690 homes have been LEED-certified and more continue to be built to meet the latest green building standards.

While Gold certification has been the ultimate goal of many builders, a new breed of architects, developers, and contractors—like the visionary team building the house at 2020 Alton Road in Miami Beach, FL—are now pursuing Platinum, the next level and highest LEED category.  To qualify, this home must score at least 90 points. With high performance and efficient power-making and -saving systems, this home aspires to operate at “net zero,” meaning that it will produce as much energy as it consumes.

For the principals of The Florida Green Home Design Group—architect Ari Sklar, general contractor Robert Arkin, and developer Matt Lahn—the building of a sustainable house like 2020 Alton Road has become an aphrodisiac of sorts. Arkin is all consumed and claims to “eat, sleep and dream green.” Sklar is on a natural high over state-of-the-art advances in green design. And, Lahn confirms its uniqueness by declaring this is “more than just another job!”

It didn’t start off that way five years ago when Sklar purchased the lot with his father- in-law. They considered the “2020″ address to be a good omen since there were two optometrists in the family. Their intention was to build a large luxury home on the site and turn a profit. When the recession hit, however, Sklar sat tight. He took notice of the advancements and tax incentives in building green and studied to become a LEED-Accredited Professional (AP). The wait afforded him, together with Lahn and Arkin, the opportunity to not only set a new standard of green building in Miami but impact the community in a relevant and responsible way.

Indeed, official interest in the greening of Miami Beach started in 2007 when Commissioner Michael Gongora founded the Miami Beach Sustainability Committee. “I wanted to build a dedicated committee focused on green issues and to develop a sustainability plan to guide our city for the future,” says Gongora, who serves as committee chairman. Noting the city’s motto—Blue Skies, White Sands, Green City—Commissioner Gongora hopes that 2020 Alton Road will inspire more LEED building and that the city will develop laws to assist in future pursuits.

2020 Alton Road - Rendering 2

2020 Alton Road, Miami Beach, FL. Photo: The Florida Green Home Design Group

This two-story 3,200-square-foot, 5-bedroom dwelling is situated on a 7,000-square-foot, highly visible corner lot adjacent to the star-studded North Bay neighborhood (Matt Damon is among the local residents), the Miami Beach Golf Course, and South Beach’s Lincoln Road—the shopping Mecca for the city.

With building permits just approved, all of the major elements, such as geothermal heating and cooling, fresh air intake air conditioning, solar panels, a wind turbine, and a rainwater cistern, are falling into place. One of the myths that this team hopes to dispel is that building green is much more expensive. Arkin says, “Though the upfront costs for these systems are 10-15% more, the systems and materials last much longer and require much less maintenance. They are the gifts that keep giving.” Lahn confirms that this type of home requires less maintenance and cost to run, not to mention the tax incentive for building it. Gary Shlifer, Performance Green Building Consultant and LEED AP hired for the project, says “The real question is, ‘What will it cost if we don’t build green today?’”

From the modern design to the smart technology, this Miami Beach addition to the LEED landscape is certain to reinforce the benefits, beauty, and interest in green building today. “There’s more of a market for projects that employ sustainable components than we ever imagined,” says Lahn. Realtor Tara West agrees. Having sold “green” homes in Europe, she is excited to take on her first U.S. listing with the 2020 Alton Road project. “We started to get calls as soon as the sign went up,” says West. The asking price is $1,950,000.

The project is underway now and expected to be completed in Spring 2012. A real-time video camera will be erected at the construction site, so anyone can follow the project’s advancements day-to-day. Until then, experience a virtual tour of the home below:

For more on the Florida Green Home Design Group’s 2020 Alton Road Project, click here.

In the Workshop: Blog Stars 2012

So alike in DIY ambition, this year's blog stars fix, tinker, and create in spaces that couldn't be more different.

Picardy Project

Photo: Meryl and Chris of Picardy Project

As more and more doers and makers broadcast their home improvement adventures online, the world of DIY has never been more popular. Whether the reason to fix, improve, or beautify on one’s own is motivated by economics, ability, or the thrill of a good challenge followed by self-satisfaction, one thing is certain… where there’s a will to get the job done, there’s definitely a way, and it need not happen in an über tricked-out state-of-the-art workshop!

