Organize Beautifully

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As the parent of a 5 year old I fully understand how clutter takes on a whole new meaning. These clients contacted me in order to turn a poorly used corner of their living room into focal point. They wanted a place to store their cookbooks and their daughter’s art materials and assorted toys.





The stained oak blends with the other woodwork in the living room-some of it original to the house and some added later. The cabinet top is made of reclaimed slate that was once used for window sills in a college and plays off the original stone mantel.After

It’s Ice Dam Season!

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2015-02-13 07.09.04Ice dams Troy

I have gotten many calls about ice dams and mysterious leaks inside people’s homes lately. If you live in the Northeast, you know that this winter has given us the perfect conditions for creating ice dams. Consistently cold temperatures and lots of snow are a recipe for huge icicles and chunks of ice on many roofs. Accompanying the ice dams, there are often leaks inside the home.  So why do some houses have them worse than others? And what is actually happening?

The underlying problem is fairly simple–lack of insulation and proper air sealing. When the attic is not insulated and sealed well enough, warm air reaches the underside of the roof deck and melts the snow on the roof. (Usually you can’t see this happening because it is hidden beneath more snow.) When the melted snow runs down the to the cold edge of the roof it freezes again. The longer this continues, the more ice builds up. Now that the ice dam is in place, the water begins to back up the roof and under the shingles. Once the water makes it past the shingles, it follows the easiest path down–into your walls, through the ceiling, etc.

Here is a great illustration of the problem put together by University of Minnesota.

UMN Ice dam graphic

What is the solution? Simply put, you need to keep that warm air from reaching the underside of the roof deck. This is best achieved through proper insulation and air sealing. When that is not possible, additional venting for the attic will help (although this is not ideal as you will still be losing a lot of heat from your home). There is wide misunderstanding about this phenomenon. If you are looking for a contractor to solve your ice dam problem, ask him to explain to you how he will fix the problem. If he doesn’t recommend air sealing and insulation first, keep looking for another contractor!

Martin Halladay has written a great article on Green Building Advisor that goes into a bit more detail. Please check it out if you are suffering from ice dam problems.

And, lastly, please be careful if you go out there with a hammer, shovel, or hatchet. These tools will all easily do serious damage to your roof. Not to mention that the dangers of falling ice, or falling yourself, are high. Be careful!


Victorian Porch Restoration Part 1

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153 Pawling BeforeThis porch was in bad shape when I first saw it. The original brick footings had broken down over the last 100 years and the roof had begun to droop.

Probably a few decades ago, someone attempted to rectify the problem by laying concrete under the perimeter of the porch floor. They did not do anything about the footings however so the entire block wall gradually sank into the sand soil. Ultimately the wall did nothing to support the roof, but it did make the porch uglier and introduce more moisture to the framing causing some of the carrying beams and joists to rot out. Not much of a fix.

The first thing we had to do was remove the offending concrete block. Next, we installed techno metal posts. (These were 7′ long metal posts with a 12″ helix on the bottom that literally screw into the ground! They are rated at just under 10,000 lbs. of bearing each.) Then most of the structure was reframed reusing as much of the original lumber as possible.

Pawling original joistPawling old growth vs. new growth


Here is one of the floor joists. It was a piece of old growth fir that measured a full 2″ x 8″ x 25′ long when I removed it from the porch. Once I cut off the rotten ends it was good as new. To demonstrate how tight the grain of this old growth wood is, I took a picture of the end of the board with a new piece of fir flooring…



The real challenge of this porch is the radiused corner section. After running the joists long, I filled in with 6×6 blocking along the perimeter of the curve. After roughing out the shape with a chainsaw, we smoothed it out with power planes and then laminated a rim joist out of 1/4″ luan plywood.

Pawling curved section detailPawling shaping curvePawling curved section laminted rim joist

Once the framing was complete we used the curve as a mold for gluing up the handrail blanks–8) 1/2″ strips of clear cedar glued with epoxy. This allowed me to create a blank that matched the curve of the porch perfectly.

Pawling handrail glue upPawling handrail glue up


Once the glue cured I started milling the blanks flat and square so I can profile them just like the straight sections of handrail. More pictures soon!

Pawling handrail blanks

Cozy Urban Space in Albany

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This article from the Times Union 3/30 insert showcases a 13-foot wide row house in Albany and the creative approach that the owners took in building a beautiful, cozy, and highly functional space.

