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Posts from the ‘Architecture’ Category

Less unfinished

Y’all. I’m back. Technically, I haven’t gone anywhere, I’ve just been busy. REALLY busy. Starting-an-architecture-firm busy. It’s true: my shingle’s hung, and business is good. More on that later.

“So, what’s been going on with the Ordinary House?” you wonder. “Surely you’re done with that kitchen by now – right?”

With my head hung in shame, I’m here to report that, no, the kitchen is still not finished. But it’s less unfinished!

In my last kitchen update, I was using an old-fashioned hand plane to bead the edges of some trim stock, because self-flagellation seems to be my em-oh. When it came time to install the trim, I was confronted with a fresh challenge, another fantastic opportunity to take on something difficult to slow the project down.

The inside edges of all my trim stock were beaded, like this:

beaded trim

Trimming out a single door or window with beaded trim is easily accomplished with a miter joint,  each end of the board cut at 45 degrees. It’s one of the most common joints used to join door and window casings, and most of you can probably see an example of one from where you’re sitting now:

mitered trim

But, imagine a scenario when you need to join two pieces of wood that aren’t the same width – a miter joint doesn’t work any more:

unequal miters

Or, what if you want to trim a group of windows with vertical mullions between each opening? With beaded trim, you can’t rely on a simple butt joint to join the boards. What to do?

Enter the jack miter, a type of joint that (appropriately) was used frequently in colonial woodwork. The jack miter is a very simple combination of a butt joint and a teensy-weensy miter joint that happens to be maddeningly difficult to achieve with modern tools. Here’s one I made where the trim between the top of a door opening and the bottom of a transom window intersects with a vertical casing. Notice how the bead is continuous around both openings:

jack miter

They’re easy to miss, but the mitered portions of the joint only extend the width of the bead on the edges of the boards. Across the rest of joint, the boards simply butt together. Making those tiny mitered cuts required me to build a crazy contraption to guide the workpiece in the table saw.  If you look closely you can see the pencil layout marks for the miters on the face of the board, and one of the miters already cut:

jack miter sled

With the miters cut, I used a router to trim away the remainder of the wood.  A little glue and a biscuit, and you’ve got a beautiful, stable joint that’s as fixed in its position as Wayne LaPierre at a gun control rally.

biscuit jack miter

Aside from making a good-looking connection between two boards, cutting jack miters in my trim is a way to continue the tradition of craft that began with the folks who built the Ordinary House back in the 1700s. In each room of the original house, the fireplace mantels are joined with jack mitered boards:

mantel jack miter

I have endless admiration for men who knew how to make joints like this, without benefit of 1.6 zillion Google search results, YouTube videos, pre-milled lumber at Home Depot, and electricity to power a router and table saw. But, achieving a similar result to those men using 21st-century methods was a nice way to make a connection across the ages, and to do right by this long-neglected house.

“The people want sexy.” – Weezie

Neighbors, if you ride by our place and find my head impaled on a fence post, my wife put it there, and it’s because of the dishwasher. More precisely, the imaginary future dishwasher that I continue to assure her I’ll put in “soon”. The specificity of that install date is not popular around here, hence the concern for my physical safety.

You see, my honey-do list is more intense than most. Among the usual “change the upstairs light bulb” and “mow the lawn” directives, my list includes things like: “build a kitchen.” I love getting my hands dirty, and there are few things I find more satisfying than building something I’ve designed with my own two hands. The problem is that I’ve only got two of them, rather than the 16 or 18 my list demands.

My main excuse for lack of progress on the kitchen is that I’m embroiled in a battle with an awful client at the moment. He occupies nearly all of my free time because he’s indecisive at best and paralyzed by doubt at worst. He demands that I rework and redraw and reconfigure, never satisfied, always convinced that there’s a better solution that hasn’t been explored yet. His standards are nearly impossible to meet, and I worry that I’ll never make him happy.

My name is Reid Highley, and I’m my own worst client.

Architects working for themselves generally divide into two camps. The first uses self-designed projects as a release valve for pent-up frustrations, a chance to whip out all the harebrained ideas they’ve had rejected by clients (“I can’t believe they didn’t go for the bedroom in a box on wheels!”), and combine them into one orgiastic architectural hodgepodge.

The other camp, the one I fall into, recognizes this impulse and traps themselves in an endless cycle of redesign in an attempt to ensure that the built design is the “right” one, well-edited and just so. I feel tremendous pressure to make this room special. This is our forever kitchen, and our first attempt at a serious interior project at the Ordinary House. I’ve got a blog audience and lots of neighbors watching, in a town where I hope to do plenty of business as an architect. And the first kitchen I designed for myself ended up in a magazine and a book. But seriously, no pressure.

