09 November 2010

OfficeFurniture.com Showcases Customer Reviews with New Top-Rated Products Category

San Francisco Chronicle

Back in March, OfficeFurniture.com added product reviews to its website; allowing people to rate and review their purchases. After only a few months, it's clear that customers like what they're seeing. With hundreds of office furniture products such as office desks, office chairs, file cabinets and media furniture getting rave reviews, OfficeFurniture.com has added a new Top-Rated Office Furniturecategory to its website.

The new category showcases office furniture products with an average of four-out-of-five stars or higher. With just a few clicks, people shopping OfficeFurniture.com can easily find products that other customers have rated and reviewed. Looking for an office chair or computer desk, but not sure where to begin? OfficeFurniture.com's Top-Rated Office Chairsand Top-Rated Computer Deskscategories are a great place to start.

"Nothing is more important than allowing customers to speak directly to one another" said Steve Twining, general manager at OfficeFurniture.com. "We want our customers to be able to make informed choices, and reading about others' experiences with the products is a great way to make sure the furniture selected will meet their needs perfectly."

When shopping different categories, OfficeFurniture.com customers are now able to sort products by average rating and also read customer reviews on those items. Customers can even share a product through a number of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Digg to gather even more feedback from friends and peers. In other words, OfficeFurniture.com is letting customers engage with its products in a very personalized way.

"With low prices, free delivery, great service and now customer product-reviews, OfficeFurniture.com is truly the leader in providing top-quality office furniture for small businesses and home offices," Twining said.

About OfficeFurniture.com 
OfficeFurniture.com is a part of the National Business Furniture family of companies. NBF was founded in 1975 as an office furniture catalog for corporate offices and government agencies. Since then, NBF has expanded into the school, church and home office markets through three catalog brands, five websites and an experienced sales team.

In 2006, NBF was acquired by K + K America, LLC, the leading group of business-to-business mail order companies in North America.

For more information or for a free catalog, go to NBF.com or visit any of the NBF family of brands, including OfficeFurniture.com for a complete selection of computer desks, executive office suites and traditional office furniture such as file cabinets, bookcases, reception furniture, and office tables.

28 October 2010

Your Kitchen Makeover: Dozens of Decisions to make before Work starts

Pocono Record

Whether you're the galloping gourmet chef or prefer to open up a box of Sara Lee, the kitchen is the central hub of the house. It's where bread is broken, discussions take place and disagreements are resolved.

It's no wonder homeowners are willing to spend the most on a kitchen remodeling than anywhere else in the home.

Before deciding on remodeling, there are a few things to consider — most importantly is your budget.

"Prices can really run the gamut when remodeling a kitchen. A homeowner can easily spend $1,200 to $21,000 and anywhere in between," said Ruth Schoeneberger, certified kitchen designer for Morris Black Kitchen and Bath Designs in Bartonsville. "If you are working within a budget, you will need to make compromises and determine where you want to be within value and what is important to your design."

There are products for every price category. "Most homeowners agree that they are only doing the job once and will go with quality products for their durability," said Cheryl Franz, kitchen designer for Monroe Marble & Granite in Stroudsburg.

Some would rather spend their money to have an energy-efficient kitchen, while others prefer function and style. In either case, with many different products to choose from, your compromises should be minimal.

Do your research, suggested Schoeneberger. "If you are not educated, you can have a lot of remorse down the road," she said.

Like clothing trends, designs, colors and types of materials used in the kitchen can become outdated. If you plan to update your kitchen for the purpose of selling your home, you might want to consider using a professional kitchen designer to give you tips in the latest styles.

After you have a realistic budget in mind, now it's time for some homework. "Get on the Internet and research different kitchen styles to find out what your style is and what you like. There are free kitchen planning guides available online that come with a checklist," said Franz.

"Once you have a visual of what your dream kitchen would look like, interview several contractors and ask for a list of references. It's important to get your estimates in writing. Never go on a handshake."


When making budget-conscious decisions in your kitchen, consider the different price points.

"Many think that refacing your old cabinets will save you money; however, by the time you pay for the labor, you could be spending just as much as if you went with new stock cabinets that are economically affordable and will give your kitchen cosmetic changes without the custom cabinetry price tag," said Franz.

Once you've picked the wood, then you can choose the finish. Buyer beware: Multiple layer finishes cost more and drive the price up. Each has various levels to determine the price points. "Darker colors are coming back for the cabinets, light oak is done. We are seeing a lot of dark maple and cherry finishes," Schoeneberger said.

Many consumers are looking for ways to incorporate green choices. There are manufacturers that offer hardwoods from sustainable forests and that use products that contain recycled contents.


If the thought of granite countertops has you salivating more than the food you're preparing, it may be time for new countertops.

"In today's kitchen, everyone wants granite countertops and a breakfast/snack bar for an eat-in kitchen," Schoeneberger said.

Granite offers durability and a lot of different color options. "Engineered quartz has a higher value because of its durability and warranty, making it more expensive, but it cannot compete with the exotic look of granite with its beauty, energy and motion."

Even in a tough economy homeowners are still remodeling and still going for the luxury item. "It's the jewel of the kitchen that really makes a statement," said Franz.

"I would never recommend Formica countertops. If you can't afford the full granite countertop, a good compromise to that would be granite tiles over the top of your existing counter top. These big granite tiles, without the large grout line, are less expensive but still give the same luxurious look of granite."


The verdict is in and the lights are coming out. "No more wasted space above the cabinets with soffits and recessed lighting. People want that extra height for storage. With so many kitchen gadgets and gizmos, we need to put it somewhere," Schoeneberger said.


Flooring is a personal taste. "Many want the look of hardwood floors, but you will still have spillage, drops and scratches. There is more wear and tear in the kitchen than any other room in the house. Porcelain tiles are still the best on a kitchen floor. Ceramic tiles are less expensive but not as durable as porcelain. It really depends where you want your luxury," Franz said.

Good investment?

Don't expect to recoup remodeling money when trying to sell your home. And the more you spend, the more you lose. According to Schoeneberger, in today's market, no one cares about what use to matter years ago.

"Home buyers today do not know quality and won't pay for it either. All they look at is the price," she said.

Bev Waring, an agent with Realty Executives in Stroudsburg, said, "In this market, I would say no to a kitchen renovation to get a house sold. The house may sell more quickly with an updated kitchen; however, the homeowner most likely will not get a full return on the investment."

According to Realtor magazine, a midrange kitchen remodel brings an average 72.1 percent return on investment, while an upscale kitchen redo returns only an average of 63.2 percent.

20 October 2010

Oregon Garden Exhibit will show how to protect Home from Wildfire

Satesman Journal

The first full-scale fire-prevention safety house in the nation is blooming at The Oregon Garden.

