Tag: San Francisco interior designer

Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University
Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.
Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle
Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).

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In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.

Of Scruples, Scams, Divas, and My Evil Twin

 

NEWS FLASH, 10/30/2009 – Thanks to the wild popularity of this post – 554 visitors in the 6 weeks since it was published – the Evil Twin has written a goodbye note and is signing off! Thanks to all those who read and supported Nicolette Toussaint’s and Wendy Hoechstetter’s blogs!

Years ago, in the middle a huge matrimonial argy-bargy, my ex accused me of having an Evil Twin. The notion struck me as so funny that it entirely derailed my anger.

NToussaint
The real T. Nicolette Toussaint

Now it turns out that my ex was more or less right! This week, I learned that I have an internet doppelganger. I found out when a respected interior design colleague, Wendy Hoechstetter, called to ask me – in the most diplomatic and gracious way – if I had lost my mind.

What Wendy was wondering was why my taste had turned to schlock? And why I had sold out to a company that was abundantly represented on websites warning of internet ripoffs?

Let me hasten to add here, that I feel a professional kinship with Wendy. She and I share a strong set of ethics, a similar view of the role an interior designer should play, and mutual devotion to using design to enable those who are aging or disabled to become healthier and more independent. We both blog, comment on one another’s blogs, and belong to a Bay Area networking group affiliated with LinkedIn. I admire the legislative work Wendy has done on behalf of interior designers’ rights to practice.

Like me, Wendy changed careers in mid-life, and as a former paramedic, she has a gracious “beside manner.” She would never have put her concerns into the words I used in the paragraph above. It took the better part of 45 minutes before before I was able to figure out what prompted the undertone of concern in her voice. It was only after she mentioned the term “design diva” the second time that I started to catch her drift.

What’s in a Name?

My Evil Twin
My Evil Twin

The bottom line was that Wendy was uncomfortable with the links that “Nicolette, the Design Diva” had left in her blog’s comments section. And knowing my penchant for alliteration, Wendy had assumed that I had actually left those links. Therein lies the rub. If Wendy was confused, then others are too.

For years, I have enjoyed having a first name unusual enough to allow me to be a one name wonder like Cher, Madonna, and the artist formerly known as Prince.

But here’s the downside: If you have a common name like Susan Black or Jack Smith, everyone knows that other people share your name. They also know that everything they read that seems to be associated with your name isn’t necessarily about you.

There are very few other Nicolettes around. I have met only one since I began using Nicolette at the age of 14, when I came home and announced to my startled parents that I had changed my name. I had introduced myself at my new school using my middle name. Because my teachers would never learn to pronounce my first name, I had decided to stop using it. I would sign legal documents with the initial letter of my first name and my middle name: T. Nicolette. (No, I won’t say what the “T” stands for. And yes, my initials really are TNT.)

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch

But wait! The plot of this mistaken identity caper thickens even more, giving me yet another thing to bitch about. It turns out that Other Nicolette is also “Nicolette T.” S/he, the Design Diva, is purportedly “Nicolette Teek.”

But what’s in a name? Why should I get my knickers in a twist about Nicolette the Design Diva? In some ways, this mistaken identity is a bit absurd. Not in my most absolute, atavistic attack of alliteration would I assign myself the appellation of Design Diva! Those close to me find it a ludicrous label. My friend Coral’s comment was, “A classy lady like you doesn’t need such a ‘diva’ title.” My client and friend Alexei, said, ever so succinctly, “Never in a million years!”

Exactly. I have serious scruples about design divas. To know why, you need look no further than the Urban Dictionary. Here’s an excerpt of what it says:

  1. Diva – a bitchy woman that must have her way exactly… Often rude and belittles people, believes that everyone is beneath her and thinks that she is so much more loved than what she really is. Selfish, spoiled, and overly dramatic.
  2. Diva – female version of a hustler…

Friends, if you ever suspect that I’m becoming a Diva, please, throw a bucket of cold water over my head to try and snap me out of it!

Divas v. Decorators v. Designers

Nicolette Sheridan. People frequently get confused between us.
Nicolette Sheridan. People frequently get confused between us, but she's taller than me.

A diva, is, my opinion, the last thing my potential clients need when they’re thinking about making changes to their homes. Speaking as a survivor of three remodeling projects, I can testify that it’s a pretty stressful business, and it can be costly. You don’t want to do something that quickly becomes dated, falls apart, or otherwise needs to be redone in a couple of years.

You do want to wind up with a design that’s functional, that lasts, that meets your needs, that promotes health and safety, and that respects the environment in addition to being attractive. Designing to those standards requires training, professionalism, project management expertise, and a willingness to put one’s own ego aside in favor of attending to the needs of others.

