Home Design Blog

The Home Design Blog

Welcome to the Home Design Blog where you can find out what's new and interesting in the world of home design ideas and products, as well as what's new at HomeStyleChoices.com.

Yours truly (that publisher guy) is the one pulling the levers behind the curtain who's responsible for the ramblings on this page.

Besides the blog posts below check out this site's top-visited pages (see the links on at the right) or visit the other pages on the site using the navigation column on the left.

Remodel (AKA Change It Up) For Less Than You Think

It's a new year and many of you would like to finally make those changes to the house. But let's be honest. Those remodeling dreams don't always square well with the remodeling budget. Despite what you see in those "what it costs to remodel" magazine articles, most of the examples just aren't realistic in my opinion. That's the bad news.

Now here's the good news: you can change your home for the better without spending a fortune. Just be sure to maintain some realism; you're not going to build that 300 square foot addition for $10,000. But it's not an all-or-nothing deal either.

So how do you make some positive changes to your house when you're not holding the winning Powerball number? Let's take a closer look:

Strategy 1 - Find out how much your dreams will cost. Do that by actually engaging several contractors and discussing your plans. It's much easier and fruitful if you have plans in hand or a really good itemized list of what you want. Vague notions will result in wild variability as far as quotes go because each contractor will be essentially guessing at what you want. Once you have some idea what it will cost, you're better equipped to move ahead or scale back. That's actionable information.

Strategy 2 - Don't overlook cosmetic changes. You'd be surprised what new paint, carpet (or other type of flooring), fixtures and cabinet hardware can achieve. I just revamped my basement with new carpet, fresh paint and new trim. Granted, I did the painting and trim work myself but it wasn't that difficult. In addition I added a few new pieces of furniture from Ikea. Total cost was around $5000. The space looks totally different, much more inviting and satisfying.

Strategy 3 - Do it yourself and save. I know you've heard that before but let's face it: it helps. I'm looking at two original (read that as very tired) bathrooms on my second level that need help - desperately. But with two kids in college, I'm pretty sure the majority of the work will be the result of my own hands. Learn how to tile, replace a sink, install new fixtures and a new toilet. I remodeled my powder room 20 years ago before I ever had any remodeling experience whatsoever. And that was before the internet and HGTV. I bought remodeling how-to books and taught myself. I'm sure I saved beaucoup bucks compared to having it done professionally.

Don't let another year slide by without moving forward on those home improvements. Make a resolution to take the next step toward your remodeling goal. It may not be the grand plan, but there are things you can do. There's always a way.

Climate Change - And Your Home

Just like religion and politics, the topic of climate change could be considered one of those taboo topics you don't bring up in conversation. There are those who believe it's real and happening now. There are also some who will more easily swear Elvis lives next door before they admit to the fact that our environment is changing. I'll go on record to say that I'm a believer (in climate change, that is).

Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, there's no denying that the weather can be weird and wacky sometimes, and it can take a toll on your home. Is your house prepared?

I live in Minnesota, and those in the meteorological know say that our climate has already started to change. It's becoming characterized by more extremes, from one end of the spectrum to the other. Instead of moderate rainfall that's spread out over several months, we're evolving into a land of micro-droughts followed by the equivalent of a month's worth of rain in the span of several days or even hours.

Last year my own home experienced that extreme in the form of record rainfall, which for the first time in 21 years, penetrated my basement. I now had a dilemma on my hands. Do I roll the dice, fix what's damaged and just chalk it up to a "hundred year rainstorm"? Or is this a result of how my climate is changing, and could this happen again?

Our once-livable basement is no longer "finished", and in the process of being "finished again." However I'm not a gambler, particularly when I'm spending a semester's worth of college tuition to make our basement whole again. In short, I'm installing a water mitigation system, so I'm not biting my nails the next time it rains for 40 days and nights.

Who's to say if we'll get 10 inches of rain in a two-day span anytime soon. That doesn't concern me. I now have some peace of mind knowing that I've equipped my home to withstand some of the conditions that Mother Nature might throw at it. My basement seemed immune to flooding for 21 years and presumably many years before that. But I've seen how our weather has changed and I'm not taking any chances.

How about your home? If you're planning a remodel, are there any aspects of the renovation that might be affected by your environment (basements, siding, grading, HVAC)? Regardless of where you stand on climate change, making your home more resilient to the effects of your particular environment is definitely something to consider. It's a smart decision, not only to protect your investment, but for peace of mind too.

Avoid Dumb Faucet Choices

The other day I came across a bathroom faucet installation that was both puzzling and frustrating at the same time. Take a look at the picture and see if you can determine why.

I'm not one of those guys who has "hands the size of hams", yet I could barely fit my dirty mitts under the faucet. Why? Because the faucet's reach barely made it past the back edge of the sink.

Truth be told, this was a hotel sink, and a pretty marginal hotel to boot. That fact alone might be one of the reasons for the design blunder. Whoever was in charge of choosing the fixtures was asleep at the wheel.

For those of you choosing a bathroom faucet, or even a kitchen faucet for that matter, do yourself a big favor and pay attention to its reach, the distance it extends over the sink. Give yourself enough maneuvering room between where the water exits the faucet and the back of the sink.

Of course, too much reach can be a problem too. Trying to wash your hair over a sink with a faucet spout that extends half way across the bowl is going to be challenging, if not downright frustrating.