By July 2011, homeowners living in Oregon's wildland-urban interface, fire officials and home improvement retailers will have a life-sized teaching tool to demonstrate how to make homes less vulnerable to wildfires.

Individuals who are unable to visit the garden in person still will be able to tour the house. "This exhibit will be available nationwide," said Oregon Department of Forestry's Craig Pettinger, project manager. "One of the pieces of the grant is to provide an online virtual tour so people can view it from anywhere."

The project will be funded by a $600,000 Assistance to Firefighters grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The grant will pay for interpretive fire education displays and the production of a video chronicling the project to serve as an instructional tool for homeowners.

An existing 1970s-era home, currently used as the garden's business office, is being developed into the exhibit.

The cost of remodeling the home and landscaping the property will be funded through other grants and donations, said Denny Stoll, Oregon Garden Foundation chairman.

The Oregon Garden Fire Safety House will feature fire-resistant landscaping and building materials on the outside and fire prevention and safety displays on the inside.

Visitors will learn about the top causes of home fires in Oregon, smoke alarms and residential sprinklers.

In 2009, there were more than 2,300 home fires, resulting in an estimated $60 million in property loss, according to Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal's 2009 report.

Nine Oregonians died and 172 were injured in the house fires.

"Safety starts with one home at a time," said State Fire Marshal Randy Simpson, adding that the ultimate goal is to have no fire fatalities in Oregon.

The project is a partnership between The Oregon Garden Foundation, the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State University, Moonstone Garden Management and the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal.

Representatives from the different entities gathered Friday at the garden to talk about the house.

Coincidentally, the ceremony fell at the end of National Fire Prevention Week.

According to Dan Postrel, ODF's agency affairs director, it's estimated that as many as 500,000 to 700,000 lots may be located in Oregon's wildland-urban interface, although not all of the lots are developed.

"Oregon is a beautiful place, and the appeal of living in the woods is strong," Postrel said. "That's why a project like this is so important, so people can come and touch and feel and learn how to make their own surroundings survivable and dependable."

Stoll said he expects the new exhibit to attract regional and national attention.

"The end result of this collaboration will be the fact that working with other entities not related to the garden has opened various avenues for us to reach out to people who we didn't have the ability to reach before," he said.

19 October 2010

Home Depot pins Remodeling Hopes on Martha Stewart

Associated Press

Martha Stewart knows a thing or two about kitchens: She owns 21. Home Depot hopes the domestic diva still has enough cachet to inspire Americans to start remodeling again with a new line of kitchen countertops, hardware and cabinets.

The line represents an expansion of a bet Home Depot made on Stewart last year when it signed a deal with her after her long-running deal with Kmart ended when they couldn't come to terms.

The increasingly high profile at Home Depot is a boon to Stewart and her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., which has seen its share price fall 79 percent since the beginning of 2007 as the recession exacerbated choppy performance from its publishing and broadcast divisions. It's pursuing more partnerships with retailers to make up for the tough media business.

The line, which hit stores in September, includes 11 different styles of cabinets, 8 different countertops and 45 cabinetry hardware items and is inspired by a few of Stewart's own kitchens. While focused on the kitchen, cabinets can be used in other rooms like laundry and bathrooms.

"It's a natural area for us, and we finally have a partner who is able to do it in a large way," Stewart said at a launch event in New York on Thursday. "There are details you don't get at the mass-market level," she said, citing a bracket as an example that was inspired by vintage brackets she found at an antique market.

Home Depot began selling Martha Stewart Living-branded products in January, beginning with patio furniture, cleaning products, home decor and closet organization items. Paint and carpet followed.

While Home Depot won't disclose specific sales figures by category, the company said the Martha Stewart Living items are doing well and in the month they have been in stores the kitchen products are exceeding expectations.

"It's spreading like weeds to other merchandise categories, so that's a pretty good indication of how well its doing," said Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi.

Still, executives acknowledge that introducing a kitchen line during the uncertain economy is a risk.

Americans buffeted by high unemployment, an anemic housing market and uncertain economy have scaled back on remodeling projects. Homeowners spent $114 billion on remodeling in 2009, 22 percent less than a peak of $146 billion in 2006, before the recession began according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Home Depot is hoping the new kitchen line, which is color-coordinated with Martha Stewart's lines of paint and carpeting, will egg customers on to bigger remodeling projects.

"You could argue it is a funny time to launch," said Bob Baird, Home Depot merchandising vice president of kitchens. "Nobody needs a new kitchen tomorrow. ... But it is a great time to invest because when things do turn around, we'll be able to leverage our investments big time."

Stewart, who also sells products branded with her name at Macy's, Michael's, PetSmart and other stores, said her formula is focusing on strong design coupled with low prices, items that are "affordable, sturdy and well built."

Merchandise revenue has a bright point for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Although the black eye of Stewart's prison stint in 2004 has faded, the company was hurt by the advertising slump during the recession and has operated at a loss for six of the past eight quarters.

There have been signs of stabilization. In its most recent quarter, the company's loss narrowed, helped by strong merchandise sales and solid growth in online advertising revenue. The company also moved Martha Stewart's eponymous show to the Hallmark channel last month in an effort to improve its results. The show had been in syndication.

The items in the new kitchen and cabinet line come in a wide range of prices — some kitchens cost $133 per linear foot, while others cost $153. The cost of a total kitchen renovation falls around $2,000 or $3,000 for a small kitchen, depending on the products used and not including labor.

Stewart added she was interested in expanding the Martha Stewart Living brand to other areas of Home Depot. Mirrors, drapes and drapery hardware begin to roll out this month, as are holiday items including pre-decorated artificial trees, wreaths and ornaments.

"There are many, many opportunities," she said.

14 October 2010

New Day for Home Builders

The Wall Street Journal

Pelican Preserve, an adult community in Fort Myers, Fla., hasn't had its grand opening yet, but several buyers have already signed contracts for homes in the development, where prices start at $140,000.

The early sales—and the relatively modest selling prices that helped attract them—reflect the advantages WCI Communities Inc. now enjoys over many of its home-building rivals, thanks to a trip through bankruptcy court.

Pelican Preserve, with its planned new 1,150 homes, is the company's first new construction and sales project since it emerged from Chapter 11 proceedings last year.

Under court protection, WCI slashed its costs by nearly 75%. It has also been able to write down the value of its land holdings, which was battered by the housing downturn, to reflect the current market.

That "gives us a competitive edge in pricing our homes," says Chief Executive David Fry. "Other companies didn't have that luxury."

While most builders done in by the housing market's collapse are gone for good, a few are emerging from bankruptcy revitalized—with less debt, choice land and sharper business plans. Like WCI, whose public shareholders were wiped out under its reorganization plan, they are more likely to be owned by their creditors.

