Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hygge and Wabi-Sabi

No, it's not a poem from Alice in Wonderland...

An article from Mother Nature Network brought the concepts of hygge and wabi-sabi to mind as useful elements for a homeowner to put together. They may help decision making during the planning stages of custom building or renovation, as well as in the finishing stages of decorating and furnishing a new space.

I was introduced to the Japanese term wabi-sabi while working with Melani on a newsletter for Harmon Builders. She sent me some content referencing the idea, which applies wonderfully to salvaged goods used in construction. If you missed that newsletter, wabi-sabi means finding beauty in imperfections. It represents an antithesis to mass produced goods. Think of the appeal of antiques, items that have worn into uniqueness or been enriched by the patina they acquire over time.

The Danish concept of hygge is something that can help make these cold, short days more tolerable. Although I didn't know the word for it before today, hygge has certainly guided a lot of my home decorating decisions, furniture layouts and lighting choices. I was lucky enough to tag along on my husband's business trip to several cities in Denmark one November a few years back. Danish people and design made a strong impression on me. The places we stayed and the locals who welcomed us had distinctly cozy spaces, and they explained that it is part of a cultural desire for togetherness and hospitality. Our hosts said, "Nobody wants to hang around outdoors for long when the weather is lousy, so it is important to make the indoors inviting."

Furniture is arranged for gathering together. Hygge is emphasized particularly as a way of avoiding social isolation as the cold and dark months wear on. Keeping warm with hot drinks, a roaring fire, and creating an ambience with soft lighting all play a part. Many homes and hotels have iconic modern Louis Poulson lamps, particularly the iconic PH 5  (so named for its designer Poul Henningsen and size 5 decimeters/50 centimeters across). The lamps are hung low over coffee tables with chairs gathered close around for conversation.

I have found it fun to play with integrating these concepts together to blend modern and antique elements and create inviting spaces. Perhaps thinking about them offers some clarity on ways to make a warm, unique and happy home.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Masonry Heating--Not Just a Fireplace

Masonry heating is an ancient technology that is still in use today. A masonry heater is a beautiful architectural feature that uses a quick burning fire to heat up the thermal material of a chimney to radiate heat throughout the house. The radiant heat may last 18 to 24 hours. The thermal mass to absorb the heat is where the beauty comes in: these can be made from brick, stone, tile or stucco.

Kachel tiles are specifically made for this purpose and sometimes this type of heating may be known as a Kachel oven (kachelofen) or tile stove. Other traditional names may be used, like Russian or Finnish fireplace or Swedish stoves.

Because of their design, masonry heaters may also be called contraflow stoves. The principal of the heat transfer is to use a series of channels within the chimney to hold in heat.  A separate small chimney vent is used as a typical chimney is, as a smoke exhaust outlet.
A simplified representation of the contraflow heat channels. A masonry heat system would likely have a maze of contraflow chambers snaking through to hold the heat.

A peek at the construction of a masonry heater may help illustrate how the technology works, and what an impressive home design feature it can be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Efficient Pellet Heating

Traditional pellet stoves can look like a charming Franklin stove, but rather than burning wood they burn compact pellets. Pellet fuel can be made of wood chips, nutshells or corn kernels, offering a sustainable heat source. According to the EPA these pellets are the cleanest burning solid fuel technology.

The heat output for a pellet stove is determined by the rate of feeding pellets in from a fuel hopper.  Newer models can be controlled through a small computerized unit. The mechanical aspect consumes roughly $9 worth of electricity each month, based on typical utility rates. Pellets cost $180 to $240 per ton (they are sold in 40 lb. bags). Most households use 2 to 3 tons annually.

Installation for pellet stoves is less expensive than a fireplace. This is because they do not require a chimney to function. All that is needed is a simple vent. The exterior surface of the stove should remain cool, except for the glass door.

Pellet stoves require weekly cleaning, which can be a drawback for those who do not wish to adopt another household chore. Care must be taken to purchase appropriate pellets so that the ash output level of the pellet is compatible with the capability of the stove to handle the ash produced. Another concern is that they do tend to have complicated parts that are expensive to replace if they break, so attention to regular maintenance is important.

Pellet fuel technology is now available for operating traditional furnace and boiler systems. Although it may be less convenient than natural gas or fuel oil due to the volume taken by pellet storage, homeowners may save 40 to 60% on heating costs. Many specific questions about making the best heat stove selection can be found at The Alliance for Green Heat.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dreamy Basement Renovation Ideas

An unfinished basement means an uncharted world of possibility. In particular, it is possible to take advantage of things that might make the below level space unappealing at first thought, and turn that into the best part of your home.

The word den truly evokes a cozy ambiance. A basement often has lower ceiling height. Create the a perfect space for a retreat. Add a warm fireplace surrounded by low profile furniture to sink into. Enrich it with custom carpentry and wood paneling and that is just the right note for sipping cocoa on a winter's night. Even better, add a hidden door behind some shelves to conceal unfinished storage space in another area.

