Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Praise of Cupolas

Small structures on roof tops have a special place in my heart. It was to the belfry (a cupola with a bell) of a renovated 1865 school house that I took my wife Alicia on our first date. We talked about life, watched the sun set, drank a glass of wine and felt like we were on top of the world. Almost three children and 10 years later, I think that belfry must have played a part in my good fortune. cupola

As I drive along country roads it is the cupolas I see first in the distance as they create a jagged skyline above the barns. These are small buildings in their own right perched atop of the roofs of larger buildings. In farm structures their function is mostly for ventilation and sometimes to bring light into the hay mow, but no one can deny that they were put up with thought and care. When you see a cupola atop a barn on a rural road you should look at it very carefully. Often it is the one place where the builders 200 years ago had the opportunity to showcase their design and detailing ability. The barn itself usually needed to be put up quickly and simply so the farm could continue to function. The cupola on the other hand is where time was spent working on the details and having some fun.

The role of the cupola on the roof of the American homes is long and varied. Some of my favorite lanterns(cupolas that bring light into the interior) are on Greek Revival and Victorian homes in the Hudson Valley. Early home designers used cupolas the same way we use them today. They used them to ventilate attics, to bring light into an interior space. They made covered rooms to view the world or protect their precious bell, and used cupolas simply as decoration for their rooftops. When cupolas are designed and placed properly, it is hard to imagine the larger buildings without them.

Lanterns not only bring light into homes, but also give off a warm glow on snowy winter nights that feel like beacons guiding us home.

From the Oxford English Dictionary

Cupola: A rounded dome forming or adorning a roof or ceiling.
Belfry: The place in a bell tower or steeple in which bells are housed.
Lantern: A square, curved, or polygonal structure on the top of a dome or a room, with glazed or open sides.shaker style barnGreek revival

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Small Can Be Big (Almost finished)

small house

Our clients asked us to design a small, energy efficient, comfortable home to replace their existing log home which felt confining and dark. Both we and our clients are overjoyed at the way this 'not so big' house turned out.

For a home with about 2000 square feet of heated living space, there are many surprises including plenty of room. One important design element probably adds the most to the livability of this home: porches. Their site is a beautiful wooded lot overlooking a stream below. Secondly, the kitchen, dining and living spaces flow gracefully into each other, making them all feel larger.
We know we have struck a cord when the contractor, the carpenters and the subcontractors all want to move into the home they are building.

screened porch

comfortable house

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Good Fit

porch design
Have you ever looked at a house and sensed that something about it wasn't quite right? Perhaps it didn't look finished or feel balanced. Was it the placement of the windows? The pitch of the roof? The size of the porch? It's not always easy to put your finger on what's wrong, but it helps if you understand a few principles of good design. These drawings illustrate the difference between porches that are appropriately placed and in good proportion to the house-and those that aren't.

1. a) How awkward a big, boxy house looks with a microscopic portico attached.
b) How a house and porch are balanced when they are in proportion.

2. a) How skimpy undersized columns can make a porch look tacked on.
b) How a wide header and substantial columns appear to support a facade.farmhouse porch
Excerpted from "On the Porch" by Sandee Mahoney and James Crisp

Monday, November 03, 2008

Energy Saving

After going through a period with oil prices at record levels and winter just around the corner, the topic of conversation at home and in the office is how we are going to keep our heating bills down. If you are building new or completely remodeling, there are many great options from state of the art heating systems to the best insulation and energy conserving design, but most of us need to make the best of what we have, especially owners of historic (old) homes like myself. Even without major renovations there are many things we can do to improve our home’s energy performance.

The best place to start conserving energy is to address those parts of your home that account for the majority of energy loss. Identifying some of these locations can be rather obvious but on the other hand, some areas of heat loss can be more hidden and subtle. The trick is to locate your specific problem areas. While on a job site meeting with the mechanical contractor, I noticed he was shooting a laser around different parts of the walls and ceiling. He was using a laser thermometer to determine the heat transfer to the exterior of the home. You can buy one for under $50 at your favorite hardware store and it can save you a bundle. I bought one and took it home to checkout my own home. By shooting it around the walls, ceilings and floors as well as doors and windows, I could tell exactly where the cold air or surfaces were that needed the most attention. I assure you that this year I will be making an additional check of my whole house to try to tighten things up even more.

There are many sources of information regarding the best way to improve your home’s energy usage, but here are a few relatively easy fixes.
Wear warm clothes and turn the heat down. This may sound glib, but my wife and her family always lived in historic farm houses. They grew up keeping the thermostat low and dressing warm. As long as I can get a warm shower, wearing a sweater the rest of the time could be fun.
Add additional insulation to your attic. This is a major heat loss area. I bought an insulated cover for my attic stair which helps a lot.
Make sure your fireplace dampers are tight. If you don’t like the looks of a glass front(now required by code) add a spring loaded chimney cap which seals the flue when the fireplace isn’t being used.
Check all doors and windows. Storm doors and entry doors need weather-stripping. Windows in an old home need storms-old fashioned wood and glass storm windows cost around $ 100 each.
Try to only heat living spaces by insulating the floors above crawl spaces and basements.
Replace your aging boiler with a more energy efficient unit.
If you find a very cold spot in a wall or ceiling, consider having someone blow in insulation to fill those cavities.
Check your electric outlets on exterior walls. Simple insulated cover plates are available.

There are many more tips and ideas available on web pages like:

A corporate web site of an energy producer:

The Sierra Club conservation site:

Books include:

The Complete Guide to Reducing Energy Costs by Consumer Reports

Energy Saving Guide For Home Owners
by Alvin Ubell & George Merlis