Relieved of day-to-day shareholder pressure to keep up their stock price and pay all their bills, these companies can take steep write-downs on the value of their land, which was often purchased during the industry's boom years. That allows them to price homes low enough to capture consumers' attention and still post a profit.

The new competition hasn't helped large publicly traded home builders. Many of those builders managed to avoid bankruptcy court but are struggling to sell homes in what continues to be a weak market, particularly in states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona. Having counted on winning business away from their failed peers, they may instead find themselves up against tough, newly private rivals that have learned from past mistakes.

"It's just a lot easier to steal market share if all the private guys are on the sidelines," says Michael Widner, a home-building analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

Some industry executives, however, believe that tight credit and lack of access to public markets will keep Chapter 11 veterans like WCI in check.

Ken Campbell, the CEO of publicly traded Standard Pacific Corp., of Irvine, Calif., says his overriding concern is the lack of a housing-market recovery.

"Without good prospects of a recovery, I don't think much capital is going to make its way to the recently bankrupt companies," says Mr. Campbell, whose company was near bankruptcy when it was rescued by a distressed-debt buyout firm in 2008.

Even for the healthiest builders, home construction is a risky business these days. Despite record-low mortgage rates that have made homes more affordable, new-home sales have been hurt by high unemployment and weak consumer confidence. A bloated supply of bargain-priced resale and foreclosed homes makes it tough for home builders to compete on price.

But housing is cyclical. "We're not going to be in this slump forever," says David Warren, a bankruptcy attorney at Poyner Spruill LLP.

That's what Orleans Homebuilders Inc. is counting on. The Bensalem, Pa., company initially planned to sell the bulk of its land to rival NVR Inc., but instead it opted for reorganization.

"Why would you sell at the bottom?" asks Mitchell B. Arden, senior managing director of Phoenix Management Services Inc., Orleans Homebuilders' chief restructuring officer. "Home builders have historically made money."

Orleans's goal is to emerge from bankruptcy court later this year with its debt chopped in half. It aims to increase efficiency and cut cost by scaling back the number of home models and variations it offers. Under its reorganization plan, Orleans will be owned by senior lenders, including a trio of hedge funds.

Mr. Arden says the revamped Orleans could sell off less-prime land parcels. Finding buyers shouldn't be a problem, he says, because plenty of builders are in the market for bargain-priced land as they prepare for an eventual upturn.

Indeed, some private investors are already betting they can make money building houses on cheap land. City Ventures, a Santa Ana, Calif., builder launched last year, raised $100 million this year in private-equity investment to fund land acquisition. It says cheap land has allowed it to price homes as much as 50% below prices at the height of the boom.

New Home Co., another California-based start-up, says it has been buying land for 20% to 50% below boom prices. Its first community in Irvine, Calif., sold out this year, and it plans 38 more homes.

"As a private builder with no legacy assets that are tying us down and being pretty well capitalized, I think it gives us every advantage," says Larry Webb, New Home's chief executive, who previously worked for a private builder that went bankrupt.

Overpaying was a mistake that came back to haunt WCI, as it did many builders. It bought two smaller builders at the top of the market, says Mr. Fry. And it started several luxury-condominium projects in Florida, one of the states hardest hit by the housing slump.

As the company stumbled, activist investor Carl Icahn bought up stock and fought his way onto the board, but WCI couldn't escape the crumbling housing market. In August 2008, with $1.9 billion of debt, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

WCI, based in Bonita Springs, Fla., emerged from Chapter 11 last fall as a closely held timber frame home builder with debt of $450 million. It is owned primarily by more than 15 private-equity firms that bought up its debt at a discount. Its largest holder is Monarch Alternative Capital LP.

The reorganized company sold the land that didn't work with its revamped business plan, including sites for high-rise condominiums in Florida and Virginia, and kept about 9,000 acres.

Land cost now accounts for an average 10% of the price for one of its homes, down from 20% at the market's peak.

WCI slashed its work force and the number of floor plans it offered on its homes. Corporate costs—ranging from marketing to real-estate taxes—fell to around $40 million a year from more than $150 million.

"There has been a radical culture shift in the organization," Mr. Fry says. "We will be much leaner going forward."

03 October 2010

A Good Kitchen Remodel Starts with Planning

Maine Sunday Telegram

Kitchen remodels continue to be popular home improvement projects despite the economic stagnation, according to the August 2010 issue of the Consumer Reports. This isn't exactly dish-shattering news given the impact of a kitchen to a family's lifestyle and home value.

Many homeowners are uncertain about where to start. A simple first step is to consult a Bucks County kitchen designer. A professional designer understands the entire process, inside and out, and will provide many important services: in-home measurements, personalized consultations, layout designs, computerized renditions, installer referrals, oversight management, and more.

Some companies hire professionals to provide free kitchen design services to their customers.

"Kitchen designers provide invaluable support throughout the entire remodeling project," said Bob Hunt, director of Kitchen Destination, the new cabinetry and design division of New England Building Materials. "We provide these services free as an added value to our customers."

Following are some things to consider doing before starting a kitchen remodeling project.

Start asking questions. Why do I want a new or remodeled kitchen? What do I want to change and why? What are my needs and wants? Is my budget fixed or flexible? When is the best time and way to begin? Tip: Search the internet for other questions related to kitchen remodeling.

Set a budget. Establishing a preliminary budget will help keep you on track and make temptations more resistant. The National Kitchen & Bath Association claims the average kitchen remodel costs between 10 percent and 20 percent of a home's value.

Still, kitchen remodels are one of the best home improvement investments with an average return of 76 percent according to the Remodeling Magazine's 2009-2010 Cost vs. Value Report. Tip: Budget 10 percent to 15 percent of the total cost for unanticipated surprises.

Explore ideas and identify needs versus want. Perhaps the most challenging and exciting part of the entire process is exploring possibilities. However, it's important to balance functionality and style. Make a list of what you need first and then move on to wants. Don't forget to consider cabinets, flooring, appliances, sink, faucet, lighting, plumbing, windows, and wiring. Tip: Make sure to include any special needs of small children, handicapped or elderly members of your household into your budget and design.

Schedule a home visit with a kitchen designer.

The designer will take accurate measurements and provide a professional perspective on your design with additional attention to walls, doors, windows, lighting, wiring, plumbing, and so on. Tip: Save money by consulting a professional designer from a building company that provides these services for free.

Visit a cabinet showroom. "Visiting a kitchen design center showroom is a great way to explore cabinet options," says Joy M. Martel, a certified kitchen designer for Kitchen Destination. "Unfortunately, images in magazines and on the internet are not as reliable as seeing and touching the real thing." Tip: Having a good understanding of your taste will help in the selection process.

