November 2011 Archives - 2/4 - Bob Vila

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DIYdiva Kit Stansley: In the Workshop

Kit Stansley (a.k.a. DIYdiva) shares a behind-the-scenes glimpse of her workshop, tools and process.

DIYdiva Kit Stansley

DIYdiva Kit Stansley. Photo: Flickr

Kit Stansley has a zest for building and a talent for blogging about it. The 5’3,” 115 lb. powertool addict, tackles projects armed with fierce ambition and sharp wit, and then chronicles them with great humor and humanity on her website, DIYdiva. With two homes already renovated and sold, Kit has just moved into temporary digs. Over the next six-months, she will design and build home #3, as well as revamping the rental property where she is staying. Kit writes, “You know me, I like a challenge!”

Her major induction into the DIY world began in 2004 after she bought her first house. “Since then, I haven’t stopped buying power tools or tearing down walls,” she says. With visions of a dream home filling her head, Kit’s casual interest in pretty home projects, such as tiling and drywall texturing, quickly mutated into an obsessive passion that included down and dirty stuff like replacing rotted sill plates and lots of demo work. In February 2011 she became a licensed contractor in the state of Michigan. When not at her full-time corporate job, Kit slips on a $4 white men’s t-shirt, work jeans, a Carhartt bib (which she calles “gender-neutralizing), and a pair of muck boots any chance she gets.

Kit Stansley Workshop Di Ydiva Tools Bob Vila RevKit’s starter set of tools were hand-me-downs from her father. And while she’ll always have an appreciation for old well-used tools, she loves buying shiny new top-of-the-line machinery that she can maneuver in her small hands. Nothing makes Kit happier than having a reason to wield her Makita Compact 18v Lithium Ion Cordless Drill. Her joy is evident: “You realize what used to take 7 minutes of hand-turning a screw driver, just took 3 seconds, and now you have plenty of time to go paint your toenails.” Kit researches every major tool she buys. “I don’t buy sissy tools!” she says referring to some of the offerings targeted to women.

Online tools are as valuable as the drill, router, and miter saw. When Kit’s determined spirit crosses paths with apprehension, she remedies the situation by typing “How do I…” in the Google bar. “I do think we’re all capable of doing awesome things…if we only take the first step,” she says. She attributes her own fearless “let’s-jump-in-and-get-our-hands-dirty” mentality to her grandmother’s who showed her how to lay a brick edge around a vegetable garden when she was three. (A common bond that she shares with Bob Vila who was also inspired by his grandmother’s building endeavors.) 

Kit Stansley Workshop Tools Storage Bob VilaKit’s tools usually lie in a state of organized chaos in a shop she describes as, “a tool garage, basement, shed, car… and sometimes bedroom and kitchen.” In general the big tools like the miter saw and table saw, along with Craftsman cabinets, will be in a garage or shed keeping good company with lumber and siding. The smaller hand-held, frequently relied upon tools are kept closer to the scene of the crime project. In her last home, she had them splayed out on shelves. In warm weather, setting up shop in the open air is a good thing.

Kit has systems in place that keep her on track and motivated. She has a “5 project rule” and no matter how eager, will not introduce a sixth, until one is completed. She also uses the website as a motivational tool. “You know, you have to finish projects to have things to post,” she explains, thankful for the awesome support of her on-line community. With excitement building around home #3, Kit blazes through the DIY world, usually gracefully but at times awkwardly (and she’ll be the first to admit that) leaving a trail of sawdust behind.

Kit Stansley In The Workshop Power Tools Bob Vila

For more how-to from Kit, check out her recent contributions on Bob’s Blog.

Restored to Life: The 12-Year Kitchen

Seed germinated after three weeks

Three weeks after the landscaper worked his magic, we have a nice thick lawn and colorful plantings to finish off our remodeling project.

A landscaper once lamented to me that homeowners rarely budget enough for their exteriors when they plan a remodeling project. “They spend all their money on the inside work,” he said, “then they have nothing left when it’s time for sprucing up the outside.”

The grass and plantings around our little 40×100 lot hardly even justify the word “landscaping,” but what was there had been soundly trashed by the excavation and demolition that started our project, followed by months of deliveries that compacted what was left of that section of the lawn. The fine layer of cement left behind by the patio crew sealed the whole area into a rock-hard moonscape.

