Category: Managing Construction

Award-Winning Architect Shares 9 Renovation Tips

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop distills what wisdom went into her firm's award-winning renovation of a 1950s Cape-style home in Connecticut.

Renovation Tips - Old Hill House

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

Architect Ann Sellars Lathrop made the most of every inch in the Old Hill House, a Westport, Connecticut, family residence that Sellars Lathrop Architects renovated in 2012. (Don’t miss the full story HERE.) For Lathrop, the project brought an award and high praise, but like all the work her firm undertakes, it was also a valuable learning experience. In the wake of transforming a 1950s Cape into a practical, modern dwelling with historic-home flair, Lathrop offers these words of wisdom to anyone planning a large-scale remodel:

  • Eliminate walls to enhance the feeling of space. Our renovation gave the homeowners sight lines between the kitchen, family room, and dining room.
  • Raise the ceiling. In the Old Hill House kitchen, we removed the ceiling joists and exposed the roof rafters, adding skylights over the sink.
  • Add windows for natural light and a view to the outside, and to make rooms seem larger. A worthy goal is for every room to have windows on two walls.
  • Skylights: They’re really important! Abundant light completely changes the mood of a space, and you never have to turn on lights during the day.
Renovation Tiips - Family Room

Photo: Ann Sellars Lathrop

  • As you make other changes, avoid relocating bathrooms; the cost usually outweighs the benefit.
  • Maximize usable square footage not only to improve your quality of life at home, but also to boost resale value.
  • Build shelving into every nook and cranny, because there’s no such as frivolous storage space.
  • The simpler your roofline, the better your bottom line. Gables and other roof features of relative complexity carry a high price tag.
  • Insulation pays. This home’s Energy Star rating warranted a rebate from the utility company, and monthly heating costs have plummeted.
For more on Ann Sellars Lathrop, click here.

Keep Your Contractor Happy: 3 Major Missteps to Avoid

Successful home remodeling depends on your ability to navigate the often tricky terrain of working with contractors. Here are three missteps to avoid as you conduct business with building professionals.

Working with Contractors


Is the roofer or tile setter not returning your phone calls? Don’t take it personally. Economists agree that home improvement has strengthened this year. In other words, contractors are busy nowadays. If you want to snag and hold onto a quality contractor, these are the first mistakes to avoid making.

1. Avoid Disputing Payments
The word may be out about the recent spat you had with the painter whose bill you refused to pay. If the contractor had to file a lien to get paid, your dispute is now a matter of public record, available for any and all others to see. Protect your reputation by checking with local courts and clearing any lingering problems or points of confusion.

2. Try Not to Be Stingy with Your Stars
Plumbers, electricians, and landscapers all know that their clients frequent online ranking sites, such as Yelp or Angie’s List. So when you review a contractor’s performance, be sure that you are fair, honest, and considerate in your assessment. Substantiate your opinion with examples of what went right and what went wrong.

3. Avoid Refusing to Be a Reference
High marks from previous customers make or break a home improvement company’s business. At the close of a successful project, your contractor is likely to ask that you serve as a reference in the future. Blowing him off means demolishing your relationship with that particular professional. If you ever wish to hire that outfit again, don’t be surprised if and when your calls go unanswered.

Home Additions and Renovation Projects: Where to Begin

Home additions and renovation projects are not identical, but essentially consist of the same first steps.

Home Additions


Doubling the size of your house with a new addition is not identical to, say, putting a second bath in that small back bedroom, but the steps in the process essentially match. The bigger the project, the more time, money, and headaches are involved, but it is generally a matter of very similar elements. Home additions and remodeling projects, while different, both begin with the same steps.

After you have a thorough understanding of your existing house, you are equipped to think about renovation ideas. It’s time to define the task and to put some notion of what you want to do on paper.

You need to decide whether the task consists of adding new space, improving existing space, or simply putting unused space to use. Perhaps you’re undertaking a few home additions; maybe you’re finishing the unfinished, converting a basement or attic into a livable, finished space; or you may be transforming what you already have in your home or apartment.

Regardless of the scope of your project, the first step is to decide what you want and need. Thus, you need to explore those desires. The next step toward actual construction, will be to create—or have created—plans that conform to the require­ments of local building ordinances. But in moving toward those plans, you need to make numerous subjective decisions about style and materials and answer a multitude of questions for yourself or your architect/designer.

So, at this stage, you should be able to describe in ten words or less the nature of the remodeling you would like to have done. Much more can be said about size, configuration, style, finish, and other details, but in the simplest possible terms, how would you answer a friend or neighbor who inquires, I hear you’re thinking of remod­eling?

In general terms, the options are these:

We’re planning a minor remodeling of existing living space.
A job of this sort will involve no major changes in partitions or the overall shape of the space being remod­eled. The electrical, plumbing, and HVAC services are also to remain essentially unchanged. Such jobs might involve new cabinets, appliances, or even the arrange­ment of elements in the kitchen; retiling a bath; plastering and painting; adding wainscoting wallpaper, or other surface finishes; sanding, carpeting, or reflooring; adding or installing bookcases or built-ins; and so on. Minor remodeling may involve a designer, carpenter, or painter, but probably will not require filing for a building permit or hiring plumbers and electricians.