Find a Maine concrete contractor or bath installer. Ask friends, neighbors or your designer if they can recommend a reputable contractor or installer. Tip: Ask for references and a copy of the contractor's license and workers' compensation and liability insurance to confirm they are current.

Get a quote. Your designer and/or contract need to confirm all aspects of the Saugatuck kitchen remodeling plan before providing accurate quote. Otherwise you may end up incurring unnecessary costs and delays due to misunderstandings or misinformation. Tip: Ask your contractor to the written contract give you a list each phase of the project; every product, including the model number.

28 September 2010

Thousands get Remodeling Ideas in Raleigh


Organizers of the Southern Ideal Home Show, held at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, said they saw more foot traffic this weekend compared to a year ago.

They hope it's a sign of economic recovery.

Homeowners looking to spruce up their space had plenty of lush landscapes, custom kitchens and sparkling spas to choose from.

Landscape specialist Frank Bennett said he sees homeowners investing in their outdoor living spaces.

"Instead of selling in this economy, they've decided to scale back and stay at the house and enjoy it," he said.

Doug and Mary Latta of Raleigh Homes were typical of those at the home show looking for inspiration.

"We love our home. We love our friends and the neighborhood, so we are just looking to stay and remodel," Mary Latta said.

Many of the 300-plus vendors offered "green" options. A toilet with a built-in sink was one of the most popular attractions.

To thank customers of his kitchen remodeling company, Eddie Casanava adds a unique touch.

"After we remodel their kitchen, I go and I cook for them and their friends and family and neighbors as a thank you," he said.

This weekend's show was the 25th anniversary of the event and was expected to draw about 22,000 people from as far as 100 miles away.

27 September 2010

Nespresso Opens Stores as North American Sales Rise


Nespresso sales in the U.S. and Canada have increased about 50 percent this year, helped by store openings and a new distribution agreement, said Frederic Levy, the head of Nestle’s Nespresso brand in those markets.

The coffee company is opening its 13th sales location in the region tomorrow with a “boutique” in New York’s Soho neighborhood, said Levy, who is president of Nespresso in North America. A shop within a Sur La Table store in Florida will follow next month.

“The new coffee culture is expanding” in the U.S., Levy said today in a telephone interview. “Word of mouth is very strong.”

Nespresso sales reached 2.77 billion Swiss francs ($2.76 billion) worldwide last year, with about 90 percent of the total from Europe. That’s almost 3 percent of Vevey, Switzerland-based Nestle’s revenue. First-half Nespresso sales increased more than 25 percent, Nestle said Aug. 11. The brand is growing even as U.S. consumers have cut spending, according to analysts.

“It may be super-premium, but any consumer can afford to buy the machines and the capsules,” said James Amoroso, a food industry consultant in Walchwil, Switzerland. “It is also a market that is still at the very beginning of its life cycle. Penetration in the U.S. must still be extremely low.”

Nespresso doesn’t plan price increases in the U.S. in 2010, Levy said, adding that the last boost was in early 2008. Futures contracts for Arabica coffee beans have been trading near the highest in almost 13 years.

Crate & Barrel stores began selling Nespresso machines in March, Levy said. The coffee makers range from $149 to $2,500 and the capsules average 55 cents each.

Single-serve machines are responsible for about 7 percent of the global coffee market, according to Nespresso. The brand plans to eventually have 20 to 30 boutiques in the U.S., Levy said.

11 September 2010

High-Tech Utility Meters Spark a Fight

The Wall Street Journal

PG&E Cites Need to Control Energy Use, but Some Residents Fear Higher Prices, Reduced Privacy From Digital Readings

A new, high-tech utility meter is inflaming passions around the Bay Area. Now PG&E Corp. is trying to tamp down growing regional opposition to its $2.2 billion meter upgrade—but is failing to mollify many local critics.

PG&E, through its Pacific Gas & Electric Co. unit, plans to install 9.3 million digital electric and gas meters—otherwise known as "smart" meters—by 2012 as part of a statewide effort to modernize the electric grid and give consumers better tools to control energy use.

The meters are integral to state and national efforts to cut power-plant emissions in the coming years. Unlike old meters that must be read manually, the new ones wirelessly transmit readings, allowing utilities to charge higher prices when they want to discourage energy use or give price breaks to favored uses, like running appliances or charging electric cars during off-peak hours.

Complaints about meters began surfacing in California in mid-2009, when customers in Bakersfield began noticing unusually high power bills. More recently, customers in some Bay Area cities have complained about health problems that they attribute to radio transmissions from wireless meters, and have expressed fears that the meters threaten privacy by theoretically making it possible for hackers to intercept data transmissions.

PG&E says these fears are unfounded and that the meters have been thoroughly tested and have robust security. To reduce opposition, the utility is setting up temporary "answer centers" where customers can go to ask questions about the meters. It also is hiring 165 customer-service representatives and has set up a dedicated telephone line to field customer questions.

But PG&E's outreach has failed to appease critics who, increasingly, are influencing local city councils and county boards of supervisors.

The city council in Marin County's Belvedere, for instance, in August sent a letter to PG&E asking it to suspend meter installations until concerns are addressed. Fairfax and Novato have taken similar steps. And San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera in June petitioned state regulators to suspend PG&E's program, "until questions about their accuracy are fully resolved."

In Santa Cruz County, Watsonville's city council passed an ordinance in August that prohibits smart meter installations for one year. At its next meeting on Sept. 14, the council will decide whether to create a fine for anyone who flouts the law.

Watsonville Mayor Luis Alejo says PG&E has mishandled public queries. He says he asked the utility in August to delay its program until public meetings could be held, but it refused. PG&E now is organizing community meetings, he says, "but that should have been done a long time ago."

Some local residents have taken their objections to the California Public Utilities Commission, which has jurisdiction over utility programs. The commission has declined to order changes in the PG&E program, though Commissioner Nancy Ryan says she will form a task force this month to provide more oversight, noting the importance of public trust.

In response to billing complaints, the commission ordered an independent analysis of meter accuracy. In a report last week, consultants said the meters used by PG&E, which are made by Landis+Gyr, meet industry standards for accuracy and do a better job measuring energy consumption than the electromechanical meters they replace. The report didn't address health concerns.

Joshua Hart, a resident of Scotts Valley, recently formed a group that is trying to stop smart-meter installations. He says he believes wireless meters "pose a significant public health threat" by adding their radio pulses to those of cellphones and other wireless devices.

Tammie Donnelly, a 51-year-old anti-aging consultant in Aptos, says she got a PG&E vendor to remove a smart meter from her home and replace it with an old-style one last winter. She says the wireless meter made her ill, causing headaches, nausea and chest pain.