If a person who purports to be an “interior designer” is in a rush to tell you what’s in style, what the new colors for this fall will be, or is otherwise pushing you to keep up with the Joneses, my advice is to run the other way, fast! The person you’re talking to is probably an “interior decorator” – someone whose skills are largely limited to picking out colors, curtains, and fabrics – rather than an interior designer.

Interior designers, by contrast, are trained to follow building codes, fire regulations, and federal disability access standards (in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act), to anticipate the environmental impact of various architectural materials, and to apply wear and flammability standards to meet your needs. They are taught to read and create floorplans and blueprints and to apply formulas to determine whether hallways and flow patterns are safe and practical. They know how to find reputable contractors, how to manage projects, and how to save you money and multiple patches of new gray hair.

They start work not by jumping in and recommending trendy products, but by asking questions about your needs, your frustrations, your budget, and your plans for the future. Come to think of it, that’s true not just of interior design, but also of graphic design, and internet design, all of the forms of design that I practice!

Internet Marketing and Transparency

    Remember the movie "Paper Moon"? I loved this exchange: Moses:I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples?  Addie: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!
    Remember the movie "Paper Moon"? I loved this exchange: MOSES: I got scruples too, you know. You know what that is? Scruples? ADDIE: No, I don't know what it is, but if you got 'em, it's a sure bet they belong to somebody else!

Before becoming an interior designer, I spent 20 years in marketing and communications, collecting BAs in journalism and English, and master’s degree in graphic design, and additional training in radio reporting, public speaking, web design and social marketing. I have designed and launched no less than eight websites, created a social media campaign notable enough to have landed a front-page mention in the San Diego Union Tribune, and have a long record of success in running paid and “natural” search engine campaigns. I conform to professional standards in all those activities. Specifically:

  • Authenticity – I am who I say I am. I never post to my blog – or anyone else’s  – under any name but my own, real name. I also identify myself with either the link and name of my blog (Living in Comfort and Joyhttps://nicolettet.wordpress.com) or of my business website (Comfort and Joy Interior Design – www.comfortandjoydesign.com)
  • Transparency – I am often asked to promote or endorse products and websites. I find dozens of links in the comments section of my website. (I too got a comment and link from Diva Nicolette.) I delete most of these. On the rare occasion that I do include a requested product or link on my website, I do so only because I find it worthy of interest. I have never been paid to write about anyone or any product. I strive to disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities, and personal agendas.
  • Truthfulness – I tell my readers the truth, in so far as I am able to determine it. I state facts when I know them, and when I’m stating an opinion, I try to make sure readers know that it’s only my opinion.
  • Fair Attribution – When I write about someone else’s work, ideas or opinions, I attribute them to the originator.
  • Accountability –  I will admit mistakes and correct them promptly. I resist sources that offer information for favors, and if I ever do accept favors, I will disclose them. I will also expose unethical practices of other bloggers when I discover them.

These ethical standards, by the way, are my adaptation of a Blogger’s Code of Standards developed by Cyberjournalist.net. That organization adapted its code from the ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists and Sigma Delta Chi. (I became a member of Sigma Delta Chi years ago as an honors graduate in journalism.)

Buyer – and Reader – Beware!

Nicolette Larson. People get confused between the two of us too, but she sings better than I do. A LOT better.
Nicolette Larson. People get confused between the two of us, but she sings better than I do.

Up to this point, I have been somewhat lighthearted about this case of mistaken identity, but I also want to sound a “caveat emptor” about the Other Nicolette to my readers.

Wendy and another reputable interior design colleague – I will call her Carly – did some investigating after Diva Nicolette left a comment on Carly’s blog. For reasons none of us can discern, Diva Nicolette affiliated herself with Wendy’s business, Hoechstetter Interiors. This is misrepresentation, fraudulent, and illegal, and Wendy has contacted her attorney about it.

Carly was the one who called our attention to the problem. In her words, here’s what happened:

I have a blog and receive several emails a day from manufactures and PR companies that would like me to insert a press release or review a product and write about it in my blog. I do not respond to everyone and am very selective in what I choose to talk about. I responded to Mr. L from company C who requested to write a guest blog on bathroom design on my blog.

After reviewing the article I rejected the offer due to content and the multiple SEO links placed within the body of the article. It was a pure commercial endorsement for Company C which I was not interested in promoting… Immediately after rejecting his offer, I received an onslaught of emails indicating that comments were ready for moderation on my blog. They were always from “Nicolette” and always had a link to Company C’s sponsored web site. I deleted them once I noticed the link and simply treated them as an irritation. The last one that caught my attention. The sender name showed my friend Wendy’s business. I thought, “that’s weird, why is my friend Wendy calling herself Nicolette?”

