April 2012 Archives - 4/5 - Bob Vila

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5 Reasons to Love Subway Tile


Subway TileWe picked all the finishing materials for our new-construction home in one day at an eight-hour appointment set up with a selections specialist at our builder’s offices. WHEW! It was crazy, but we were so glad to have everything done in one shot. Out of everything we decided on, the thing I was most excited about was probably the simplest—the subway tile for our kitchen backsplash.

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Tax Credits for Energy Efficiency

Home Improvement Tax Credit

Photo: shutterstock.com

As April 15 bears down, you might be able to save a little “scratch” if your 2011 home improvements fell within the narrow parameters outlined by the Internal Revenue Service.

Here are five ways to size up your chances of claiming tax credits. If you’re lucky, you could recoup up to $500 of the cost of making certain types of energy-efficient improvements.

1. Did you make your house “tighter” in 2011? Improvements like adding insulation, energy-efficient windows, exterior doors and some forms of roofing materials, may qualify you for credit. This applies to your primary residence only; vacation and investment property improvements do not qualify.

2. Were the improvements part of a retrofit or rehab? There are no credits for building a new house with energy-efficient elements, but there are for improvements made in a retrofit or rehab. Check to see if yours apply.

3. Have you hit the limit? If you received $500 in energy tax credits in prior years, you’ve already hit the lifetime cap. If not, and you spent enough on approved windows, doors and roofing last year, you may be eligible for the 2011 rebate. Installation costs don’t count.

4. Do installation costs ever count? If you installed certain types of high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, water heaters and biomass-burning stoves (that would be wood-burning stoves to the rest of us), installation costs do factor in.

5. Can you prove it? When it comes to energy tax credits, it’s all about the receipts and buying materials that qualify to begin with. Lost the packaging with those important details? You can probably pull the credentials from the manufacturer’s website.

Still think you stand a chance of getting back some dough? Dig into the gory details of IRS Form 5695.

Tee up another round of home improvement tax credit by looking into the qualifiers for installing alternative energy equipment. If you complete your project by the end of 2016, you might be able to recoup 30% of the total cost, including installation.

For more on energy efficiency, consider:

Shopping for Energy-Efficient Windows
5 Ways to Save H20 at Home
Insulation 101

House Envy: Endearing Bungalow in CA




LOCATION: Pasadena, CA

PRICE: $749,000

HOUSE STATS: 2,560 sq. ft., 4 bedrooms, 4 baths


Organized Confusion. No two rooms are identical in this postcard Pasadena bungalow where unique painted finishes and surprise architectural details differentiate every space. For a taste of the home’s idiosyncratic flavor, take one look at the nursery. The stenciled walls and ceilings suggest a sunburst, or even a carnival tent. It’s fun, but it’s not too loud. Throughout, beloved hallmarks of the bungalow style, such as built-ins and wood trim, help establish continuity and unify the house as a whole.


The Gourmet Kitchen. What’s not to love? The tin ceiling and beadboard cabinets are traditional elements that, in combination with state-of-the-art stainless steel appliances, unexpectedly exude a contemporary feel. The impressive kitchen island—part moveable furniture, part stationary behemoth—provides valuable countertop space while enhancing the room’s period allure.

Pasadena Bungalow


The Great Outdoors. Out back, the wrap-around porch transitions onto a heavenly, tiered redwood deck. Professionally designed yet unequivocally casual, the bungalow boasts a gracious outdoor area with a full roster of amenities: an outdoor fireplace, a pergola, two fountains, and (count ’em) seven fruit trees.



House Envy: Brick Beauty in TX
House Envy: Modern Colonial in MA
House Envy: Victorian-Era Home in GA

Building Community: A Scene from Delray Beach

After stomping the edges of newly laid sod, Liam Reade awaits his next task.

According to the City of Delray Beach, community service has no age requirement. At this weekend’s “Curb Appeal by the Block” project, volunteers as young as four came to paint, garden, and relish the natural high that comes from giving back. Liam Reade was the youngest volunteer among a group of 200 area residents who, over the course of the day, revitalized six homes that’d been in need of some TLC.

“Each year we go through neighborhoods and find one that has a need for improvement,” says Jennifer Costello, Neighborhood Planner for the City of Delray Beach. This year’s revitalization project focused on a series of concrete-block homes mostly built in the 60s and 70s. Lula Butler, Director of Community Involvement, describes the neighborhood as “challenging.” She explains, “There are tenants who participate in undesirable activities and then there are many wonderful families who have owned homes here for 30 to 50 years. This year we are dealing with special people at different phases of life, overcoming or living with challenges.”

