Author Archives: Steve Bernstein

Patio Materials 101

Popular patio building materials run the gamut from poured concrete and pavers of recycled plastic to natural flagstone and bricks of fired clay.

Patio Materials



Patio design is like many other things in life: You get back what you put into it. Given the dizzying array of style options, selecting the right material for your patio may seem daunting. Manage the process step by step. First, assess your needs and determine a budget. Then gather backyard patio ideas from around your neighborhood and by surfing the Web. What size patio do you want? A small patio is fine for intimate gatherings, but you’ll need a more expansive area if you like to entertain groups. Next, consider which types of patios fit the criteria you've identified as being most important. Don't forget to take into account your house style. A sinuous poured concrete patio looks great against a modern exterior, while a traditional home begs for a stately brick or flagstone surface. If you’ll be handling the installation yourself, opt for a DIY-friendly materials; pavers or gravel are less demanding than natural stone. And as you calculate cost, consider the longevity of the patio material as well as its maintenance requirements. Something that seems attractively cheap may entail additional upkeep or earlier replacement for wear and tear—which is no bargain.

Patios can make your outdoor space more enjoyable, increase your home’s value, and not so insignificantly, save you money on landscape maintenance costs. What type of patio is right for you? Any number of colors and patterns may be installed in a variety of materials. Pros and cons for a few of the most popular are discussed here.

The color and characteristics of flagstone result from the natural process by which it forms, a slow and gradual accumulation of layers of sand, clay, mineral and organic sediments. The most common colors available are red, blue, and buff, with regional varieties like Arizona sandstone and Pennsylvania bluestone among the most popular.

Flagstone patios are unmistakable—and hard to resist, if you favor the material’s earthy, timeless appearance. Irregularly shaped and sized, quarried flagstones are heavy and rather difficult to work with, especially for the inexperienced do-it-yourselfer. Since flagstone is subject to erosion and splitting, a successful flagstone patio design prioritizes adequate drainage.

Note: Different types of flagstone entail different maintenance requirements. Sandstone has a cooler temperature in summer, but it’s porous and prone to water damage. Bluestone is more durable but requires a sealer to maintain its coloring.

Patio Materials - Brick


A time-tested, enduringly popular patio building material is clay brick, which offers a distinguished aesthetic that complements both traditional and contemporary architecture.

Over time, bricks usually retain their rich, warm color, and due to their handy weight and size, installing them in a patio is DIY-friendly work. Mortar is not strictly necessary; bricks can be laid easily on a dry bed of sand.

Homeowners love brick’s versatility—myriad patterns are possible, from rectangular to round. Reclaimed brick, though typically more expensive, has grown in popularity owing to its “green” status and unique look.

Note: Though it may crack with wintertime freeze-thaw cycles, brick is otherwise durable, and individual damaged bricks are easily replaced.

Pavers come in forms as varied as natural stone, concrete, clay and even recycled plastics. For patio installations, experts recommend either stone or concrete pavers, which, due to their higher density, may be expected to last longer and undergo less color fading than other paver types.

Concrete pavers in particular are a mainstay of patio building, beloved for their easy installation and the range of sizes, shapes, and colors in which they can be found. Inevitably, this manmade product lends itself to a less “natural” look, although some concrete pavers are manufactured to look like natural stone or clay brick.

Note: With the exception of interlocking designs, all pavers will spread over time. To maintain the shape of your patio, be sure to ring your paver installation with a border of pressure-treated lumber.

Concrete patios are typically one of the least expensive to build. Assuming proper installation and maintenance, they are one of the most durable, too, though like brick, concrete is subject to cracking with freeze-thaw cycles.

Since poured concrete follows any form, unlimited patio design options are possible. If your dream patio is one covered with glazed decorative tiles, a concrete slab is the way to go, as it will provide a solid, even base on which to add tiles in future.

Note: Control storm water runoff by devising the shape, depth, and slope of your poured concrete patio in such a way that adequate drainage is achieved.

If you are looking for a patio material that may be installed quickly and easily, look no further than gravel. Usually two types are available, river rock or crushed stone (in sizes ranging from a quarter-inch to one inch in diameter). When installed over a fabric landscape liner, gravel effectively deters weed growth, and compared to other materials, it offers excellent drainage.

