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For her eyes only

I’m a natural light fanatic. After a few overcast days, I morph into Mr. Grumpy Pants. And this whole daylight savings business is a load of bollocks. Who cares if it’s dark in the morning when you’re groggy anyway? Given my innate craving for natural light, it’s only with great reluctance that I install window coverings in my place of residence. It took nearly two years for me to put blinds in our last house, even though the bedroom was ground level and street-facing.

At the Ordinary House, I’ve spent more time removing window coverings than installing them. But we face a similar visibility problem in our new master suite. It’s upstairs, but nearly every window has a line of sight to the street. This means that we either tuck into a corner to get dressed, or fumble around in the dark in an effort to avoid scandalizing the neighborhood. But, sometimes you want to shuffle around the bedroom in your boxer shorts and Bugs Bunny slippers with complete confidence that the neighbors aren’t watching.

master bedroom

Add in Weezie’s need to catch Z’s during daylight hours after overnight shifts, and it’s clear that our need for privacy and light control wins out over my craving for sunlight. Late this summer, when Louis was rousted by sunrise at 4:00 a.m., sleep deprivation forced the issue.

Our desire for permanent, effective and easily controllable window coverings led us to one obvious solution: shutters. Rather than face the hard sell and inflated prices of local dealers, I decided to order our shutters online from The Shutter Store. I was attracted to the site by reasonable prices and extensive customization options. The day after I submitted the order, a real person called to confirm the details. Then, we waited…

…and waited…

…and waited, and waited, and waited. Nearly ten weeks after clicking “order”, the first pair of shutters arrived. Now, I realize they were probably shipped on the slow boat from Guangdong Province, but two-and-a-half months is insufferably long in the age of streaming video and Amazon Prime. Sadly for us, we only ordered one pair of the five we need so that we could be sure we liked them before committing to the full order.

Fortunately, the shutters were worth the wait. They’re solid poplar, painted a crisp white with chrome hardware. The installation was quick and relatively straight-forward.

shutters unhung

The first step was to assemble a three-sided frame with bowtie-shaped plastic pegs.

corner peg

Then, I lifted the frame into place and screwed it to the window jamb, using nickels to space the frame away from the sash to maintain operability of the window.

frame install

The shutters were affixed to the frame with hinge pins. A few shims here and there to adjust to the old house wonk, and voilà! Beautiful plantation shutters.

hinge pin

The two-and-a-half inch louvers are large, allowing decent views out and plenty of natural light in. When closed, they do a good job of knocking down the light levels. One option that The Shutter Store offered that was important to me was the ability to adjust the height of the mid-rail. Our upstairs windows have unequal sashes – note how the rail aligns with the meeting point of the sashes on the window.

shutters after

With any luck, in just ten more weeks, we’ll be able to turn our room from sun-drenched to somnolent with the flick of a tilt rod.

Happy Halloween 2013!

It won’t take much to beat last year’s trick-or-treater count: three, in one group.

Granted, the house looked ghastly with the shutters removed and the windows covered in plastic. The crime scene tape that wrapped the property to warn of lead paint probably didn’t help either.

The Ordinary House is freshly painted and more approachable this Halloween, so drop by and grab some candy.  Just look for the Heisenberg-o’-lantern (If you didn’t follow Breaking Bad, the awesomeness of this pumpkin will be lost on you.)

heisenberg pumpkin

Bonus: dog costumes.

Louis begins his hunt for the Triple Crown:

louis jockey

Meg lets her inner personality show:

dog dressed as eyore

Happy Halloween!

p.s. – Go Sox. Beard strong!

“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.

Bugs behaving badly

If there’s one thing we don’t lack for here at the Ordinary House, it’s critters. Two of them, Meg and Louis, are invited guests. But then there are the squirrels and deer and skinks and snakes and wasps and chimney swifts – all uninvited and badly behaved. Apparently the local fauna enjoys east Hillsborough as much as we do. And now we’ve got another visitor staking a claim to this side of the ‘hood.

For the past several weeks, the stone walk from the driveway to the back door has become increasingly sticky. Tree sap, I figured. But the sticky stones got so tacky that our shoes were making a ripping sound with each footstep. Looking for the source of the gummy gunk, I peered upward and discovered that the trees above the walk are blanketed with these little buggers:

whiteflies on leaves

If I was a betting man, I’d say we’ve got whiteflies.  And they’re dripping a sea of honeydew, a word that I formerly associated with tasty white melons, not insect excretion. The stuff is seriously sugary, but might be tolerable if it didn’t provide a breeding ground for black soot mold, a layer of which now coats every plant and horizontal surface of our side yard.

black soot mold plant

That newly painted white fence? The top rail is nearly black in some spots.

black soot mold

I’m hoping that the cool fall nights will put a damper on the whiteflies’ goo-fest.  Until then, any tips for removing soot mold or preventing the flies from returning next year?

