Oct 04

Kitchen counter tops: so many choices, so much confusion.

In the beginning there was wood. And it was good for thousands of years and it still is. For some people there’s nothing better than a butcher block counter top in at least part of their kitchen. It’s warm, beautiful, can be used to knead dough or cut meat and vegetables. They do require maintenance. You have to keep them really clean, which might require some scraping or sanding, and you have to season the butcher block with a food safe oil like mineral oil..

And then in 1912, two engineers working for Westinghouse invented laminate. And they named it Formica. They immediately left the company and presumably got very rich. This much maligned material is familiar to everyone and wanted by no one. It’s the least expensive countertop and is easy to clean. Its worst feature is that it is very heat sensitive, so it’s relatively easy to ruin.

Stainless steel made the jump from restaurant kitchens to homes in the 1960s and is again somewhat popular. The good; no need to worry about heat or food stains. The bad; it’s easy to scratch and dent so either you don’t mind that look or you have to be very careful.

Sometimes you will see tile counter tops. I hate these because I think they’re ugly, the tile can chip, and the grout between the tiles easily stains and can mildew, even if it’s sealed.

Starting in the 1960s granite was the most desirable counter top material.. While its reign as the champion of counter tops is over, there’s a lot to like about it. It’s very durable, hard to stain, easy to maintain and can withstand heat.. Nowadays there are signs on the side of the street promoting granite at $24 a square foot (not accurate because they charge extra for every cut), so granite is seen today as a low end commodity by lots of homeowners. But there are good reasons it was the most desired material for fifty years.

About ten years ago designers started using marble in the kitchen . There’s no doubt that there are some stunning marbles. Colors like Calcutta Gold and Statuary, with lots of white and distinctive veining, command premium prices. I’ve used it in four homes that sold for well over a million dollars each. My theory is that the more people pay for a house, the less cooking they do. I say that because marble is soft and permeable, so it’s easy to chip or stain and almost impossible to remove the stains. Don’t put your water glass on your new marble counters!

Of all the choices, people are most confused by quartz. It’s a man made material, but it’s made from 93% quartz, a natural mineral. People who like it praise its low maintenance- it doesn’t require any sealing like natural stone does- and they like the fact that the color usually goes all the way through the material.. Because it’s manmade, what you see is what you get, there’s no variation in the look of the material between the sample you see and the delivery you get. People who don’t like it point out that it can chip more easily than granite and that it doesn’t look natural. To make things more confusing, there are dozens of quartz manufacturers, with conflicting marketing claims. Some of the better known brands are Zodiaq, Cambria, Caesarstone, and Silestone.

Concrete has moved out of your driveway and in to your kitchen. A few years ago there was lots of hype in the trade magazines about concrete counters, but I think it will always have a very limited market. A good installer can dye or texture your counters to give them almost any look. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you are really at the mercy of your installer because everything depends on the quality of your installation. Also, concrete tends to crack over time and it needs to be sealed. The penetrating sealers that are needed to provide heat resistance have to be reapplied regularly. A material that’s not for everyone.

By far the best known solid surface counter top is Corian. This was considered a premium counter top material in the seventies and eighties. I could say enough said, but I won’t. Corian, I think, is really much better in the bathroom than the kitchen because it can be made with a seamless appearance. For kitchens the good news is that, until you get to the wood core, the solid surface material is the same color thoughout and requires no maintenance. The bad news is that it’s not heat resistant and it’s been my experience that it discolors over time.

Porcelain counter tops are quite popular in Europe, but rarely used here. These are basically a very thin layer of porcelain veneer over a sandwich of fiberglass, MDF, and wood. They are lightweight and offer lots of looks and colors. But they are easy to break when installing them and difficult to find. I only know of one distributor in Chicago and they bring them in from Europe.

I didn’t mention glass, bamboo, recycled glass, lava stone, and recycled countertops. These are such a small part of the market that they don’t warrant devoting space to them, but they might appeal to you.