Studies have failed to established a link between health issues and low-power radio devices like smart meters. A recent analysis by researchers at Kings College, London, looked at 46 studies that tried to determine if electromagnetic fields make people ill. The review concluded that "despite the conviction of…sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions."

The Federal Communications Commission, which sets standards on radio-wave exposure, says there is no indication that smart meters are unsafe. Smart meters and other wireless devices "are tested and must meet our exposure standards," says Robert Wellser, chief of technical analysis in the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.

PG&E officials, to date, aren't allowing cities and individuals to opt out of the program, and it isn't clear what force of law city ordinances might have. The state commission has jurisdiction for most utility matters.

"This is a mandatory program," says Helen Burt, senior vice president for Pacific Gas & Electric. One reason is that the utility plans to eliminate most meter reader positions, saving money that provides a major justification for the program.

Some critics say PG&E sowed seeds for the current skirmish by sponsoring and funding an unpopular ballot measure, Proposition 16, in June. The initiative sought to block cities and counties from setting up power-buying agencies that would compete with the utility. The measure failed.

"City councils aren't happy with us about Prop 16," says Ms. Burt. "We know we need to regain their trust."

04 September 2010

Ten Environmentally Friendly Tips To Save Money and Energy

This summer season has been one of the hottest recorded throughout many areas around the globe. The average global temperatures for this year may exceed those of 1998. If that is case, it would result in two of the hottest years on record in the last 13.

The National Academy of Sciences recently released data involving 1,400 climate researchers around the globe. Roughly 97% make the claim that humans are the cause of global warming.

If you are concerned about the future of the environment, here are ten environmentally friendly tips you can take that also have a return on investment — they can help sustain the earth as well as your monthly global cash flow.

1. Fix your home's energy leaks. Over a fifth of energy consumption in the U.S. occurs within people's homes, says the Department of Energy. That's an average expenditure of $2,400 a year. Half of that figure goes to home heating and cooling, much of which results in waste. To prevent energy leaks, insulate ceilings and walls, and seal cracks and gaps. The simplest Cuyahoga County home remodeling fixes can make a tremendous impact. "Often people have so many small leaks around the home that it's the equivalent of having a three-foot by three-foot window wide open," says president of the Washington-based nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy.

2. Swap out your home's light bulbs. The common home has up to 46 throughout the house, says the Department of Energy. However only five of them are energy-efficient. These can slash lighting energy bills by 75%. Not a fan of CFs? Matt Patsky, the CEO of Trillium Asset Management, says new LEDs are much better. They can slash power consumption by 95% and emit a better light than traditional bulbs. They cost more, however prices are dropping rather quickly.

3. Turn the heat off in an empty house or a house when everyone is sleeping. Look into a programmable thermostat for residential heating.
"They typically pay for themselves in three months," says ASE's Ms. Callahan. They can drop your home heating and cooling bills by 10%, she says.

4. Evaluate your home's appliances. Replace any old ones with new, energy-efficient models. Today's more efficient models have an EnergyStar seal from the Department of Energy. They typically use around 30% less energy than older models that lack the seal, experts say. With respect to your TV: The larger the screen, the more power it is sucking up. The same idea applies to PCs. Take into consideration the number of refurbished computers you have around the home as well as how long they remain on and idle throughout the day (if not week).

5. Similar to the tip above: stop leaving your used PCs and home entertainment systems on standby overnight. Although the screen is black, they still use power. Power strips make it more convenient to switch everything off at one time.

6. Get the most from taxpayer green incentives. For instance, the government is currently offering to pay up to $1,500 of your costs on items like insulation other Medina County home remodeling investments that save energy. Your state government may be offering additional incentives. Look for deals like these at DSIRE, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.

7. Get a hold on your hot water heater. It is by far one of the biggest energy users as well as easiest approaches to evaluate your home's energy financial risk management. Turn down the thermostat and wrap insulation around the heater and the pipes. Typically, they are set at around 140 degrees. According to The Energy Department, that is way too high. They suggest dropping it down to 115 to 120 degrees.

8. Invest in a more-efficient vehicle. Highly-efficient hybrids can be costly, but director of pricing and analysis at car experts Edmunds, Jessica Caldwell, claims there are numerous deals available at the moment that can bring the price down. You don't need to go hybrid or buy tickets to all of the upcoming green trade show exhibits. Caldwell says the Versa by Nissan gets around 29 miles to the gallon and has a price tag of $16,000. If a new vehicle is not an option, consider ideas like energy saving truck bed accessories. Extang, an affiliate of BedRug - maker of truck bed liners and truck bed carpet, claims that by purchasing an Extang truck tonneau, you save up to 10% in gas mileage.

9. Get an energy audit of your home's power consumption. By investing a few hundred dollars, experts using high-tech gadgets will analyze your home and offer insights as to what you can do to make your home more efficient. Getting a home audit can help you rethink your home heating and air conditioning, as well as identify potential sources of renewable energy, from geothermal heat pumps to solar water heating solutions.

10. Invest in an e-book reader. If you enjoy reading and read often, these little devices are very green. Books and magazines are not: they do a lot of damage to the environment, from cutting trees to manufacturing and distribution. The senior research analyst at the CleanTech Group, an environmental consulting firm, has calculated the figures. In essence, a gadget like the Kindle has about the same influence on the environment as about 23 books, or 280 newspapers, or 177 magazines.

Going green exhibits a change that is both healthy for the earth and the wallet. Take these tips to heart as well as the home, and start living a more environmentally friendly way of life.

31 August 2010

It's Man vs Machine and Machines are in the Saddle

Kansas City dot com

More and more I find myself taking care of appliances and gadgets that were supposed to take care of me.

Take the kitchen. Please.

Granite countertops are all the rage. They're beautiful and durable but come with a long list of do's and don'ts. Do blot spills immediately, don't use an abrasive sponge, do use a soft cloth, do use coasters under glasses, bottles and cans and don't set hot pans on the counter without a trivet underneath.

Granite is a slab of rock formed by the fiery heat and intense pressure of volcanoes, but once it enters my home, it suddenly needs kid glove treatment.

Then there is the cooktop stove whose maintenance was supposed to be as easy as wiping up a spill. I spend more time cleaning that shiny black surface than I spend on my hair. You boil over one time and you have to scrub with the special polish, rub with the special sponge, and when that doesn't work, you scrape with a not-so-special straight-edge razor blade.

The self-cleaning feature on the oven range that is supposed to save elbow grease advises that the fumes released in the cleaning process can be harmful to household pets such as birds. If Tweetie bird isn't going to hang around to smell the fumes, I'm not either. There are days when the range now enjoys more time alone in the house than I do.