At best, a gravel patio recalls English cottage-style gardens and Tuscan courtyards. At worst, a gravel patio is high-maintenance, plagued by stones that are difficult to keep level and in place. Some folks also complain that gravel is uncomfortable to walk on with bare feet, and other materials provide superior support for outdoor furniture.

Note: Round, pebble-like gravel stones are more likely to shift than angular, crushed gravel stones; in a high-traffic area like the patio, it may be wise to insist on the latter.

Fiber Cement Siding 101

Of all the options available to homeowners today, fiber cement siding appeals to those seeking a long-lasting, low-maintenance material that performs well and looks good, too.

Fiber Cement Siding


While it’s been around for years, fiber cement siding currently enjoys popularity with homeowners for a number of reasons. Some appreciate the sustainable aspects of its manufacture. Others favor the material for its architectural appeal. Although professional installation is recommended, ongoing maintenance costs are low. Once installed, fiber cement siding lasts a lifetime, and that more than anything may explain the high demand for it.

Maintenance and Longevity
Each of the major manufacturers offers a line of fiber cement siding that meets or exceeds standards set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials. The siding stands up, not only to the elements, but also to hazards like insects and noise pollution. After 15 years, refinishing becomes necessary, but maintenance duties are light otherwise. Indeed, manufacturers’ warranties attest to the product’s durability with 30- to 50-year warranties the norm.

CertainTeed, one of the leading manufacturers of fiber cement siding, says it only sources wood fiber harvested from managed forests. Another maker of fiber cement siding, Nichiha, joins CertainTeed in using fly ash—a waste residue of coal combustion—rather than silica. Nichiha also boasts of observing a host of best practices in their production process, sourcing material locally, recapturing 95% of the water used in its facilities, and recycling 100% of the scrap material it creates.

James Hardie, the founder of fiber cement in the 1970s and world leader in the category, is equally committed to sustainability—sourcing 90% of their materials from regional suppliers, and employing waste minimization and solid waste recycling technologies to support Zero to Landfill initiatives.  While cement, water, sand and cellulose fibers are used for Hardie siding products, fly ash is not: the company believes that it adversely impacts the durability of fiber cement.

Related: Composite Shakes and Slates: The Great Pretenders

James Hardie fiber cement lap siding

HardiePlank Lap Siding from James Hardie

Architectural Appeal
Fiber cement siding comes in a variety of designs: Lap, plank, vertical, shake, curved-shake and geometric patterns are all available. A host of textures can be found as well, and the siding may be colored to virtually any hue the homeowner desires. Some fiber cement siding products are made to resemble wood, while others imitate the look of natural fieldstone, stacked flagstone, or brick.

The upfront expenses associated with fiber cement siding are not inconsiderable, being that professional installation is a must. However, the ongoing maintenance costs are minimal. You can expect to pay out for refinishing work about every 15 years or so, but the lion’s share of the overall cost will come at the beginning of the product’s 50-plus-year lifespan.

Versus Wood or Vinyl Siding
Wood siding boasts a timeless beauty, and many homeowners value the way its appearance gradually changes in subtle ways. You can save on installation by doing the work yourself, but wood siding products are often expensive to buy, and over time, the material demands a high level of maintenance.

Though colorfast and resistant to insects and rot, vinyl siding is not maintenance free: It’s vulnerability to weather damage makes occasional repairs necessary. The price tag is low enough to have enticed many, and another big selling point is its relative ease of installation.

If your priority is good looks, then you can’t go wrong with wood. If budget is your main concern, look no further than vinyl. Consider fiber cement siding if you are looking for a long-lasting, low-maintenance material that performs well and doesn’t look half bad, either.

Top Tips for Choosing an Air Conditioner


All air conditioners are designed to cool—that is, to remove heat and humidity from interior spaces. If you are in the process of choosing an air conditioner, heed these important considerations before you buy.

Types of Air Conditioners
1. Window units
2. Through-the-wall units
3. Portable units
4. Central or whole-home units

Window units are the most popular air conditioners, and for DIYers, they are the easiest to install and remove. This type of air conditioner fits in a window opening and vents to the outside.