So without any further ado, and at risk of embarrassing myself, I’m going to show you where I am with the design, beginning with the floor plan. As you may recall, we’re making a big switcheroo, moving the kitchen from it’s current location up to the existing dining room.

kitchen move

This move makes sense for a number of reasons. First, the existing kitchen is down a small flight of steps. Going up and down them gets a bit tedious, especially since we spend most of our time in the living room. Having the kitchen on the same level as the living room, and immediately adjacent to it, will put our primary activity spaces in close proximity. Second, the existing kitchen begs to be a mud room/laundry room. The back door, our main entry and exit point from the house, is there. Plus, the current washer and dryer location underneath the front porch doesn’t inspire frequent laundering.

The kitchen

And, third, since we aren’t frequent formal diners, we feel that the dining space is better utilized as a blank canvas for our shiny new cuisine. A nice bonus to this arrangement is that we won’t be without a kitchen while the renovations are underway.

dining to living

One variable that Weezie and I agreed on early in the process was that we wanted an eat-in kitchen with a big farm table at its center, rather than an island. With that in mind, I began to draw and draw and draw:

kitchen plans

After drafting these schemes and perhaps fifty others, the layout fell into place, organized along two major axes.

kitchen plan

The kitchen sink had to go below the group of windows on the east side of the room. The table and refrigerator are likewise centered on these windows. In the other direction, the door to the living room, the long axis of the table and the range are aligned. There’s good separation between appliances, scads of counter space, and plenty of room to circulate around the table, even if people are sitting there. Full-height pantry cabinets will flank the fridge, and the dead space behind it will conceal some new plumbing.

When you take that plan, make a billion little decisions, and turn it into a computer model, it ends up looking something like this:

kitchen 3d model

kitchen view

There are lots of place holders here, and I know the design will evolve as the room comes together, but this gives you the gist of what we’ll end up with. My wife insists that people want sexy…and that’s how sexy begins.

Go east, young man

When I was a young man, eastern North Carolina was the forlorn stretch of tobacco fields, Wal-Marts, and bait shops that you had to endure in order to get to the beach. I thought little of it, and certainly never imagined that there might be anything COOL there. But, when you buy a really old house, you become a really old house voyeur, and that’s done a lot to change the way I see the eastern part of the state. Our neighbors to the north and south like to take all the credit for historical significance, but North Carolina holds its own, particularly if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path.

My newfound appreciation for the region was jump-started when I met Weezie and began accompanying her on trips to Tarboro to visit her mom. It’s an enchanting place, with block after block of gorgeous homes, the only original town common outside of Boston, and some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.

In desperate need of a weekend away, Weezie and I spent last weekend in Edenton, another gem of a town that overlooks the Albemarle Sound. Founded in 1712, Edenton was the capital of North Carolina for several decades in the early 18th century. The town’s early significance is reflected in its stunning architecture, with fine examples of every major historical style of the past three centuries.  

Its location couldn’t be more seductive. Broad Street, the main commercial drag, dead ends at a park that overlooks the cypress stands of Albemarle Sound. There sits the Barker House, Edenton’s “living room”, with impressive double-decker side porches and commanding views of the water:

barker house

barker house porch

Nearby is the Chowan County courthouse, situated at the end of a green overlooking the same vista as the Barker House. This is the only place in the state outside of Raleigh that the North Carolina Supreme Court can hear cases:

chowan county courthouse

A few blocks in the opposite direction is the Cupola House, a quirky and endearing house with a connection to Hillsborough. Our town was first established as Corbin Town, in honor of Francis Corbin, an agent of Earl Granville.  This was his home, completed in 1758:

cupola house

West of Broad Street, close to the water are several awe-inspiring, big-money mansions. The first one pictured here, Pembroke Hall, can be yours for a cool one-point-three:

pembroke hall

italianate house

Wandering away from the waterfront, there are plenty of less imposing, but no less beautiful homes.  This one, built in 1744, gives me hope that the Ordinary House can still look good a decade from now:

edenton old house

Across the train tracks on the east side of town, the old cotton mill has been swankified as loft apartments:

edenton cotton mill

Broad Street, which impressively still supports an independent, first-run movie theater was desolate on Sunday morning – church is serious business in these parts:

broad street edenton

And just when you start to get really impressed by all this highbrow culture out in the middle of nowhere, there’s always something to remind you that, yes, you’re still in eastern NC:

camo recliner

I’ll let you know if I win.