Sarah Fogle

Photo: Sarah Fogle of Ugly Duckling House

Meet the steadfast group of bloggers featured in our 2012 “In the Workshop” series, all of whom are committed to tackling projects with skill, humor, and authenticity. They may possess common tools and materials and the desire to get a job done and share the process with the world, but they each tinker, cut, and drill in vastly different surroundings.

Sarah Fogle, shown right, of The Ugly Duckling House was doing it in a small corner of her bedroom for a while, and has since graduated to a cramped corner of her garage.

Timothy Dahl of Charles & Hudson and Built by Kids does it as often as he can under the trees in his backyard.

Meryl Phillips and Chris Miller, top, of Picardy Project do it in a pretty standard, well-organized garage that was once on the verge of collapse, and they have this repurposed wine crate drawer system that is totally awesome.

Each player in this DIY world brings his or her own personality, history, and agenda to the work table. Though perhaps first introduced to the fix-it/make-it world by a parent or experienced family member, they have gathered more knowledge via books, other bloggers, and their own mistakes. Most importantly, these passionate project-seekers are continuing a tradition of hands-on work in their own style.

Sarah Fogle: In Love with Fixing It Up

Atlanta-based blog star Sarah Fogle fits home renovation between grad school, family and friends, and her dog Charlie.

Sarah Fogle

Photo: Business Insider

Sfogle Blog Star Sarah Profile 2Sarah Fogle doesn’t want any confusion. Despite her zest for DIY, she is no Mrs. Bob Vila! Her work spaces are a little disorganized, and her drill is defunct. And yes, she wears her heart on her sleeve—along with paint and caulk-stained pajama pants.

A sassy and determined grad school student with a realtor’s license and flair for do-it-yourself home improvement, crafts, and blogging, Sarah is renovating her 1982 Atlanta, GA residence, which she affectionately calls “The Ugly Duckling House.” Sarah is fixing it up in between studying, working, and maintaining a social life.

Once upon a time, Sarah shared these remodeling adventures with her “then-boyfriend.” When the “we” turned to “I”, things changed. One less person meant one less pair of hands, as in, “I don’t get to tackle things as quickly as I used to.” On the upside, solo re-mo meant Sarah could sing her favorite tunes (Grace Potter, Maroon 5, Theory of a Dead Man) as loud as she wanted. And it also meant there was more space in the workshop—a good thing, since Sarah describes her DIY center as “tiny” and “practically non-existent.”

S Fogle Blog Star Garage WorkhopCurrently, Sarah’s primary woodworking set up is relegated to a cramped corner of her one-car garage. Anchored by two folding tables and a pegboard wall, Sarah says, “The focal point is the mess.” Intent on upgrading (soon, hopefully) to some sturdy workbenches where she can properly clamp her beloved Kreg jig, she surmises, “I figure the organization comes after I’ve built my new worktables.”

Sarah has another work space upstairs known as The Study-O. Once “a dumping ground for half-finished projects,” The Study-O is shaping up—with a homemade desk, new paint job, and repurposed lighting—to be a pretty swank multi-purpose room. Used for crafts, studying, and office work, it is still a room in progress. Sarah is contemplating whether to buy or make a storage unit and also where to hang a gold leaf world map that she made.

Aside from ripping up floors and such, Sarah is a bedroom blogger. Committed to honest communication with her followers, Sarah says, “I keep almost everything within reach in the bedroom at night and blog with my laptop in bed while watching a little TV.” She dedicates six to eight hours to her spunky blog and a few more hours to answering reader emails and keeping up with social media sites.

S Fogle Blog Star Woodworking Garageworkshop2 Uds

Five years from now, Sarah envisions that the “Ugg-Duck” house will have sold and that she will be tearing apart another fixer-upper. She has gotten the hang of solo DIY and will call on others as needed. Her dad is first on the list, as he is the one Sarah holds responsible for her early DIY education. “I’m sure I can figure things out on my own because of him,” she says.”

Sarah also enlists friends when needed. “If I invite them out for dinner anywhere near my house, there is a strong possibility I’ll ask them to hold something steady or lift something heavy before we head out.” And then there’s Charlie, a sweet rescue who Sarah swears, because of the pup’s jumping prowess, is part kangaroo. In the middle of a project gone bad, Charlie can be quite the comfort.

S Fogle Blog Star Workshop Dog Charlie