Gail-Lee McDermott, chair of Neighborhood Advisory Council, holds up Pete Anuar’s landscape plan.

The event took months to plan and a good deal of money to finance. The search for a neighborhood in need began in October. “We like to do projects that have a number of homes in a cluster so we show impact on the neighborhood,” says Nigel Roberts, Neighborhood Services Administrator. The hope is that others will be inspired to follow suit.

Volunteers from Delray Beach Fire-Rescue and the U.S. Navy teamed up.

After the vetting process, each home’s façade and lot is evaluated. Delray Beach’s Parks and Recreation preps each lawn site, and before designing each landscaping plan, Pete Anuar, Senior Landscape Planner for Delray Beach, consults with the homeowners. This year, Anuar was apt to use low-maintenance plants such as Bromeliad, Crown of Thorns, Crinum Lily, and foxtail palms. Contractors, meanwhile, address exterior repairs.

Sponsorship is crucial. The Home Depot donated $5,000 plus a portion of supplies, The Community Redevelopment Agency contributed $1,200, and Behr donated the remainder of paint needed. The whole project—paint, plants, other landscaping materials, mailboxes, rollers, brushes, signage, breakfast, lunch, water galore, and event tee shirts—cost about $15,000.

Final Results: Team Depot created a great deal of curb appeal.

Of course nothing gets done, at least not in 5 hours, without plenty of volunteers. The Home Depot brought a team of 50, their orange shirts looking swell against the pale blue home they were servicing. There was lots of muscle on the scene too, compliments of the Delray Beach fire and police departments—and the US Navy. Church groups, the Boys & Girls Club, and city employees were also on hand. Entire families came, friends worked together, and students earned community service hours. It was heartwarming to watch an experienced painter teach technique to a young boy. People were sweaty and stained with mulch, but they were happy—dirt and discomfort diminished by the spirit of do-gooding.

For a visual chronicle of the event, don’t miss the Curb Appeal by the Block: Event Photo Gallery

An Instant, Low-Maintenance Lawn

Turf Products

Photo: shutterstock.com

Having a lawn doesn’t always mean you can grow grass. Some places are simply too shady or too wet for any variety of grass—except the artificial kind.

Turf products have come a long way since ‘AstroTurf’ debuted at the Houston Astrodome in 1966. Today, companies specializing in artificial grass (e.g., NewGrass or Everlast Turf) even offer options for finding a product that matches and nearly blends in with the natural grass you do have.

Related: Artificial Turf: 7 Reasons to Consider the New “Grass” Alternative

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Quick Tip: Laying Bathroom Tile

Successfully laying bathroom tile requires careful planning.

How to Tile a Bathroom, Laying Bathroom Tile

Photo: Flickr

While many people consider laying bathroom tile a do-it-yourself project for money-saving reasons, there are many factors that can make or break the job. This quick guide shows you how to tile a bathroom correctly. 

Bathroom Tile Installation
Once you’ve determined the type of tile you need, think about how it will be installed. The substrate, or what tile is installed on top of, is just as important as the tile itself. A flexing floor or a wall that is uneven can lead to broken tiles and failed grout.

Water-resistant backer board, not drywall, should be used under the tile that will get wet. Whether it’s backer board, plywood or concrete, the substrate needs to be sound, clean and dimensionally stable. Surfaces need to be level or plumb and true to plane, as the pros say. That means no bumps.

Any cracks or voids can compromise even the best tile job. The only way to be sure the tile sticks fast is to use a notched trowel to apply adhesive to the substrate.

Create Space
The space between the tiles should be uniform, so use spacers if your tiles don’t come on mesh sheets. The larger the tile, the larger the space should be between them. Some do-it-yourselfers will make the mistake of pushing tiles too close together to reduce grout lines. Without enough surface area, grout won’t bond well and can fail prematurely, leaving room for leaks and water damage. It’s also very important to let the adhesive cure fully.

Follow Instructions
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and stay off the installation the required amount of time before you grout the tile.

Shipping Container Homes

Steel shipping container homes are strong, safe, and eco-friendly.

