Managing Construction - 2/13 - Bob Vila

Category: Managing Construction

Quick Tip: Cranes

Cranes come in very handy when home remodelers need to move heavy materials to a high floor.

When doing an attic or a third-floor renovation, consider using a crane for the heavy materials. For about $500 a day, you can rent a small crane or lift. It can easily handle heavy materials like lumber and sheetrock, not to mention hot tubs. They can boom out about 42 feet, enough to get to the top floors of most homes.

For more on remodeling, consider:

Protect Your Home from Job Site Theft
4 Ways to Reduce Your Renovation Waste
Moving Appliances Without Damaging Floors (VIDEO)

Staying Put: 10+ Improvements to Get Your House Ready for Your Next Age

Much of our Boomer population seems determined to stay in their homes as they age. But if they really want to stay put, they'll need to make sure their houses are fit to meet their changing needs. Here are some key considerations.


We’re getting older. Every day 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65—part of a huge shift in America, as 79 million Boomers start marching into their later years. But don’t expect them to march into nursing homes. “Close to 83 percent of Boomers say they want to ‘age in place,’ ” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities for AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans. In other words, people want to stay in their homes as long as they can.

If you are among this population or nearing it (or have parents who are), there are lots of changes, small and large, that you can make to keep your home safe, comfortable, and fully enjoyable in the years ahead.


1. Limit the Steps

Having easy access to and from the house is an important feature in any home. But for older homeowners, particularly those suffering from mobility issues, it’s paramount. If you’re planning on retooling the exterior of your house, the experts recommend that you try to devise an entry without stairs. It needn’t look like a handicap ramp; if there’s space, the approach can simply be a nice slope to the doorway. If you’re putting in a ramp—or even adding walkways or decks—consider using nonslip materials. And if you can do nothing more, at least plan on a no-threshold front door to reduce the risk of tripping.


Cedarbrook vinyl siding

Photo: Heartland Siding by ProVia

2. Go Low Maintenance

When it comes time to replace exterior materials, choose products that require little or no maintenance, such as vinyl siding, metal roofing, and composite decking. These products will offer dual benefits of good looks and lasting performance. You can reduce landscape maintenance, too, by choosing native plants and installing a time-activated sprinkler system.


3. Improve Convenience

In the kitchen, install cabinets with pull-out shelves on rollers, so it’s easier to access the items inside. And opt for drawers rather than base cabinets. They will make it easier to retrieve contents without having to reach into the back of cabinets. Consider installing your dishwasher 12 inches off the floor to cut down on bending. If you want to install an eating counter, plan on its sitting 29 to 30 inches from the floor—a height comfortable for dining chairs rather than barstools.


Related:  12 Outstanding Kitchen Island Options


4. Choose Smart Appliances

Today’s manufacturers continue to make innovative design improvements in programmable and smart appliances, such as stoves that notify you with a beep when they turn on or that have controls that light up, says Levner. These can be a real help to older homeowners as their sight deteriorates or they get a bit forgetful about whether or not they’ve turned off the oven. Home automation is another important component of aging-in-place improvements; sensors and timers can monitor house systems to alert homeowners, as well as care and security providers, to potential problems.


5. Bathe Safely

Delta zero threshold shower

Delta Zero Threshold Shower

If you have a walk-in shower, consider changing it to a zero-clearance shower—one with no threshold or step to negotiate, says Levner. It’s a good idea to add a stool as well. Replace your toilet with a comfort-height model; it’s just a bit higher than normal—more consistent with standard dining chair seat height—and easier to sit down on and get up from. “Add some well-placed bars that you can grab on to, to steady yourself or to pull yourself upright,” says Tori Goldhammer, an occupational therapist and a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS), a certification given by the National Association of Home Builders.


6.  Go Hands-Free

For both kitchen and bath faucets, consider fixtures that offer the benefit of touch or hands-free operation. For the kitchen, opt for a faucet with a pull-out spout to make cleanup and food prep more convenient. In the bath, select a faucet that can monitor temperatures to reduce the risk of burns.