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Macy’s Day Parade: A Little Perspective

SHARES Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade


You don’t have to be from New York—or even have visited the city—to know that Thanksgiving and the Big Apple mean just one thing: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This year marks the 85th year that the historic event will travel its two-mile route, from 77th Street and Central Park West to 34th Street and 7th Avenue, to the delight of more than 30 million people lining the streets and an additional 50 million enjoying the festivities from the comfort of their own homes.

The parade, which originated in 1924 as the Macy’s Christmas Parade, began as a promotional stunt to get the department store noticed.  Employees and professional entertainers dressed up in costumes and, together with animals from the Central Park Zoo, paraded from 125th Street in Harlem to the Macy’s store at Herald Square. The event was so successful that Macy’s decided to repeat it annually. At the end of that first parade, Santa Claus made his appearance at Herald Square, officially kicking off the holiday shopping season, a tradition that has concluded the parade ever since.

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Radiant Floor Heating 101

Radiant floor heating, popular in new construction, has become a viable retrofit option.

Radiant Floor Heating

Photo: Sun Climate

Radiant floor heating is arguably the ideal home heating system. It’s comfortable, efficient, unobtrusive, quiet, and does not blow dust and allergens around the way forced hot air systems do. Instead of overheating the room’s perimeter in the hopes that the warm air will travel throughout the space before rising, subfloor heating serves up heat from below. The result is a more even overall heat that warms everything in the room, including surfaces, furnishings, and, most importantly, you. Radiant heat is similar to the heat you feel when you stand by a window on a sunny cold day. Your face feels warm, but the sun didn’t need to heat the air outside to make you feel that way.

For the record, subfloor heating has been around for centuries, from the hypocausts—a floor raised on pillars where heat could circulate below and radiate through layers of tiles and stone—of the ancient Turkish and Roman baths, to Frank Lloyd Wright’s turn-of-the-century adoption of more modern Japanese examples. And while the decision to install radiant heating used to be a pre-construction call, today’s innovations make it feasible—and, even DIY-suitable—for existing home retrofits.

Radiant floors are heated either with electric resistance cables or hot water flowing inside tubing.

Electric systems are typically supplemental, not meant to be the sole heat source for a room. The cables, which are often pre-attached to mats for ease of installation, are installed over the subfloor in a bed of thin-set mortar. Ceramic or stone tile are popular finished floor choices. There are also radiant electric floor heating pads that can be installed under laminate and other floating floors, such as engineered hardwood. One manufacturer, Thermosoft, makes pads that produce 31 BTUs per square foot. Installation is simple. Just roll it out, tape it in place, cover with floating-type flooring, and make the electrical connections. No mortar is required.

Don’t want to pull up your existing flooring? Companies such as SunTouch make electric radiant pads that fit in joist bays under the subfloor. You will, of course, need access to the bays from a basement or crawl space. Batts of fiberglass insulation are installed under the mats so most of the heat goes up, not down.

Hydronic systems are usually designed to heat an entire house. Water is heated to between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit by a boiler and circulated through tubing under floors. The tubing can be installed in several ways: embedded in a concrete slab, installed over an existing slab in cement, stapled under subflooring, or fitted inside the channels of specially designed subfloor panels. Any kind of finished flooring, including hardwood strip flooring, vinyl, or carpeting, can be installed above it. (Note: Some installers may recommend engineered wood rather than solid wood flooring products in homes with high moisture levels. Otherwise, changes in moisture content can cause wood planks to cup, bow, or warp.)

Radiant heating is more comfortable than other systems for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it feels warmer because the heat is delivered where you live—near the floor. Since all surfaces in the room are also being heated, there are no cold objects to draw heat from you and make you feel cold. In addition, radiant heat does not constantly cycle on and off, causing you to be too hot one minute and too cool the next. Nor does it dry out the air that in turn dries out nasal membranes. Plus, radiant heat is relatively draft-free. There are no supply and return registers or convection-reliant radiators, and there is less air leakage around doors and windows. Finally, the air inside the home tends to be cleaner because dust and allergens are less likely to be stirred up by air currents.