Sep 16

What to look at when buying a new home Or How to be your own home inspector (at least a little)

At this moment I’m involved with two homes that have expensive problems. They have a number of things in common. Both of them were purchased in the last six months by young couples as a first home after living in a condominium apartment. Both the homes are at least fifty years old. Both the homes were thoroughly inspected by ‘professional’ home inspectors. Both homes have structural issues that will cost more than $25,000 to fix. And the structural issues would definitely have been spotted and flagged by an experienced builder, architect or structural engineer.

What went wrong? In both homes, either the home inspection missed the problems altogether or noted the problems and didn’t raise a red flag so the buyers had no clue it was important. Probably the inspector didn’t realize it either. The majority of home inspectors have some background in building, but don’t understand buildings like engineers or architects. They take a class in inspection, follow a rote approach to each building, and usually issue a lengthy report with lots of pictures to support each comment. As a builder I find their approach to be great at catching lots of minor problems but they are often not equipped in knowledge or method for seeing some serious issues.

So what should you do? I do think you should get a home inspection, flawed as they may be. You want to know if one of the electric outlets doesn’t work or if the furnace is rusting. But I’d urge you, if you’re looking at an older house, a new construction home with no history, or have any reason at all for serious concern, to pay an architect or engineer to come look at the potential purchase. They may charge $500 just to look and give you a verbal report, but it could be the best money you ever spent.

Before you decide to hire a professional, look at the house with a dispassionate eye. Start in the basement and go to the roof. It’s beyond the scope of a blog post to tell you everything to look for, but use common sense. In the basement, is the floor completely level and are there cracks in the floors or walls? Look at the support beams and posts in the basement. If they are wood, are there cracks? Do you smell dampness? Do you see any water stains? Look at the furnace and water heater. Do they look like they’re in good condition? Look at all the floors and walls throughout the house. Are they level? If there are wood floors, are there gaps? Does the drywall on the ceilings look perfect or can you see the tape coming through? Caution- problems in the walls and ceilings can easily be covered by a decent paint job. Look at the windows and doors. Do they all open easily and smoothly? Walk around the outside of the house. Look where the dirt touches the foundation walls. Do you see any cracks in the wall? Look at the brick around the house; make sure the mortar isn’t cracked. Look at the chimney and make sure it’s straight and has no cracks. Look at the shingles on the roof. They should look flat, with no ripples. If you’re buying a house in the city with a flat roof, just assume it needs to be reroofed and will cost at least $15,000.

Since you are already emotionally invested in this home, maybe you should invite a friend to walk through with you. Neither of you is trying to take the place of a professional inspection. Follow your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, call me or call an architect or engineer. The biggest things to look for are water damage and structural issues. The place to really concentrate is the basement. It’s the place most home buyers ignore because they fall in love with the rest of the home, but it’s also the place where you’ll find clues to the most serious problems. Both water issues and structural defects show up here.

People have written books on this subject, so this can only be a brief guide, but I wish I had a dollar for every time a client or friend told me that they hired a home inspector with twenty years experience and can’t understand how they missed this problem. You’re not going to take the place of an engineer, but you can definitely use your eyes and your nose to spot problems that might be major issues. Don’t be intimidated; after all, you’ve lived someplace your whole life, and you know the problems in the places you’ve lived. Now go look at this home and pretend it’s one you’ve lived in. You may find you know just where to look.