Still House Lott lockdown

When the weather is nice, we like to let the pups spend long hours outdoors where Louis shreds the contents of the recycling bin and Meg skulks around wondering why nature doesn’t have couches. Our newly painted fence keeps them safely contained in the yard, but both Weezie and I worry about inattentive visitors not fully latching the gate and providing an escape route for puttering pooches. To allay these concerns, I ventured onto the Interwebs in search of a stout, lockable gate latch, preferably operated with a key to avoid the hassle of a padlock.

Enter the Iron Aldrop Latch from Van Dyke’s Restorers:

iron aldrop latch

This thing looks like it belongs on the front door of Neuschwanstein: simple, no-nonense, and more than a little medieval. Best part? The keys are skeleton keys. Instant keyring gravitas.

Installation began by carefully laying out the latch mounting loops and hasp locking bar.

fence latch layout

Before installing the second mounting loop, I made sure that the latch rod was level and moved freely.

fence latch level

Once the latch was attached to the pickets, I closed the gate and marked the spot where the rod hits the fence post. I drilled a slightly oversized hole into the fence post to accept the rod in the closed position, using a scrap piece of plywood to keep the drill bit centered.

drill jig

Finally, I inserted a short length of copper tubing to protect the hole from weather and wear.

iron aldrop latch

The latch locks securely, with a satisfying click. Built with few moving parts and solid components, I expect it to keep our menagerie safe for many years to come.

Chirping chimneys

At our neighborhood potluck the other night, someone asked me if we have swifts living in our chimneys.

All signs point to yes:

The first evidence of our avian amigos’ arrival this spring was the flutter of their wingtips behind the fireplace mantel each night around dinner time. Several weeks later we began to hear high-pitched chirps from the same location. “Adorable,” we thought, “there’s a mama bird and a papa bird and two or three baby birds living snug-as-a-bug in their chimney home just above our fireplace.”

But as the video demonstrates, mama and papa bird have been busy, if you catch my drift. For the past month, every night at dusk, a swarm of our feathered friends dances around the chimney before diving into it one-by-one just as the sun dips below the horizon.

As it turns out, this isn’t one birdie family. Apparently swifts gather and roost in large groups just before their migration to South America in the fall.

It’s probably mesmerizing and beautiful if that’s not your chimney sitting there in silhouette.

Note to self: cap chimneys this winter.

Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

It wasn’t long ago that all kitchen cabinets were custom. Just a few weeks back, a veteran carpenter and I were shaking our heads at the shoddy build quality of the cabinets he was installing in a high-end kitchen renovation when he began reminiscing about the days when he and his colleagues would set up their saws in the kitchen and show off their craft by building sturdy cabinets on site. Those times are long gone and most mere mortals choose to use modular factory cabinets to keep their kitchen projects on budget.

The number of cabinet companies competing for our business is mind-boggling. I challenged myself to name as many manufacturers as I could in one minute and came up with this list: Diamond, Kraftmaid, Dynasty, Omega, Plain & Fancy, Merillat, Crownpoint, Ikea, Cliq Studios, Schrock and Bulthaup. And those are just a fraction of the companies that are producing cabinets today.

If money were no object for our kitchen project, I’d head straight to the nearest Plain English showroom (London) and hook myself up with a roomful of their lust-worthy, inset door cupboards. Because they’re British, you can call them ‘bespoke’ without coming off as a poseur.

plain english cabinets

But since we can’t afford to drop forty G’s on cabinets, we’re forced to consider more reasonable options. I used Ikea cabinets in our last kitchen and I’m convinced you can’t beat them for value. But their door styles and case sizes are limited and I don’t trust any particle board cabinet to last indefinitely.

In search of a sturdier option, I ran across Barker Cabinets, an Oregon-based cabinet manufacturer after my own heart. They have a niche operation that’s perfect for an over-do-it-yourselfer like me. Their cabinets are shipped flat-packed and ready-to-assemble, and can be customized down to the quarter inch in most dimensions. They have a decent selection of door styles available in a number of different domestic wood species, though their finish options are limited. One feature that stands out is their cabinet boxes, which are made from 3/4″ plywood, a specification that’s becoming rare even on high-end factory cabinets. Best of all, their prices are extremely reasonable, especially given the extensive customization options.

I ordered a small sample cabinet from Barker to evaluate the build quality and ease of assembly in person.

A box containing the cabinet arrived on our doorstep last week. The contents of the package were carefully packaged with shrink wrap to hold everything together and styrofoam blocks to protect vulnerable corners. First impression: extremely positive. If all of their cabinets are packed this way, it’s a sign that the company truly cares about their product.

box contents

Unwrapping the box’s contents, I noticed that each piece of the cabinet is labeled with a sticker for easy identification. The fasteners are neatly divided into plastic bags, and a clearly illustrated assembly manual is included. The plywood case pieces are finished with a clear varnish that seems reasonably durable. I ordered an unfinished Shaker style door in alder with a maple panel. The door is extremely well built with crisp corners and a smooth face that’s nearly ready for finishing. I haven’t decided yet whether we’d pay up for prefinished doors or try to paint them ourselves. Why I’m even considering the latter option after four months of fence painting is a discussion for another day.

cabinet parts

Assembly was a cinch, and took about twenty minutes including breaks for pictures.