We’re planning a major remodeling of existing living space.
These are bigger jobs, for which a building permit is probably required. In a major remodeling partitions might be added or removed. This may involve bearing walls, these being walls that support the structure above. In most instances bearing walls can be removed or at least mod­ified after structural alterations have been made that safely redistribute their loads. If new plumbing lines or electrical circuits are required or new openings need to be cut in exterior walls for doors or windows, your job will also classify as a major remodeling.

Typical projects of this sort would be the opening of two or more interior spaces into one; the addition of a new bath; a kitchen remodeling in which new plumbing risers or electrical circuits are required; or the installation of a new central HVAC system, electrical service, staircase, fireplace or chimney, or exterior doors or windows.

We’re converting unfinished space to living area.
It may be in the attic, basement, porch, or garage. But you’ve decided to add the space to your living quarters. This probably will require building department approval, as there is likely to be electrical work, as well as fire and building code issues.

In the case of an attic conversion, you need to consider a range of questions. Is there adequate headroom? Do the stairs meet code and safety requirements? Is there adequate light and ventilation? Do you need to add dormers? How about skylights or “roof windows”? Will you need one or more additional electrical circuits? Plumbing risers and waste pipes? How will the space be insulated?

A cramped attic space can, with the addition of dormers (or roof windows), become a livable and even welcoming space.

If you propose to remodel a basement, your list of concerns will be similar, with light and ventilation uppermost. Again, stairs will be an issue, as will electrical and perhaps plumbing lines. Dampness is often a big problem downstairs: If you have a wet basement, converting it into living space may not be the answer you’re looking for. With either a garage or a cellar conversion, you’ll probably need to iden­tify a means of covering a concrete floor.

An addition can add that space you need—perhaps a family room, multi­purpose kitchen, a study, or another bedroom

We’re going to put on an addition.
Home additions are a bit like building a new house: you’ll need new foundation; frame; walls, floor, and roof surfaces; windows and doors; and all the connective tissues, too, like wires, pipes, insulation, and HVAC connections. An addition will certainly require a building permit and I’d recommend hiring a designer or architect to help you think through the delicate matter of inte­grating the new structure into the existing one.

Renovation Ideas

Often, developing renovation ideas doesn't begin with a call to a contractor or architect.

Renovation Ideas


Developing renovation ideas requires that you look at, and really see, your house. You may believe you know it intimately, but the typical homeowner recognizes little more than the obvious pleasures of the place and the irritating aspects he or she wants to change. In order to make the right changes, you need a solid overall feel for the existing qualities, liabilities, and potentials.

Without a thorough working knowledge of your home, you put yourself at risk of rude surprises. There can be excess remodeling costs that could have been anticipated if you had studied the structure and discovered that certain basic work needed to be done, expensive change orders, or the worst circumstance of all: you find yourself wondering at the time of completion why you didn’t do certain things to produce a more satisfactory result—and it’s too late to change.

Begin your inspection by walking the boundary line of the property. If you’ve mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges a hundred times, this may seem absurd. Do it anyway.

If you have a survey of the property, keep a copy of it at hand. It should indicate, through notations of landmarks and measurements, where your land abuts other properties. Particularly with a small plot where the buildings may be close to the boundary lines, it’s important to be sure that your understanding of the outside perimeter coincides with the description on your deed and the survey.

The Lay of the Land. Look at the topography: Locate yourself with respect to the surroundings. Are you on top of a hill? In a valley? Is the land flat or does it run down a slope?  Imagine you’re a low-flying bird: shaping a mind picture of a fly-over view may be helpful in thinking about your house and its context.

Look at the nearby houses. In many neighborhoods, more than one house was constructed by the same developer, often in the same or similar styles. While casting a glance at your neighborhood, look for houses similar to yours. Notice what they have in common with your home and what’s different.

Does a neighboring house have an addition that might help you arrive at your own renovation ideas? When differing needs are brought to bear on identical starter houses, strikingly different dwellings evolve. You might also see what you don’t want to do. That can be valuable, too.

The Plantscape. What about plantings? Are there trees or shrubs you want to emphasize? Often a large tree or a glade of smaller ones provides a focus for an overall landscape plan. If you’re planning on adding to your house, however, great care must be taken to protect the trees and their root systems from the heavy equipment that is used to excavate, pour concrete, and deliver supplies. A good rule of thumb is that no truck should be allowed within 10 feet of a tree trunk, since the fragile root system at or near the surface can be badly damaged by just one crushing visit of a bulldozer track or even the tires of a heavy truck. A corollary is no trenches should be dug within 20 feet of a middle-sized tree, 30 feet of a large one. Small trees and shrubs can be moved, but only with an adequate amount of soil in a root ball. And preferably by experts.

Look at the neighbors’ properties, too. Are there mature plantings along your property line or trees that you could use as a backdrop for your yard?

While there may be plantings you want to preserve, chances are that some will have to go. Overgrown shrubs may need only to be pruned; dead trees or bushes will have to be removed. Branches that overhang the roof are hazards, as are tree roots that are heaving up areas of your drive or walkways.

Note, too, a strictly practical consideration. Does the grade around the home slope away from the house at the rate of an inch per foot for 10 feet or more? While the precise pitch isn’t important, a noticeable slope away from the house is essential to keep water away. Are there any low spots in your yard that stay wet much of the year? What is the pattern of runoff after a heavy rain or as the snow melts? Water is the chief enemy of any house, whether the structure is stone, wood frame, or brick. An efficient system of gutters, down spouts, grading, and other drainage will prove valuable in any but the most arid climate. If the drainage isn’t adequate at your house, this is the time to correct the problem.