This project demonstrates how a small living space can work even better than one twice its size. There is a lot to be said for re-envisioning how a space serves various functions and combining those functions where possible.

I especially like how the entry way was transformed from a quasi-functional, small space into an inviting nook with an ivy privacy wall.

TU 3:30 article TU 3:30 articale before

Solarize Troy

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Last night I attended the first of Solarize Troy’s public outreach meetings at the East Greenbush library. The presentation covered the basics of grid tied solar electrical systems (PV) and then introduced Solarize Troy’s plan.

This volunteer committee, which is part of Transition Troy, is working to build a large group of people seriously considering solar power. Then they will request proposals from numerous local solar installers. Offering a large contract opportunity to the installers means that there should be a substantial reduction in overall cost for everyone. The contracts will be made between individuals and the installer, but Solarize Troy will provide technical guidance allowing folks to be confident that they are getting a high-quality, warrantied, properly installed system for a good price. (Both leased and purchased systems will be available.) No provider has been selected yet, but it is in the works and the goal is to begin installing systems this summer and fall. I think that this is a great way to help ourselves  and each other out.

For more information check out Solarize Troy at the Transition Troy page or here on Facebook.

The Phoenix Commotion

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Phoenix Commotion houseThere is a very cool thing happening in Texas. A company called Phoenix Commotion, headed by Dan Phillips, is making affordable homes with 75-80% recycled materials. Through this approach, Dan is doing three great things:

1) Reducing landfill burden

2) Creating affordable housing

3) Training an unskilled labor force

Check out their website and Facebook page to see the wild stuff they are up to!

License plate roof

“Ghosting” on interior walls

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ghosting on screw heads

Notice the spots over the window

A peculiar thing happens when you have a combustion source (candles, kerosene heater, fireplace, wood stove, etc.) in a building that is poorly insulated. The particulates in the air will be attracted to the cold spots on the walls or ceilings. I have seen this with framing. After a heating season there are “shadows” of all the framing members showing up on the sheetrock or plaster walls. It washes off, but it is a good indication that the insulation is severely lacking.

ghosting on walls

In the corner, you can see studs and nails.

Well, yesterday, on a site visit, I saw a great illustration of this occurrence. The nail heads that were under the plaster were showing up as black spots on the wall. This was a very good sign that the insulation retrofit already underway was a good decision!

How much would it cost to build a 2000 square foot house?

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I get questions like this from time to time. The precise square footage isn’t important. It is an impossible question to answer in a general way. Of course there are average costs in a given area. I’ve heard everything from $150-$250/sqft but those numbers don’t really tell you much.

A better approach is to answer these questions first:

  • What are your goals in this home?
  • Do you really need that much space?
  • What are your needs vs. wants?

The answers to these questions begin to frame a clearer discussion of what the house will look like. Here are some other things to consider early on:

Efficient use of space

Whenever possible, create spaces that can serve multiple purposes and eliminate spaces that are rarely used. For example, a pet peeve of mine is the grand entrance that is obligatory in the world of McMansions. This is a space that is only really used by strangers a few times a year. The rest of the family or familiar visitors will always use a side entrance or come through the garage because it is so much more inviting. So here is space where hundreds of square feet of building can be eliminated without any effect on the occupants.

Insulation and air sealing

Not at all sexy, but an investment here will make for a much more comfortable home and much lower utility bills. I was working on a home that had 12″ thick walls rated at R-40. Casual visitors often asked, “How long will it take for that to pay for itself?”  My question was, “How long will it take for your granite countertops to pay for themselves?” And this leads to my last item…


The quality of the finishes in a home have a huge effect on the final cost. The aforementioned granite countertops, high end appliances, 16″ marble tile in the bath, ornate trim details, and the like can jack up the price of a home considerably. Not to say that these things aren’t appropriate, only that when you have a limited budget, you’d be better off spending your cash on good doors and windows and great insulation now and saving your pennies for the fancy finishes that can be added later.

In the end, in order to get a price for a home, you need to know what that home really is. A price isn’t so hard to arrive at once you have a well thought out design and a plan that includes all the specifications. Why not spend some serious time and thought on the house in the design phase. After all, you’ll have to live with it everyday once it is built.