7. Ditch the Throw Rugs

Avoid small throw rugs, as they are “big tripping hazards,” Levner says. If you insist on area rugs, look for those with a skid-resistant backing. Or better yet, go with carpeting that covers the entire room. There are a lot of nice, new slip-resistant flooring surfaces that have more texture “and that still look great,” she says.


8. Master the Stairs

If you have a second floor, stairs are unavoidable—but they can still be made more user-friendly. Be sure they are covered in a slip-resistant material and, if possible, install a second banister on the opposite wall. Consider locating a chair at the base or top of the stair so that people can steady themselves after the climb or descent.


Sylvania LED Stair and Hallway Lighting

Sylvania LED Stair and Hallway Lighting

9. Up the Lighting

Our eyesight gets worse as we age, so it’s important to improve lighting wherever possible. One of the best solutions is “layered lighting,” says Goldhammer, where a mix of ambient, task, focal, and decorative fixtures fulfill various requirements. Don’t forget to add more lighting in tricky, often dark places such as stairways and hallways, as well as bathrooms and kitchens, where task-specific lighting will be most useful. Consider adding more light switches outside rooms and raising outlets to a more convenient height.


Related:  Under Cabinet Lighting—10 “Shining” Examples


10. First-Floor Master Bedroom

“If you’re doing a major renovation, make sure there’s a bedroom on the lower level—one that could become the master bedroom in the future,” says Wid Chapman, an architect and co-author of the books Home Design in an Aging World and Unassisted Living. The room can double as a guest room now, or even a den, Chapman suggests. But outfit the room so that at a future time, if you or your spouse can no longer negotiate stairs, you can make this ground-level room your bedroom.


5 Ticking Time Bombs Every Homeowner Should Know About

You've done everything you can to make your house picture-perfect, but don't forget about the real big picture. Maintenance and repair issues that may lurk beneath your beautiful facade could turn any dream home into a nightmare on Elm Street.

Photo: Shutterstock

There are some maintenance and repair issues that homeowners just hate to deal with—either because they take time, or cost money, or just don’t seem, well, urgent. But some of these problems can become ticking time bombs, poised to explode if they’re not defused early, when they are more like firecrackers than bombs.

Here are some of the top structural and mechanical time bombs in your home that experts say have the potential to blow up and are worth squelching now—before the big boom.



Why It’s Explosive: Houses settle. But not all settling is the same. “A lot of times people will ignore the cracks in the brick veneer on the outside of the house, even when they get to be a half-inch or more,” says Bill Loden, incoming president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). Even though that brick is often just the “skin” of the house, a crack that large can signal much deeper problems with a moving foundation, Loden says. Caught early, a repair might cost a few thousand dollars. Caught too late, the tab could run $20,000 to $50,000.

Snuff the Fuse: Some cracks in your house are essentially cosmetic, the result of natural settling. When is a crack something more? “If you see a crack big enough to put a No. 2 pencil in, you’re looking at a problem,” says Loden, owner of Huntsville, Alabama-based Insight Building Inspection. Other signs of trouble: a tilting chimney or windows and doors that stick or jam, which can be caused by a moving foundation that is twisting their frames. If you suspect foundation issues, hire a structural engineer to evaluate your house, Loden says.


Why It’s Explosive: “Most people don’t pay any attention to their roof until they see water coming through the ceiling!” says Bill Jacques, outgoing president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and owner of American Inspection Service in Charleston, S.C. But if you see drips in your living room, the problem is already far gone. A new roof could cost you “probably $8,000 to $10,000,” Jacques says.

Snuff the Fuse: “Some people say, ‘I’ve got a 20-year shingle, it’s gonna last 20 years.’ Well, no it’s not,” Jacques says. “I would just recommend that about every five years they have the roof inspected.” One of the telltale signs of a wearing roof is coarse sand pooling at the base of gutter downspouts; the sand is most likely the granules of the shingles washing off. If you see a lot of it, then it’s a good idea to have someone climb higher. If you can safely get on the roof (be careful!) and the surface feels slippery, that’s another sign that the shingle material is coming off, Jacques says.