The Hardscape. Examine your stone walls, retaining walls, terraces, decks, fences, driveway, or concrete constructions. Consider their condition: Do they need immediate maintenance? Are the walls intact or in need of resetting? Is the patio cracked? Is the deck sound or is the railing so rotted it’s ready to give way? Are the walkways level or do they have high spots or potholes that are insurance claims just waiting to happen? Fixing and moving existing elements costs money so, if such work will be required, you should have a landscape preparation and repair line item in your budget.

The Plot Plan. As you go about your examination of the property, update your plot plan (or sketch one if none exists). Incorporate substantial elements that aren’t represented: the garage, garden shed, or other outbuildings; the driveway and walkways; large trees; established shrubs, gardens, and other major plantings. Don’t forget to indicate the house on the survey. Sketch its outline. Pace off distances and dimensions and try to keep these elements roughly in scale.

Easements. Not everything about your lot can be seen with the naked eye. Easements are rights of access that utility companies and the owners of adjacent properties may have to some portion of your property. If, for example, there’s an underground electrical service beneath the site of your proposed addition, you’re probably going to have to shift sites.

Are there any restrictions on your deed? Is there, for example, a right-of-way through the property? In one instance in a small Massachusetts town west of Boston, a friend of mine was horrified one day to receive legal notification that a road was about to be cut across his property, right through his vegetable garden. A previous owner had agreed to a right-of-way in the deed and, years later, a local developer took advantage of the option to construct an access road in order to build a subdivision behind my friend’s house.

Zoning. Some communities have zoning, local ordinances regarding land use restrictions. Zoning ordinances typically specify what can and cannot be done in designated areas, mapping out residential, commercial, industrial, or agricultural zones. In general, there are fewer limitations as you move down the scale from residential to agricultural. Take a trip to city hall and learn what restrictions, if any, apply in your neighborhood.

Zoning requirements can protect you from undesirable construction or development in your neighborhood, so you won’t wake up one morning to discover a dump site next door, or a factory, store, or trailer park under construction. But zoning can also prevent you from doing certain things. In a residential area zoned for single-family dwellings, for example, you probably wouldn’t be allowed to rent a “mother-in-law” apartment over the garage to a tenant without first obtaining the permission of the city’s planning board or zoning officer. Zoning or municipal regulations often specify setbacks, requirements that houses be a minimum distance from the street and property lines.

Learning what your limitations are can save you headaches now and money later. Many communities have established restrictions on building height. There may also be a limit on maximum allowable lot coverage, meaning you’ll have to build up rather than out to comply with the regulations. As we discovered in Cambridge, there are rules here about parking and even on changing the roof line of a house. Find out what restrictions apply to you.

Building Permits. While you are at city hall learning about local zoning, inquire about the procedure for filing for a building permit. In order to put new cabinets in your kitchen you probably won’t have to obtain a permit, but if your job will involve rewiring, new foundation work, or major structural alterations, a permit will be required. Find out what paperwork you will need to submit. Many municipalities require plans that have been prepared (or, at least, reviewed and stamped) by a licenced architect or engineer, as well as detailed specifications and a budget. Ask about the fee schedule, too.

Design Review. In some communities there are established design standards to be met. Many developments and historic districts require that construction or remodeling plans be approved by a design review board. This may mean nothing more than that you must fill out one more form when you get your building permit, but the approval process is rigorous in some towns or neighborhoods. You may find your renovation ideas subjected to a detailed critique, and the review board may require design changes. Some communities even specify color choices, thereby limiting your palette to a few designated choices.

Covenants. Restrictive covenants are also found in the deeds to homes in many recent suburban developments. Some are binding rules, others voluntary, but often there are restrictions on the kinds of alterations that can be made to homes within the boundaries of the development. Additions almost always fall within the purview of such covenants, but the construction of pools, tennis courts, and even the manner in which you label your house with your name and street number may be prescribed. Again, find out what the rules are.

Home Renovation: Experiencing Your House Anew

Some evening when the house is quiet, shut off all the lights.



Some evening when the house is quiet, after sunset and after the dishes are done, shut off all the lights. Electric light is the rule in virtually all homes today. Steady, bright, safe, and reliable, electric light illuminates our lives. Ironically, though, its very clarity can blind us to seeing what’s around us.

To jar your perceptions a little, try looking at your house using another source of light.

Light a candle. Or use a flashlight. Or both. You may occasionally dine by candlelight, so you know how flattering the light can be: the soft, yellowish glow seems somehow relaxing. But in other rooms, you truly will see things in a new and different light. Shadows appear and colors soften. Shapes can become more dramatic, exaggerated, and fluid thanks to the alternative source of light.

This exercise will not reveal to you a totally different and unfamiliar place. But it may give you an alternate way of looking. Moldings stand out more in shadowy light: electric light makes them seem almost two-dimensional. The nature of candlelight is such that you focus on smaller areas: a candle on a table illuminates it and perhaps the chairs immediately around it. The rest of the room is at best a dim presence at the perimeter. Candlelight can help you see spaces within a space. Have a glass of wine or even have a conversation while you’re going about your candlelight tour of your house. Does anything surprise you about the scale, shape, or relationship of the rooms? Do any objects look different and suddenly out of place—too large and clumsy, so delicate they disappear? Even if you have no immediate revelation, I suspect your perception of your home’s spaces will be subtly altered.