A dark basement can make an excellent area to enjoy a drink on the weekend. Think of a secluded speakeasy setting, with gorgeous salvaged wood trim to perfect the ambiance. Tin tile replica drop ceiling panels might offer practicality with a nod to the prohibition era. The basement is also perfect for a wine cave; perhaps a jewel toned wine bar to maximize enjoyment. Cheers!

Lack of light in a basement can also lend itself perfectly to a home theater room. There are many ways to do this, whether it is a traditional theater with terraced recliners for seating all oriented toward a big screen, wall sconces, and lights running along the floor. A more versatile seating arrangement with a built in entertainment center and game cabinet might do if you want to make the most of your finished square footage.

Another basement bonus is privacy. This could mean an ideal home office to keep work separate from home, while still being right at hand. It is also well suited to a guest suite. You may want to take advantage of the opportunity to keep the peace and quiet all for yourself and create an owner's suite downstairs instead!

Many people use the separation from the rest of the house to provide play space for their children, and the clutter they create so quickly. Built in cabinets and shelves help keep the space organized. Stained concrete flooring in some of the area offers a beautiful durable surface that kids can use for riding toys or skates, staying warm in the winter while getting the wiggles out.

Whatever your fancy, enjoy making your space your own

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Green Controversy: Wood Stoves

If a wood stove burns dirtier than gas or oil, can it be a green source of heat?

It is true that wood burning stoves produce more fine particle emissions than gas or oil, but depending on your circumstances, they can be a green option. They are not suitable for urban areas for all kinds of reasons beyond concentrated emissions.  However, if you live on a rural lot and have access to naturally felled wood that you can use to fuel your stove, this can be a great choice. Other important considerations include the availability of storage space to keep your wood dry, as well as any transportation costs associated with bringing volumes of wood to you. If you have to move heavy logs far and wide, it may not be the greenest choice.

There are two types of wood stoves: catalytic and non catalytic. A non catalytic stove is cheaper, but offers fewer advantages. The catalytic version takes less wood because it burns more slowly. The slower burn also means less smoke emission, and--perhaps most critically to the homeowners--can burn overnight without needing to be reloaded.

Choose the right stove for your needs, if this turns out to be a reasonable source of winter heat for your household. Size will be related not just to the volume of your home, but also to it's efficiency in terms of insulation and window and door seals.

Most important of all, winter is coming. Stay toasty warm!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hardware Store Cleaning Hacks

Who doesn't love using something you already have hanging around to tackle a job quickly and thoroughly? I noticed that a number of the things you might find in a hardware store can be put to good use for home cleaning and maintenance--especially a few of the big, aggravating chores.

Here are a few that seemed worth hanging onto.

  • A plumber's snake to clear out your downspouts
  • A paint roller wrapped in a dryer sheet with the long arm extension will dust your fan blades
  • Goo Gone gets hardened sap off of vinyl siding
  • A length of plastic pipe taped to your vacuum hose to reach tall cobwebs in the corner (or alternatively, and probably easier, a wrapping paper roll)
  • A cordless drill and buffing wheel or specially designed brush head for cleaning showers
  • A plastic putty knife for soap scum removal

Family Handyman is an especially good resource for these not-so-routine jobs.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Fun Furniture Finds at Smokestack Studios

Smokestack Studios has just come to Downtown Frederick with a new store on Market Street. Since we are finally choosing furniture for the space that Harmon Builders completed for us several years ago, even though it has been a long wait, the timing could not be more perfect.

The studio brings an original point of view to Frederick's home interior furnishings and accessories. I stopped in and spoke with Sarah from the Smokestack Studios design team today. She kindly showed me around, pointing out the hanging pulley lamps from founding designer Christopher Ritchie, along with a spectacular table lamp created from the original headlamp of a Model T. These one-of-a-kind accessory pieces are excellent for punctuating a space with a breathtaking focal point.

The details brought in through repurposed mechanical pieces are classic, yet what is old manages to strike a modern note with the early industrial hardware and metal elements. Living today's lifestyle in an older home, a blend of contemporary clean lines and vintage details aligns our needs with our taste and space. The Harmon Builders team replicated original 1920's carpentry in our home addition; maintaining the integrity of the home was a priority for us. The aesthetics on display in Smokestack Studios showroom offer a striking way to balance the same preferences and showcase the architectural details.

A peek at a piece from Smokestack Studios: clean lines, mechanical elements and warm patinas.

Designs from the "barn" line are custom created to highlight the beauty of reclaimed wood. Some of these are coming from local barns, perfecting environmentally sustainable practices by marrying them to the local heritage. It is always a pleasure to find more green resources available to our community and for our homes.

The studio is hosting a grand opening reception Friday, September 12th from 5-7pm with bluegrass music by Rattlesnake Hill. They offer complete design services in addition to the retail showroom.

Smokestack Studios
154-A North Market St.
Frederick, MD 21701
*Next door to the also fabulous Cakes to Die For!