Through-the-wall units are larger and heavier than window units. Rather than sitting in a window, a through-the-wall unit rests within a weight-supporting air conditioner sleeve set into an exterior wall. Electric circuitry must be reviewed, especially in older homes, because these units often require greater amperage and voltage.

Versatile by design, portable air conditioners—ideal for windowless spaces—exhaust through temporary ducting and can be moved from room to room.

Central or whole-home units cool the entire house at once. Frequently combined with heating for a complete HVAC system, they are the most expensive option and typically require expert installation.

Choose an Air Conditioner - Central AC Unit


Cooling Capacity of the Air Conditioner
Air conditioning capacity is measured in units called BTUs. A small window air conditioner can deliver as few as 3,000 BTUs, while a through-the-wall unit can exceed 20,000 BTUs.

Room size is perhaps the most important factor in determining the size of air conditioner you need, but consider also:

1. The number of windows in the room
2. The room’s exposure
3. The quality of room insulation
4. Other appliances that may be in use
5. The number of people in the room

Consult a handy BTU calculator to figure out exactly how many BTUs your air conditioner should have to keep your space cool.

Energy efficiency is measured by the Energy Efficiency Ratio rating (EER)—the ratio of the cooling capacity in BTUs per hour to the power input in watts (the higher the EER rating, the more efficient the air conditioner).

Air conditioners, especially older units, are among the most expensive appliances to run. Choosing an appropriately sized unit is critical, because a unit that is too small will not meet your cooling demands, and one that is too large will cost more to run and will not properly control humidity.

In making your decision, first identify units capable of adequately cooling your space and then purchase the one from that group with the lowest BTU capacity and the highest EER rating.

When and How to Buy
During the summer, air conditioners are an in-demand commodity, which means they are in short supply and consequently more expensive. You’ll save money if you buy during the off-season, when manufacturers frequently offer rebates.

As well, some municipalities and utility companies offer rebates on units with minimum EER ratings. And if you opt for central air, you may qualify for a tax credit to offset the purchase of an efficient whole-home HVAC system.

In general, your best bet is to buy before summer, and remember to look for a warranty.

For more on home cooling, consider:

New Air Conditioning for Old Houses
Cool Your House with Smart Landscaping
Quick Tip: Alternatives to Air Conditioning

How To: Build a Brick Patio

Few do-it-yourself weekend projects deliver the beauty, utility, and overall satisfaction that building a brick patio does.

How to Build a Brick Patio


Of the materials suitable for use in patio construction, brick stands out for its beauty and ease of installation. Depending on the sophistication of your design, it may be possible to build a brick patio within the space of a single weekend. Here’s how:

- Garden cloth
- Sand
- Bricks
- Border stones
- Push-broom

1. Location
Choose an area of your property that is easily accessible from the house. Make sure the chosen area is relatively flat, with a moderate slope away from the house for the purpose of drainage. Plan around the position of mature trees, whose roots may complicate the process of surface leveling. (Also, plan around young trees that are nearby, as their growth over time may eventually shift patio bricks.) While you can level the yard to a degree, a deck may be more appropriate for a landscape with a dramatically steep gradient.

2. Size and Shape
Having identified a location for the patio, you must next decide on its size and shape. Remember that bricks come in different sizes. Choosing a mix of bricks with different dimensions may facilitate the installation job by minimizing the need for cutting. Inevitably, a rectangular or square design will be easier to accomplish than one that is round or curved.

3. Prepare the Site
Excavate the site to a depth that will accommodate the bricks’ thickness as well as a two- or three-inch sand base. For example, if using reclaimed brick that measures 4″ x 4″ x 8″, you should excavate to a depth of six or seven inches. Dig a deeper trench around the perimeter that will allow you to stand bricks on end—side by side—to create a border.

Lay garden cloth on top of the soil (for weed prevention) and cover the cloth with an even layer of sand. Mark the area, row by row, with stakes and strings to keep perimeters square. Doing so also serves as a guide to help you get the right drainage slope. Note: Double-check with your building materials supplier, but usually a ton of sand covers about 200 square feet to a depth of approximately two inches.

