In January of this year I had the honor of participating in a design competition hosted by the City of Shaker Heights. Twelve teams submitted conceptual drawings for infill lots in the Moreland Heights neighborhood. The city was looking for proposals that emphasize energy efficiency with net zero ready or passive design, that fit into traditional neighborhoods, and incorporate intergenerational accessibility. I partnered with Bliss & Company developers and builders to create a design based on the historic Cleveland Double. We provided an accessible home on the first floor for use by those wanting to age in place, and a larger two story unit above it. This design also works well for home based businesses and artists’ studios. Both units have open floor plans, with neighborhood-building front porches and plenty of natural light from the south facing windows. We are looking forward to the opportunity to build this home or similar ones as Northeast Ohio takes advantage of the opportunity to high performance homes with modern amenities on the open lots in our established neighborhoods. You can see the floor plans and full description of the project here:Hallie and Bliss and Shaker Design Competition
As I write this I am sitting in a sunlit courtyard with early spring flowers in bloom, listening to the birds singing. Besides these natural sources of beauty, the surrounding building walls create a separation from the world outside, encouraging reflection. There are three benches available, to make it a comfortable place to sit. There is a tree in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by a ring of stones, and a stone path gently curving around the ring. These elements create a sense of intention for the space, despite
the numerous weeds that are also enjoying the warmer weather. Without them, the space would look cluttered and unkempt, rather than beautiful.
The architecture of this space creates delight. In fact, the ancient Greeks said all buildings should provide three things: strength, usefulness, and delight. It’s not an accident that I am enjoying sitting here so much. The designers of this space took the time to think about what the space would be like and what they could add (or leave out) to make it better. The good news is that you can add to your delight in your own home too. All it takes is some planning, a little creativity, and perhaps some professional advice. Do you have a beautiful view that you could see better with a well placed window? Do you have a collection stuffed in a corner that you could celebrate with a place of its own? A back patio that would feel more comfortable with a trellis or low wall to make it feel sheltered, rather than just some pavement in the grass? Often, you can use elements that you need for “functional” purposes to provide delight too. The garden shed you need for the lawn mower can provide part of the enclosure for the back patio. The window you need for an emergency exit in the bedroom can be placed so you are walking towards light when you enter the room. So when you make changes to your home, remember that every functional improvement is also an opportunity to add Delight.
One of the most popular residential building styles in the United States, a Colonial style home is a favourite among American families. With the characteristic rectangular shape, two-storey structure, wood facade, and shuttered windows, the brand-new home that you’ll tour in this ideabook is an excellent example of familiar style. Designed by Hallie Bowie, the architect and founder of New Leaf Home Design, this practical, pleasing, and highly functional family home is located in Shaker Heights, a suburb very close to Cleveland, Ohio. All said, it’s about as all-American as it gets: this home’s setting in America’s heartland provides the perfect stage for the traditional Colonial elements found throughout the design of the house.
High quality interior
The architect’s philosophy revolves around quality design and quality materials, believing these elements of home building to be ultimately more important than sheer square footage, in terms of being able to enjoy your home. In this interior, the emphasis on quality is clear: hardwood floors are topped with luxurious woven rugs, and a fireplace with a high quality brick and wood construction occupies the focal point of the room. Special attention has also been given to the transition between rooms; while the home maintains the classic divided room layout typical of Colonial architecture, they’ve been given a dose of contemporary convenience with the addition of sturdy wooden sliding doors.
Moderation is key
In a vision as familiar as the friendly white porch, this dining room maintains a traditional layout defined by logic and symmetry. A moderate approach has been taken in all rooms of the home, but in this laid-back room it becomes especially evident, as the furniture and decor makes a modest, less-is-more statement that prizes familiar traditions, great food, and healthy relationships over the presence of elaborate and decorative “stuff”.
Serious about cooking
This home is clearly designed with a busy family lifestyle at the forefront. This spacious kitchen provides a well-equipped and accessible space for cooking up a storm, and the open floor plan makes supervising the kids during meal prep an easier task. The room still draws inspiration from history (note the farm sink, white wooden cabinets, and moulding on the ceiling), but modernity makes an intervention for the sake of convenience (open floor plan, stainless steel appliances). Overall, the space takes on an energizing and optimistic appearance with its yellow walls, making the atmosphere all the more hospitable.