Shipping Container Homes

Photo: flickr.com


Looking for an inexpensive backyard office or a tiny house in the woods? Check out the growing field of container architecture, which offers container homes constructed from reused shipping containers. Builders today offer prefab container homes; there are also plans and kits that allow you to build a custom container house. A large house built from shipping containers ranges in price from $150,000 to $175,000, about half the price per square foot of a conventional home. Dimensions for a standard size Intermodal Steel Building Unit (ISBU) are 40-by-8-by-8 feet; 20-foot containers also are available. Steel shipping containers typically cost from $1,400 to $4,000, and customizing a container home with electricity, plumbing, windows and other options can cost from $50 to $150 per hour. Anyone considering a container house also should take into account the cost of the land and a foundation upon which the container will be placed.

Shipping container homes, also called storage container homes, offer a fast, green, and sustainable approach to building. These intermodal steel building units (ISBUs) are manufactured in a factory-controlled environment so they are standardized and reliable. They can be used to build an average-sized home with almost no wood.

In North Charleston, SC, Tampa Armature Works (TAW) and local contractors quickly and easily constructed a container house, blending it perfectly into the surrounding neighborhood. They used four 40′ x 8′ x 8′ ISBUs laid side-by-side to create a three-bedroom home, measuring 1,280 square feet, without a hint of its original corrugated-steel exterior of the container.

Pre-Fitting Off-Site
When opting to build with ISBUs, the building blocks are readymade and ready to transport. TAW starts by shipping the containers to their Tampa factory for modifications. Once there, the house blueprints are reviewed and each unit is custom-fit for construction. In a home where four containers are to sit side by side, all but the outermost side panels are removed so that, once connected, the ISBUs create an open 40′ x 32′ interior space. The vertical steel support beams are left in place for load-bearing purposes, with five along each remaining side of a container. Openings are cut into the outer walls for doors and windows.

TAW uses Supertherm insulative coating, which is sprayed on both sides of the remaining container walls to prepare the house to save on energy that is used to heat and cool the house. Supertherm is a high-performance, four-part ceramic coating that carries an R value of R-19 and adheres to the steel surface of the shipping containers. “It really worked,” says Shannon Locklair, project superintendent for the North Charleston house. “We had an open house one day when it was 85 or 90 degrees out and the air was at least 10 to 20 degrees cooler inside. This was before we had even installed the windows.”

Attaching the Home to its Foundation
A shipping container house sits on a traditional concrete block foundation. A 40′ x 32′ stem wall foundation is set and reinforced with steel rebar. Concrete then fills the cells and 1/2″-thick steel plates are embedded into the concrete at the corners to secure the incoming ISBUs. Each plate sports a J-hook, which connects the shipping container to the exposed rebar and ties it all the way down to the footing. Additional footings are poured and individual concrete blocks are placed inside the foundation to support the sides of adjoining ISBUs.

When the ISBUs arrive on site, they are crane-lifted one by one onto the foundation, hooked into place, and welded down to marry them completely to the foundation. These heavy-gauge steel shipping containers are so strong—each is designed to carry 57,000 pounds—that they need only be fastened at the corners to hold fast, much as they would be on a ship. Attaching them to embedded steel reinforcements and welding them in place ensures they will be immovable.

Once secured, adjacent units are welded to each other above and below. “Once they’re all welded together at top and bottom,” explains structural engineer Steve Armstrong, “you have, in effect, a big steel box.” The resulting design is a single, immensely strong structure that goes up in almost no time at all.

Locklair points to the Charleston installation as an example of the speed with which the base for shipping container homes can be completed. “The installation of all four containers took place in a two- to three-hour time period,” he says. “After that we basically had a structure without a roof.”

On-Site Construction

A conventional, hip roof can be placed and secured atop the “big steel box” structure in a matter of another two or three hours. A trussed roof is fastened with metal straps that are welded to the steel sides and wrapped around the rafters at four-foot intervals. Simpson hurricane clips tie each individual rafter to the steel roof for added security and protection against uplift.

Inside, workers install a 1/2″ plywood floor over the existing 3/4″ plywood subfloor. The crew runs metal hat channels for wiring along the walls and vertical support beams that dot the interior of the new build. Metal studs and drywall are used for interior partition walls. Once insulated, the existing container walls are faced in drywall for finishing, transforming the ugly corrugated-steel interior and prepping them for design accents such as paint or wallpaper.

The exterior is clad with James Hardie fiber cement siding. Windows and doors are installed into pre-cut openings with a minimal use of wood framing. Doors are hung and the roof is shingled, leaving the house ready for design and furniture choices. “Within 60 days we had our house ready for all the interior stuff.” says Locklair. “Within 30 more days it was completely finished.”