Environmentally friendly front-load washing machines were supposed to save time, money and energy. They collect mold and mildew and have birthed an entire line of products designed to help owners free their machines of mildew and odors. Consider it your new hobby.

It used to be you just wiped down a stainless steel sink. Now there is a polish to use that eliminates streaks and finger prints. Oh, and rub with the grain of the stainless steel, would you?

The tile setter who redid our bathroom suggested we reseal the grout at least once a year. I put it on my calendar for Doomsday.

Even the filtration water pitcher designed to give us purer and better tasting water is needy. Once you see little black specks floating in the pitcher you are to jump up, run to the store and buy a new filter. I find it easier to say I am serving pepper water.

A red light inside the refrigerator flashes once a year warning that its filtration system needs attention, too. This predictably happens at Thanksgiving. What better time than a family holiday to lie on your stomach in the middle of the kitchen and struggle to unscrew the knob holding the old filter, pull it out and put in a new one equivalent to a nice dinner out for two.

My nighttime routine used to be to tuck the kids in bed, now I run around tucking in electronics - plug in the cell phone, connect the USB to recharge the iPod and turn off the computer monitor. Nighty-night.

We have been trained to jump, run, buy and polish at the first buzz, dent, scratch, beep or flashing light.

If all of our kitchen appliances and gizmos were kids, we'd say they were spoiled rotten.

The dishwasher just beeped.

It always has been sassy.

29 August 2010

Caulk Replaces Show Kitchens at Home Depot, Lowe’s

The Misses desires new kitchen counters and the Mister wants a larger back deck for grilling. With budgets tight, couples are setting those home improvement aspirations aside.

Several Americans, having invested in kitchen redesigns, luxury bathrooms and surround-sound entertainment during the housing boom, are also pinching their pennies. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, dropping the dime on Cleveland home remodeling for the twelve months ending Sept. 30 will drop 25% to $107.7 billion compared to the same 12-month period in 2007,

The pitfall is affecting companies of all sizes - from Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. to contractors and interior designers.

“There are still consumers putting in new kitchens,” said Robert Niblock, the chairman and CEO of Lowe’s. “But they’re doing it because they’re going to be in their homes longer. That’s the change from the go-go days.”

New home sales last month plummeted 12 percent from June, the lowest level on record, announced by the Commerce Department. Existing home sales fell by a record 27 percent in July, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Also creating caution among Americans are the highest unemployment rates since 1983, said Niblock. Many homeowners are making home improvements he said, and many are doing it on their own.

The Roberts family out of Ohio, still trying to sell their home in Beachwood are a common example. They repainted much of the inside of their green, three-bedroom home.

“Anything we can do on our own, we do it because it is less expensive,” said Jake, 38. “We not getting too crazy right now, but we still get some help from a local expert of home remodeling in Cuyahoga County Ohio."

The No. 1 and No. 2 home-improvement chains in the U.S., Home Depot and Lowe’s, shaved their 2010 sales forecasts this month.

Home Depot experienced a 5 cent increase to $28.38 in New York Stock Exchange, with shares slipping 1.9 percent this year. Lowe’s dropped 6 cents to $20.65. The company’s shares have reduced to 12 percent in 2010.

The two Westlake home remodeling and improvement giants are attempting a counter strategy against a decrease in big-ticket transactions, which are minimizing how much consumers spend each time they visit the store. During the second quarter, Home Depot's sales of $50 or less increased 2.4%, yet $900 and higher sales dropped 4.9%.

In May, Home Depot surveyed 3,000 customers and discovered that half of the population surveyed planned to paint this year while 40% intend to caulk. The results of the survey encouraged a new marketing campaign. Its new slogan, “Lowering the Cost of Operating Your Home,” is taste of the new approach.

In addition, Home Depot is offering more "do-it-yourself" home remodeling independence classes for customers. The retailer claimed that attendance at “do-it- herself” classes designed specifically for women rose 20% in June.

Luxury homeowners are pickier about Lakewood home remodeling projects, said an Ohio interior designer.

“There was much more of an open checkbook, much more free spending to do the whole house,” said Susan Marocco, a home design specialist. “Now there’s a lot more thought about where the spending is going.”

Marocco plans to perform seven or eight kitchen renovations this year after completing twice that amount in 2008. Recently, she has been teaming up with a couple in New York on a renovation and addition project that was stalled in 2008. The couple held on to some of their appliances and reused the kitchen countertops.

“They were very mindful of how they spent their money,” said Marocco.

Wall Streeters are less apt to demolish homes and rebuild “something two or three times bigger,” said director of new project development at Murphy Brothers Contracting, Michael Murphy, in New York. Individuals are building houses a third smaller and spending more on insulation, home heating and cooling systems and solar panels to save money later, he said.

The depression in demand has unveiled “a feeding frenzy” among builders, and the price of custom homes selling for $1 million or more has dropped 10 percent from 2007, Murphy said.

Americans will “tiptoe back,” said Steve Spiwak, a home remodeling Medina County analyst at Kantar Retail in Ohio. Costly purchases, including appliances, may not revive for over a year, he said.

Meanwhile, consumers are searching for discounts and are driven to bargain. The Roberts say they dished out almost $4,000 for their home remodeling Beachwood project, but searched endlessly for the deals first.

23 August 2010

Why Making Iced Coffee at Home Is Such a Grind

The Wall Street Journal

Is caffeine, like revenge, best served cold? It certainly seems so in August, when even people who adore their hot morning coffee often take it over ice.

But in a nation overrun with frozen latte drinks, shockingly few people know how to make a respectable iced coffee at home. And with good reason: It's hard to get it right. Simply refrigerating a pot of hot coffee will certainly produce cold coffee, but you probably won't want to drink it.

The ideal iced coffee is both strong and smooth—rich enough to stand up to ice, milk and maybe a sweetener, yet also somewhat thirst-quenching, without any jarring bitter tastes.

Some 1.2 billion cups of iced coffee were served outside the home in the 12 months that ended in May, a 6% increase over the previous 12 months, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y. market-research firm. Yet only 1% of all coffee consumed at home is iced. "We don't have a clue" how to make good iced coffee at home, says Harry Balzer, NPD's chief industry analyst. Only restaurants can do it, he says.

Seeing the potential for a better do-it-yourself brew, manufacturers are selling several new iced-coffee systems and gadgets for home use. "The U.S. market for iced coffee is bigger than any other market in the world," says Thomas Perez, president of Bodum USA Inc., a unit of Bodum AG of Switzerland, which released a cold-brew iced-coffee maker in May. "The taste and demand for iced coffee is already there. We want to be in this niche."

To step up your home-brew technique, first you must first decide: Hot-brewed or cold? Traditionally, most specialty coffee shops have used the hot-brew method, which involves pouring extra-strong hot coffee over ice. But energy-efficient cold-brewing, where ground coffee steeps for 12 hours in water at room temperature, is gaining ground, already in coffee chains such as Caribou Coffee and Seattle's Best.