When I complained to Mr. L in a recent email, he told me that several people write under the name “Nicolette” for his company’s blog. He was unable to identify what writer is responsible for assuming my friend’s identity…

In other words, not only do we not know who was fraudulently using the name of Wendy’s business, we don’t even know whether Diva Nicolette is singular, plural, masculine or a genuinely feminine Ms. Teek. (This is starting to remind me of the plot of Ken Follett’s novel The Third Twin in which a man discovers that he not only has an unknown criminal twin, but also that he has been secretly cloned 13 times to evil intent.)

But Wait! The Plot Thickens!

Nicolette Teek's Facebook image. It's an illustration, not a photo. Is she real? Or is "N Teek" a hominym and play on the word "antique"?
Nicolette Teek's Facebook image. It's an illustration, not a photo. Is she real? Or is "N Teek" a homonym and play on the word "antique"?

My colleagues researched the links that Diva Nicolette had left on their respective blogs and dug up more unsettling facts:

  • A Google search on the name Nicolette shows that this “entity” has commented on hundreds of blogs
  • Many of those links lead to a furniture company named “Cymax”
  • A Google inquiry on the name Cymax turns up dozens of web links from rip off report, fraud links, and consumer complaints
  • Wendy’s attorney discovered that the Better Business Bureau has given Cymax a “F” rating

Holey Moley! You’re known by the company you keep, and Ms. Teek certainly hasn’t been living up to my professional standards as blogger, a journalist, or an interior designer.

Is it too late to go back to using my first name? And no, I’m still not saying what that “T” stands for! 😉

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Resource Links

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From Othello

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

“Othello”, Act 3 scene 3
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

No Longer Lost in Space

Image of Claires living room
Claire's living room now

I’m told that mice prefer to skirt the walls of a room, avoiding the center. They don’t feel safe when they are exposed in open places. Some people have a similar reaction to the wide, open spaces of the Great Plains. Folks can even be stymied by trying to figure out how to place furniture in a loft or large room.

Wide open spaces can be daunting.

My friend and client Claire is certainly no mouse! She’s an extraordinarily self-possessed and capable person, but the living/dining area of her new condominium – pictured below and at left – posed problems similar to those encountered by mice.

Claire’s wry comment about this was,  “If I did what I usually do, and put the furniture around the edges, I would have just wound up with a big hole in the middle!”

A Spatial Puzzle

The solution to this particular lost-in-space problem wasn’t obvious to me either, at least not initially. The space is a bit like one of those 16-space number puzzles that hold 15 tiles. Each time you want to reposition one tile, you have scoot several others around to compensate.

Claire's living room a year ago. It was a big, bare box! The windows on the left face west.

While my clients’ needs imposed one set of problems on the room’s layout, the openness of the room imposed another. Somehow, the room needed to be divided into separate, functional spaces:

  • a dining area,
  • a living room conversational area,
  • a media entertainment area, and
  • a writing area that would highlight Claire’s large, antique roll-top desk.

As you can see,  the room is a large box that receives strongly directional natural light. Windows wrap around two sides of the room, stretching the full length of two walls. The largest wall of windows faces west, catching the low, slanting rays of the late afternoon and early evening sun.

This makes it difficult to figure out where to place the TV.  Judging from the placement of the previous owner’s satellite cable, a TV had been placed in the left front corner of the floor plan below, behind the red chair. This placement led to two bad options: It would either force viewers to squint into the sun, or they would have to struggle with a sideways glare across the TV screen.

Providing Face-to-Face Conversational Areas

The obvious solution to the TV viewing problem – placing the television so that the outdoor light enters behind the viewers, as shown below – solves the viewing dilemma.

However, it introduces other problems. When chairs are placed at a comfortable viewing distance in front of the TV, WeberLROverviewthe resulting entertainment area takes up more than half of the room’s width. While this does leave enough space to place a couch and coffee table under the windows (which, in this 3-D image would be on the cut-away wall nearest you), it does not leave enough space for a separate conversation area. If a chair were to be placed on the other side of the coffee table, it would block the circulation path through the room and into the kitchen.

So how can the room be set up to enable people to have face-to-face conversation? The obvious  – but impossible –  solution would be to make the room six feet wider!

Instead, I hit on the idea of using the available living-room-to-kitchen circulation path for both viewing distance and a walkway. It was far easier to come up with this idea in a scaled plan than in the actual room, and I’m sure the movers would have been grateful had they known this.

