Ice Melt Alternatives

It’s that time of year again! For some of us, there are special challenges around keeping our entry safe for family, the delivery folks and guests.

If you have a nice flat walking path to a covered entry- all you need is a shovel and some ice melt. But wait! Before sprinkling anything down there are a few things you should look for.

Some ice melt products can be very harmful to certain surfaces or your pets. Concrete is especially susceptible to calcium damage if the concrete is new or the product is overused. Read the labels carefully and if you must put down salt, do it sparingly.

Last winter, I went to see a previous client in Weston about another renovation in the middle of February. They have a long sloped walk that leads to an entry that ends up collecting a lot of snow and drips. The sloped walk keeps water flowing when it melts and freezing on the path in the cold which makes this an ongoing maintenance issue, even with a mild winter.

If you have wood steps like mine, you know that a mild day of drizzle with below freezing temperatures overnight leaves a very slick surface. If you have a slope with an area of runoff that makes the ice difficult to keep up with, constant snow melt can damage the steps and be very time consuming to keep up with.

That Weston client had these rubber mats leading down the walk that were heated and were also very skid resistant. I decided to try them on for size in a very unusual lay-out as shown. Last year I had temporary pressure treated wood on there and didn’t mind throwing salt and sand on them. I couldn’t imagine salting the new Ipe walk, and I had to promise my wife that I would buy these mats if we went with wood over masonry so the morning walk to the bus wasn’t a daring act of balance.

A couple of quick notes:

1) What you see cost about $1k (my in-laws are worth it).

2) Most exterior outlets are 15 amps. Each 5’ section is 2.4 amps and each step is .7 amps.

I didn’t need a new circuit like my friend Bob in Weston but I did buy a remote so I wouldn’t have to go outside to turn them on. You could add an outlet with a timer switch if that works for you and only run them when you need them. In my test today, they warmed up in about 10 minutes while 25 degrees outside and the manufacturer says it melts 2” per hour.

Happy Winter! – Ray

What’s Under That Old Siding?

In the picture below, this is a typical 1940’s home in a Wellesley neighborhood we have done a few projects in. As part of a whole home renovation, we are going to put on a new roof, new siding and replace all of the exterior trim and windows. When we are done, it will be better than new!

Our firm has removed and renovated siding from homes that are CIRCA 1760, and unfortunately; also homes that are only a few years old because of faulty product or installation. I often get asked about what to expect once the siding comes off, or hear that someone told them they won’t know until after the siding comes off. 

The reality is that it is very predictable with an eye on a few items. A good exterior inspection will shed light on repairs that were made or if there was a lot of deferred maintenance. If the home is on the historic end of the spectrum, it will look close to the photo of the 1940s home except the boards will be less uniform and there will be larger gaps. On a home like that, as long as the wear and tear are typical we expect to replace about 10% of those boards before re-siding and if the home is in rough shape, we will be re-nailing the sheathing and probably some of the framing. The renovations of the homes that fall in the 1940 category are about the same. These homes were built post war with pride and are not really that old in the renovation business. If a previous owner neglected the home, we would probably find some insect or water damage (about 2-3 days of labor from a carpenter to repair).

It’s the 1975 to present day houses that are the more troubling ones to work on, mostly because the issues are born more from a dollar driven new home construction and use of poor materials. It will likely be plywood below with rot from leaking assemblies and rotted trim. The sheathing will need to be re-nailed because there were not enough nails to begin with and larger sections will need to be uncovered.

One of the questions most asked is whether the siding under vinyl or aluminum siding will be salvageable. Although I am an optimist, the reality is that these homes were usually over-sided because of an issue with the original siding. Additionally, there will be nail holes all over the original siding. If you are planning for a full exterior renovation, my advice is to budget for the original siding to come off so you don’t end up in worse shape when the vinyl comes off. Happy renovating! Feel free to contact us if you are in need of exterior remodel to see how we can help!

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.

 

Architectural Confusion

You know that feeling something is wrong… but you can’t put your finger on it? Unfortunately I see that a lot in my line of work. In the renovation and remodeling business, we get hired not just because people need more space, but often to correct what’s “not right”.

These exterior Architecture projects are some of my favorites. I love the challenge and reward that comes with helping a home find its true potential. In the case studies I have here, the beautiful Wellesley Dutch Colonial we re-designed in 2003, and the current design we are working on was a former “4 square” home that received a new garage designed by a different Architect in 1999. What they both had in common before the design work started was façade confusion. The Dutch looked as though the home was facing sideways on the lot, and the Four Square looks a bit like someone forgot about the front door… deep on the left side which creates a dilemma for first time visitors about where to arrive.