Several cold-brew systems for home use have come on the market, including the Hourglass Coffee system, with a distinctive blue-plastic brewing vessel. Bean Logik, of Vancouver, Wash., which introduced the product nationally last year, says it produces coffee that is "69.9% less acidic" than hot-brewed coffee. "A lot of our customers have sensitive stomachs, and they understand the low-acid benefits of cold brewing," says Kim Kapp, Bean Logik president.

We tried four ways to brew iced coffee at home, including three cold-brew systems and one old-school, hot-brew appliance, all using Illy medium-grind coffee. And for comparison, we included a fifth way, one we hoped would be idiot-proof—Starbucks Via, the instant iced coffee that has been available since June in Starbucks shops and online.

For tasting, we enlisted two experts with sophisticated palates, both from the New York specialty grocer Dean & Deluca in Soho (which brews about five gallons of coffee, hot or iced, every half hour). Michelle Aleman, manager of the coffee department, and Queenie Fok, espresso-bar manager, say they both prefer hot-brewed, the method Dean & Deluca uses, but allow it's a matter of taste.

They were agnostic on the questions of coffee-bean type, roast and origin. But they said a coarser grind works better for cold-brewed coffee. And one thing we learned about iced coffee is that quantity is critical: Less is definitely not more. Ms. Aleman suggests doubling the amount you'd use for hot coffee.

For our first batch we used the Bodum Bean ($39.95 at bodumusa.com), which works just like a French press, only with cold water: Ground coffee and water go into the glass beaker; stick it in the refrigerator overnight, and depress the plunger when you take it out the next morning. The instructions recommend doubling the usual proportion of coffee—so instead of one tablespoon per cup, we used six or seven for three cups of water. That wasn't enough, though. "It's a little on the light side," Ms. Fok said, sipping the coffee poured over ice. Ms. Aleman concurred. "I think it has a good coffee flavor, but it's not very strong." She added, "I also feel like the coffee needs to be exposed to the water a little bit more."

This revealed a potential downside to cold-brewing's claims about low acidity. Removing acidity also takes away some more-desirable flavor notes. "The different flavor notes including brightness—which means acidity—really add to the complexity of the coffee and to the flavor," Ms. Aleman said.

Next up was the Toddy cold-brew system ($37.50 at toddycafe.com), around since 1964 and the method used in Seattle's Best shops. Julia Leach, co-owner of Toddy, based in Fort Collins, Colo., calls it "deceptively simple, excessively delicious." We found it simple, but also a bit awkward. We put 12 ounces of coffee and seven cups of water into a bucket-type container (following directions to add them in layers) and let it sit overnight. In the morning, we removed a stopper from the bottom of the bucket, and the coffee dripped through a filter into a glass carafe.

Our experts were impressed. "Sweeter," Ms. Fok said, taking her first sip. "More complex than the other one for sure." "I think you get more of the coffee notes," Ms. Aleman added.

Hourglass ($59.95 at hourglasscoffee.com) looks like a science project. It's a big, blue hourglass-shaped bottle that houses a metal coffee-filter basket in one end. At night, you put coffee in the filter basket, fit it into the brew chamber, add water and let it steep overnight. In the morning, you flip it over, and the coffee concentrate filters down into the hourglass's other chamber. There's a small carafe that you can use to store the concentrate in the fridge. We used the suggested proportions—two-and-1/4 cups of coffee and three-and-1/2 cups of water. "It's dark," said Ms. Aleman. "It's a lot stronger."

The Hourglass iced coffee also looked different than the others, with an oily sheen. "I think it's letting more of the oil of the coffee bean come through," Ms. Aleman said.

And then there was the taste. "These are the sour notes you don't want," said Ms. Fok, adding that a coarser grind of coffee might have produced better results. (Ms. Kapp, of Bean Logik, said a coarser grind is recommended; she said Hourglass coffee has 82% less cafestol, an oil-producing substance in coffee.)

Our next contestant was the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker ($19.99 at Target); it also works with coffee. Following the instructions for making one quart, we poured water into the gadget's reservoir, put ice in the pitcher and measured six tablespoons of coffee into the filter.

"It looks really light," Ms. Aleman said, when the brewing was done. "Tea-like," Ms. Fok chimed in. Fortunately, the solution is easy. "I think definitely more coffee," Ms. Aleman said.

This batch highlighted the importance of an unexpected variable in iced coffee: ice-cube size. Especially with hot-brewing, "the ice cubes can't be too small," Ms. Aleman cautioned. She recommends cubes the size of those found in home-freezer trays. "They won't melt as fast and will lower the temperature of the coffee faster," she said.

As for sweetener, granulated sugar may not be best. "Since the coffee is cold, and the ice is making it even colder, it's going to take a lot longer for the sugar crystals to melt." Ms. Aleman said. She likes agave nectar, simple syrup or even an artificial sweetener, if it will be added to cold coffee. Or measure the sugar in with the ground coffee before hot-brewing in coffee and espresso makers.

Starbucks Via instant iced-coffee was by far the easiest method—and the most expensive (a box of five servings cost $5.95). We added one packet to 16-ounces of water and stirred; ice is optional. The coffee is lightly presweetened; milk or cream is up to the user, just like at a Starbucks shop.

Our experts thought Via was easy—and they also thought it tasted like instant coffee. "It has a really granulated mouth feel to me," Ms. Aleman said. "This is sugar sweet," Ms. Fok said. (Lara Wyss, a Starbucks spokeswoman, says Via dissolves well in cold water, and research showed people wanted some sweetness. "We think it's a great and innovative new product," she said.)

So what was the verdict? Ms. Aleman voted for the Toddy iced coffee maker. "I thought it was very nice. But I would like to have tasted the hot brew done properly," she said. Ms. Fok chose Mr. Coffee. "Despite the watered down version, I do love the hot-brew," she said. When done correctly, she said, "it definitely brings out the full characteristics of notes you have in a good coffee bean."

14 August 2010

Peculiar Home, Green Results

NJ Star-Ledger

When one thinks of building an eco-friendly home, Jersey City might not immediately come to mind as a place to do it.

With nearly a quarter-million residents packed into a dense 15 square miles, all things green there would seem to be at a premium.

But architects and Jersey City residents Richard Garber and Nicole Robertson of GRO Architects in New York rose to the challenge of designing and overseeing the construction of a single-family house that’s a true testament to both innovative design and eco-friendly technology.

Garber, also an assistant professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design in Newark, was commissioned in 2007 by Denis Carpenter to design a concrete home with a fixed budget of $250,000.