Because electric heat is expensive, electric radiant floors are typically limited to small areas, such as a bath or kitchen. Programmable thermostats with both air and floor temperature limits are recommended with such systems, to save on energy costs. Hydronic radiant floor systems save energy and lower fuel bills because radiant heat feels comfortable at lower air temperatures, enabling you to lower the thermostat. Further savings can be realized because running a high-efficiency boiler at lower temperatures will increase its lifespan. In addition, hydronic radiant heat is more efficient than other systems because it uses relatively low water temperatures to heat your home. In effect, the entire floor is a radiator, so it doesn’t have to be as hot as conventional radiators. Boilers can heat water to lower temperatures more efficiently than they can heat water to higher temperatures.

The growing popularity of PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) tubing during the past 15 to 20 years has made radiant floors easier to install and leak-free. This was not so with ‘50s- and ‘60s-vintage radiant systems that relied on copper tubing embedded in concrete. With time, the tubing leaked and the systems were abandoned. Early on, PEX was not without hiccups as well. Tiny amounts of oxygen are able to penetrate the PEX lining, causing corrosion to metal components, such as cast iron boilers. Newer versions of PEX include an oxygen barrier.

More recently, installations were further simplified with the advent of subflooring that’s pre-fitted with tubing channels. Warmboard, for example, manufactures 4 x 8 radiant floor panels for new construction and 2 x 4 panels for remodeling that are lined with aluminum sheeting for even heat distribution. The panels are more expensive than materials used in some other systems, but they are more efficient and reduce the labor costs, too.

The growing popularity of solar heating has also caused builders and homeowners to give radiant floor heat a second look. Solar energy is a good heat source for radiant floors because solar thermal collectors are very efficient at supplying the lower water temperatures that such systems require.

Radiant cooling
The only negative for radiant floor heating is that it’s not so easy to use for cooling. With a conventional forced-air heating system, the same ducts that deliver hot air through ducts from the furnace can be used to introduce cool air from a central air conditioner. While radiant cooling is possible, it’s typically not cost effective to install. A chiller or geothermal heat pump must be used to supply the cold water. In addition, the tubing for radiant cooling is best run in the ceiling (not the floor, the better location for heating). And while radiant cooling systems will reduce air temperature, dehumidification may also be needed to make occupants feel cool.

For new construction, a hydronic radiant floor system is likely to cost more than forced hot air (ducts and registers) or hydronic systems (baseboard radiators). In the long run, however, it will save money due to lower thermostat settings and higher efficiency. The cost of retrofitting hydronic radiant flooring varies depending upon whether there is access to the subfloor and the extent to which flooring and ceilings must be torn out and reinstalled. As a starting point, materials and mechanical equipment for installing hydronic radiant heat in a 2000 sq. ft. home cost about $3,500 or $1.75 per sq. ft., according to the Radiant Floor Company. This excludes the heat source and assumes two zones (a 1000 sq. ft. basement and 1000 sq. ft. first floor). Labor costs vary by the job and location.

Thermosoft Thermo Tile 120 V Mats Radiant Floor Heating Bob Vila

Electric radiant floor heating costs about $6 per sq. ft. for materials but is often less expensive to install because of lower labor costs. Unfortunately, it’s far more costly to operate and therefore generally makes sense as a supplemental, not primary, heat source.

Radiant heat—a no-brainer if you’re building a new house—can be retrofitted to fit the floors of existing homes, too, although installation costs will be higher. In retrofits, tubing is attached to the underside of the first-floor subfloor, assuming there is access to it from a basement or crawl space. If the renovation is extensive and the finished floor is going to be replaced in any case, it’s usually better to install tubing over the subfloor where it will be more efficient, easier to install, and require less tubing. Adding radiant heat to second and third levels, when existing floors are to remain in place, may require removing the ceiling of the rooms below to gain access to the underside of the subfloor.

Your heat source will also factor into your decision. If you have an efficient boiler that’s not too old, it probably can be used to supply heat to your radiant floors. If your boiler has seen better days, choose a high-efficiency, condensing, gas-modulating boiler that is capable of heating your domestic hot water, too.

To learn more about installation methods, check out this Radiant Floor Heating: How it Works slideshow. 

Grouting Tile Trouble Free

Grouting Tile


Last week in our forum, a user asked an interesting question: “I haven’t grouted yet, what trouble will I have when I do?”

What I found most interesting about the question was the phrasing. It wasn’t “what trouble might I encounter”—this DIYer had already resigned him or herself to the fact that grouting was going to be a problem no matter what.

