Friday, March 16, 2012

Hidden Advantages


Solar tent image courtesy Flickr

In 2012, a modest early twentieth century Seattle cottage is a valuable resource for a working couple who are raising a family. I have in mind a particular property in the North End. The little house is as efficient as a condo and has no basement. Like many older residential buildings, it’s sited to take maximum advantage of passive solar gain, and the rise to the south shelters the place from biting winds off Elliott Bay. That’s important with the increased risk of storm that accompanies global warming. The place is on seismically secure soil, and is sited very close to three of the four boundaries of the property, as old building codes allowed.

Just over the rise is a beautiful view of downtown: the site doesn’t look central, but it could not be more convenient, close to neighborhood shops and with easy access to the Sound and neighborhoods to the east. Frequent bus service will allow the kids to get around on their own long before the parents have to worry about, or pay for, teens behind the wheel.

Any house built in Seattle before 1970 is made from first-rate timber, Doug fir, and probably has interior walls covered with plaster, which offers good fireproofing. By 2012, the wiring will have been improved and doubtful plumbing replaced.

There are two kids at home. Superficially, the cottage does not look like a good fit for a family of four. The original master bedroom, a size twelve, so to speak, is next to the bath. On the other side is a size two room, smaller than code permits today, that could have been the original nursery. All three rooms open onto a surprisingly elegant and spacious interior hall that also has doors to the south-facing living room and kitchen to the east. A door on the south wall of the kitchen opens into a size six room. It was traditional to have a sleeping chamber directly off the kitchen to ease home nursing burdens.

Some time after World War Two, a wide and lofty garage was set in front of the east side of the cottage, filling a quarter of the front garden. There’s a laundry area plumbed into the kitchen side of the garage, and there’s a short flight of steps to the door that was opened in the south wall of the size six room, making it a dedicated space.

The older child sleeps in that space, and the younger in the size two room. The family will be ripe candidates for a bigger house before long. If they follow Seattle tradition and stay small while acquiring recreational property not far away, they might find that living in a genuine town house pays off in short commutes, reasonable maintenance, and (I’m hardly expert) rather interesting appreciation. The cottage is a straight shot north of the street Bill Gates has designated as Seattle’s Park Avenue, and Lake Union, once again the hub of the city, is just over the rise and down the hill.

A combination of medieval interior design and contemporary garden practice would expand the cottage into a comfortable space for four and cost almost nothing. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that rooms acquired fixed functions. Backing away from that habit and establishing centralized storage areas makes space unbelievably flexible and convenient. In the Middle Ages and in pre-colonial America, it was standard for the parents to sleep in a four-poster bed set in the corner of the principal room. The lofty double garage would make an elegant hall to use this way. It’s a rec room at the moment where a beater couch, racks of toys, and the television live.

It wouldn’t take much to turn the laundry corner into a powder room and set a master bed on the east wall. A four-poster’s fun, but modular wire storage racks on wheels make elegant movable room dividers when they’re covered on three sides with something or other. I use woven wicker fencing but the options are limitless. The community television and couch could stay, although broadcast technology is changing by the minute. I doubt that a fixed video behemoth is necessary at all. Me, I’d put a big flat screen on the kitchen wall and set Windsor chairs at the table.

In my experience, much of domestic interior design is aimed at getting the best price when the house goes on the market. Now that professionals “stage” a place when it’s offered for sale, I see no reason not to make the most of one’s property and use it any way that’s practical. Who’s making those payments, anyway? Terence Conran’s House Book is full of good thinking along these lines.

The garage door opens onto a south-facing cement parking pad. With a carport added to the front of the garage, one could hang blinds on the open sides and use it as an additional outdoor room, with or without the garage door being open. Sans carport, one could install an evergreen hedge in movable pots. One could also install several solar collectors and use them as a carport. An overhead garage door with windows would be a pleasant change from the existing one, and a smaller entry door in the west wall would add flexible options for foot traffic in and out of the building.

House the younger child in the old master bedroom, size twelve, and the older in the former living room, size twenty-two. He’d still be in a dedicated room, but it would be straightforward to frame in an entry hall, perhaps with translucent walls, or use more rolling room dividers to protect his privacy. The space could serve as an alternative social room.

The kitchen is a charming, old-fashioned farmhouse room that needs nothing. The dedicated size six room on its south wall could become a community storage room lined with high-tech wire shelving on wheels. The size two room backs onto a plumbed wall and could hold both a laundry stack and clothes drying/storage racks (perhaps with de-humidifier), functioning as a community closet.

The fun part’s in the garden. The south-facing yard’s a natural sun trap, and, like many old cottages, the front porch is set to make the most of every precious minute of Seattle daylight. There’s a classic white picket fence to match the cottage, and, most importantly, a healthy neighborhood surrounds it. With blinds on a carport, the family could enjoy subtle privacy on the patio without shutting passersby from the view of the planted area. Simple curtains hanging behind the garage door would protect the privacy of the hall while opening the space to light and air.

One could glaze the carport to make it a growing as well as a sitting space and incidentally harvest home heat from the structure.

The cottage’s late twentieth century limitations are its 2012 assets. Current electronics and the rising price of oil allow the family to make a very good deal out of what was once merely expedient. Many of the suggestions above can be implemented immediately simply by ordering on-line, a boon to a working couple. The shelving’s available from the Hold It Store, simple curtain panels can be found at the Great Big Northern Euro Furnishings Emporium and Bin and Basket, and my beloved industrial quality dairy crates can be found at Hold It. The Big Box Home Chain carries bamboo blinds and will cut them to a custom width. The laundry corner could be left as is and curtained from a spring-loaded shower curtain pole. It is elegant and old school to bathe in one's bedroom, so a freestanding claw foot tub might be fun, code permitting, especially if there's a hearth or stove in the room. The city may allow an electric toilet in the corner. Replacing the laundry sink with a single white enameled kitchen sink would relieve the utility atmosphere and support washing hands and babies.