WeberLayout copy
Floor plan for the living/dining area. You can see a larger version of this by clicking on the image.

How many sitcoms have we seen in which the movers have to haul the heavy pieces of furniture here and there around the room while the new resident tries to figure out a floor plan?

Long before these particular movers came onto the scene, I had asked Ron and Claire to measure all their furniture. I had measured the room and created both the floor plan and the three-dimensional rendering you see here, so that I could shove all the furniture around on my computer.

By the day of the move, I had solved the space use problems and Ron and Claire knew exactly what they needed to move. This also meant that they could avoid moving furniture they didn’t need. In addition, it meant that I could be shopping for the few pieces they would need to acquire while they were busy packing.

A Few Other Needs

At the start of this project, I interviewed Ron and Claire in their previous apartment. In addition to getting a feel for their tastes, I asked them what annoyed them in their living space. Both of them said that they were pressed for closet space, and both felt that they were awash in papers. (Indeed, surfaces were piled with papers. Knowing Ron and Claire, I suspected that this had more to do with inadequate filing space than personal habits.)

Claire and Ron also wanted to highlight a few prized possessions: a large, antique roll-top desk, a glass-fronted china cabinet, a brass samovar, a collection of hats that commemorated their globe-hopping travels, and a three-foot high wooden giraffe decorated with thousands of daintily-strung seed beads. (You can see her in the photo above.)

The Old Switcheroo

My space plan, shown in the plans above, divided the living and dining areas with filing cabinets that serve multiple purposes: they allow Ron and Claire to file their papers, they serve as a side board for family meals, and they also can be used as a buffet surface for entertaining.

Entry to the condo: the brass samovar claims a place of honor. Picture lighting and glints of metal brighten an area that receives no natural light.
Entryway: the brass samovar claims a place of honor. Picture lighting and glints of metal brighten a windowless area.

The cabinets that were purchased are shown in the photo above. They are matched credenzas that are finished back and front so that they’re attractive seen from both their living room and dining room sides.

One key feature that opened the space to multiple uses was replacing two old recliners with new swivel recliners that would  lend themselves to a quick switcheroo – they could be oriented either for watching the TV or turned 180 degrees to face the conversation area. One of the new recliners that I found for Ron and Claire can be seen in the photo at the top of this post.

As noted earlier, the room’s architecture is functional and austere. That, coupled with a paint and trim scheme of neutral colors, meant that attention would be focused on Ron and Claire’s furnishings, rather than the room itself. Accordingly, I created a color palette that is keyed to a couple dominant and repeated hues that are featured in the rugs: a deep red, a celadon green, and an off-white.

Deep red is the most prominent hue in the tribal and Oriental rugs, and I used it to actively define the social spaces in the room. Two existing red leather chairs and an existing love seat were grouped around one Oriental carpet to create a face-to-face conversation area. Another handsome rug demarcated the TV viewing area, while yet another defined the breakfast area. These three rugs  are all visible in the photo at the top of this post, while still another is featured in the entry area shown above.

Showing Off Prized Possessions

Another featured item: Claire's china chest

Prized possessions, such as that beaded giraffe and the china chest at right, were featured prominently in this layout. “We have acquired lots of art and other things we really like over more than 40 years,” said Claire. “But we have never tried to get things that were particularly harmonious, so we didn’t know how to make them look good together. Nicolette managed to make the things we already had look good just by placing them differently and showing us how they coordinated.”

“Nicolette also recommended a few pieces of new furniture that we have acquired over the past year. She also helped us solve a long-term problem of not having enough storage for lots of papers and books. Her suggestion was creative and looks good in our condo.”

If you’d like to see more detail in the floor plan and 3-D plans for this project, I invite you to visit the space planning page on my Comfort and Joy Interior Design website.

The valances of the windows that wrap Ron and Claire's living and dining room areas are topped off by a collection of hats from all over the world. They're mementos of many trips abroad.

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Ready, Fire, Aim!
(A Cautionary Tale about Space Planning)

Since I’m pretty sure my ex-husband will never read my blog, I think I can safely tell a story about his foibles here.

My ex was (and presumably still is) a fabulous cook. Our Eddy Street condo had a huge kitchen, two ovens, and vast expanses of counter space. My ex loved to prepare complex and sophisticated dinners, and it wasn’t long before he began to complain that the refrigerator was too small. Dan (not his real name) wanted a big fridge that served water and ice through the door.fridge

I measured the space and we went shopping. The features he wanted were available only on a significantly larger fridge. Dan looked at my measurements and insisted that the side-by-side refrigerator/freezer he wanted would fit.