Here’s another exercise that may also be useful. Use a low stool or even an upside-down pail. Plant yourself in places where you would never otherwise be seated: in a corner, at the center of a hall, at the foot of a staircase. Again, as you look around you, perhaps as other people in the house go about their business, you’ll see the place in a new way.

These may seem like bizarre exercises. The goal is to break away from the fixed pictures you have in your mind of your home. Looking at the same old space in the relative darkness or from the perspective of a five-year-old or a person in a wheelchair may help you think anew about solutions. But envisioning changes in a space one knows very well requires getting out of yourself, thinking like someone else in a new place.

At the same time, however, don’t underestimate what the experience of living in a house can offer. Over time you’ve learned the house and established patterns of movement. You’ve positioned furniture in such a way as to minimize traffic lanes through living areas, to take advantage of light at certain times of day, or of cool or warm spots. Think about those changes, too, and about other things you’d like to change.

The process of discovering your house takes time. Weeks or even months may be required for you to see through both the layers of changes made to the house and your own patterns of use. But with a little patience, you will develop a deeper understanding of the place. After months of wondering at some peculiarity of your home, you may realize all in a moment why things look as they do. Give yourself the opportunity to absorb what your examination has revealed to you. When combined with a basic understanding of architectural style, your examination and your intuition will eventually reveal your house to you.

Home Renovation: The Exterior

Even if your proposed renovation concerns only interior spaces—a thorough examination of the exterior is still essential.



Even if your proposed renovation concerns only interior spaces—say, a new kitchen, or converting an old closet to a second bath—a thorough examination of the exterior is still essential.

At a Distance. Begin by taking the long view. Look at each elevation of your house from 100 feet or more away. It may help you to squint slightly as you try to see the house as a whole and not be distracted by individual elements or colors. The idea is to see the forest for the trees.

Try to look and think in three dimensions: Do you see one uniform symmetrical volume? Are there apparent parts to the house, such as the main block with one or more smaller elements stepping down on one or both sides? Does a simple shed addition stand out distinctly as a later alteration to an otherwise symmetrical house? How about a boxy protrusion along the length of the building (a wing) or an addition that extends at a right angle from the main building (an ell) from the rear?

Keep in mind that only a generation or two ago, most new houses were typically more modest in size than new homes today. Children shared bedrooms and the whole family shared a bath. There were fewer single-purpose spaces (laundry rooms were a comer in the cellar, home offices rare, family rooms retrofitted into base-were remodeled. On narrow in-town lots, additions were often extended off the back. Dormers may have been punched through the root offering light to living spaces on the top level of the house. A recent trend has been to remove the original roof altogether, to strengthen the old ceiling joists, and to add a whole new story and roof above the old main floor.

Most builders in the past tended to keep a uniform roof shape, so if the roof line and pitch change dramatically from one section to another, they may indicate where changes were made. Are there dormers on the roof? They, too, could be the result of renovations, especially if the placement is eccentric. Houses built before 1850 tended to be symmetrical, and Victorian houses built in the next half-century often were L- or T-shaped. If your house was built before 1900 yet isn’t recognizable as a box, an L, or a T, try to determine why. On the inside of the foundation, a cellar that is not of uniform height and appearance can be another clue. An old, low-ceilinged crawlspace with a rubble stone foundation adjoining a full cellar of neatly laid up cement block is a dead giveaway: there’s the old section, here’s the addition.

Get a Little Closer. To get a fresh vantage on the dwelling you see every day, try examining your house with binoculars. Look at the place from both near and far. With the binoculars shaping your view, you may see details and compositions that surprise you. It’s rather like seeing snapshots of people you know well—sometimes they just don’t look like themselves, largely because you detect features you hadn’t noticed before.

Next, focus on the front door. Often the main entrance is the single best exterior clue to the floor plan of a building. If it’s located at the center of the house, that may indicate a balanced arrangement of rooms on either side of a central hall. Is there a discernable pattern of windows? Do the details on each window frame match the others? How about the sash: does each have the same number of lights (panes of glass)? One or several that are trimmed differently, contain different-size sash, or are out of alignment with the others may indicate an addition or remodeling. Is the trim at the comers and the roof line consistent from one portion of the house to another?

Now think about the house in two dimensions. In a traditional home, you should see a series of perpendicular lines on each plane. Is the roof line straight or does it dip in the middle? When you see wavy or undulating lines of siding or a wall surface that bulges, that may indicate a structural problem. If it is apparent to your eye that supposedly horizontal surfaces are not level and vertical ones are not plumb, you and probably a contractor should find out why. In an eighteenth-century colonial, elements that are out-of-square may be regarded as part of its character and the house perfectly sound. In newer construction, however, such signs may represent something to worry about.

While you are standing at a distance, can you detect any curling or missing shingles or other signs of roof deterioration? How about the chimney: Does it stand straight and tall, or are the mortar joints deteriorated so that it’s angling to one side?

