Outdoor Spaces That Enhance Winter Views

Here in our New England area we can experience 20 degrees in December, or close to 70 as the forecast states for tomorrow- Christmas Eve! What doesn’t change is the connection a deck can make (referred to as transitioning in Architecture) between the outside and the inside. Designing a deck is an important part of how it works with the home year round.  For this deck on a hillside home overlooking the Charles River in Dover, MA…. why would we want to spoil the view in December when the beauty of the river changes with every season?

The effect the glass rails have in this case is 3 pronged:

First, I like glass rails for the simplest reason. When sitting outside, that 36″ required rail height is the perfect spot to block the view (since in the sitting position your eyes are about 36″ off the ground)- and as long as there is no top rail, there is not any visual interruption.

Next, from inside this house, the glass rail allows the eye to descend all the way to the river, creating a bigger more impactful view that is like a living view, more than just seeing the river in the distance.

Last, because hillside homes should embrace the drama of the perch, these rails allow the residents to feel that perch- almost tree house like- without any worries about the safety.

 

Fantastic Finished Basements Begin with Building Science

We get many calls for finishing basements, especially as winter looms and families look to stretch the range of their home and entertain the children. The most important part of finishing these spaces is of course getting the space that gives you the most bang, tailored to your family.  The top contenders are: Play date spots for groups of toddlers, gaming space for tweens and teens, media and/or entertaining spaces and my personal favorite, the home gym.

Finished Steam Room and Home Gym in a Wayland Remodel

A common misconception about finishing the basement is one that I have heard from some of our clients. “What I want isn’t complicated, so I don’t think I need a higher level of expertise on a project like that”. Here are a few reasons this space needs to be treated with care and why the value priced quote you may get could be a poor investment.  There will be a wide range of value decisions along the way; however, what is underneath the walls in basements becomes more important than the rest of the home in terms of safety, health and comfort.  

Let’s start with the existing finished basement that many of you either have inherited or saw on your home search. In the 60’s or 70’s the homeowner put up some studs and paneling for a hip man cave or neighborhood bar.  These spaces are usually falling down, and don’t have any heat or insulation.  Then, as the energy crisis in the 70’s got folks geared up for insulation, some basements received a good dose of fiberglass between the sheetrock and the concrete walls… it was code after all! Now that we know what we know, here are the 3 MOST important things we believe are the foundation (no pun intended) for a healthy basement:

  1. We use metal framing studs on all perimeter walls. Metal won’t absorb water and the space between the finished walls and concrete can have much different dew points than the room itself.

  2. Spray foam insulation is used instead of fiberglass on these perimeter walls as well. We get a thermal break from the colder concrete and a much reduced condensation. You have probably seen copper pipes in the summer beading with water… once the foundation is insulated… we don’t see this. It is much more expensive, but the peace of mind on long term comfort and moisture reduction makes this a must for us.

  3. Proper air ventilation is something that is required for any space that is either new construction with foam, or for areas like basements that have less than 4% of the floor space in window openings that allow fresh air in. A good heat recovery ventilator keeps the air quality healthy at all times.

Metal studs and spray foam insulation in a Brookline basement remodel

There are a couple of code items that apply as well. The ceiling height for habitable space is a minimum of 7 feet 2 inches. Also required and extremely important is a means of egress.  Most basements have a door to a bulkhead- so if you are having slumber parties, make sure the kids know the way out in case of emergency, and clear any snow off the bulkhead in the winter.

Pros & Cons of both Gas and Wood Fireplaces

​The fireplace still remains a staple to our thoughts of “hearth and home”.  So much has changed with building codes and fireplaces that I thought it would be great to note a few of these if you are considering adding a fireplace to your next construction project.

Wood burning fireplace in Sherborn

I’ll start with the most popular fireplace we install…. A gas fireplace.  As a side note, if I had mentioned gas fireplaces in our greater NewtonWellesley area of operations 15 years ago, people would have thought I was uninformed or downright low-end :).  Today, the popularity has grown because we have less time to store, stack and start a wood fire.

This option does have a few things to consider.  Today’s gas fireplaces have to be efficient and deliver heat… that can be a bad thing if you put it somewhere that the heat zone is not separate which would either cause the rest of the home to become cold if the thermostat is nearby, or the room the fireplace is in could become uncomfortably warm… or not even start if you are using the temperature setting.  If you are selecting a gas fireplace, be sure to look at the screen options that will be part of the exterior façade.  These used to be recommended by our team to protect little ones from burns, but are now required in our state… this will change the aesthetic so it is an important choice.  One last item to think about is the ventilation of the off gasses.  If you are installing one of these in an existing fireplace, a new stainless steel flu will need to be installed. Another option is to ventilate directly outside, however depending on the location, this can look awkward if not resolved well architecturally.

Pros:

  1. Hit the remote control and “ta da!”

  2. Never run out of wood.

  3. Supplemental heat source in cooler rooms.

  4. Easier to get the popular TV over fireplace because of clearances.

Cons:

  1. May create hot and cold zones in the home.

  2. May be challenging to vent.

  3. Flames not as realistic as the real deal.

  4. Cannot roast marshmallows

Gas Fireplace in Dover

Wood fireplaces are still my personal favorite… but my wife would disagree because she doesn’t like the smoky smell- however; I’ll list that (in small doses) as a Pro.  There is nothing more real than a real fire and after all, this is part of our evolution as a human race.  Fire means warmth, hot meals and togetherness.  In one of my earlier homes I installed a metal hook that allowed a cast iron pot to boil water adding humidity in dry winter months.  I know that wood means a lot of effort in cutting, splitting or even bringing in fresh logs that may have been delivered… I just like the primitive fun of it and I find it easy once the fire has a nice set of coals, I can regulate the temperature and the kids can enjoy s’mores in January.

Pros:

  1. Real flames and crackle noise.

  2. Can roast marshmallows and hot dogs on camping night inJ

  3. Regulate the heat output while maintaining ambient flames.

  4. Supplemental heat source when the power goes off.

Cons:

  1. Inefficient source of fuel, and air leaks from the home.

  2. Can create odor that some folks don’t like.

  3. Requires work to keep wood coming and clean-up.

  4. More challenging to hang a TV over.

     

No matter what your pleasure… there is nothing like the dance of flames in a room to add ambiance, romance or conjure a holiday mood, so just make sure you are getting what you want from your fireplace.