Pretty ordinary #009: July 4th edition

In 1776, our house was already 22 years old. That fact fascinates me endlessly.

I wasn’t all that interested in American history during my grade school years. But in the context of this house, I’m fascinated by it. I wonder what life was like in the Ordinary House on July 4th, 1776? How long was it before the residents knew what happened that day? Did a declaration of independence from Britain frighten them, was it exciting, or was it some mix of both?

The Regulator movement, protesting corruption by royal government officials, was well-established in these parts and several of its participants were hanged by British troops only a few hundred yards from our front door. Grievances of this sort fanned the flames of revolution, leading to that fateful day when our great nation was formed.

This continuity with our past is part of the power of architecture, and is one of the reasons I’m such an ardent supporter of preservation.

The experiment of these United States isn’t perfect, as the evening news reminds us. But, I think we can all agree that we’re lucky to live in a country that affords us the freedom of opportunity that our founding fathers so desired.

Happy Fourth!

yellow flowers

The *award-winning* ordinary house

259 years old and still charming ’em…we can all hope to age so well.

I’m proud to report that our initial efforts to breathe new life into the Ordinary House were recognized by the Town of Hillsborough last Friday when we received a 2013 Preservation Award for “The Preservation of a Historic Exterior”.

preservation award

I joked that if anybody knew how long the remaining to-do list for the exterior was, they might have waited another decade before praising our accomplishments. Nevertheless, it’s very gratifying to know that people are watching our progress and consider it worthy of recognition. Check out my interview with WCHL in Chapel Hill about the award here.

To everyone who has stopped by to lend advice, tell a story, or just say “attaboy” – thank you. The acceptance and support that we’ve received from our new neighbors and friends has made our labors seem worthwhile and have shown us just how friendly Hillsborough is.

We’ve only been at this for nine months and we’re only getting started, so I hope that you’ll continue to follow along as we delve into the next phase of renovations, beginning with the kitchen.

Congratulations also to Sandy McBride and Kim Richardson, and Mark and Jennifer Soloman for their awards  – we’re in good company!

preservation award ceremony

Jewelry for houses

Shutters are like jewelry for houses.

They serve a myriad of useful purposes when they’re functional. A closed shutter blocks searing sun, howling winds and pelting rains, insulates in the winter and deflects prying eyes year round. Stroll through nearly any Mediterranean village and the shutters on the buildings express the rhythms of daily life, the weather, and the mood of the people inside. I envy the European appreciation for shutters, because ours have largely been replaced by non-functioning replicas of the real thing. Done right though, even non-functional shutters add a layer of decorative detail and texture to a house that’s hard to achieve otherwise.


Our home was not spared the indignity of a fake shutter installation during its long life. When we bought the place, the shutters were screwed directly to the window casings. Unfortunately, this is the typical installation detail for shutters these days, and is so ubiquitous that it seems normal. When our shutters were removed to be painted, I vowed that they would not go back up unless we did it the right way.

By “right way” I mean mounting the shutters so that they appear functional, even if they aren’t. The windows on our house are protected by aluminum storm windows, which prevent shutters from closing fully. Even so, we invested in cast iron shutter hinges to mount the shutters back to the house. These L-shaped hinges provide a number of benefits over the typical screwed-on shutter installation. They push the shutters off the house, allowing for ventilation and drainage behind the shutter and reducing deterioration of the paint there. They make removal of the shutters a simple matter of lifting them off, rather than tediously unscrewing them. This will make future paint jobs easier. And lastly, the raised mounting position casts deep, attractive shadows on the face of the house, an aesthetic side effect that’s lost when shutters are screwed directly to the siding.

shutter hinge

The other piece of essential shutter hardware are tie-backs or shutter dogs. These pivoting metal plates hold the shutters open and keep them from moving in the wind. Shutter dogs come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, from the familiar S-shape to intricate cast seashells. For our house, I selected a tapered tieback with a curled bottom edge. This simple shutter dog seemed suited to the subdued colonial architecture of our home.

shutter dog

Aside from the absence of shutter hardware, shutter installations are marred by a number of common faux pas. Attention to a few obvious details can mean the difference between a beautiful and convincing shutter installation and one that is clearly fake.  Among the rules to observe:

  • Install shutters with a size and shape that would allow them to cover the window opening fully when shut. This sounds obvious, but drive around nearly any neighborhood and count how many five foot wide picture windows you find that are flanked by twelve inch wide shutters: you’ll need more than two hands.
  • Install shutters so that they’d fit tightly in the window opening. Shutters installed this way will sit on the window trim, not on the siding. While you’re out counting wide windows with skinny shutters, observe how many of those shutters sit on the siding next to the window trim, not on it. You’ll to run out of fingers and toes.
  • Install  louvered shutters with the leading edge of the louvers facing up and out when they’re open. This way, when shut, the louvers would drain water to the outside, away from the window. Since most shutters are permanently affixed in place, it’s surprising how many people think the this mounting orientation is backwards. In fact, almost every vinyl shutter out there is manufactured with louvers that shed outward in the “open” position.
  • Install shutters on both sides of the window opening even if there’s something in the way, like a chimney. If the shutter doesn’t open flat to the house, that’s okay; that’s part of the appeal of a real shutter installation. Half of a pair of shutters never did a window any good.
  • Install shutters at every opening.

That last rule is the only one that we didn’t observe. For now, we’ve only mounted shutters on the King Street side of the house. Over time, I hope to put them at every opening, as they would have been in the past. Until then, I’m pleased that even if our shutters can’t close, they could.


Hillsborough, on newsstands now

Since I have a blog, you may have surmised that I enjoy writing, and you’d be right. The gift of gab is one I never got. Instead, I prefer to deliberately shape my thoughts by setting pencil to paper or fingertips to a keyboard. Aside from the daily barrage of e-mail at work, I don’t find many opportunities to exercise my writing muscles. Before I began recording my thoughts here, I was searching for other ways to make the written word a part of my career.  Several years ago, I was fortunate to write about the kitchen renovation project in our previous house in the pages of Fine Homebuilding magazine. Writing the piece was so enjoyable, that I’ve since penned several more articles for that publication, including a recent guide to designing a classic fireplace mantel. My talented former colleague and friend, Jim Compton, did the illustrations.

Most architects would like clients think that their designs emerge fully-formed from the depths of their genius. But, truthfully, we all borrow liberally from the world around us, assembling familiar elements in new ways to meet the design challenges of a particular project. In the article about mantels, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Five feet from the couch where I did most of the writing is a beautiful fireplace and mantel, with an unfortunate color:

living room 1

Below is an illustration excerpted from the Fine Homebuilding article.  Notice any similarities?

FHB mantel

I’m not ashamed to admit that I took inspiration from my own home. Until recently, architecture had a long tradition of pattern books, which recorded the details of great buildings for anyone to emulate.  There’s no arguing that our mantel if a fine example of a traditional design, so why not enable others to replicate it elsewhere? Hillsborough has a remarkable built heritage and I’m proud to share this small slice of it with folks nationwide.

Alternate dimensions

This weekend, I took on a task I’ve been avoiding for some time: drawing floor plans of our new home. When people learn that you’re an architect, they tend to assume that you walk around with plans of your house in your back pocket, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. Not true; it’s cobbler’s shoes syndrome. A quick survey of my colleagues revealed that exactly zero of us had drawn up their place of residence.

Some architects have little patience for recording the existing conditions of a house. I feel that it’s worth the time and effort to document everything accurately. I measure to the nearest 1/8th of an inch. There’s no rocket science at work here. After roughly sketching the plans, I bust out a tape measure and start jotting down dimensions. The end result of this process is often messy:

Hand drawn plans

After taking hundreds of measurements, the sketches get put into the computer. Using CAD drafting software, I translate the chicken scratch of the measuring process into legible plans.  Inevitably, there are places where rooms don’t quite come together, or dimensions on one side of the house are different than another. This is partially due to the fact that construction is an imperfect process. In an ideal world, a house is square, level and plumb; in reality, they rarely are. Typically, the older the house, the more these discrepancies become magnified. As wood-framed buildings age, they shrink, sag, twist and turn. And in this case, there is a Bermuda Triangle for dimensions just outside the upstairs hall bathroom.  There are two inches missing there.  I looked for them for hours, measuring from every different direction, and they’re just…gone.  Somehow, the house is torqued or racked or something, and I can’t get the dimensions in that area to come together neatly, whatever I do.  Eventually, I had to ignore my  anal-retentive proclivities in the name of sanity.

The end result of all this tedium are plans like these (click on the image to see a larger, more legible version):

Floor plans

With HVAC planning about to start, these drawings will come in handy as contractors do load calculations and map out duct routes. And the next time somebody asks me for plans of my house, I might just have them in my back pocket.