First, you install the hinge plates.

hinge plates

Next, the box is assembled with aggressively-threaded Confirmat screws.

box assembly

The back face of the cabinet slips into a dado groove carved into the case.

cabinet back

The soft-close hinges slip into pre-drilled cups on the door and are affixed with two small screws.

hinge cup

The finished box feels solid, and looks good too.

cabinet box

Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of Barker cabinets based on my initial impressions:


  • reasonable prices
  • customizable sizing
  • 3/4″ plywood cases
  • dovetailed drawer boxes
  • nice selection of solid wood doors
  • high-quality Blum hardware


  • limited finish options
  • require assembly
  • intimidation factor for the inexperienced consumer
  • website could be more polished
  • approximate one-month lead time

These cabinets aren’t for everyone, but they seem tailor-made for me. I expect to order a room full of them in the coming months.

On the level

Drop a marble anywhere in our house and it’ll roll to the other end of the room, and not necessarily in a straight line.

“Level” is a vague and long-forgotten concept between these walls. As a neighbor describes it, this is the type of house that a carpenter walks into, looks around and announces: “By the hour.”

The massive oak beams that support the floors eat saw blades for breakfast, but the results of their centuries-long battle with gravity are betrayed by their noticeably saggy mid-sections. The droopy joists require us to keep shims handy for quick leveling of off-kilter furniture. It’s all very charming, at least until you’ve had one too many to drink and find yourself wondering whether it’s you or the house that’s leaning.

Wood structures move a lot. Day-to-day and season-to-season, a wood house is growing and shrinking, torquing and turning as it reacts to changes in temperature and humidity. And, although wood is exceptionally strong for its weight, it eventually fatigues when placed under constant load, resulting in that characteristic old house sag. For a particularly impressive example of this effect, check out the wavy roof line of the Fairbanks House, the oldest known wooden house in the United States, built in Dedham, Massachusetts around 1637 (don’t believe the chimney):

fairbanks house

Clearly, the beams in that place are totally tuckered out after 376 years of reliable service.

I’ve always know that our dining room floors were out-of-whack, but in preparation for the kitchen renovation I decided to take some quick measurements to see what I’ll be up against when setting cabinets. I whipped out my trusty laser level to project a level line across the room.

level line

At the living room side of the room, the laser line registers at 33 1/2″ above the floor.

low end

But by the time you reach the opposite end of the space, the same line is 35 1/8″ above the floor.

high end

I’ll save you the trouble: that’s a 1 5/8″ difference across 18 feet.


Truth be told, most of the height change occurs in a short stretch of floor where it slopes abruptly for no discernible reason. And the floor is more or less level in the other direction. The cabinet installation will be challenging, but to the casual observer nothing will seem out of whack, except that the cabinet toe kicks will be taller on one end of the room than the other.

And when the kitchen project is complete, the countertops will be the one truly level surface in the house – at least until the weather changes.



Before tour: the ? room

This time, dear readers, you get to tell me what the post’s featured room is. Because we live here, and we don’t know.

The ? room is located immediately adjacent to the front door, nestled between the living room and the library. It has identical dimensions to the west bedroom above it, 9′-6″ wide and a little over 19′ long.  At the south end of the room, opposing doors define the path to the library.  On the west side of the room is a fireplace with a mantel that matches the one in the living room next door.  There’s a tall window on both the north and south wall, though both are shaded by porch roofs, resulting in a space that’s dimmer than you’d expect.

question room plan

The walls are covered in vinyl wallpaper with hand-stenciled patterns. Of particular note is the rendition of a George Washington inaugural button that the previous owner placed over the mantel. It can’t stay forever; the plaster beneath the wall paper is crumbling and will need to be removed and replaced.  The ceilings are wide planks with seams hidden by batten strips, the same way they’re treated in the living room. Somewhere along the way, new hardwood floors were installed over the original 1754 floor boards – and God killed a kitten.

the unknown room

At one corner of the room is an access hatch that leads to the dead space below the stairs. You can’t get into it now because the oak floors prevent the door from swinging. But I’m holding fast to the conviction that there’s a sack of priceless colonial booty stowed away down there that will finance an early retirement into a life of leisure as the new Baron of Inchdrewer. But short of that, I suppose we’ll need to find a good use for this space, and I’m interested to hear what you think. So far, the room’s most useful purpose was to act as a temporary repository for the accumulated junk that we unearthed during move-in and wondered, “Why in God’s name do we own this, and why are we wasting energy to move it?” I’m looking at you, ceramic basset hound door stopper.

unknown room south

So what’ll it be? Formal dining room? Office? Guest room? Or something else?

Cast your vote below.