Friday, February 26, 2010

Boeing's Housekeeping System

Photo courtesy Flickr
A few days ago, a careless dance move stressed a knee and introduced me to my new best friend, the leg immobilizer. I rediscovered the virtues of the housekeeping principles Seattle home economist Harriet Fish designed for the Boeing Airplane Company’s disabled women employees.

I learned about this system in the Fifties: my mother introduced me to the Heart Association’s helpful pamphlets. The system is based on Frederic Taylor’s rules of industrial efficiency. When the pamphlets arrived from the printer, mother burst into the kitchen waving the sheaf of titles, cheering “If these will make life easier for someone who is ill, think what they will do for me!” She worked outside the home at a time when all clothing had to be ironed, silver polished, and men did nothing under the roof except repairs.

Over the decades, I automatically set up a new house by keeping things where I used them first and storing them so I didn’t have to stretch, bend, twist, or stoop to reach them. I chose standing work surfaces one inch lower than my elbow. When my son was born, I realized this system was speeding my recovery. It’s so convenient, it’s like having someone to fetch and carry.

As I made my first tentative steps on a cranky knee this morning, I realized that the system is still in place. Most of the time, it’s so efficient that all it does it let me work too fast, but when I want help, Taylor’s system is there to hand me what I need. Try the simple practices outlined above. They turn the least promising kitchen into an efficient, productive work environment.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Someone Else's House

Photo courtesy Flickr

Friends entertained us recently, and I basked at the table with a winter sun at my back. Our hosts are conscientious environmentalists. After I got home I realized that the reason my place at the table was so comfortable is that the house has an ideal solar orientation. The building is set in a sun trap that catches winter light through the glass doors of the dining area. A few feet away, the kitchen window faces a back yard that looks like a giant outdoor living room.

The house is set in an early post-war suburb and was probably marketed to a young couple whose children were entering school. Suburban tract housing came late to Seattle. The most prominent developer was a man named Balch. Mr. Balch started by building small groups of houses in many of Seattle’s distinctive neighborhoods. These places resembled the classic saltbox house of Levittown fame.

Balch Two was a more sophisticated version of the salt box. After that phase ended, Balch began to build ranch-style places with part-brick facades. It is rare to find a Balch house that is sited badly.

The small mid-century tract houses of this region are designed for a woman who stayed at home with the kids, had to iron, and did all her own cooking. She could very well have been the daughter of a woman who employed a day worker and the granddaughter of a woman who had live-in help.

These small, one-story houses were consciously designed in reaction to Victorian architecture: maintenance is as easy and cheap as the times permitted. Functioning like free-standing condos, the houses are built on cement slabs out of genuine materials. The wood in them was milled out of centuries-old trees cut from virgin rain forest, and the walls are of fire-retardant plaster.

My friends hail from the Midwest, and the formidable winters of that region may not have left them aware that it takes very little to stay comfortable through the Northwest’s version of the cold months. Their new patio is set like a masonry carpet just outside glass doors on the south wall of the house. It would be a small matter to set a portable greenhouse over those doors and use it to heat the kitchen and dining areas. The greenhouse could be a temporary winter installation. Simple curtains laid over spring-loaded poles in the doorways would contain the solar gain and make using the furnace optional.

Prevailing social values in the neighborhood, and how much the neighbors can actually see in the back yard, will dictate what kind of structure would be suitable. A tour of digital garden and farm resources will turn up some affordable options, and a plastic structure would be easy to remove in spring. It would be surprising if a greenhouse did not pay for itself in a couple of years.

A while ago, an architect/handyman did some work on an apartment next door. He started by nailing a clean, white tarp to the side of the building and propped it up to make an elegant rain shelter over the patio-glass door entry area. Even this simple installation would generate solar gain and cast an elegant winter light into the central rooms of my friends’ house. It is conceivable that opening the upper sash of the kitchen window an inch or two would harvest a noticeable amount of solar heat from a tarp. One could slope the tarp down from its base on the wall and prop it a few inches in from either end to leave a couple of small flaps that would channel heat into the open window.

A local hardware chain carries white woven plastic tarps in quite a few sizes. This material transmits beautiful light, and winter rains would keep it fairly clean.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Leaving Well Enough Alone

A stove named Rhonda. Photo courtesy Flickr.

Recently, I visited an apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco. My hostess had found a spot in a dignified old building that had been maintained with amazing insight.

The kitchen was fitted with the original gas stove, a narrow version of a collectible turn of the century gas cooker. This stove, O’Keefe and Merritt?, is heavy, the white enamel is thick, there are cast-iron heat-diffusing burner units and a heavily-enameled pull-out spill tray under the top of the stove. The chrome fittings, it goes without saying, are thick and more than adequate to their years.

That’s just the stove. The sink unit opposite it is enameled cast-iron with a built-in drainboard. It looks like Montgomery Ward’s finest from the Fifties, but it’s probably older. It has been set onto a fresh cabinet unit. In this design, there is nothing close to standing water that will deteriorate.

The most amazing part of this little kitchen is the back of the upper cupboard. The building dates from after the big earthquake in 1906. It’s probably pre-World War I. The timber that rebuilt San Francisco, I understand, came from Seattle trees, true old-growth from virgin rainforest, land that had never been logged. The grain of this wood, known as straight-grain Doug fir, is like none other. These were the trees that became imperial masts of sailing ships, and each speaks of centuries and its home forest.

The back of the kitchen cupboard is unpainted straight-grain Doug fir beadboard. It has darkened with the decades, but there is no sign of careless kitchen practice. Wood like this is like blotting paper and though nearly as tough as steel, the surface is tender. By some miracle, every housekeeper in the unit has spared the naked cupboard wall from knocks and smears of butter. It’s a piece of historic preservation that deserves honor.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Too Late Smart

Photo courtesy Flickr
Here are some notes from the annual Mardi Gras party, staged on a sensible Seattle Saturday night.

For a buffet, identical serving dishes for six that stack are more convenient, although less impressive, than one large vessel. A ravaged, half-empty presentation is not appealing. It’s easier to trot out a fresh offering that’s been sitting as back-up in the pantry.

If the evening is not a potluck, but the guests are generous, set their contributions to one side. Leave a little slack in the serving area just in case. Keep the serving table looking like it’s in one piece by transferring incoming food to a house dish. A potluck table will look squalid if you're not careful.

Coordinate all table linens to simplify staging the evening.

White napkins and candles are universal.

Have twice as many glasses as you think you’ll need. Unscratched, decent, utilitarian glasses in abundance simplify meal service.

Very good sparkling juice, a bite of chocolate, a small cookie, and strong coffee make a simple dessert.

I like to offer a taste of single-barrel or single-malt whiskies after the meal is over.

-30- More after the jump.