Fireplace Makeovers for a Transitional Generation

You may have a natural brick fireplace like the ones pictured below, or at least may have seen one or two. We are seeing more of them as the 1970’s and 80’s homes they are in become due for improvements. We are often asked what we can do with them, and the answer is that there are endless amounts of ways to re-adorn this gathering spot. I thought I would show you 2 ideas that demonstrate what a little paint can do as well as a more tailored way to dress a raised brick hearth.

The first before and after is a recently completed makeover in Dover, MA. The client had a couple of inspiration photos, and she really liked one that had a more up to date honed stone surround with simple lines. Because her fireplace had a raised hearth, we had the stone fabricator make the base as monolithic as possible instead of a more traditional layering with the hearth top hanging over. Because they also wanted a TV above, we had to frame out the wall above to allow space for wiring.

                                   

The second idea was part of a major kitchen renovation in Sherborn, MA that we completed a few years back. We removed the wall between the kitchen and family room and installed a kitchen that leaned more contemporary than the brick fireplace in the existing family room. We suggested a deeper tone paint to allow the fireplace to remain a focal point and also offer a nice textural, sophisticated and simple accent against the wall.

                                                                                                         

Decorator or Designer

It’s not always clear to a consumer who is really qualified to help with design projects, or what sort of design assistance they may need. In the interior design category, it is typically an interior designer (not a decorator) that will put together a comprehensive plan with interior architecture, color, contrast etc. to make the addition of the final touches (fabric and paint) have a big impact. The next level are those who also specialize in kitchen and bath design with the requirement of mechanical knowledge and the vast array of product specifications that make the difference between swapping out tile or changing the lay-out.

Recently, a woman came into our showroom and she was very frustrated that her kitchen renovation did not to have the high impact she hoped for (based on the fact the investment wasn’t small). She thought the solution was just different color cabinets, new counters and appliances because the contractor she has always used directed her to the lumber yard for new cabinets.  Now she was on to her next project; the master bath. The same carpenter that did the kitchen recommended that she return to the lumber yard cabinet designer with her bath plan and receive a new lay-out.  This resulted in a new vanity idea, but not a new bath idea.  In a lot of 90’s homes they are big on space, and short on creative thinking.  Unhappy with the new vanity idea, she had asked another local “design-build” company for advice and they sent a decorator out to talk about tile color and cabinet lay-out and maybe moving the shower where the tub went.  As she explained the 3-4 conversations with others to me, I too became frustrated.  I don’t know why someone thinks that knowing the color wheel and having a business card allows them to provide advice where they have little expertise.

So what’s the difference between a decorator and a professional interior designer? The difference is wide and usually unknown to people when presented a card with an ambiguous title.  Watch out for the design/build title, it has become cliché and almost never means there are certified designers on staff.  I may be more frustrated than most because on the rare occasion we are hiring for an interior designer I receive (not kidding) hundreds of e-mails from folks with the following comments in their resume’s;

  1. “I have had my own interior design business for years, and though I have no formal training, this has been a passion of mine and I am sure I could benefit your clients with my expertise”.

  2. “My many years at (fill in the blank of some furniture store) have proven that I know what people want and can put things together with exceptional results.”

When you want a designer, think about what it is you need. For instance, our firm would not be a fit if you wanted a cosmetic change in your living room that involves a new color pallet, and a whole new look with window treatments, rugs and furniture- perhaps a new mantle and access to custom furniture and drapery at the design center.  That would be best performed by a firm specializing in that type of work.  If you need help measuring to see if a sofa fits in a room, then of course help from a decorator at the furniture store will be well suited.  When you want to change the way a single room or your entire house works for you, then it is time to hire someone who understands architecture, ergonomics and plan details- otherwise you could end up with a plan that either misses a few marks, or is downright unpleasant.

My suggestion is to first interview. A design consultation should provide you with a designer’s philosophy on process.  Most professionals won’t come out and solve the design problem on a visit; they know that mindful solutions require thoughtful and vetted principals.  When you contact references, ask what type of design help set the designer apart, and if there were creative solutions that helped.  A good design firm in my opinion will have a team approach with all the staff collaborating on your project, a list of credentials for the design team and some proven experience with awards and or being published.

I can’t possibly point out every pitfall that can be encountered in a project that needs a professional eye; however, a great example that supports the story came via e-mail today in a project where the team noticed in advance that the slope of a new tub design would have the tub filler spilling water on the tub drain lever. After product review, the designer determined that; a. the tub filler would cause a splash that put water on the floor during fill, and b. the gasket would eventually fail and cause a leak below the tub and leak into the kitchen.  After the project designer pointed this out and made a new part suggestion, I received this:

Good Morning!

 

Thank you for finding the new tub spout. I think it looks like a great replacement.  

 

John and I are so impressed with how proactive you and the team are with issues like this.  It is such a difference from our last remodel experience.  We are so happy we found the Wiese Company!

 

Have a good weekend!

Laura

 

Happy renovation!

Remodeling Without Surprises

Newly remodeled spaces can be beautiful, and make an improvement in your lifestyle as well. Here are a few things you should get more information on in advance of starting your project to avoid cost overruns and other surprises.

The first thing that will help you steer the ship is to find out what similar projects cost (or at least a range of pricing). Ask a close friend if they don’t mind sharing what they spent if they have done something similar. Renovating, building a new home or adding on isn’t like car shopping because most folks do not have the same house and desire an identical kitchen.  The budget for any project can swing greatly depending on size and quality.  One of the most common pitfalls is spending money on design without understanding cost.  Having some general information on the budget you want to use will make the initial design work be more focused.

What changes do you really want to make that will pay dividends in your life for the next 5-10 years? What I mean is; installing a new toilet because the existing one is leaking wouldn’t stop you from a full renovation when the time is right. So if your home is “vintage” there may be some things behind the walls that should be addressed before you try to remove the tile for a cosmetic fix.  Also try to consider what your family will need in the future (Another good thing to consult a friend or professional designer on).  Try not to focus on the now-if the toddlers need a better Cheerio snacking space, think about how a renovation may help for future needs like when their team comes over for a Pizza Party post game.

What other items will be impacted by the renovation? One of my priorities when budgeting for our clients is to make real discovery of the project to prevent cost overruns.  It is so easy to omit things from the scope which will avoid having to understand the cost now.  One very common consideration when we prepare budgets for home additions is how much of the roof is affected.  It may be close in price to do the entire roof and save a lot of time and money in the near future.  If you have some projects that can be bundled and the budget allows, take advantage of those economies while you can.

Don’t breeze over the boring mechanical issues- they are the engine of your home. I have seen many additions where the old heat system was over taxed and failed because the Owner wasn’t consulted on this important part of their home.  Your heat and AC work should be looked at for anything larger than a kitchen or bath remodel.  We have our mechanical contractors look at every project during the budget phase so they can let us know critical information regarding the budget and if there are items that need to be taken care of.  Our mechanics will know if your electric service needs an upgrade before the inspector forces you to buy one.  They know if your boiler can handle the additional load, or if you should consider a few options for heat or air conditioning before it is too late to incorporate that.

In the military we had a cliché that went something like “Poor planning creates poor performance”. I am sure it had a few expletives in there somewhere, but investing in your home should be done with a complete understanding and plan to keep you from becoming the next construction horror story.

Our guys working on a window replacement in Sherborn.  We knew in advance of the window rot, so no surprises here :)

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.

 

 

 

 

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.