I was dubious. The new fridge was stout, measuring only about half an inch less in width than the available space, and I wondered aloud about the lack of clearance on the sides. What if the bordering walls or the counters weren’t square, how would the unit get any ventilation, how would we clean, how… Dan interrupted my comments – more loudly this time – insisting that it would fit.

“But where’s the door going to swing? There’s no clearance…” I whined.

“No one needs to walk through the door when I’m cooking!” he fumed. By this time, the volume of our debate was starting to turn heads, so I gave up and let Dan arrange for delivery.

Okay, when the refrigerator was delivered, it did fit – but only when the doors were closed! The hinged side of each door was actually wedged shut by the counter on one side and the wall on the other.

That refrigerator sat protruding several inches into the doorway for months. It was replaced only when I decided to replace the chef who went with it…

Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

If the word “linoleum” conjures up stodgy images of granny’s old gray kitchen, think again! Linoleum has been rediscovered as an earth-friendly flooring that comes in a pleasing range of colors and also can be used to create custom patterns that match the colors of your room. With linoleum what’s old – nearly 150 years old – has become new again as we have become more conscious about the impact our interior choices have on our finite resources and our health.

This post, another in my occasional series on flooring, shows some of the beautiful things you can do with linoleum. I will also review lino’s history and the environmental advantages of this venerable, yet vibrant floor covering.

Today’s linoleum comes in both rolls and easy-to-install click-together tiles. As you will see below, there are also borders that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. Want a floor to set off a collection of African masks? No problem! You can choose an ochre red body mottled with earth tones, and set it off with a primitive patterned border like the one in the Farbo Marmoleum floor shown in the photo at left.

If you want the logo of your business styled into the floor of your home office, you can do that too. Linoleum can be custom-cut with water jets and inlaid to achieve curvilinear patterns like those shown in the Armstrong Marmorette floor below. Then again, maybe you just want a kitchen floor that’s easy to clean, comfortable under foot, and coordinates with that glass tile you got enthused about after reading last week’s blog. Because linoleum can be purchased in sheets, you can avoid the clean-up problems that come with maintaining tile and grout.

The design and color choices for linoleum are vast. The two manufacturers with the widest selection are Forbo, a Scandinavian company, and Armstrong. Forbo offers a palette of more than 100 colors and an impressive selection of 18 patterned borders and corners, which are shown below. Armstrong offers multiple lines of linoleum: Marmorette, a collection of 67 marbled surfaces; Colorette, a collection of 20 lively solid colors; Granette, 18 colors that have a granite-like coloration; Linorette, 18 deeply mottled patterns; and Uni Walton, a commercial collection of 9 strong, modern solid colors.

While linoleum costs more initially than its usual rival, vinyl flooring, it’s far more durable and cost-effective in the long run. A good quality vinyl floor will last around 15 years, but a linoleum floor can easily last 40 years! Plus, linoleum delivers health and environmental advantages that vinyl flooring can’t touch. More about those later. First, I will briefly look at the origins and history of linoleum – an interior material that was invented as the result of a fortunate industrial accident.

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders
Marmoleum borders

Linoleum was invented in 1860 when an Englishman named Frederick Walton failed to seal the linseed oil he was using to thin his paint. Walter was a manufacturer of a rubber flooring called Kamptulicon – a covering that was a cheaper alternative to the wood, tile, and stone floors of the time. Walton was interested in finding something cheaper and more attractive than Kamptulicon. When his linseed oil was exposed to the air overnight, a skin developed on top of it, and he wondered if that film might be useful as a flooring material. He began tinkering.

Walton invented a new floor covering and named it “linoleum” by combining to two Latin words: “linum” which means linseed and “oleum” which means oil. He received patents in 1890 and 1894 for it. Walton’s “floor cloths” were made from oxidized linseed oil, pine resin, and granulated cork on a hessian (hemp) backing. In 1868, Walton established a factory in Staines, England and was soon exporting to Europe and the US. By 1877, Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the linoleum capital of the world, with six manufacturers in that one town.

The first US company opened on Staten Island in 1877. In 1887, Scotsman Sir Michael Nairn founded another company that in time became Congoleum.

The popularity of linoleum floors continued to grow for decades. It was widely used in homes, and also in schools and hospitals. The lino floors installed in the thousands of schools built for the post-World-War-II Baby Boom crowd definitely stood up to traffic. Having visited many aging primary schools, I can testify that many of them still remain serviceable.

By the 1960’s, vinyl flooring became widely available, and linoleum faded from vogue. Armstrong, which had produced enough linoleum to pave a six-foot path to the moon and circle it four times, stopped manufacturing linoleum for a period of 25 years.