You can find evidence of additional problems under the roof. Water will usually enter the attic first. Hire an inspector, or look for stains around the chimney and the stack vents, or around other venting pipes that exit the house. Those are places where the metal flashing can fail, says Jacques. Also, look around the attic for wet and/or damaged insulation. Discovering issues early on could mean the difference between repair and replacement—or a few hundred dollars rather than thousands.


septic tank



Why It’s Explosive: Homeowners who have septic tanks don’t always like to think about them, Loden says. That’s a mistake. “A septic tank is gonna work until the day it quits,” he quips.

Generally speaking, a septic system breaks down the solids and liquefies them. The liquid then goes out into lines and is dispersed into the surrounding ground. But other materials also reach the septic tank—from sanitary napkins and cigarette butts to foodstuffs such as coffee grounds and grease (particularly if you have a garbage disposal). Over time, the baffles that stop the larger solids from going into the lines can get blocked. If that happens, the system can back up into your house. “That’s not a ‘check engine’ light; that’s an ‘engine failure’ light,” Loden says. “That’s when you end up with a backhoe in your yard.”

Snuff the Fuse: If you have a septic tank, have the tank pumped every five years—“and if you have a garbage disposal, you might want to have it done every three years,” Loden says. In Loden’s area of the South, the cost is “between $300 and $500,” he says. “It’s really relatively inexpensive to have it pumped. A lot of those guys will pump it and inspect it at the same time.” It’s particularly cheap when compared with the cost of digging up your yard to repair your system, which can run thousands of dollars.



Why It’s Explosive: Homes built after World War II, as well as homes built earlier, “didn’t have the same requirements for power that we do now,” Loden says. Homes built today can’t have more than 12 linear feet of space between electrical outlets. This stipulation was intended to minimize the use of extension cords, which can cause fires. The electrical systems of older homes, particularly those outfitted with lots of appliances and amenities, just can’t handle modern electrical demands. Sockets can actually wear out, and switches, too. Breakers become less reliable as they age. The upshot can be a fire.

Snuff the Fuse: “Probably every 20 years,” a home should have a thorough inspection of its electrical system, Loden says. Homes built prior to 1980 should definitely be looked at, “and another break point in my region—the Deep South—is 1965. There were a lot of improvements in the 1960s,” he says. You could call an electrician, although Loden cautions that “an electrician may see it as a sales call. Like any trade, they’re there to fix things.” Another alternative: Consider calling an experienced home inspector.



Why It’s Explosive: Few homeowners ever pay attention to their crawl space, that often dank, dirt-floored area beneath many homes. “And why would they?” says Jacques, of ASHI. But you should, because the crawl space is sort of a window into the belly of your home and all its inner workings, he says. It could reveal all sorts of problems before they get bigger:

  • “You might have a leak in the bathroom under the commode or in a supply line that could be weakening the floor,” Jacques says, and you’d never know it until the day a sag appears in the floor and you need major repairs.
  • Termite damage can usually be seen there before it appears elsewhere.
  • Many crawl spaces carry the heating and air-conditioning ductwork that runs throughout a house. But when repairmen clamber about in this cramped space, over time “they might cause some damage to the insulation or to the ductwork. So you could be pumping your nice cold air into the crawl space itself,” Jacques says.

Snuff the Fuse: Jacques recommends that a homeowner periodically spend a few minutes with a flashlight looking inside the crawl space as a precautionary measure.

He also recommends occasionally hiring a home inspector to do a more thorough examination of the space. An inspector can look for leaks in plumbing and find faulty or damaged ductwork and worrisome wiring. As well, while often not licensed to inspect for termites, an inspector usually knows enough to point out suspected trouble and recommend treatment or repair. (Find an ASHI-certified home inspector in your area here.)

5 Things to Covet in Your Dream Home

When you start with studs and subfloors, it’s easy to build in things that will make your house the home of your dreams.