The solutions for many architectural projects come by seeking resolutions to why they feel the way they do. The Dutch home before pictures show the porch railing facing the street. That is the first que someone gets that this home may have a door there, but perhaps you’re not welcome. (I assure you the Owners are very nice… it was the house talking). The second issue was the slight “shed like” office that sits on the right… which looks like something someone might put on the back of their house. To resolve the issue, and create a true front façade, a second floor and porch were added, providing girth and strength to the right side and balancing the existing lonely gabled front. Then we moved the front stair and placed a new walkway. This allows newcomers to feel instantly invited, and removes any doubt about how to approach the home.    

Before:

                                      

 

After:    

     

 

In the project we are in the early stages of designing, you can see all of the emphasis is placed on the garage… the least appealing part of the home is forced upon the street. In 1999 when this was added, if you installed a more formal looking entrance, it was expected that anyone arriving would gravitate to that entry…. Even if it meant walking all the way to the side yard. Today, most folks arrive at the old service entrance… A.K.A. the side door, so this really needs a shift. What we are proposing is to remove the existing front door and pull the right side forward with a welcoming porch and a semiformal foyer. By adding a small addition to the upper right, there will be balance with a stepped façade, and more weight on the side of the garage. A brow roof over the garage will also provide some relief to the large flat surface.


I’d like to note that the Dutch project started as a request for an additional bedroom and bath, and the current design work started as a discussion about how to reduce recurrent water infiltration that has been exacerbated by the last addition in 1999. But hey, if you can get 2 remedies while you are fixing one, why not.

Planned Obsolescence

Obsolescence (or reduction of serviceability) is something, that in and of itself, is why I have a renovation and construction company. In addition to growing populations, we have structures that are aging as well as lifestyles and designs that are changing. Even the well built homes constructed in an era when craftsmanship was more a standard than an exception eventually need repair and updating. It is the new era, that I believe has become an era of “unplanned obsolescence”, that we need to pay more attention to.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Planned Obsolescence” was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. By his definition, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. 

I do believe that there is a place for planned obsolescence… just look at the new swing set and club house I made for our 6 year old little girl. She loves the windows that make a face and can’t wait for her first tea party! You’ll notice it is a bit crooked in places because 1/3 of the materials were salvaged from the old ranch house roof we removed to add a second story, and 1/3 are leftover lumber culled because it wasn’t straight enough for the home under construction. This crooked nature makes things not bind together as well, and I didn’t bother adding water proofing and flashing to prepare for decades of solid building… Why? Because Charlotte is the last little one until grand parenting begins years from now… and I will probably want to build a playset my older body can move around in better- so I planned the obsolescence of the structure and spent less than $1,000 in materials to build the best ever 15 year playhouse my nieces and nephews can enjoy when our daughter has out grown it.


It is easy to find new homes, and renovations that are put together either forsaking sound practices for short term financial gain or taking advantage of a consumer’s lack of information to pitch a lesser cost. Even the consumer is driving this with thoughts of moving more often (a reality according to census), and not wanting to spend money that benefits the next guy. I call these practices, unplanned obsolescence, because many of these defects are born from short term thinking that will have a longer term impact on our housing market. One obvious thing I see are homes that are less than 5 years old that look like they need a new paint job. It looked great with one coat the day they bought it, and because people think it should last about a decade, they are surprised when the trim starts rotting in place. I have been called to look at 3 kitchens this month that are less than a decade old because a developer put in something poorly made that checks a kitchen box. My last rant is the disregard for buying quality windows… many new homes have generic windows with a serviceable life of 10 years installed incorrectly adding to the pain because they leak and create more damage… and surely we can’t be planning on these homes to be tear downs in 10 years.

As proof in the pudding, and me showing I put my money where my mouth is, here is a Halloween treat (and a picture of my house in Sherborn). Simple-yes, smallish – yes. But behind that higher grade siding we recommend to our clients is a layer of exterior foam and cedar breathing material, then a high R-value foam insulation. About 30% more cost than an exterior on any new home in the neighborhoods we work in. However; I will benefit because I won’t be painting for at least another 10 years without rot, my home will be more comfortable in the winter and summer even if I don’t get back all the investment in the insulation that was added, and hopefully no one will tear it down in 20-30 years when I am done with it.