Related: Patio Design: 7 Popular Materials to Consider

4. The Bricks
To calculate the number of bricks required, first determine the number of bricks per square foot. A brick measuring 4″ x 4″ x 8″ is equivalent to 32 square inches, so each square foot in the patio would need four and a half bricks. Multiply that number by the overall dimensions planned for you patio; the sum is your total brick count.

Don’t forget to factor in those bricks to be used in the border, not to mention the 1/4″ space between bricks. If it’s easier, use graph paper to draw your patio to scale. Consider ordering 10 percent more materials than is strictly necessary. You can always return the unused bricks or save them for a future project.

How to Build a Brick Patio - Laying

5. Set the Border
Begin by setting the border. Insert bricks end first, shoulder to shoulder, so they sit flush with the patio surface. These border bricks will hold the patio installation in place, keeping its constituent bricks from spreading apart. The border will also provide a professional finish to your project. Alternatively, steel or wood beams may be used to frame the patio.
6. Lay the Bricks
Once the border is in place, lay the bricks flat on the sand, using the strings as a height guide. Remember to leave a 1/4″ gap between bricks. After positioning all of the bricks, apply additional sand in the spaces between them.

I have found it easiest to pour sand in a small area before using a push broom to move the sand over all the openings. Repeat the process until the gaps between the bricks and borders are evenly filled and level.

Sweep off the extra sand and fire up the grill!


Author’s Note: With a background in business, construction, and academia, Steven Bernstein is a regular freelance contributor at

Cabinet Refacing: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Kitchen Cabinet Refacing


Thinking about giving your dated kitchen a new appearance? Fortunately, there is a cost-effective alternative to replacing your cabinets completely—you can reface them. Refacing is a quick and relatively inexpensive way to achieve a refreshed aesthetic with minimal disruption to your kitchen and daily life.

Cabinet Boxes and Trim
As part of a refacing project, the cabinet boxes and frames are usually kept, while the cabinet doors and drawer fronts are replaced. (The size and layout of your cabinets remains unchanged.) Assuming your cabinet boxes are are in good condition, the next step is to decide on the look you wish them to have.

Painting the boxes is one option. If, however, you desire traditional stained wood or a smooth, glossy, and modern finish, a veneer layer will need to be added. Veneers are available factory-finished or unfinished, the latter of which may be stained.

Note: Applying the veneer requires care and precision. Prefinished veneers are difficult to touch up, even if you make a minor mistake during installation. Unfinished veneers are very thin but can be touched up more easily.

Doors and Drawer Fronts
Standard cabinet door styles and sizes will be appropriate for most cabinet openings, and the same is true of cabinet drawer fronts. To reface older or custom cabinets whose dimensions are not standard, you can always opt to have specially sized doors or drawer fronts manufactured, but doing so can significantly cut into any savings you gain by choosing to reface.

Like veneer, cabinets doors and drawer fronts are available unfinished (which you can paint or stain) or prefinished. Given the wide selection available, it should be easy to find a standard factory finish to your liking.

Kitchen Cabinet Refacing - Painting Doors


When shopping for new cabinet doors and drawer fronts, accurate measurements are of the utmost importance, particularly when purchasing online. To minimize error, provide your cabinetmaker with an old door and drawer front in each size that you will need.

New hardware is an important part of refacing. If possible, coordinate your choice of knobs or pulls with the hinges of your cabinet doors. Remember that, because re-hanging cabinet doors can be tricky, the smart move is to use adjustable hinges, which allow for adjustments and fine-tuning to be done with a screwdriver.

A Final Thought
Refacing cabinets with new doors and drawer fronts is a straightforward project for the experienced do-it-yourselfer. But even if you decide to hire a contractor, the cost remains significantly less than a complete kitchen cabinet replacement.

Most impressive of all is the fact that you can have a new kitchen within the space of only one or two weekends!

For more on kitchen cabinets, consider:

Kitchen Cabinets 101
How To: Refinish Kitchen Cabinets
5 Creative Alternatives to Kitchen Cabinetry