Dream House Ideas - New Construction

Photo: Shutterstock

If you’re building a house from scratch, or even putting an addition on your current home, you’re in the unique position of being able to install systems and components that could be hard to incorporate into existing structures. From entertainment nirvana to bath bliss, now is the time to get things right so that your home becomes a haven of fun, comfort and ease.

If you’re like most of us, you have different speakers all around the home—some bluetooth, some wired, some requiring an amplifier, some needing to be recharged or have their batteries periodically changed. Cut the cacophony and wire your home for sound. One of the hardest parts of putting in a whole-home sound system is cutting through ceilings and walls to run wires and install speakers, but if you’re still in the building stage, this part is a breeze.

Working with a kit to wire your home for sound is one of the easiest ways to go. A kit typically contains a base station plus a series of controllers that can be placed in rooms around the home. This allows you to create various zones in your house to which you can send different music streams. After you’ve chosen a base station, you’ll want to select speakers that recess into the walls or ceiling and connect them to the station as well. Those with repositionable tweeters let you direct the sound exactly where you want it, while speakers with inbuilt bass and treble controls let you further tweak the sound for every room. When running speaker wire through the home, be sure to use  UL-rated speaker wire marked CL2 or CL3.

Dream House Ideas - Radiant Floor

Photo: Warmboard

When it comes to making a home feel at once modern, comfortable and eco-smart, it’s hard to beat radiant floor heating. Installed on or in the subfloor, radiant floor heating panels typically use channels of heated water that give off heat to the floor above them. The result is a wonderful, all over heat that doesn’t have any of the allergy concerns of forced-hot-air or any of the uneven heating problems and noise often associated with radiators or electric baseboard systems.

One of today’s smarter choices for radiant floor heating is Warmboard as they make panels that are super-conductive, which means that more of the heat from the water that runs through the channels is transferred directly to your home. The enhanced conductivity also means there’s less heat loss, which makes the system extremely efficient, and that Warmboard is also very nimble, heating and cooling down more quickly than other systems when you change the temperature at your thermostat.

The bathroom can be a simple utilitarian space or, with a little planning, it can become one of the most luxurious retreats in your home. When designing the bathroom, be sure to leave ample space for your shower and tub area and reinforce the floor beneath it—so that you can install a heavy-duty spa tub. These days, you can purchase all-in-one units that contain a massage-jet tub, multiple shower heads, and steam and sauna functionalities—plus a computer to control them all. It’s also possible to mount moisture-resistant TVs in the walls of your shower or bath area so that you don’t miss a bit of news or sports action. If that’s all too extreme for you, consider installing a remote control for your shower or tub which allows you get the shower warming up before you even step out of bed.

Related: 10 Waterproof Gadgets to Upgrade Your Shower

There are several options for home automation systems that do everything from controlling your lights to alerting you when the doors or windows are open, or even when there might be a fire or flood. There are thermostats that learn from your heating and cooling patterns and can be controlled via smartphone. There are speakers that can also be phone-controlled and can play different tunes throughout your house. And at least one company makes a hub that can tie it all together. Even though it’s easy to install home automation equipment in an existing home, doing so while you’re still building will ensure that you get everything exactly where you need it before you take control of your smartphone and pilot your house like the Starship Enterprise.

Dream House ideas - Outdoor Kitchen

Photo: Kalamazoo Kitchens

There was a time when homes had summer kitchens—separate buildings in which food was prepared during the warmer months to keep the heat out of the main living quarters. Even though summer kitchens are a thing of the past, the logic remains: cooking outside keeps you from having to turn on the oven when the weather feels oven-like itself. When planning your outdoor kitchen, keep in mind that you’ll want to have easy access to utilities to plumb in a line for the sink, drain and gas line, if your home has natural gas service (otherwise, you’ll run your grill and cooktop off of propane, so make sure you build in space to store the tank). While you can construct your open-air kitchen out of stone into which your sink and cook surfaces can be set, a more affordable option is to build the structure out of wood and face it with stone veneer which will weatherproof it and create an equally attractive look.


This article has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of

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.