Through the years, I’ve watched capable people shy away from one home improvement task or another, based on either preconceived notions or bad first-time experiences. But there are tips to help you out in every project, and grouting is no exception.

For step-by-step details, I recommend the tutorial How To: Grout Tile, which is an excellent, comprehensive guide. For more, take a look at my video overview of the tile installation process, right here:

How To: Clean Paint Brushes

Follow these simple steps to properly clean paintbrushes after your next do-it-yourself project.

How to Clean Paintbrushes


An investment in high-quality brushes is wasted if they are not properly cleaned and stored after use. So invest the two minutes it takes to do the job right.

Cleaning a brush is made easier if you remove as much of the paint from its bristles as possible. Use up what paint remains on your brush on whatever you are painting. Press the bristles against the inside of the paint can, and lift it up and out as you do: that will squeeze out more paint. Paint away the rest on newspapers.

Next, read the instructions on the can, and use the appropriate sol­vent. The manufacturers may specify mineral spirits or turpentine for oil-based paint; brushes used to apply latex paint usually can be cleaned with soap and water. The right solvent makes the job easy; the wrong one will probably be no help at all.

Immerse the brush in the solvent. Stir the solvent with the brush, wiping and squeezing the bristles on the sides of the container. If some of the paint has begun to dry on the brush, soaking the brush may be necessary.

Once the paint has been removed from the brush, wash it in warm soapy water in a utility sink or bucket. This cleans the brush of the sol­vent and remaining paint. Blot the brush dry with a clean rag or news­paper. When storing brushes, hang them up or store them flat so that the bristles don’t get bent out of shape.

Quick Tip: Alternatives to Air Conditioning Your Home

Read our guide to learn ventilation know-how that can go a long way towards keeping you cool and saving money on energy bills.

Air Conditioning Alternatives

Photo: Flickr

Try Old-School Cooling
Before you crank up the A/C this summer to keep cool, try a little old-fashioned ventilation first. Just keeping air moving can make your home feel much cooler. But it goes beyond opening a window. There’s a little science to it.

Know When to Open and Close Your Windows
If you live where the nights are cool, keep your house sealed during the heat of the day. If it’s well-insulated, it should only heat up about a degree an hour. Open windows and circulate cool air in the evening and early morning. Get some cross-ventilation going by opening windows on opposite sides of the house.

Take Advantage of Cooling Features
Homes designed with cupolas, clerestory windows, vented skylights or even attic vents have the ability to create what’s called a thermosiphon. Hot air escaping from the top of the house pulls warm air with it from the rest of the house and cooler air through lower windows, creating a constant cooling flow. Take advantage of those features or install an attic fan to create the same effect.

Minimize Inside Heat
It helps to minimize the heat you generate inside the house by using the oven, dishwasher and dryer in the evening or early morning hours. Even light bulbs can heat things up, so making the most of the daylight is both cheaper and cooler.

Save Money by Using Window Fans
If you still can’t get the air moving, there’s always the underappreciated window fan. For much less than it costs to run your air conditioner, a fan can give you the summer breeze you’re looking for.

Nest Learning Thermostat: Digital-Age Home Temperature Control

Nest Learning Thermostat


The Nest Learning Thermostat is, I’m betting, the first HVAC device to excite so much chatter in the blogosphere. An improbable mingling of tech, design, and shelter sites have voiced praised for the new digital thermostat’s sleek design and user-friendly interface—not to mention the environmental contribution it stands to make, which almost seems like a tacked-on bonus given how much fun it is to play with, reviewers say.

Of course, saving energy is the Nest thermostat’s raison d’etre. Studies indicate that heating and cooling make up for roughly half of residential energy consumption, while turning the heat or air conditioning down a single degree results in a five percent energy saving. The wasted energy and cumulative expense at stake is the whole point of programmable thermostats in the first place.

But until now, homeowners have mostly avoided, or been incapable of, learning to actually program their programmable thermostats. Research in 2008 found that homes with programmable models actually used more energy than comparable homes with standard thermostats. Subsequently, Energy Star lifted its certification from the entire category of products. The Nest’s intuitive, easy-as-an-iPod controls may change all that.