What I'm driving at here is determining what's really important, and that's the overall functionality of your faucet and sink combination. Can you get your hands completely under the faucet? Or in the case of a kitchen sink, can you wash your pots and pans without interference with the back of the sink? Keep in mind that stone countertops sometimes require a more generous dimension between the faucet holes and the edge of the rim for strength purposes. That will set the faucet back somewhat, away from the edge of the sink.

Most of us choose fixtures based on style, price, brand name, or a combination of these criteria. They're valid points of consideration. Just be sure to not overlook the somewhat less glamorous but important practical details as well. When it comes to a bathroom or kitchen faucet, buying one that has a functional reach will serve you well.

Switch to Stone or Recycled Glass Countertops - The Easy Way

My next door neighbor is in the midst of a 'forced' basement remodel due to water problems earlier this summer. As you might imagine, the chaos that's created from tearing out old sheetrock and carpeting is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

Now think of that chaos, except instead of the basement, it's in the middle of your kitchen. Having lived through a kitchen remodel myself, it's a complete mess, not to mention incredibly inconvenient.

There are ways to avoid the mess however. Instead of a complete overhaul, you could keep your cabinets and reface or repaint them. Staying with the same layout means you don't have to tear down any walls. Try a new color scheme and install a new backsplash and you'll be surprised how your kitchen's mood will change for the better.

Then there are the countertops. Pulling out the old to install the new is still disruptive and it isn't the easiest task if you're doing it yourself. However there's a way to make this chore easier too, particularly if you're looking for a stone countertop.

What I'm talking about is Granite Transformations. If you're not familiar with the name, Granite Transformations offers kitchen remodeling services that limit the time and disruption normally associated with the typical remodeling approach. One of those services includes installing new engineered stone or recycled glass countertops without the need to remove your old counters.

In a nutshell, Granite Transformations will measure your existing countertops and fabricate a new countertop with edging, which sits over your old countertops. No need to remove the old surfaces.

It's a clever way to take the mess and hassle out of getting new countertops. You'll get a quick turnaround to boot. For more information, check out the Granite Transformations website and see if what they have to offer fits your renovation plans.

A New Breed Of Countertop Surfaces

One of the great things about technology is that it's never stagnant. Innovation is constantly pushing the world forward. Just when you think you've seen it all, something new breaks the mold and changes our paradigm.

It's no different with home products. Take countertop surfacing for example. Engineered stone and the quartz products came about to address some of the shortcomings of natural stone like staining and etching (think marble here).

Now there's a new breed of surfaces that offers additional countertop choices (as if we needed more) thanks to innovations in material technology. Better yet, these choices come with some very desirable attributes.

Check out how porcelain and ultra compact surfaces could change the game and usher in the next "must-have" kitchen countertops.

Painting Your Cabinets Part 2 - Paint Suggestions

In the previous post I mentioned several tools that can help make the job of painting your kitchen cabinets easier and give you better results. In this post I'll talk about a few paint products developed specifically for this kind of project.

Cabinet Coat
Cabinet Coat is a paint specifically formulated to cover cabinets. It has good self-leveling characteristics (minimizing or eliminating brush marks) and a reputation for providing a very smooth and durable surface.

It's water-based but offers the look of traditional oil-based enamels while adhering to surfaces like polyurethane and varnish without the need for primer. Its drawback is that it's only available in shades of white and pastels.

The product is made by Insl-X, maker of a range of paints and specialty coatings.

Ace Cabinet Door and Trim Paint
This paint is similar to Cabinet Coat in that it provides a durable, smooth coating that's very effective for updating cabinets. It's available from the Ace Hardware Corporation.

The product is formulated to provide the toughness and durability of an oil-based paint but is cleaned up with soap and water. One of its greatest attributes is that it's tintable to any color within the Ace paint brand color selection.

Rust Oleum Cabinet Transformations
Cabinet Transformations is a painting 'kit'. What makes it unique is that there is no need to strip, sand or prime the cabinets beforehand. It's also intended to work on wood, laminate or melamine cabinets.

It's available in over 70 different shades but you need to buy only one of two kits - either a dark kit or a light kit. Which kit you need is dependent on the specific shade you choose. That's because the bond coat in the kit is a tintable base. Once you choose the shade you want and the right kit (dark or light), you need to take the kit to the paint desk at the store you're buying from and have it tinted to your specified color.

Fine Paints of Europe
Fine Paints Of Europe is a company that touts its paints as being much more durable than typical paints manufactured in the U.S. The inference is that it lasts longer than most other paints so your cabinets don't need to be painted as often. The paint also has a reputation for good self-smoothing properties and durability.

These paints generally cost more than a typical gallon of latex or oil paint. But if you compare the total cost of paint with the price of new cabinets, it should be clear that you'll be dollars ahead when the project's complete.

Paint Your Cabinets Instead Of Replacing Them

Want to save several thousand dollars on your kitchen remodel? Re-use your existing cabinets.

You've probably read that before but dismissed the notion thinking your cabinets are beyond help. That may be true. But if your kitchen layout isn't changing and your cabinets are structurally sound refurbishing them is an idea worth considering. The money you save could be considerable (think "thousands").

Re-facing is one option and is a good choice if you want a natural wood finish.