Reading this book had been on my list for a while, partly because it got a good deal of attention from USA Today, NPR and many other places, and partly because I went to high school with the author, Atul Gawande. It deals specifically with how checklists can improve the quality of medical care, but it applies to any complex process. You would think that once something becomes too complex, a checklist might become too inflexible and limited to be useful. Atul shows that it’s precisely these complex services, which are increasingly difficult to deliver consistently and correctly using human memory alone, that can get the most benefit from a good checklist. In fact, the practice of making life-saving checklists got its start because the B-17 aircraft “was too complicated to be left to the memory of any one person, however expert”.
But there are good checklists and there are not-really-useful-at-all checklists.
Make priorities clearer
Prompt people to function better as a team
Turn people’s brains on, rather than trying to think for them
Are easy to use even in the most difficult situations
The process of designing and building a new home or home renovation is very complex and goes best when the homeowner, architect, contractor, and all of the trades work together as a team- a great situation for a good checklist. So 2014 is the year New Leaf gets intentional about creating and using good checklists!
Do you have any resolutions for your house this year? Whether you are interested in a small renovation or a whole new house, I’ll be glad to help you create a good checklist (and some great drawings and 3D CAD images) to turn your dreams into reality! Give me a call at (330)329-6901, or email me at Hallie@NewLeafHomeDesign.com
This is a great time of year to see whether you could lower your heating bills by adding insulation. If you can see the pattern of your roof rafters in the snow on your roof, or if you have a lot of icicles, chances are you would benefit from having more insulation in your attic. Both are signs that heat escaping through your roof is melting the snow. Current code calls for at least 12” of cellulose or fiberglass insulation. If you add more insulation, remember to check for air leaks first!
“Someone thought those ceiling beams were beautiful. It would not have been me.” Debra Silber wrote this recently in an article for “Fine Homebuilding” magazine on what makes a house beautiful. And while I agreed with most of the article, I disagreed with her comment about the ugly ceiling beams. I am confident that no one ever really looked at them and said “these are beautiful”. So why were they there?
I think the home owner who added those ceiling beams liked the idea of them. They had seen real timber frame beams they loved, and wanted to re-create that look in their own home. So their contractor dutifully went out and found some economical “beams” he could add to the existing ceiling. They had the same dimensions as a real wood beam, were painted a similar brown color, and even had a similar texture. But they weren’t beautiful. Their color and texture didn’t have the complexity of real wood; they weren’t installed with the craftsmanship of timber frame joinery; they weren’t part of a visible skeleton expressing the mathematics of the structural system supporting the house and its occupants. They weren’t reminders of the forests that had been on the site before the house was built. They just looked like they were trying to be something they weren’t.
Building a house is like cooking. Some basic ingredients can provide sustenance, but it may not be very appetizing. A cook using a good recipe can take those same ingredients and turn them into something you would be happy to eat. But to come up with the recipe, or better yet to actually prepare a gourmet meal, you need a chef: someone who is fascinated by flavors and the foods that create them; someone who has spent years studying cooking; someone who knows the difference between a shallot and an onion.
That’s what an architect provides when you are building or remodeling your home: someone who is analyzing the elements that create the “flavors” of a house nearly every time she walks into, or even drives past one. An architect would have been able to tell the family considering those ceiling beams they probably weren’t going to be happy with them. She could have helped them to understand the difference between the beautiful beams they had admired and the faux beams they were considering. And she could have helped them find a way to accomplish their real goal- getting a more beautiful space- in a way that was appropriate to their house and their tastes and that fit their budget. A contractor can build an addition or new house, or renovate an existing one, but he isn’t going to spend much time stopping to look at the design and ask “Is this the best way to do this, or is there a better or more beautiful solution?” A contractor’s passion is in building, not designing.