Some US companies even allowed their patents to lapse, an oversight that they came to regret decades later when ecological concerns prompted renewed interest in linoleum not only for flooring, but also for wainscoting, counters, and tabletops.

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

Linoleum and vinyl floors share some common characteristics and are considered as alternatives in similar installations. Along with cork, vinyl and linoleum are classed as “resilient floors.” This means that they are somewhat springy, will absorb impact and can “bounce back” to their original shape. (Within limits, however. High heels are the enemy of all floors, and because of the extreme pressure they exert in a small area, they can permanently dent any flooring material other than ceramic tile or stone.)

While these two types of flooring look and feel similar, I think that in terms of environmental impact and personal health, there’s not much of a contest between them. Both are available in a wide range of colors and patterns, and both are produced in sheet and tile forms. Both are good choices for people with dust allergies because smooth flooring, in contrast to carpeting, does not provide a good habitat for dust mites. But each has advantages and drawbacks. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons for linoleum and vinyl:

  • Linoleum is the green choice. Its ingredients make it recyclable and biodegradable.
  • Linoleum is far more durable. A linoleum floor will last two to three times as long as a vinyl floor. The pattern on a vinyl floor is printed on the surface and then covered with a clear “wear” layer. But both the outer wear and the pattern layers are relatively thin and can wear through, showing obvious abrasion in high-traffic areas. By contrast, the color in linoleum flooring goes all the way through. This means that the pattern on a linoleum floor cannot wear away.
  • Linoleum initially costs more, but is cheaper over the long run. Linoleum flooring squares run $6-$8 each while sheet vinyl runs $1-$5 per square foot and sheet-style linoleum costs about the same as high-end vinyl sheet flooring. Installation for linoleum may also be a bit higher. But when you’re figuring the lifetime cost of your flooring, double the price of that vinyl floor, because you’re going to have buy and install two of them during the lifetime of the linoleum floor.
  • There’s a lot of waste with vinyl flooring, and that runs up the cost. To get a seamless installation, you must often buy far more than you need. This is because the width of the sheet often will cause seams to fall in the wrong places.

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    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”
  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

Since Frederick Walton’s time, the recipe for making linoleum has improved, but the ingredients haven’t changed much.

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat
Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

Contemporary linoleum contains cork powder for bounce and resilience, resins (which come from pine sap), wood flour, and limestone dust for hardness. Various pigments – which may or may not qualify as being green, depending on the manufacturer – are added to create pattern and color.

The basic ingredient is still linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, 80 percent of which comes from Canada, the world’s leading flax grower. To create flooring, linseed oil is oxidized. Other ingredients are then added, making a thick paste called linoleum cement. This is heated until it becomes spongy. Then it’s ground up, mixed with wood flour and other ingredients, applied to a foundation and rolled smooth. It is seasoned in drying rooms, then cured and hardened under ultraviolet light.

After you get it and expose it to light, linoleum will “amber”, subtly changing its color and yellowing slightly. This is most noticeable with white, off-white and light-colored floors. You can preview the effect of ambering, and see how your floor will look permanently, by placing a sample of the flooring in a window in the sun for an hour or so before installation.

Here, as always, are some links that will help you learn more about linoleum and see what’s available.

Links for Linoleum

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school28A couple years ago, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. This was the school I attended during the Eisenhower years – which seemed to last forever! Although Montview has been extensively remodeled, some of the original linoleum floors are still in place and still serviceable.

I remember the floor pattern well because I spent the better part of the third grade on crutches due to a ski injury. During the four months I waited for my broken leg to heal, I had to pay particular attention to where I placed my crutches, avoiding slippery puddles from melding snow. I can close my eyes and visualize many of the floor surfaces to this day!

Those floors didn’t look a bit like the fun and fanciful Forbo Marmoleum flooring shown here, but I bet the kids who play on this floor will remember it – and it may still be there when they come back to visit with their grandchildren in tow.

Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay
Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles –  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile
Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960’s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009”, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural
Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.
Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis
  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.
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Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.


To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)

Up On the (Living) Roof

“Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof.” It’s right where the Drifters said it would be: Up on the roof!

In town park from the Girls Gone Green blog
In-town rooftop park; photo from Jubie's "This Girl's Gone Green" blog

This week’s post explores green roofs – planted roofs that offer huge benefits by stemming storm water runoff, cutting heating and air conditioning bills, and reducing air and noise pollution. Green roofs are fine places for birds, butterflies and bipedal buddies to visit. Chefs too; at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, the roof of the Environmental Sciences building grows vegetables that are served in a university cafe called the Seasoned Spoon.