A simpler and less expensive alternative is to paint your cabinets. It requires some elbow grease and time but it's something you can do on your own, at your own pace.

A good paint job relies in part on using the right tools. Here are some of the tools and products available to help you get better results:

HVLP Paint Sprayer
HVLP stands for High Velocity Low Pressure. An HVLP paint sprayer lets you spray the paint with much less overspray while avoiding brush marks. One product geared toward DIY'ers is the Wagner Control Spray Max HVLP Sprayer. It's available at Amazon.com among other places for about $120.

Brushing Putty
Brushing Putty is a product made to seal up and cover the wood grain so that it doesn't show once the paint is applied. Use this if you're painting bare or stained wood cabinets with prominent grain patterns. Brushing Putty is made by Fine Paints Of Europe, a higher-end paint company.

Trisodium Phosphate & Dirtex
Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a heavy duty cleaner that removes dirt and grime. It's a good prep before sanding and painting. Dirtex is another product that can be used for the same purpose but has a different formulation than TSP. Finally, TSP-PF is a phosphate-free TSP solution for use in municipalities that restrict products with phosphate. All of these products are available at various online and offline home supply and hardware retailers.

Palm Sanders
A palm sander is a small vibrating hand sander. It's not a necessity but it makes the job easier. Palm sanders are available at home centers and hardware stores as well as online.

Sanding Sponges
A sanding sponge is a soft block of material with an abrasive outer covering. It's useful for sanding irregular surfaces like raised panel doors and similar details.

Deglosser / "Liquid Sandpaper"
Deglosser, also known as liquid sandpaper, is a chemical used to remove surface gloss through an etching process. This allows the paint to adhere better since paint doesn't stick well to a glossy surface.

Some of the products listed above, particularly the tools, aren't absolutely necessary but they can make the job easier and give you better results. In an upcoming post I'll give you some information on paints made especially for refurbishing your cabinets.

When It Comes To A Wood Or Gas Fireplace I'll Go With Gas

I live in the beautiful state of Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes (11,842 officially) and frigid temperatures. The 9th coldest winter on record and over 40 days of sub-zero weather makes you either hardy or question why you actually live here.

"How do you do it?" my relatives in balmier climes ask me. My secret weapon? The gas fireplace. Two of them if you're counting.

Once upon a time I was a die-hard evangelist for real wood-burning fireplaces. I loved the smells, the sound and the "realness". Our house had three of them.

They got used but required a lot of work. They were drafty too which was especially noticeable with the basement fireplace. It made the finished basement more like a furnished meat locker.

I didn't like gas fireplaces because I thought they looked anemic and fake. The wimpy flames and lack of snap, crackle and pop did nothing for me. That was until I stumbled across a company that figured out how to make a realistic looking fire. Thanks to Town and Country Fireplaces I became a convert.

That was a few years ago. Fast forward to the present and copycats of Town & Country's realistic fire are plenty. One of them, a large floor-level Heat & Glo unit, is the centerpiece of my family room. It's also what helps us endure 20-below-zero days.

You see, when I come in from scraping the snow off the driveway, I don't want to work for 20 minutes to get a wood fire burning. Sorry, but technology's moved on. Now I just press a button for heat and ambiance. The best part is that when I turn it off its efficient design keeps emanating heat for some time after.

If you're someone who's held tightly to the charm of a real wood fireplace here are some things to consider:

The Upside -

  • Crackle of an open fire
  • The scent

The Downside -

  • Getting the wood, storing it and keeping it dry
  • Hauling it to the fireplace
  • Cleaning out the fireplace and chimney
  • Very inefficient
  • Constant tending to keep the fire going
  • Little to no residual heat when the fire's out

Compare that to a gas fireplace:

The Upside -

  • Efficient
  • Convenient (avoids all the drawbacks of a wood fireplace)
  • Effective at actually heating a room

The Downside -

  • Some may not like the look
  • No snap and crackle

I never thought I'd own a gas fireplace but thanks to some smart engineers I now gush the praises of these devices. They've certainly come a long way in the last ten years or so. Sure, I don't get the pop and crackle of a real fire but what I do get is a warm room without losing my furnace heat up the flue.

That's what makes living in my neck of the woods a lot more comfortable.

Got Protection?

If you were formerly known by certain close associates as "Big Tuna", you might be thinking "witness protection program" when you read that title. But that's not exactly where I was going with this. What I'm talking about is protecting parts of your home in the midst of a home improvement project.

Unless your home is getting an entire makeover there are probably areas that need protection from the dust and demolition that occur with most remodels. Doing it right only makes good sense. I know because I lived through my own multi-month remodeling adventure and witnessed the carnage firsthand.

Most good contractors know how to do this and there are a variety of tools and materials available to protect the parts of your house that aren't being renovated. But what about all the DIY'ers out there? Lots of us do our own remodeling in one form or another, and while it might not be a big project there's still a need to protect the adjacent areas. Most of us however aren't up on all the tools and tricks that the contractors know.

One company that specializes in this sort of stuff is Protective Products. They offer a wide range of products that protect the various surfaces in your home from dirty boots and drywall dust.

A particular product that caught my eye is the water-based Scratch Protection. It's a paint-on coating that peels off when dry. Re-tiling a bathtub surround is the perfect scenario for this kind of product and it's a job that a lot of weekend DIY'ers do. The peelable skin is a good way to protect the bathtub from footprints and scratches when removing and installing tile. If you've ever tackled this kind of project before you'll know what I'm talking about.