Building Strong, Smart, and Fast with ISBUs

Savings and reliability are the hallmarks of ISBU building. Homebuilding crews save time, money, and wood by using a product that is manufactured, pre-fitted for installation, eco-friendly, and structurally sound. The speed and ease with which the shipping containers are ordered, prefabricated, and installed streamlines the entire construction process. When asked to compare it to traditional stick building, Locklair is quick to answer: “Honestly, I think it was a lot easier.”

It is most likely the outstanding fire and safety ratings that will impress insurance companies and code officials. In hurricane-prone areas like Florida or coastal South Carolina, shipping container homes offer tremendous sustainability and strength. “I would like to see someone try to tear that house down,” laughs Locklair. “It would take a whole lot more than a bulldozer.”

Putting Your Best Foot Forward: Updating an Entry Hall

Updating Entry Hall

Photo: Shutterstock

Retro styling is all the rage today, but sometimes “retro” is synonymous with “regrettable.”

White BrickThe entry hallway to our house is a case in point. When we moved in, we tried to convince ourselves that the white brick with black grout was fun and funky. The more we lived with the look, though, the less we liked it. The bricks had a rather artificial look to them, and the black grout accentuated the fact that the rows were neither level nor plumb.

We finally decided that the ugly white brick had to go. Our biggest problem was figuring out how to remove the brick without demolishing the wall. After spending several hours of painstakingly trying to pry the bricks loose, we concluded that preserving the wall was unrealistic. Not only did the bricks have to go, but so did the wall. Once we committed to a “demolition” rather than a “removal,” it was surprisingly easy to get down to bare studs.

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Quick Tip: Stripping Paint

Restore detail to old woodwork by stripping paint that obscures the grain's beauty.

Paint Stripping

Photo: From Bob Vila's Home Again Bob's Shingle Style House

Below the Surface
It’s not uncommon to find beautiful woodwork with coat after coat of paint obscuring its detail, especially in older homes. For a new paint job that does your woodwork justice, stripping the old paint is your best option.

How to Strip Paint
There are three ways to strip paint: mechanically by hand-scraping, burning it off with heat, or with chemicals.

The mechanical methods of scraping and sanding work only when loose or uneven paint needs to be removed before repainting. Just remember to do this work outdoors and with protection.

Using heat to remove paint usually involves a blowtorch or a heat gun. The disadvantage of using heat is that it can be dangerous because of accidental combustion and harmful vapors. Also, you may still have to sand when you’re done. Neither of these first two methods, mechanical or heat, should be used if any of the paint you’re removing could be 30 years old or more since it’s likely to contain lead. Instead, you should use a chemical stripper.

Choosing and Using a Chemical Stripper
Look for environmentally friendly citrus-based versions, which are becoming as common as the old caustic gel strippers. Brush the gel on, leave it to do its work and then scrape it off. Sprinkle sawdust on the gel to make it easier to scrape off and throw away.

For tough jobs, try a sheeted paste that peels away after dissolving the paint. You may not have to scrape much at all.

Move Quickly and Carefully
With chemical strippers, you need to start and finish the same day. Dried gel can be very difficult to remove. The chemicals may affect the animal glues in older furniture, so avoid excess use around the joints.

And you should always wear the safety gear recommended on the product label and work outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Quick Tip: Where to Find Green Garden Solutions

Use information about your local agriculture to create an eco-friendly garden.

Green Gardening

Photo: basleetroutman.imagekind.com

What Is a Local Extension Service?
When it comes to finding gardening solutions specific to your area, most experts will direct you to something called your local extension service. What exactly, you may ask, is your local extension service? The Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (or CREES) is a national educational network funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each state has an extension at its land grant university and often has other regional offices.

Research and Information Services
Cooperative extension services study and provide information on everything affecting agriculture and related businesses in their immediate area. Pennsylvania’s apple country, for instance, depends on the honeybee for pollination. The local extension is researching ways to combat the recent decimation of the honeybee population in an effort to save this $40 billion industry. Their studies help manage our forests, cut the costs of organic farming, and educate children and adults about nutrition and the environment.

Food and Water Supply Protection
CREES is also actively involved in bio-security, developing new and better ways to protect the security of our food and water supply from toxins and diseases.

Local Information You Can Use
Because it’s local, your extension service and its Web site are often better sources for information than any general garden manual. Find out how to fight pests, feed your soil, get rid of invasive plants and protect your trees from disease. If you know which plants work best where you live, you can garden greener and spend less time at it.