Moving closer to the house, continue your examination on the south or southwestern side. These exposures are subject to more weathering, as the warming and drying of the sun exaggerates the effects of wind and rain.

What is the external wall covering? Wood is the most common siding in North America, with roughly 90 percent of houses clad in wood. Is it clapboard, shingle, board-and-batten (consisting of wide vertical boards, with the joints covered with narrower boards)? How soon will a paint job or more serious scraping, patching, and painting be necessary? If the walls are of brick or stone, is the surface in good condition? What about the mortar joints—do you need to repoint (replace the deteriorated mortar joints)? With stucco houses, look for cracks and bulges. If the siding material is aluminum or vinyl, check for dents, missing pieces, and discoloration. In an older home, these artificial sidings may have been added on top of the original clapboards or shingles which may be intact beneath and well worth restoring. Later in the process, you may want a contractor to help you investigate this option. If so, make a note on your wish list.

Look closely at the windows. Is there peeling paint? Where the vertical frame members abut the sill, are there signs of decay like softened and discolored wood, mold, and blistering paint? Is there missing or cracked putty where the panes of glass join the frame and muntins (the elements between the panes in a divided-light sash)?

Look at the foundation. Is it of uniform material and finish? Do the walls appear plumb, solid, and the mortar joints sound? How close are wooden elements to the ground? If any siding or other wood is closer than six inches to the soil, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. The excess soil should be excavated to prevent decay.

Walk around the perimeter of the house and look carefully for problem areas. If there is a porch, examine it with particular care. Porches are exposed to the elements, so posts, floorboards, and railings are subject to decay. Have you noticed soft spots on the porch floor? How about railings that tend to give a little? Look with care at the joining of the house and the porch. If there is decay, that may indicate that water has been moving from the porch into the structure of the house.

Before proceeding inside, try to think about the exterior of the house as a unified whole. What do you like (or dislike) about it? If your house consists of several sections that were constructed at different times, do they work together nicely—or maybe the last addition seems somehow wrong and you’d like to devise a way to make it look more of-a-piece with the rest of the house. Perhaps you think the front of the home looks dull: many a plain ranch in recent years has been given a more stately appearance with the addition of an imposing entranceway. Perhaps there’s a design detail that you especially like—a decorative window, a band of molding, a porch post, an unusual building material like glass block, or some other element that you might like to revisit in your proposed renovation.

Muse a little on what you see. Dream a little about what you’d like to see.

Shopping DIY Online

Learn how you can maximize your DIY remodeling budget by shopping for bargains online.

DIY Shopping


Everyone is doing it—internet shopping.  In fact, this year 148 million U.S. consumers age 14 and older will make at least one purchase online, according to estimates reported by eMarketer.  By 2015, that number could grow by an additional 30 million consumers.  And it’s not just the convenience of shopping online that keeps customers coming back for more.  It’s the variety and the bargains.

You can find deals for just about everything online today, from clothing and electronics to groceries and travel.  Home goods and DIY/remodeling products are no exception.  Think faucets, hardware, appliances, lighting, windows and tools. Imagine buying a Kohler jetted tub at 2 a.m. in the comfort of your own home at a store that never closes, where there’s never a line at checkout. And, while sales are common enough in retail stores, you may find even greater savings by searching the sites.  With no brick and mortar stores to maintain, online retailers are in a much better position to pass savings on to their customers.  The key is to do your research and invest some quality shopping time.

Whether you live in an area where retail shopping is plentiful or limited to a big box store, a small hardware shop, or perhaps a manufacturer showroom, the key to finding deals is shopping comparatively.  Online you have access to the broadest range of products possible. Having more to choose from could seem more of a curse than a blessing.  But, rather than become overwhelmed, spend time researching and comparing brands and features, and the list will begin to winnow down based on your requirements, personal likes and budget.

To help you navigate products, features, and costs more competently, look to comparison shopping sites like,, and  You can search these sites by product category and then compare by brand. When you know the brand and model, be sure to check out the manufacturer’s website.  Many sites, like, will let you select multiple products in the same category to see how they stack up in terms of features and cost.

If budget rather than brand is your guide, then you’ll find even greater values online.  With promotional coupons and incentives from retailers, manufacturers, newsletter promotions, and websites like Groupon, your purchase can be a real bargain.  And, don’t overlook Amazon, (formerly, eBay and where unsold inventory of home goods and DIY-remodeling products can be found at significant savings.

Before you get carried away filling your “shopping cart” with purchases, consider some of the disadvantages of buying online. The most obvious one is that you can’t physically check out the merchandise.  How does the hardware handle or knob feel in your hand?  What is the outward swing of the refrigerator door?  How different does a satin finish look from a brushed finish?  Does the countertop material feel warm or cool to the touch?  And what about the true color of those cabinets?  It’s always best to see any product before you commit to buying it. The savings will not be as valuable if the product you choose is not what you expected.

Another concern is whether the online merchant is legitimate and a safe place to shop. Look at what other shoppers have to say about their online experiences at sites like and  You can also check out the Better Business Bureau online if you have additional concerns.  Look for signs that the website protects your data.  Encryption is a security measure that scrambles your personal information as it gets transmitted.  If you see “https://” in the browser web address, you should feel confident that the site is credit-card safe. Likewise, using PayPal is a secure way to make payments on the web that is linked to many popular online shopping destinations.