Scratch Protection - Photo Courtesy of Protective Products

Yes, you could just lay a tarp in the tub but the advantage I see is that the rubbery skin offers a better non-slip surface and won't slide underfoot relative to the bathtub's surface.

The point here is that there are tools and products that can help preserve the surfaces in your house that you want to protect when remodeling. It's worth taking note of, particularly if you're a do-it-yourself remodeler, because sometimes a better tool makes for a better outcome.

Phased Remodeling: When You Can't Have It All Right Now

At one time or another every homeowner has probably daydreamed about how they could make their home a little bit better. You might live in a great house but it always seems as though there's some aspect that could use improvement.

My own experience bears this out because over our 20 year span here we've thought of a bunch of things we'd like to change. The problem is that I'm not independently wealthy so a lot of these plans either fall into the daydream category or we do them as resources permit. And in all honesty, some of those dreams have changed over the years as we've had time to see how we really "fit" in our house.

So the dilemma is this: you have big plans but you're not sure if you can afford to tackle them all at once or if it's even smart to do so. That's where the concept of phased remodeling comes into play. You renovate your home in stages as finances and time allow.

The best place to start is determining how long you plan to stay in your existing home. Why invest in a large remodel if you'll be gone in three years?

If you're in for the long haul the next step involves developing a grand plan for your home. Ask yourself how you want it to look and function next year and in five to ten years. Make a list of the changes you'd like to make and then prioritize them.

This is also a good time to involve a professional like an architect or a design-build firm to help you with your plan particularly if it's more ambitious. They can provide valuable input on making that plan work. Depending on your goals you may need to design certain elements of your home so they're compatible with future renovation plans. You also want to sequence these plans to avoid disrupting renovated areas during future stages of remodeling.

Here are some of the pros and cons associated with a stepped project plan:

  • Flexibility with financing - allows time to save
  • Less time that your house is a construction zone
  • Less lifestyle disruption (small part of the house impacted vs. a larger portion)
  • Allows time for reconsideration as your family's needs and desires change

And the cons:

  • Loss of labor efficiency - the tradespeople have to come back for each project vs. getting it all done at one time
  • Potential for higher cost - things aren't getting cheaper

Human nature is such that when we want something, we want it all now. When it comes to remodeling that's not always feasible, but it doesn't mean that you have to bury your big plans. A phased remodeling approach might be the ticket to get you there. It may cost more in the long run but it also gives you time to adapt and reassess along the way.

Finding Those Wow-Factor Kitchen Backsplash Creations

The other day a reader asked for information about one of the photos on the backsplash page. It's a picture of a high relief tile insert in a field tile backsplash. While I couldn't help her with the specifics on that particular design I did come across what I thought was a cool source for similar hand-crafted pieces.

Photo Courtesy of Andersen Ceramics

The company is Andersen Ceramics and specializes in decorative backsplash tiles. The interesting backstory to the creations made by this small company is that the artist/creator/guy-who-makes-them was a former employee in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. There's no pedigree of a previous apprenticeship in Paris followed by a storied artistic career. Rather, these are simply the creations of a hard-working creative individual. Refreshing and unique if you ask me.

Photo Courtesy of Andersen Ceramics

While the style and size isn't for everyone there are lots of homes where this kind of craftsmanship can really add a spectacular looking focal point in the kitchen.

Check out some of the other great creations at Andersen Ceramics. Then when it comes time for your centerpiece backsplash, you'll know where to find it.

Island & Countertop Support Options That Save Your Knees

Having an island or countertop peninsula that affords a place to sit and eat is a real boon to any kitchen. The key to making it comfortable is ensuring there's plenty of room for the occupants, including knee room. There's nothing more annoying than sitting at a countertop when there isn't enough overhang. Taller individuals know what I mean as their knees bear the bruises from contacting the back of the cabinet underneath.

The solution is obviously to use a generous overhang but that poses some challenges. Stone countertops are heavy and need sufficient support. Corbels and brackets are a solution but they take up space and can be vicious knee-knockers.

I can attest to this first-hand. My own island has three corbels that support the granite extension. I like they way they look but more than once I've crashed my knees into one of them getting on or off the stool.

One Of My Own Knee Crushers

If you'd like a generous overhang on your counters, particularly if you have a stone top, but don't want corbels or brackets there is a solution. Several manufacturers specialize in braces made specifically for this purpose. The beauty is that they're located out of the way giving you more room under the counter. These braces are pieces of metal that tie into the island's structure and extend out like thin fingers, albeit strong ones, to support the stone overhang.

The only caveat I'll make about these handy features is that this setup might not appeal to everyone's visual taste. The larger the island or countertop peninsula, the thinner a slab of granite looks in relation. Corbels add a sense of visual balance to the whole island structure, making a transition from the blocky nature of the support cabinets to the thin countertop tongue that protrudes outward. It's just my opinion but without that transition the overhang appears anemic in relation to the island.

Photo Courtesy of CounterBalance (www.counterbalanceshop.com)

Having said that, these brackets certainly offer a great way to get lots of clearance under a generous overhang with no risk of beat up knees. Some of the various makers and products include CounterBalance and Centerline Brackets. You can also find some at Federal Brace (just look for the "Hidden Countertop Supports" link).