I find it convenient to rent a mail box by the year at the Brown Shipper’s neighborhood concierge service. The shipper accepts parcels for me and lets me know by E-mail when something has come in. I never have to worry about a package sitting on the stoop. They charge for packing materials, but will put a parcel together for me when I bring things in to send away. Shipping costs pay for themselves in time and aggravation saved. The service allows me to live without a personal motor vehicle.

Essentially, one could revise the house merely by editing inventory, adding storage racks and rearranging furniture. The garage/hall is floored with cement, the base of choice for sea grass matting. Under-carpet electric heat mats provide constant, penetrating warmth and are heaven to lounge on in a Seattle winter. Greenhouse insulating foil under the matting improves insulation for pennies.

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More after the jump.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stay Childproof

Photo courtesy Flickr

Even if you’re not scraping banana off the woodwork, it’s a good idea to retain child-safety habits so that small visitors don’t pose a strain. There’s a hidden benefit to thinking safety: one’s own is secured as well.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Limited Skills

Photo courtesy Flickr

Now and then I find that my limited abilities with tools are an advantage. I can line a cupboard with mirror by asking the framing shop to cut the stock and then fix it in place with a spot of mounting tape. No fuss, and the turnaround time is barely measurable.

I can secure an outside pocket on my black nylon rolling case with a length of black gaffer’s tape: it doesn’t have to be Fort Knox; it just has to thwart a sly hand. Gaffer’s tape labels black nylon luggage, binds utility-grade chipboard into informal portfolios, secures electronic gear in earthquake country, and covers edges of crude joinery.

Zip ties are first-rate skill displacers that have saved many a trip to the hardware store. I’ve used them to lash the top of a four-poster bed to its frame, ornament and secure a chandelier, mount blinds, tag luggage, and stabilize semi-permanent knots on ornamental soft furnishings. Zips turned a square of canvas into a bolster in under two minutes: I folded and rolled a spare synthetic comforter, rolled it into the canvas, secured either end with a zip tie, tightened the tie with needle-nose pliers, trimmed the ends, melted them safe with a lighter, and covered each tie with a length of bookbinder’s tape.

As important as working around limited skills is a strategy to displace the need for skill at all. Freestanding furniture and storage is the most flexible and convenient to use, easily worth the higher initial cost.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Low Tech, High Advantage


Photo courtesy Flickr

This charming photo is, to the best of my knowledge, an accurate depiction of a typical English cottage. What might look squalid, laundry hanging over the stove, can in reality be healthy, efficient, and deeply economical. Those clothes will dry as quickly as if they were in a machine, and with less wear and tear. Fend off squalor with straight lines.

I lived not too differently from Mrs. T over the course of the worst winter in the recorded history of Northwest weather. My cabin was on the beach at the foot of a high bluff that kept sun off the roof from November to March. That year, the sun wasn’t even out from November to March, except for one or two days. Snow lay on the ground from Christmas to Valentine’s Day. Even the surf froze.

Mrs. T’s cooking range is set in the open hearth it replaced. An iron stove emits constant, gentle heat that circulates air in a dwelling, keeps it sweet, and frustrates mold. A small property can be self-sufficient in firewood. Drying laundry humidifies the air, keeping the respiratory system healthy.

The photo doesn’t show the washtub, which is probably just as well. The tub may account for Mrs. T’s stooped posture and slight frown. Nonetheless, with rubber or vinyl gloves, doing laundry by hand is not the end of the world. Wringing it by hand is, though, because of the trauma to finger joints and fine motor skills. Over my winter at the beach, I washed in a wringer model on the back porch, using cold water from a hose. Ironing sanitizes textiles. I avoid ironing at all costs, but working on a table is very efficient. That heavy sad iron does a good job. For a while, I had an electrified aluminum steam iron that weighed five pounds. It was my go to for linen.

The freestanding drying racks are hard to find classics with many uses. It looks as if Mrs. T is letting the flat work get bone dry before she folds it, a neat trick that can halve ironing time. The Great Big Northern European Furnishings chain used to carry racks like these. They can be used to air clothing to extend wear (a simple way to halve utility bills), to dry rain gear or bath towels, and the racks are not too different from the traditional ones the Japanese use to turn beautiful kimono into room dividers.

The Welsh cupboards are a practical and efficient way to use dishes that are in daily rotation. My cabin had a nearly identical one at the side of the main room.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

The Micro-Room

Photo courtesy Flickr

When this house was built, indoor plumbing was cutting-edge technology. Tucked into a space beside the chimney, the bathroom cabinet is nearly a foot deep. It works well, and a few years ago I guessed that lining the back wall with mirror would gain me a dressing amenity, visually expand the main room, and yield a pleasant surprise every time the cupboard door was opened.

All of that turned out to be true, and a couple of weeks ago I decided to stash one of the Great Big Northern European Home Furnishings Chain’s cordless solar gooseneck task lights in the cupboard to bring the dental floss and skin cream out of the shadows. The combination of mirror and LED illumination is a wow. Adding electricity has truly turned a small cube of storage space into a tiny room in its own right.

Lighting the cabinet from inside adds an extra dressing station to the bath. One could do the same with a contemporary shallow cabinet by using a hiker’s headlamp or freestanding flashlight holder. When I bought the solar light, it worked so well that I bought several more. One person/one lamp is a good ratio, but having a spare battery is convenient. I can lay one battery on a window sill, even a dismal north-facing Seattle winter windowsill, to charge while the lamp is still working in the cupboard.

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