I fondly recall sitting on a roof outside my rented room above 13th Street in Boulder to study while I was an undergrad. Roofs were a popular student perch then, possibly because when I went to college in the 1970’s, neither dorms nor rental houses in Colorado were equipped with air conditioning. In the breeze under a shady, overhanging tree was the best place to sit and read when the mercury started to edge up.

Despite the recent eco vogue that has made green roofs au courant – topping buildings from Singapore to Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford’s original River Rouge Truck plant now sports a 10-acre vegetated roof – grassy roofs are really old hat. More than a century ago, high plains settlers were nicknamed “sodbusters” both because of their work and their built-into-the-prairie housing. And grass-covered roofs were venerable even then.

Norwegians and Icelanders were building green roofs three and four centuries ago! The vegetation that kept their houses warm during the long Scandinavian winters could also feed the goat during the summer. Some of those Nordic houses are still intact. An Icelandic house, standing in its original spot, can be seen at the end of this blog. A number of grass-roofed historic houses have been saved and moved to cultural museums such as the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo. Interestingly enough, the Norsk Folkemuseum’s website notes that when tile began to be produced locally, sod roofs became unfashionable. As villagers replaced their roofs, they discovered that “tile roofs do not insulate as well as sod roofs and many people put in paneled ceilings for warmth.”

Why Green Roofs are Cooler – Literally

EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia
EPA infrared photo shows heat island effect in Atlanta, Georgia

When I stepped out of my window onto the roof to study during my college days, I usually threw a bath towel out first. In bare feet, that roof was often too hot to touch.

A black tar and asphalt roof can push the mercury up as high as 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and accumulated acres of black roofs and pavement lead to a phenomenon called the “Urban Heat Island” effect. Because dark surfaces concentrate and reflect heat, cities are commonly 6 to 10 degrees warmer than green areas around their perimeters. No wonder that by July, we urban dwellers are, to paraphrase the Lovin’ Spoonful, “people lookin’ half dead, walkin’ on a sidewalk hotter than a matchhead.”

Because it gets so darn hot in the summer in the city, one-sixth of all electricity consumed in the US goes to cool buildings. That causes air conditioners to spew out exhaust, and ironically, more heat. It’s a vicious circle that, according to the EPA, leads to:

  • Increased energy consumption – Higher temperatures in summer increase energy demand for cooling and add pressure to the electricity grid during peak periods.
  • Elevated emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases – Increasing energy demand generally results in greater emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Higher air temperatures also promote the formation of ground-level ozone.
  • Compromised human health and comfort – Warmer days and nights, along with higher air pollution levels, can contribute to general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, heat cramps and exhaustion, non-fatal heat stroke, and heat-related mortality.
  • Impaired water quality – Hot pavement and rooftop surfaces transfer their excess heat to storm water, which then drains into storm sewers and raises water temperatures as it is released into streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Rapid temperature changes can be stressful to aquatic ecosystem.

Green Roofs in the Birthplace of the Skyscraper

In 2000, a demonstration rooftop garden was planted atop Chicago’s 11-story City Hall. Since then, the birthplace of the skyscraper has been sprouting green roofs right and left. Partly because of $5,000 grants that the City awarded to dozens of residential and small commercial projects, Chicago is home to more green roofs than any other US city.

Green roof on Chicago City Hall
Green roof on Chicago City Hall

Chi-Town’s City Hall garden mitigates heat island effect by replacing a black tar roof with greenery. The garden absorbs less solar heat and manages to keep City Hall cooler, using less air conditioning and energy. Temperature differences between the green roof and the black roof on the nearby County Building have proved impressive. For example, on August 9, 2001, at 1:45 pm, when the temperature was in the 90’s, the thermometers read:

  • City Hall Roof (paved area) 126 – 130 F, (planted area) 91 – 119 F
  • County Roof (black tar) 169 F

City Hall’s roof garden holds more than 100 species of plants that have been selected for the sunny rooftop environment, plants that can handle the windy, arid conditions common in Chicago. In addition to shrubs and vines, two trees also live on the roof. Most of the greenery there consists of prairie plants native to the region. Thanks to all the vegetation, the roof garden can soak up 75% of a one-inch rainfall before storm water runs over into the sewers. In addition, the plants filter the air, improving air quality by using excess carbon dioxide to produce oxygen.

Over its first five years, the roof saved the City about $25,000 in energy costs, a saving due to shading, insulation and evapo-transpiration effects. (Evapo-transpiration occurs when plants secrete or “transpire” water through pores in their leaves.) The key features that affect the roof’s energy use include an increased layer of insulation under the main roof, plants and walkways that cover 20,300 square feet, and an irrigation system that provides adequate water to the plants.