A Novel Twist On Product Samples

It's been about four years since my wife and I remodeled our kitchen. Part of the process involved gathering a bunch of product samples for our countertops and floors to see how they'd look in different lighting or with various paint colors. The problem back then was that the samples were either too small, too bulky (like those heavy 3'x3' floor samples) or you had to return them after a few days.

Well, somewhere along the way some smarty-pants thought up a better solution and unfortunately it wasn't me. That better idea goes by the name of MEGA Swatch and it puts a new twist on the concept of product swatches. Instead of being real products these "samples" are actually pictures. They're big enough so that you can actually get some idea how the product will look in your kitchen. Their printed format makes them easy to move around and store too.

Photo Courtesy of MEGA Swatch

MEGA Swatch samples are available for countertops and flooring although the countertop swatches represent only granite and marble. Life-size cabinet swatches are available too. If you'd like to see how your cabinets might look in different color just tape one of the MEGA Swatches over your existing cabinets. Then, take a few steps back and see how it looks against your current countertop and floor colors.

Individual swatches are available for about $2.00 each. You can also get packages that offer multiple colors or you can buy multiples of the same style if you want to cover a larger area to get a better idea of how things will look. At 20"x27" these swatches will cover a decent portion of real estate.

It's not a bad idea considering the convenience and low cost. You could go out and take your own pictures of countertops and floors that you like, get them enlarged and then printed. The benefit with this approach is that you're not limited to colors offered by MEGA Swatch. On the other hand, $2 per swatch is pretty cheap and you don't have to mess with the photo process.

You can check out what there is to see at MegaSwatch.com.

How Many Rocket Scientists Does It Take To Choose A (LED) Light Bulb?

I recently received some promotional material from Cree Lighting about their new A19 LED bulb which got me thinking about lighting choices (A19 is the official designation of the shape we all know as the common light bulb).

Photo Courtesy of Cree Lighting

The fact is if you're remodeling or just need to replace a light bulb, you have some decisions to make on lighting sources: incandescent, CFL or LED. LEDs are certainly energy efficient and long-lasting but they haven't been the cheapest option either.

That's why Cree's announcement caught my attention. Their new 60-watt replacement is priced at $12.97. It's also omni-directional which means it casts light in virtually all directions, a trait not shared by all LED bulbs.

That's one of the lowest prices you'll find for a bulb like this although SunSun Lighting makes one that's only $10, albeit with a smaller beam spread. It's not a bad achievement, getting a basic replacement LED bulb below the $15 threshold.

Choosing an LED bulb is more complicated than a plain old incandescent. There are more choices available and more factors to consider. To compare, consider the following:

  • Lumens
    This is the amount of light given off by a particular bulb. If you're comparing a couple of 60-watt replacement LED bulbs check to see how many lumens are produced by each. The more lumens, the more light for the power being consumed.
  • Color Temperature
    Check Wikipedia for the in-depth (dry) explanation but in a nutshell this refers to how the light appears to your eye. If you want a bulb similar to your old incandescent, choose one with a color temperature rating of 2700K. Some 'warm' designations include color temperatures up to 3000K. A 'daylight' bulb has a color temperature of 5000K.
  • Color Rendering Index (CRI)
    This tells you how faithfully a light source presents the colors of objects in their truest sense. An easier way to describe this is to call it "color accuracy". A CRI of 100 is perfect; an incandescent bulb has a CRI around 95. LED bulbs are rated around 80. The lower the CRI, the less accurate a particular color will appear.
  • Beam Spread
    The nature of how an LED bulb is constructed factors into how it emits that light. Some A19 LED bulbs have a limited beam spread which isn't as effective in fixtures where a wider dispersal of light is desired. Beam spreads for A19 bulbs are categorized as omni-directional (all-around) or by a specific angle.

So what does all this mean when you just need some new light bulbs? It means that while you have more choices, there are also more things to consider like lighting quality, durability and economics.

Maybe someday the only option will be standardized LED bulbs and they'll all be $1.50. Until that day comes the burden's on you to educate yourself before you buy (unless you're already a rocket scientist).

A Kitchen Cabinet's Shield Against Murphy's Law

Murphy's Law, which says that if something can go wrong, it will, was probably coined after the invention of the kitchen sink cabinet. That's the space below the sink where the pipes, cleaners and other utilitarian implements are all supposed to live harmoniously together.

But let's face it. Sooner or later something is bound to go wrong, whether it's a leaky faucet or the spilled contents of whatever it is you store down there. The victim is usually the bottom of the base cabinet. If it isn't protected it can end up looking like a wet granola bar. Thanks a lot Murph.

If you've had an experience like this before and don't want to risk going through it again the first thing you can do is buy cabinets with a good melamine interior surface. But beyond that there are some additional products that can help avert disasters down below.

Rev-A-Shelf, makers of cabinet organizers and accessories, developed a relatively inexpensive method of protection. It's a simple drip tray that's installed on the floor of the cabinet to keep water and other spillable items from contacting the bottom surface of the cabinet. Rev-A-Shelf's creative name for this is the SBDT -- short for Sink Base Drip Tray. (Obviously the engineering department handled the marketing campaign on that one.)