Before you make a purchase, be sure to read the fine print—all of it.  While shipping costs may be waived as an incentive at time of sale, some sites can make it very difficult to return merchandise.  Many will not pay for the return-shipping charges; some will only do so if the item is being exchanged.  You might also be charged a restocking fee for any merchandise returned.  If you are paying shipping fees, take that into account in determining the value of buying online or buying in-store.  Sometimes paying shipping charges for small items—like a light dimmer—may be more than the item itself or the potential savings.

Just as retail merchants rely on point-of-purchase sales, online retailers are hoping for the same impulse buy.  The array of products that are likely to turn up in the DIY remodeling category on your home computer screen will certainly be seductive.  Do not rush to buy because you see a great deal.  Also be sure you know what companion products may be required (a pressure valve or right-angle arm for a shower head) or the right specifications (a faucet that is center-set rather than wide-spread) for whatever you buy.

Still wondering what type of savings you can expect by shopping DIY online?  Check out this Buying a Faucet case study.

It was easy on one hand but not on the other.  Be sure you have the model number from the manufacturer as well as the correct name and details, including the finish color and a picture. Why a picture?  Because some online retailers change the model name when they offer it at a lower price than the manufacturer.  I selected a Margaux Faucet from Kohler because of its WaterSense® properties, simple design lines (translation—easy cleaning), and its two-handle widespread specifications.  I knew it was a faucet that would work well with the existing Kohler plumbing I currently have in the bathroom.

I wrote down the brand name, model number and part number from the Kohler website and started shopping:
• MFG Brand Name : KOHLER
• MFG Model # : K162323SN
• MFG Part # : 16232-3-SN
• MFG Finish Color: Polished Nickel
• MFG List Price: $682. 35

First, I went to my nearby Home Depot store to check the price: $483 plus sales tax; already a considerable savings from the manufacturer’s list price of $682.35.  That would serve as my base price for future shopping.  Back at my computer, I discovered that was having a sale on that very faucet for $399 (almost $100 less than the retail store) with sales tax required, but no shipping fees.  It was time to visit the online shopping destinations for more comparisons. Here’s what I was able to find.

Cost Comparison1.2

The winner— with best price and free shipping, even if I did have to pay sales tax.

Wood Clamps

Properly secure your glue joint with these tools.


Photo: Flickr

Wood is a remarkable material. It’s widely available, handsome, and immensely diverse. Many of its varieties can easily be cut, sculpted, bored, and otherwise shaped in a hundred different ways. Wood can be fastened to metal, plastic, or other pieces of wood, using nails or screws. But the most miraculous of its tricks, at least for me, is wood’s willingness to be clamped and glued.

A properly prepared glue joint (and this is the amazing part) is as strong as the sinews of the wood itself. I’ve seen many broken pieces of furniture that snapped and cracked not at a glue joint but as a result of flaws in the wood itself. Not every glue joint is perfect, of course, but those that are can endure for centuries.

The first key to a good joint is proper clamping. The clamp—most are devices with pairs of jaws that are drawn together with screw mechanisms—is responsible for pulling together the pieces to be glued, and for holding them tight and flush until the glue sets. The other key is the glue, and using the right kind in the right way. But first let’s talk about the array of clamps that are available.

Clamps (or, as they like to call them in England, cramps) are in­valuable tools in the workshop. But unlike the vice, another tool that can be used to hold workpieces together, clamps are easily portable, which makes them most con­venient problem solvers at the work-site. Here are a few clamps for which you may well find many applications.

C-Clamps. These multipurpose clamps get their name from their shape. Especially practical for gluing in tight spaces, these clamps have jaws in the shape of the letter C, and rely upon screwdrives with metal shoes at their ends to hold workpieces tightly. The screwdrive is driven by a T bar that forms a handle on the screw; in general, finger-tightening will provide adequate force. The shoe is mounted on a ball joint, allowing it to sit flush even to slightly angled stock.

C-damps are made of aluminum, iron, or steel, and are designed to clamp metalwork. When used with plastic or wood, pads are generally used to protect the material from telltale indentations that are left by the metal jaws and the shoe of the clamp when tightened. Clamps come in a range of sizes, with jaws as small as one inch and as large as twelve inches. Some have deeper throats than others, to accommodate clamping some distance from the edge of the workpiece.

Bar Clamps. The bar is the backbone of this clamp, a rectangular length of steel or aluminum. There is a jaw at one end of the bar, and a tail slide that moves up or down its length. The tail slide can be fixed in the desired position at one end of the workpiece that is to be clamped. Depending upon the design of the clamp, this is done using a peg that passes through the bar or by locating the slide at one of the notches in the bar. The adjustable jaw device, which uses a screwdrive, can then be tightened over the workpiece at the other end.

Bar clamps, which are also known as joiner’s clamps, are sold in two- to six-foot models. The steel clamps, in particular, can exert con­siderable force in clamping. Pipe clamps and bar clamps have strongjaws, and can be used in rough framing to pull a reluctant joist or header into place. More often, they’re used in cabinetwork or to repair doors or windows.

Pipe Clamps. At first glance, the pipe clamp resembles the bar clamp, save that the spine is in the form of a length of pipe. As with the bar clamp, the pipe clamp has a jaw that in most models is fixed to one end of the pipe. A second sliding jaw can be positioned anywhere on the length of the pipe, with a cam operated by a lever mechanism or a clutch that is engaged when an object is clamped in place.