The Academy Comes Alive in San Francisco

The checkerspot butterfly, a threatened species, has found a friendly habitat on the green roof of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco
The checkerspot butterfly is one of two threatened species that have lost habitat and are slated to find a home on the green roof of the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco – which calls itself the “greenest museum in the world – is a new LEED platinum-rated building that is topped by a 2.5 acre green roof, the largest green roof of any natural history museum in the world. It covers 197,000 square feet, is 6-7 inches thick, and cost $17 per square foot. The roof retains 2 million gallons of rainwater, preventing 70% of it from running off and flooding city drains. The water that does run off the roof is collected in cisterns in the basement. It’s used to irrigate the roof’s plants, nine indigenous species and the most concentrated area of native wildflowers in the city.

The Academy’s roof is visually arresting. Designed by Renzo Piano, it rolls in imitation of the Bay Area’s coastal hills. That sloping shape presented some technical challenges that were solved by the development of something called the BioTray®, a biodegradable, reinforced, modular plant propagation tray made from rapidly renewable coconut coir fibers. The tray holds the growing medium in place while the plants put down roots and later helps the plants to hang onto water.

According to the museum’s website, this unusual roof also provides thermal comfort inside the museum:

The steep slopes of the roof act as a natural ventilation and cooling system. Fresh air, cooled by the vegetated surface, is funneled into the entry plaza, whose retractable skylights peel back to allow cool air to sink into the building to offset mechanical cooling demand with natural ventilation. Additionally, the thermal mass, surface moisture, and insulation in the roof assembly are expected to maintain the building’s interior an average of 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof would.

The Academy’s new home earned the United States Green Building Council’s platinum rating, the highest possible LEED sustainable building rating. The museum’s commitment to sustainability is evident at every turn, from the bike racks and rechargeable vehicle stations out front to the solar cells on top. Down below, radiant heating provides warmth from beneath the floors. The museum’s designers even thought about what’s inside the walls; the insulation was made from recycled denim!

Details at the Root of the Matter

Green roof on university in Singapore
Green roof on School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore

Whether a vegetated roof sits atop a house, a library, a factory, a school or even a church, and whether it’s one story in height or hundreds of feet above the ground, the details of construction and maintenance differ very little.

Green roofs come in two general varieties: shallower “extensive” roofs and thick “intensive” roofs that can support deep-rooted plants and even trees. Extensive roofs can cost as little as $7 a square foot but more commonly run $10-15 per square foot. An intensive roof runs around $15-$25 per square foot.

An extensive green roof may weigh no more than a slate roof (which is still pretty darn heavy), but an intensive roof is a hugely weighty matter. A special structural design is needed to support the weight of the growing matrix plus plants and water.

From the structural framing up, a green roof is an open-faced Dagwood sandwich: there’s a thermal insulation layer, a waterproof membrane, a drainage layer, a filter layer, and then the growing medium, which is not just soil, because plain old dirt would weigh too much. The plants are the garni on top. (Note: The durability of the waterproof membrane is important. I see from the online faculty meeting notes at Trent University that after 10 years, the membrane on the green roof on the Environmental Sciences Building “is shot” and needs to be replaced.) A living roof may be constructed layer by layer from scratch, or it may be constructed using a modular green roof system. Several of those can be located using the links below.

Like standard gardens, vegetated roofs require maintenance. How much and how often depends on what kind of plants you choose and how hardy they are in the local climate. A zeroscaped roof, which requires water only when the young plants are establishing their roots, may need tending only once a year. A roof planted with vegetables may need daily attention, which means that the roof will be need to be planned not only with the garden in mind, but also with the expectation that the roof must provide access and support for frequent foot traffic. After all, people are going to want to eat those strawberries when they ripen!

To Learn More

Icelandic
Traditional green roofed house in Iceland

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Up on the Roof

When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

When I come home feelin’ tired and beat
I go up where the air is fresh and sweet (up on the roof)
I get away from the hustling crowd
And all that rat-race noise down in the street (up on the roof)
On the roof, the only place I know
Where you just have to wish to make it so
Let’s go up on the roof (up on the roof).

At night the stars put on a show for free
And, darling, you can share it all with me

Right smack dab in the middle of town
I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof
And if this world starts getting you down
There’s room enough for two
Up on the roof…!

– Gerry Goffin and Carole King

Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection
Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.
Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from homehardwareplus.com, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.
Eco: This interior door handle, from homehardwareplus.com, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone – the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware
Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware
Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine
Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells
Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.

Resources

Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware
Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.
  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass – a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles – the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch– Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel – a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • MyKnobs.com – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells – knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs

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Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick
At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!


– Shel Silverstein