Jul 04

Green building and renovation: what it is and how come all the trade magazines talk about it in every issue but no one else does

Green building usually refers to several related things:
  • Site planning and building layout mainly in new construction to make the absolute most efficient use of location and materials so a building can use as little energy as possible. This is called passive energy design.
  • Aggressive use of insulation, capture of rainwater, solar panels and other active systems to utilize energy so efficiently that a building actually generates more energy than it uses. These approaches use active systems and designs. When you hear about the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum designation for extremely energy efficient buildings, these almost all use active design in addition to passive.
  • Some companies and consumers are devoted to using products that produce little or no VOC’s (volatile organic compounds). Everything that is used for construction is composed of organic compounds and many of these are considered volatile. Volatility in and of itself is not bad, but it does mean that the material has a low boiling point and molecules will evaporate into the air after installation. And some VOC’s are definitely not healthy for us. Paint is the largest source in buildings, and manufacturers have reformulated their product so almost every paint sold today is low VOC. Synthetic carpets also emit VOC’s.
In broad terms, these are the three approaches that comprise green building. I subscribe to about 6 trade magazines and every issue features articles on green building. They usually show a home that produces energy. They have low flow shower heads, toilets that only flush half the water of a normal toilet, there are solar panels on the roof, and the building envelope is so tight that they need to use air exchangers to pump fresh air in from outside. How come you’ve never seen a house like this? They cost a lot more to build and the payback for your initial investment is many years. I read a very interesting article last year. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where. It basically said that consumers are willing to pay 3% more for a house with green features. Now go to Custom Home magazine’s website and do a search for articles on green building. You’ll find 1901 articles. Why the disconnect? Everyone wants to be green, but very few of us are willing to sacrifice anything just to be altruistic. I’ve been involved in a number of new construction and renovation projects that sold for over $1,000,000. And it shocks me to say that I’ve never had one person ask me anything about the green features that were part of the project. But don’t despair. This is a trend whose time is coming. Most people in the building business do want to improve construction quality and lower energy use. As the technologies and materials are more widely adapted by those of us who make construction decisions, the cost is coming down. And the good news is that we can achieve 80% of the benefits of LEED Platinum building without a major expense in construction.
Jun 03

How to hire a general contractor (in Chicago) and anywhere

You’re finally ready to start your kitchen and bath renovation project! You’ve been studying Houzz for six months and have compiled a big ideabook. Maybe you’ve hired a designer so all your plans are set. The next step is to hire a general contractor. Your choice can either make your project go as smoothly as possible and give you a wonderful finished space or can lead to lots of delays and bad work. How do you make the right choice? The collaboration with your contractor is a marriage; hopefully, a short term one that will result in each of you happily going your separate ways feeling fulfilled. Here are some tips to ensure a successful collaboration.
  • Call the references you’re given and ask questions. Most important, what was the quality of the work? Obviously, no contractor is going to give you references of unhappy clients, but there are some questions you can ask to gain insight. How often was the owner or supervisor at the job site? How was the communication between the contractor and client? If there were problems, and there often are, did the contractor follow up and take care of them? Was the work done in the timeframe promised? Was the job site clean?
  • Every contractor should have pictures of their work. Look at their website. If they don’t have one, ask them to bring pictures of their work.
  • Ask them what they anticipate to be technical challenges in your job and how they will handle them. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know whether their answer is correct. If someone knows what they’re talking about they can explain it to you in a way you can understand. If you interview two or three people you’ll have a good feel for who is competent.
  • Here’s an intangible; how comfortable are you with their communication skills. If you don’t feel you understand them easily and well during your courtship, things will get worse when there are problems later in the marriage.
  • Call them a few times. See if they answer their phone or return your call promptly. This can be misleading because lots of guys are great on this during the courtship and not so good once you’ve signed the marriage papers, but it’s worth a try. One of the worst traits I see in my own subcontractors is a tendency to not answer the phone if they have bad news for you.
  • Not to sound petty, but you can somewhat judge a book by its cover. You’re expecting a contractor to have good taste and make sound design decisions when building your home. Even if you have an architect or designer, there are dozens of decisions made on the spot as a buildout progresses. Do you trust your contractor to have good taste?
Unfortunately, you’re going to know a lot more about your contractor after you’re married, but if you pay attention to the cues you get early in the relationship, your chances of a happy relationship later are much greater.