Once you are living in your new or remodeled home, you will notice if there is enough natural light. You’ll notice if the snow builds up in front of the front door. You’ll notice if you have to walk past the dirty laundry every time you come in from the garage. You’ll notice if you have ice dams every winter. And you’ll notice whether or not you find your home beautiful. But you may not notice these things when you look at drawings of the house. You may not even know to ask about them. That’s okay. Most of us aren’t gourmet chefs either. When you pick out a cookbook, or choose someone to cater an important event, you rely on people who are passionate about food. So when you design your home, work with someone who is passionate about beautiful homes. Work with someone who walks into a room and notices where the light is coming from, the use of materials and texture, the use of symmetry or asymmetry, how the circulation works, the scale of the space. Work with an architect and you won’t end up with not-so-beautiful beams no one ever really looked at or thought about until after they were installed. In their place you will have thoughtfully designed elements that add to your enjoyment of your home.
Darling-Wright House by Greene & Greene
|More Space without Adding On
This project is proof you can make your home look and live bigger without adding any square footage. Located in one of Highland Square’s multi-story condominium buildings, adding on wasn’t an option for this home. So instead of adding space, we used three strategies to make the space we had work better:
So just because your options are limited when it comes to adding on, it doesn’t mean you can’t find the space you need. New Leaf Home Design can help your home feel bigger and work better for you!
Now that it’s almost November, you’ve probably spent some time getting your yard ready for winter by raking leaves, putting the gardens to bed, and maybe putting away some outdoor furniture. But before you get too comfy with that cup of hot chocolate, you’ll want to make sure your house is ready for winter. And fall is the best time to start planning that renovation or addition you are thinking about for next spring. I’ll give you a few tips on things you can do to winterize your home.
Home Winterization Checklist
Here are a few things you can do so your house is ready for the cold, and keeps you nice and cozy in the next few months. If you’d like to look at a more comprehensive list, check
Schedule a Home Energy audit. This is tops on my list for a reason. An audit is a great way to find out the best ways you can make your particular home more efficient. An auditor can help you determine which improvements have the best return on investment, helping you save on your heating bills this winter, and on air conditioning next summer. Instead of guessing what to do, an auditor will use special equipment like a blower door and infra-red camera to see where your house is losing energy. And now is a great time to get an audit. Dominion East Ohio is offering audits for $50 through their Home Performance with Energy Star Program. Find out more at:
Or you can look for a certified auditor through the Building Performance Institute at
Storm Windows: put them in or close them up. Storm windows do a good job of making older windows more energy efficient, but they only work if they are closed! Take some time and go around your house to make sure they are in place.
Put in a clean furnace filter. Your furnace will run more efficiently with a clean filter.
Turn off your exterior faucets. Most outside hose bibs need to be turned off at the shut off valve inside the house to protect the pipes from getting damaged by freezing. Even if you have “frost free” hose bibs, you still need to make sure you have disconnected your hoses. And if you have a rain barrel, be sure to drain it and disconnect it from your downspouts!
Clean your gutters. Wet leaves add a lot of weight to your gutters and add to the risk of damage from ice. Overflowing gutters also mean you have more water against your basement walls, which can lead to a damp or wet basement.
Check your fireplace damper. Your damper needs to be open while a fire is burning, but after that it should be closed to keep the heated air in your home from going up the chimney. You may even want to consider a “chimney balloon” to create a tighter seal in the flue.
Who do you call? Where do you start? Your choice of contractor is an important one, and you have a lot of companies to choose from. How do you narrow down the choices and finally make a selection? There are no magic answers, but over the years I’ve come up with some guidelines to share with my clients.
Who can I call?
You’ll probably start by searching the internet, but you may find the web isn’t as useful for finding a contractor as it is for finding a restaurant. There are a number of reasons for this. Location will be less important in choosing a contractor, since most are willing to travel up to about an hour for a project they want to do. You can find listings and reviews for contractors on sites like Home Advisor and Houzz, but this isn’t too much better than an old fashioned phone book. Reviews are nice, but until you know which contractors have the right kind of experience for your project they aren’t that helpful. A search will typically list companies that do only small projects like bathroom renovations right next to ones who do large additions and whole house renovations. The nature of the business also means that some of the best craftsmen are very small operations, without staff dedicated to optimizing search engine rankings, or even a website. Contractors who are good enough to get lots of referrals they may not need to have a strong web presence.