The fittings for pipe clamps can be used on any length of pipe. Two sizes of fittings are common, designed for half-inch and three- quarter-inch iron pipe.

Hand-Screw Clamps. All-wood hand-screw clamps were the rule for generations. One great advantage of wooden hand-screw clamps is that, when used properly, they apply pressure evenly over a larger area than most clamps, meaning they are less likely to mar a workpiece than other clamps.

The wooden screws in the older models travel freely through one jaw and thread into the other; the front and rear screws are the reverse of one another. The newer, steel-screw models have threads at each of the points of connection with the jaws, but the thread on each rod reverses at its midpoint, for ease of adjustment. Both wooden and wood-and-steel designs can be loosened or tightened by gripping them with both hands, a handle in each hand, and rotating the clamp. A clockwise rotation tightens the clamp.

For most uses, the clamp should be tightened to fit the workpiece with the jaws roughly parallel. When the mouth of the clamp is snug over the workpiece, turn the rear handle to fully tighten the clamp. When gluing, take care to avoid gluing the wooden jaws to the workpiece.

Over the years, these clamps have been manufactured in a great range of sizes, and today clamps can be purchased with jaws that open up to a maximum of twelve inches or more. Typically, the hardwood jaws are between eight and eighteen inches long, and be­tween one and a half and two inches square.

Spring Clamps. These clamps mimic the shape and function of the human hand when you are grasping something between your thumb and forefingers. Only this clamp is quite happy to remain in place in­definitely, exerting uniform pressure, enabling you to go off and do something more interesting.

The clamp’s jaws are usually made of steel, sometimes with a layer of plastic applied to reduce scarring on soft materials to be clamped. A spring holds the jaws tightly closed, until the action of squeezing the handles together opens them. Spring clamps are sold in various sizes that open one, two, three, or more inches.

Strap Clamp. Also called web or band clamps, these clever devices rely upon a beltlike length of webbing to tighten joints in a structure. A mechanical device functions as a kind of elaborate buckle, with a ratchet that allows the one-and-a-half-inch-wide belt to be tightened.

Belt clamps are especially useful in furniture work, tightening frames and cases (even round ones), and those seemingly impossible clamping tasks that most clamps just don’t seem to suit.

As with any clamp, make sure you remove any extra glue from the clamp. Not only can excess glue cause the strap to adhere to the clamp, but it may leave an abrasive residue on the strap for the next job. Either way, you can mar your work.

The Sensitive Addition

Sensitive Home Additions


There’s been a lot of talk invested in the last few years in trying to define what is an historically sensitive addition. The National Park Service has published guidelines, which, in short, recommend preserving historic features and materials in order to preserve a building’s historic character. That’s the goal.

The Park Service also suggests, in a general way, a means of accomplishing that. The recommendation is that any addition to an historic structure be designed in such a way that it look enough different from the original structure that a visual distinction be apparent to the casual observer In short, respect the old building but don’t try to fool anyone that what you’ve added is old.

There have been a number of strategies devised over the years that aim to accomplish this, and I’ll discuss those shortly. But first there’s a question to be considered: Although the visual distinction notion has been widely accepted, is it always appropriate? In a word, no. I agree it’s a good first assumption but in some cases, an architectural solution will emerge that closely mimics the original and looks just right. Working on older houses requires nothing if not flexibility.

The possibility of not obeying the Park Service dictum raises another impor­tant philosophical issue: Is it somehow dishonest to add a new-old structure that isn’t distinguishable as being different from the original? Is that playing fast and loose with history?

Some would say, Yes, absolutely. I’d say, Maybe, it depends.

For me, it’s case-by-case. It comes down to whether or not we identify a given dwelling as an historic house. No, I would never recommend that their caretakers put an addition on Monticello, Mount Vernon, or any major architectural monument. On the other hand, the definition of historic house has broadened greatly in recent years. You ask Foursquare and Bungalow owners whether their old houses are historic, and lots of them will tell you from the bottom of their hearts that, surely, yes indeed they live in historic houses. And I’m not going to tell an enthusiastic wave of volunteer preservationists they’re wrong.

So let’s look at some strategies.

One good way to think about an addition is that it should be smaller in scale and overall size than the original house. If your house is a Classic Colonial, with a facade that’s two stories high and 40 feet wide, the wing you add to one side might be a story and a half and 30 feet wide.

Another common recommendation is that the front plane of the addition be noticeably recessed back from the original structure, a visual acknowledgment of its secondary status. A variation on the same theme is to sepa­rate the addition from the house with an even smaller hyphen or connecting struc­ture that further distances the original house from what you’ve added. Another proven strategy is to make the addition invisible from the front—for centuries, here and around the world, important building facades have been left unchanged when necessary additions were attached to the back rather than to the front of a building.

Not everybody agrees here: One camp argues that the siding, window trim, and other detailing should be consistent with the original; another group advises subtle changes are essential, such as simplifying the trim or using shingles to contrast the original clapboards. Both approaches are, in my opinion, perfectly correct under the right circum­stances, but the nature of an individual structure must be factored into deciding what to do.