Already, the company has sold out its initial production run (quantity unknown), and it’s temporarily closed the shutters on its online store. No surprise there. You can tell from the pictures: Lots of people will purchase the Nest for its aesthetic value. Another contingent may invest (the Nest retails at $250) to lower their bills. Still another group is likely to covet the positive ecological impact promised and will pay up for the good of Ma Nature. Nobody’s talking yet about whether it lives up to the hype, but judging by the early reception, untold scores of homeowners are going to buy the Nest thermostat for at least one, or probably all, of the reasons above.

Fighting Hunger—Can by Can

Canstruction "Loaded Dice" Gensler-WSP-Flack + Kurtz

"Loaded Dice" by Gensler and WSP-Flack+Kurtz. Photo: Annabel Willis

At the 19th Annual Canstruction Design/Build Competition—an art show and food drive benefiting City Harvest—some of New York City’s finest architects, designers, and engineers create whimsical sculptures made entirely from canned goods!

Last Thursday night, 25 teams of volunteer architects, designers, and engineers gathered at the World Financial Center to kick off Canstruction, an annual building competition and food drive sponsored by the Society of Design Administration and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Instead of bricks and mortar, the design wizards worked into the wee hours of the night creating giant, self-supporting structures using canned goods ranging from green beans and Spam to pineapple rings and black olives.

Related: CANstruction: A Can-do Design Competition

By dawn, everything from super-sized footwear (“Giving Hunger the Boot”) to a clock tower (“Time to End Hunger”) to a marvelous rendition of the Brooklyn Bridge, aptly titled “Suspending Hunger,” had taken shape. There was a curvaceous sea horse made of alternating layers of blue and gold tins of tuna, and gigantic dice that required five tons of canned goods to complete—enough food to provide a “square” meal for more than 5,000 people.

To exemplify the need to stomp out hunger, one group took Alexander McQueen’s iconic lobster claw shoe—famously worn by Lady Gaga—as their inspiration, cheekily reconstructing the high-heeled bootie out of 1,200 cans of Le Sueur peas and carrots. Other standouts included an enormous rendition of the popular Angry Bird game character, a CANtainer ship, and the TiCANic. And for the first time in the New York City event’s history, a group of 19 students from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Manhattan competed under the mentorship of architect Sandra Forman. Their entry, “Strike Out Hunger,” included jumbo bowling pins and a bowling ball, and included 4,041 cans. “The kids started working on the project in August, and they did a lot of fundraising, including selling a t-shirt they designed themselves, to raise the money to buy the canned goods,” said music teacher Yeou-Jey Hsu, the students’ advisor on the project.

A nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1993, Canstruction currently sponsors competitions in more than 100 cities across America and abroad. Since its inception, the group has donated more than 10 million cans of food to organizations working to fight hunger. At the conclusion of the New York City event, all canned goods will be given to City Harvest, making it the largest one-time donation the hunger-relief nonprofit receives annually.

Located at the World Financial Center at 200 Vesey Street in Battery Park City, the Canstruction Design/Build Competition is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily until November 21. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to bring a can of food to contribute. To learn more, visit the canstruction site.

For highlights from the New York City Canstruction Competition, check out this CANstruction: A Can-do Design Competition slideshow

Fresh Powder (Room): The 12-Year Kitchen

Bathroom Renovation

Photo: Shutterstock

We can tell a lot about how previous generations lived by looking at the houses they built. For example, they clearly didn’t have as much “stuff” as we do, as evidenced by the lack of closet space. Our Dutch Colonial had exactly five tiny closets—a matching set of three-foot-wide closets in the master bedroom, one each in the two smaller bedrooms, and one hall closet for coats in the entry. That’s it. We have too much “stuff” these days for such limited closet space!

St. Thomas pedestal lav

With the completion of the powder room, we now have facilities on the ground floor. The scaled-down pedestal sink is the perfect size for this small space.

Our grandparents must also have spent a lot less time on daily ablutions, since they had large families but built a lot of houses with only one bathroom. Maybe it’s because, having only recently upgraded from outhouses, they considered even one indoor bath a luxury!

The previous owners of our house raised five children in it. They didn’t live there at the turn of the century—their tenure lasted from the 1950s to the 1990s—so I’m guessing they never used outhouses. But they lived with one bathroom, and they weren’t unusual. I myself grew up in an older house with two parents and five kids, also with one bathroom (not counting the creepy basement stall my dad used when the line was too long upstairs).

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