So recommendations are a good selection tool. See who your friends and neighbors have used in the past, and ask your architect for suggestions. Professional association membership lists can be helpful too. Contractors who belong to the local Home Builders Association (HBA) or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are more likely to be stable companies with experience. These organizations offer certification programs that provide additional evidence of professional expertise. You can find lists of membership for the Summit and Portage County Home Builders Association at Akron HBA & Remodel With Confidence, and for NARI at www.nari.org/consumers/.
Next you’ll want to find out what you can about the contractors you have recommendations for. Websites may be helpful here, but go ahead and pick up the phone for the companies who don’t have good websites. You’ll want to know how long the company has been in business, whether they have done other projects similar to yours, whether they have a commitment to sustainability similar to your own, and what their Better Business Bureau rating is. You can check a company’s BBB history at Akron BBB.
Check their References! Talking to past clients is an excellent and important way to find out what it will be like working with a company. This is worth doing even if the references are provided by the contractor. If the best references they can provide are lukewarm in their enthusiasm, they may not have any big fans. And it will help you to learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and whether they are likely to be as good a fit for you as they were for them. Was the project similar in scope to what you are planning? Were they happy with the quality of the work? Was the project finished on time and within budget? Did the process go smoothly? If you can speak directly with the references you will learn more than you could from an email exchange.
Now I have an appointment, what should I ask?
Meeting with a contractor in person is an important part of the selection process, and you will want to meet with at least three. Talking with several people will help you build confidence in your choice, which will help the construction process go more smoothly. For smaller projects, you may be able to select a contractor based on just one meeting with them. For a more major renovation or new home, a first meeting is primarily about getting to know who the contractor is, what kind of work they have experience in, how they run their projects, and whether they would be interested in working on your project. Knowing when you hope to start construction is important here, because other project commitments could affect whether they can include your project in their schedule.
Having design drawings for this meeting can be an advantage too. You can learn a lot from talking through a project with a contractor- both about them and about some of the issues you may face during construction. If you rely on verbal, or even written, descriptions of what you hope to do it will be more difficult to know if different contractors understand the project in the same way. Even rough schematic design drawings can help to improve communication.
Bids versus Estimates, and should I get three bids?
Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but Webster’s sees them as different. A bid is a commitment on the part of a contractor to complete a project for a specific amount of payment, provided the scope of work doesn’t change and unexpected conditions aren’t discovered during construction. An estimate is a rough idea of what a project will cost, without a specific commitment to complete work for that price. Before you start work, you will likely want to have a firm number for the cost of the work. But should you get several bids and compare them before selecting a contractor?
Just after I finished college I worked at a firm that did municipal work that required three bids. The Construction Documents for those projects were very descriptive of what was expected. Besides extensive drawings with lots of details, they included 2” thick written specifications describing most every item that would need to be purchased, installed, or applied for the project. Often public entities were required to take the lowest bid. This process did not always result in a smooth construction experience, or even necessarily provide the lowest end cost. Low bidders would often be more likely to find reasons for change orders to add to the cost of their original bid.
For smaller projects where the scope of work is easy to define, it may make sense to get competitive bids. But for larger residential work, it’s difficult to get an “apples to apples” price even if you have extensive detailed specifications. The experience a contractor brings to a project, their level of craftsmanship, how quickly they can complete construction, and their willingness to stand behind their work after they are done all affect the value. These things are all very difficult to specify when you ask for bids.
That said, being comfortable with your contractor is very important, so if getting multiple bids makes you the most comfortable, then you should go ahead and get them. You and the contractor will be happiest in the long run when you start the process with confidence in the company you have chosen to work with. Just don’t assume that you will want to choose the lowest bidder. Three bids are often suggested as a good number because they give you an idea of what an “average” price is. If all the bids are similar, that’s a good sign. If one is really high or really low compared to the other two, you may not want to choose that company. And remember to pay attention to their qualifications too.