Photo Courtesy of Rev-A-Shelf

Despite it's drab name it comes with a unique design feature that directs any spills or water leaks forward and out onto the floor. At first blush that might seem like it's only moving the problem to a different location but the intent is to send up the red flag, giving you your own "Houston, we have a problem" warning.

If there are any drawbacks to this product it's that the lip on the periphery of the mat makes the floor of your base cabinet a bit smaller. Depending on the specific location of any plumbing that comes through the bottom of your cabinet you might run into some incompatibility problems as well.

The SBDT comes in several sizes that can be trimmed to fit standard base cabinet widths. The cost is about $40 to $57 depending on where you buy it.

Another product with similar intent is made by Hafele. Their undersink mat is 45 inches wide and can be cut to fit just about any cabinet width. Hafele reports that the mat will hold about one gallon of water per six square feet. Price is about $55.

As someone who's been visited by Murphy in the form of a faucet leak, take my advice. It's worth it to have some level of protection under your kitchen sink because sooner or later, something's bound to happen down there.

You can view the SBDT here and Hafele's version at their website.

Is It Wood or Is It Tile?

I recently had a chance to walk through a few new homes in my local Parade of Homes℠ showcase. Mind you I didn't see a lot of homes and I randomly chose the ones I did see. However if there's anything that struck me as being common among them (a trend perhaps?) it was the use of wood-look tile.

Why use tile when the real thing is readily available? Just think "bathroom." Wood isn't a great choice for bathroom flooring mainly because wood and water don't mix very well. Perhaps (and that's a big 'perhaps') using it in a powder room might be passable but it wouldn't be my first choice.

Using tile instead of real wood is the perfect alternative. Plus you have the added benefit of being able to use radiant floor heating to cozy-up the spot.

One particular product of note is the collection of glazed porcelain tiles from Mediterranea. Products in this lineup include American Naturals, Boardwalk and Sandal Wood among others.

'Timber' Glazed Porcelain Tile - Photo Courtesy of Mediterranea Tile

The interesting point about these products is that they're made using what Mediterranea calls Dynamic HD (for high-definition) Imaging Technology. In other words, it's a high-resolution picture of wood infused into a porcelain tile. You could say that it's laminate flooring's more robust cousin.

Tiles are available in both "planks" (4" or 6" x 24") or wider sizes like 12" x 24". They do a nice job of capturing the image of real wood and they have a nice graining texture to them as well. On a more practical note, these tiles are commercially graded for slip resistance so they're not a hazard in moist locations like the bathroom.

Like any product that uses imaging technology there will be a pattern repeat since there's a finite number of pictures used to make the product. Good pre-installation planning is usually all it takes to minimize any noticeable repeat. Besides, once the tiles are down and you've lived with them for a while, pattern repeats are usually something you'll never make note of again.

You can see more at the Mediterranea website but if there's nothing there that appeals to you there are other similar wood tile products that are available. Just let your fingers do the typing and search for "wood look tile". You should be greeted with plenty of results.

The best part of all of this is that these tiles look pretty darn nice. The fact that they're shaped like planks makes them that much more believable. Yes, there are grout lines between them but they don't look much different than the gap you see in a typical wood floor, particularly one with beveled edges.

I was impressed, and by the looks of it, so were the builders of those model homes I toured.

Today's Wood Paneling (The Brady Bunch Would Be Envious)

The house I grew up in wouldn't be called ostentatious by any means. It was a duplex, situated among a bunch of clones in a mill town in New England. My father spent the weekends of what seemed like most of my childhood remodeling that place, one room at a time.

One of the makeovers involved the installation of wood paneling in our den. I always thought that paneling was cool because of it's deep brown color and accented black grain (we're talking early '70s here). To me it looked like real wood planks nailed across the wall, top to bottom. Never mind that it was actually a quarter inch thick and put up in 4 by 8 foot sheets. It was enough to fool my eye. What did I know? I was just a kid.

Fast forward 40 years later and I probably wouldn't be caught dead with that stuff in my own home. My how fickle I've become. But that doesn't mean that I cringe when I hear the words "wood paneling". On the contrary, I have a love affair with natural wood, even wood paneling. The only caveat is that it has to be "real" wood paneling. Not some pressed and embossed stuff (no offense, Dad). If it's reclaimed wood, stuff with a past and some character, maybe even a pedigree of some sort, all the better.

Think about a wood floor for a moment. If you're like most homeowners you can appreciate its beauty. Wood floors are natural, have unique character and evoke a sense of warmth that few other surfaces can. Why not throw a little of that charm on the wall?

In a previous blog post I wrote about how a local builder used reclaimed wood in a novel way in one of their new homes. It's a great example of how wood can be used to add texture both to the wall and the overall feel of a room.

TerraMai is a company that reclaims wood including exotic wood for use in architectural applications. The photo below is of a bathroom featured on the television show Bath Crashers that used some of their reclaimed teak. I couldn't think of a better application for teak, coveted by smart ship builders throughout the centuries for its resistance to moisture.

Photo Courtesy of TerraMai

What better way to give one of your rooms some individuality than with splash of wood paneling? The (real) stuff that's available today is way cooler than what adorned my house growing up.

You can see more examples of what TerraMai has to show off at their website.