Different rooflines will probably draw immediate attention to the addition. A radically different roof shape (a flat roof abutting a gable roof, for example) is likely to look wrong. Adding dormers, a cupola, or other elements not on the original may also look peculiar. While you don’t have to copy the cornice, eave overhang, pitch, or even the overall roof shape, a complementary configuration that echoes the original is probably the best strategy.

I recommend you take all of this reasonable advice and mull it over. Take what fits and feels right—and be forewarned that you won’t please everyone. The truth is that working on an old house requires a series of judgments. You need to think like an architectural historian, a builder, a curator, and a homeowner.

Remember, too, that you’re just passing through. The odds are that the house will be there generations from today… so treat it with respect.

Drawing Conclusions

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work.

Home Renovation


If you’re following the logic of this book, the time is approaching for the design work to begin. My hope is that by this point in the process you feel as if you know your house pretty well. You’ve identified historic elements, structural liabilities, and have a feel for the house’s character and vintage. Presumably you also have a grow­ing list of needs and desires you want fulfilled in the remodeling you’re contemplat­ing (though we’ll explore that list in the next chapter in more detail).

You may also have begun to hear, to your surprise, a previously unrecognized sound, a chorus of sorts that, as in the plays of ancient Greece, can help guide and inform the action in your own little drama. From time to time, as you think about changing your home, these voices sing in harmony about your obligation to the past. They may remind you that this house was there before you arrived and probably will survive you and generations of others after you. Do the right thing is one refrain you may hear. Even if you’re not hearing the voices (yet), there are other instructions that other remodelers before you have heard and disregarded at their peril.

Develop your plans on the basis of a thorough under­standing. Conduct your physical investigation and recognize the style of your house. Try to see your home in context, identifying both its location in time and where it fits in the development of your neighborhood and town. Lear about other, similar houses from local historical societies, museums, or reference works from your book­store or library.

You’ve heard the advice before, you’ll hear it again. But do listen to it: Save quality workmanship. Most old plaster, hardware, doors, windows, floors, and many other elements are probably worth keeping. Even if you think some­thing is hopeless, get a second opinion. Countless remarkable resurrections have been accomplished, often at a cost less than that of reproducing or even simply replacing the original.

If the first contractor you contact has an attitude about saving the old (Geez, that’d be a lot of trouble), maybe you’re talking to the wrong person. One caveat, though: Something that is old isn’t by definition better. Bad craftsman­ship, even if it’s old is, well, just bad craftsmanship. Good work in poor condition is probably worth conserving; shoddy work isn’t worth much, whatever its vintage.

Old isn’t always better. But when you are stuck, look behind you: The ghost of the builder is there to help. One way to consult the departed builder/designer is to consider what were his or her original intentions. Your close examination of the house will have given you some understanding for how the place was originally used, its degree of finish, its patterns, symmetry, detailing, and so on. Refer to that knowledge in making remodeling decisions.

Even if so many changes have been made over the years that knowing what the designers or builders had in mind is difficult, it’s often possible to identify what they didn’t intend. A good example of this is interior brickwork. In apartment build­ings, brick was commonly used to construct the party walls that divide one building from another and then was covered with plaster.

In the same way, chimney stacks are traditionally of brick that, except for the vicinity of the firebox and mantel, was camouflaged with layers of plaster. Yet in recent years, many walls and chimney breasts have had their plaster coverings removed and the brick and mortar left exposed. The builders almost certainly would be embarrassed to have their masonry work revealed for all to see: their intention was for the regularity of the plaster to obscure the rough masonry. But in an historical irony, we have come to value the signs of the handmade, even when it’s poor workmanship. Think about the original context before making such changes.

Don’t try to make a house something it never was. Don’t try to make the Victorian look Colonial. Don’t try to make solid middle-class housing into a man­sion fit for a robber baron. Recognize what you have, respect it, and work with it.

A challenge to any remodeler is the mixture of times that are (or will be) evident in the remodeled house. If you are restoring a period house to its orig­inal appearance, the challenge is to do it with absolute fidelity. But most of us, how­ever, want to make our houses suit our needs.

Changes made over time add a fourth dimension: there is no one date and, in fact, there could be several dates of significance. Among preservationists there is a consensus that later changes can have equal validity to original construction. Good workmanship may have been followed by better workmanship. We’ve already dis­cussed saving good old work, but don’t let any one era dictate all your decisions. Modern conveniences are essential to most people. Even if you’re remodeling a house that is only a few decades old, the technology has changed and you will prob­ably be updating kitchen appliances and adding bathrooms. Perhaps you’ll be mod­ifying heating and cooling systems. Respect the evolution of your home as you go about changing it. Consider all the earlier changes as equal until proven otherwise; then decide what works for you and what doesn’t.

At this stage, you should also be developing some kind of informal formula that you can use to help you make decisions about your renovation. We’re not talking about an unbreakable law of nature that dictates, “Yes, you can do that,” or, “No sir, no way.” It’s subtler than that. There are variables to be factored in, per­sonal and architectural and economic considerations.

In the simplest possible terms, the best remodeling results from a carefully calculated mix of good old work and appropriate new work. On the face of it, the for­mula is just simple arithmetic. But there’s an overlay, too.

I don’t believe every homeowner needs to be slavishly consistent to the orig­inal configuration and detailing of the house. I don’t take a purist’s approach. How­ever, the straightest road to a bad remodeling job is to pay no attention at all to what you’re starting with.