Getting more than three bids can be counterproductive. For a large project a detailed bid takes a LOT of work on the contractor’s part. If they don’t think they have a reasonable chance of getting the work, they are apt to bid high enough to cover their bases without sharpening their pencil. Worse yet, if a contractor really needs the work they may bid low enough so they feel sure of getting the project, but then may not be able to finish!
The Team Approach
You may want to start a partnership with your contractor even before you start design. Many sustainable certification systems, such as LEED, require that the owner, architect, and contractor are all involved from the very beginning. In order to get a Net Zero, PassiveHaus, or other super-high performance home, it is essential to have a contractor who has the training and commitment to meet rigorous air sealing and other sustainability goals. For these projects, you will want to choose a contractor as soon as possible to meet your budget, sustainability, and architectural goals. But no matter the size or scope of your project, you want a contractor who will be your partner in the construction process.
If you are just starting to think about a project things can seem a little overwhelming. Where do you even begin? Fortunately, your architect has been here before. We even have a name for this phase, where you may not have a clear idea of what the project should look like. It’s called Programming. At New Leaf Home Design, the programming process starts at our very first meeting, when you begin describing the big picture of what you want to accomplish. Then we typically have a second meeting where I ask for more specifics. As we are talking, you may feel like you are giving me a lot to absorb, but that’s okay! We will probably also jump around from topic to topic, and that’s also okay. I’ll get it organized as I am typing it up for the written program, which you’ll have a chance to review before I start working on drawings. So what can you do to prepare for these first meetings? You don’t really need anything besides the ideas already in your head, but here are a couple of tips.
*Focus on what YOU want
One of the obstacles in planning a home improvement project or new home is the paralysis of possibilities. There is plenty of design advice available these days, from HGTV, Houzz and other websites, and stacks of magazines. In some ways, all this information can make it harder to get started. “Should I use a recycled glass countertop or stick with laminate? Trade Grandma’s table for a breakfast bar around a giant kitchen island?” You want to make your house a more functional and beautiful place for your family to live, not live up to some magazine’s image of what a house should be like. Don’t worry too much about the mythical “resale family” either. If you are renovating or adding on to your home, you probably plan to be there for several more years, so do what you want. It is hard to predict what the resale family will be like. For instance, if you put in a bathtub because you assume that it is better for resale even though you wanted a shower, you won’t be as happy, and you may find the next family would have preferred a shower too.
*Focus on Activities and Imagine Living in your New Spaces
The next step is to think about the activities you’d like to do in your renovated or new home. You could start with a problem like “the dining room is too cramped and isolated from the Kitchen”, and then move on to a description of what you’d like it to be like to sit in the renovated dining room: “We’d like to be able to have 5 people sit at the table on a daily basis, and up to 10 for special occasions. We’d like to be able to talk with whoever is in the Kitchen, and also be able to see the birdfeeder in the backyard. And we want to be able to display our collection of Fiesta dishes.” If you enjoy looking through home magazines or browsing Houzz, saving photos you like can be helpful. They can help to communicate a vision of what you like, even if you aren’t sure how those pictures could apply to your house. Your architect may be able to see connections between the pictures, like the fact that all of the rooms you like in magazines have natural light from at least two directions, or that you prefer painted trim to natural woodwork.
Talk it Through with your Architect
Writing down information yourself is a great start, but talking with your architect can help you to identify more problems and assets, and think through the spaces even better than you could on your own. She can ask questions about issues you might not have thought of: “Do you want wall space over the desk for shelving, or would you rather have a view through here to the living room?” “Where do you keep your compost now? Would it be helpful to get it off of the kitchen counter so you have more work area?” In fact, asking good questions is one of the most important things an architect does.
When you are choosing your archtiect, be sure you are comfortable talking with her and feel that she is listening to what you want. When you work with a professional who is a good listener, you have more control over your project than if you tried to do everything yourself. She will assemble your ideas so you can see how all the pieces fit together. And that makes the completed project look and work even better!