See Your Hardwood Floor In Place (Before It's Actually Installed)

Have you ever wanted to see what some part of your home would look like with a hardwood floor instead of what's currently underfoot? If you have an iPad or iPad Mini it's not hard to do. All you need is the Bona Floor Design Guide app which lets you overlay a virtual hardwood floor on a photo of your existing floor.

The concept sounded good so I thought I'd give it a test drive. Come along and see how well it works.

Where The Kitchen Trends Are Headed

The Oxford dictionary defines "trend" as 'a general direction in which something is developing or changing'. Wikipedia defines it among other things as a "fad". I guess how you define it is really irrelevant; what's significant is whether you consider them in any of your home design quests. Or, as one of my sons likes to put it, whether you're a "bandwagon-jumper-onner" (and he's going to major in English. . .).

If you do pay attention to trends here are some that a few in the design community say are definitely "in" for kitchens:

The Kitchen Ranks At The Top
If you hadn't noticed yet the kitchen receives top billing in the house as far as attention and importance and it looks like it's going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Because of that it should embody important attributes like sufficient room, some of the best views and appropriate traffic flow.

That's easier said than done if you're not building a custom home and have to work within the envelope of your existing house. But even if that's your scenario, those objectives shouldn't receive any less focus in my opinion. One of the biggest issues I faced in my own kitchen remodel was traffic flow. Getting rid of pinch points and poor space allocation was key to the enjoyment we get out of our new kitchen.

Natural Materials (Or Great Look-Alikes)
There is a movement toward greater adoption of natural materials in the kitchen and yes, that still includes granite. For my money, our granite top has been a great attribute given it's durability and beauty. Nature-inspired is a close second and there are a number of products available that draw their inspiration from natural materials. Okite quartz surfacing and Cambria's Waterstone Collection are just two examples.

Gray Is In
Don't be afraid to use color in the right amount. Gray has been called the new beige and where it once might have been thought of as drab or dreary, it's now the basis from which to highlight splashes of contrasting color.

On a more practical note I think items that integrate bold or trend-setting color be the less permanent things in your kitchen (think lighting fixtures, furniture, maybe a backsplash tile). Pantone might say that emerald is the color of the year for 2013 but what happens when 2014 rolls around (or more likely, your tastes change)?

Less Traditional, More Modern
Another trend is a move away from the traditional, heavier styles and the embrace of a cleaner, more modern form. If you like the look of cleaner countertop edges and less ornate cabinetry you're on the cutting edge of kitchen style trends.

I'm still an advocate of incorporating styles that are pleasing to the user, regardless of trends. Yet it's hard to deny that without trends and the influence they bear, the spaces we live in would probably be pretty boring.

A Lesson In The Benefits Of Daylighting

The other night around 4 a.m. I was treated to the sound of thrashing branches and pelting hail as a severe storm whipped up the trees over the house. Thankfully the only damage was a power outage. Later that morning I walked into my downstairs bathroom, flicked on the light switch and stood there in the dark. That's what happens when all of your bathrooms are interior rooms with no windows and no electricity.

Then I remembered our upstairs bathroom. It doesn't have any windows but it has a sun tube installed in the ceiling. These devices go by various trade names like Solatube and Sun Tunnel and they're essentially a highly reflective tube that channels light from the outside into your home. Needless to say, that bathroom had plenty of light. The photo below shows how it looked at 10 a.m. even with a cloudy, overcast sky (. . .just ignore the awful light fixture in the photo).

The beauty of these devices is that they actually provide more light than a conventional window, and they needn't be large. Their technology relies on design features that do an excellent job capturing the available light outside. Then it's transmitted through a tube made from highly reflective material. The result is a lot of light from a relatively small source.

The other benefit is that they're relatively easy to install. Ours was installed in about an hour. It's simply a tube that runs from our 2nd story bathroom ceiling up through the attic to the rooftop.

How about your home? Do you have any spots that could benefit from additional natural light? This type of "window" is a great way to lighten up a space during the daylight hours and is modestly priced. The decision to install one in our bathroom was one of our smarter remodeling choices. It obviously doesn't replace the need for electric lighting at night but it definitely negates the need for it during the day. It certainly saved me from having to use the bathroom in the dark. Perish the thought.

What Are Your Siding Tendencies - Mainstream Or Maverick?

The U.S. Census data for the annual 2012 U.S. Characteristics of Housing shows that 30% of new homes sold in that year used vinyl siding. That's 110,000 homes out of 360,000 sold. In comparison, wood accounted for only 3% of the total number relative to the siding of choice.

If your remodeling plans include an addition you'll need to make a couple of siding choices: 1) whether to stay with your existing siding, and 2) which product to choose if you decide to change from what's already on your house.

To some degree the scope of your plans may help you make your decision. It makes financial sense to stay with your existing siding if the percentage of the area that's impacted is relatively small. This scenario still poses a few challenges however because you'll have to find the same siding product that's on the rest of your house or something pretty darn close. You have color matching issues to contend with too which get more complicated if you're dealing with a pre-colored (non-painted) product like vinyl.

Larger projects leave you at the crossroads of whether to stay with your existing type of siding or choose something new altogether. Re-siding your entire house is not an insignificant decision but the situation affords an opportunity for change that would only be more expensive if done at a later date.

My wife and I faced this decision when adding on to our home several years ago. In our case we looked at it as an opportunity. We decided to change from an awful fiberboard material that rotted and disintegrated to a much more durable choice in fiber cement. Obviously it was a significant line-item in our overall project budget but we planned for it. We were facing the need to replace portions of the siding anyway and more down the road, particularly if we'd stayed with the same (poor) material.

Which type of siding will you choose? There are plenty of options. Vinyl is still a primary choice for many although it has its lovers and haters. Fiber cement, wood, pultruded fiberglass and others are additional options.

My advice? Choose one that's the best compromise between your budget, the level of maintenance you're willing to put in and the product's durability and aesthetics. That may sound like a lot to consider but if you educate yourself on the choices and their characteristics your decision won't be as difficult as it might seem.

Oh, The Pleasures Of Good Windows

The other day my son who just graduated from high school was reminiscing about his "younger days" (he's what, 18??). He chortled, "Dad, remember that time when I tried to hit the baseball over the garage roof, and I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the window?" His chuckle then broke into a laugh and he continued, "and I hit the ball through the window?" At this point he was still the only one laughing.

Believe me, major league baseball isn't missing anything and my son has thankfully put down the baseball bat.

The message here is that at some point in your homeowner journey you'll probably be faced with replacing one or more windows, either by choice or because of klutzy kids.

Admittedly it's not an exciting topic and it sounds expensive. New windows don't stir the emotions like the vision of entertaining in a remodeled kitchen does. But that's really a narrow viewpoint if you ask me.

According to Remodeling Magazine's Cost vs. Value report for 2013 new windows provide one of the higher returns on investment at 73.3%. That's fifth in a list of 22 mid-range projects. Okay - so it's just behind a minor kitchen remodel at 75.4% but bear with me.

If you put your practical hat on for a moment you'll see that new windows offer a lot in return. Think efficiency for one. They make your house feel better by eliminating cold drafts in the winter and shielding hot sun in the summer. It's particularly noticeable if you have older, single-glazed units like I did. New and better windows also help lower your utility bills which results in lower home operating costs over the long term.

Then there's the view. If you're remodeling or building a new home take advantage of worthwhile views and the concept of "daylighting". Let the light and the outdoors into your home. Consider enlarging some windows too. It's more involved than a simple replacement but it can be done.

Don't forget about maintainability either. One of my best decisions was choosing aluminum-clad windows, mainly because they're so easy to take care of compared to the old wood windows I used to have.

I'm also thrilled with the fact that I can clean the upstairs units from the inside thanks to flip-in sashes (on my double-hungs) and flip-around sashes on the casements. In the past keeping the upstairs windows clean meant getting on a ladder or just resigning myself to live with dirty windows (which was the more likely result).

Take my advice - don't overlook the importance and beauty that new windows can bring to your home. Do your homework and find out what styles, materials and options suit you best. Good windows offer a host of benefits and a pretty good return, both financially and from a convenience perspective.

Lava Stone - An Off-The-Beaten-Path Countertop Choice

Standard ceramic or porcelain tile has many virtues, not the least of which is its non-porous surface, which makes it difficult to scratch and hard to stain. Those attributes are terrific credentials for a countertop surface, wouldn't you say?

Well, sort of.

There's that grout thing you have to contend with. All those lines act as little negative speed bumps as you try and sweep debris off the counter. Wouldn't it be nice to have the good characteristics of tile but in a smooth uninterrupted surface?

That's essentially what you get with a lava stone countertop. Lava stone is a product made by Pryrolave and combines an actual stone base material with an enameled surface. The stone is a natural product extracted from the volcanic region of France (check out the Auvergne Region if you didn't know France once had volcanoes). It's then cut and shaped to the desired size and covered with an enamel surface that's fired (baked) like a traditional ceramic tile.

Photo Courtesy of Pyrolave

One of my bathrooms has a tile vanity top. It's original to the house and I'll be the first to brag about the durability of the tile's surface. What I hate is the grout. It's difficult to keep clean and collects crud. And we're not even talking about the kitchen here. Lava stone is sort of like having the cake and eating it too -- the durability of the tile without the hassle of the grout lines. Okay, so maybe that's a bad choice of idioms but I think you get my meaning.

The other cool aspect about lava stone is that it's offered in some great colors. If you'd like some visual "pop" in your kitchen along with an easy to maintain work surface, lava stone is an option that meets those requirements. The only down-side could be the price. It tends to be on the costlier side of the wide range of countertop choices that are out there.

You can check out the pros and cons of this material here.

Now It's Moen's Turn

Photo Courtesy of Moen

The latest article highlighting kitchen faucet choices puts the spotlight on Moen. Like other manufacturers they've developed technologies and innovations to make their products more versatile.

What sticks out about Moen's faucet lineup however is the breadth of their collections. There's arguably something for just about anyone. If too many choices tend to paralyze you then you might be better off going to your local hardware store and choosing from their limited selection. Otherwise check out what Moen has to offer and see if there's a design that resonates with you.

See What Delta Has To Offer

Photo Courtesy of Delta Faucet Company

The Delta Faucet Company gets its name from one of the characteristics of the first washerless ball valve, a primary feature of the single handle faucet that was introduced back in the 1950s. That was a Delta innovation. It's a trend that they've continued, introducing a range of what they call "smart features" to make their kitchen faucets meet the demands of today's kitchen. Check out what they have to offer and shop the kitchen collections here.

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