“I’d recently purchased a small vacant lot and because of concern for the environment, wanted a house that was efficient, easy to maintain and which would take me through retirement,” said Carpenter, who often rides his bicycle from the house at 1 Minerva St. to Forest Research Institute in Jersey City, where he works as a medical files clerk. Garber and Robertson, a husband-and-wife team, evaluated the lot and its climate to determine the optimum design and orientation for the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house. “Design, research and approvals took about a year-and-a-half, but actual construction was completed in six months,” Garber said.

“Denis didn’t come with any pre-conceived idea of what the design should be,” Robertson added. “He was simply interested in performance, that the house be concrete and that we stay on budget.”

Building the house required special approval from the city, according to Claire Davis, supervising planner, Jersey City Division of City Planning.

“I worked with Richard a lot on the exterior design, making an essentially one-story house like a 2.5-story house to match its neighbors by adding upper windows and realigning basement windows.”

The house sits the same distance from the street as its neighbors, and while it has a modern, asymmetrical peaked roof, it is approximately the same height as other houses on the block. “The asymmetry works because the house is at the end of the row,” Davis said.

While the concrete house stands in contrast to its mostly clapboard neighbors, there was no community opposition to its unconventional design and the project received unanimous approval from city officials. This could mark the dawn of a whole new era for New Jersey concrete contractors.

The success of the project, completed in October 2009, is evidenced by the fact that Garber and Robertson are in talks with two Jersey City developers about future green buildings in the city. The 1,600-square-foot house they designed for Carpenter won a 2009 American Institute of Architects merit award and the 2010 Green Building of the Year Award from the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency.


To soften the interior, the architects used standard gypsum board, painted Benjamin Moore Super White, with a variety of tile accents that play on the home’s angular design. On the ground level, radiant heating beneath the exposed concrete floor warms the full bathroom and two bedrooms, one of which Carpenter uses as an office for his work as a part-time musician.

Pocket doors conserve space in the home’s relatively compact living quarters. Heading up to the loft-like second level, sleek aluminum and stainless steel railings accent the bamboo stairway to the mezzanine, living room and an artfully designed kitchen outfitted with salvaged appliances and cabinetry. Gray backsplash tile in the kitchen was installed at an angle, offsetting a streamlined stainless steel refrigerator and playing off the home’s asymmetrical construction. The kitchen also offers access to a small outdoor perch in the form of an elevated cedar deck. Bamboo floors on the upper level, also with radiant heating, add to the home’s eco-friendly design.


Technology played a major role in saving time and money in the home’s design. As director of NJIT’s fabrication laboratory, Garber had access to computer programs that allowed him to design the home’s components to exact specifications without the back-and-forth review of drawings that is typically required. Because we designed the house in an exact three-dimensional format using computer software, we were able to transmit precise 3-D files directly to the sub-contractor via e-mail and requested they fabricate the panels directly from our 3-D data.” Garber said. “There, in effect, was no shop drawing review and the panels went right into fabrication, and were exact in terms of dimensions. This saved the client time and money, and allowed us to finish the project probably about two months earlier than if we had undergone a traditional shop drawing review process.”

The three-dimensional specifications were transmitted to Northeast Precast LLC., a Cumberland County concrete-manufacturing company. From the specifications, the Millville-based company was able to form 18 slightly different panels that became the house walls.

The load-bearing concrete panels were transported by flatbed truck and hoisted into place with a crane. “The concrete structure was completed in only three days,” Garber said. “The panels are highly insulated, packed with both rigid insulation and fiberglass. And where a wood-framed house might require substantial upkeep in 30-plus years, concrete requires zero maintenance.”

Concrete is also watertight, and although the exterior’s side walls are exposed, the front and rear facades are clad in cedar rain-screen panels that soften the home’s appearance.

“Cedar turns silver with age and the slats applied to the concrete allow rain to sheath between the two surfaces,” Garber explained.

The house features awning windows for ventilation and large stationary custom windows. Though it is not air-conditioned, Carpenter said rooms remain relatively cool, even on hot days. “I also feel strongly about passive cooling strategies like ceiling fans and clerestory windows, and both are part of this design,” he said.

The home’s unique roof is formed by two triangles and holds 260 square feet of photovoltaic panels. The solar panels were placed to maximize solar collection and deliver about 2,000 kilowatts of energy annually to a battery stored in the basement. The panels also cut about $360 a year from the home’s energy costs, he said.

Robertson added: “Over 30 years, this small solar array will save 21.4 tons of carbon dioxide from the environment.”

Making the roof even greener is a 2-foot-square area planted with drought-resistant sedum plants. The flat vegetative roof, at the back of the house above the kitchen, absorbs some of the rainwater that would run off the home’s roof and thereby helps to curb pollution of area waterways.

Carpenter had high praise for his boldly designed green house.

“I wanted a home that was sustainable and economical to maintain and I more than got it.”

04 August 2010

Welcome to Mid-Victorian Country Living

The National Post

Seven years ago, two couples harboured thoughts of buying a home in the Niagara Peninsula that would serve them well in their latter working years, then blossom as a magnificent retirement residence. They bought a run-down old red brick farmhouse near the brink of the Niagara Escarpment and, together,

began to create a vision of what it could eventually become.

Back then, real estate agent Chris Tew dropped by to take a look at the place. “I thought, they’ll never be able to do this,” he says.

Mr. Tew was wrong, and he’s delighted to admit it today.

Few 1860s-era farmhouses can boast a modern reno-job that remains so faithful to its origins as Beamer Falls Manor. From the cozy country kitchen, which is the undisputed nucleus of the old home, to the grandly proportioned reception rooms, the 11-foot ceilings, the gleaming and original pine floors, baseboard and trim, this grand home represents the best of mid-Victorian country living.

Add to that the setting within 21 acres of Carolinian forest, with vineyards, apple and pear orchards, steps from the Bruce Trail and Beamer Falls, the “old Beamer house” lies comfortingly snuggled amidst the best of the Niagara Peninsula’s natural beauty, yet just a five-minute drive to Grimsby’s amenities.

After considerable thought, the two couples came up with a joint vision for the manor, one they describe as “Scottish Victorian revival.”

They built a 3,100-square-foot addition to the old home, a modern augmentation that blends in admirably with the traditional and features a great room with cathedral ceilings, balcony and two loft bedrooms. The huge windows stand as a visual gateway into the surrounding woods. The addition’s lower level includes a self-contained staff or nanny apartment.

In total, the house contains seven bedrooms with ensuite baths. Outside, there is a pool house, spa, sauna and gym, with two more bathrooms.

Inside, the 28-foot-long dining room can easily accommodate a table for 20. And in fact it has done so on more than one occasion, according to Earle Metcalfe who, now in his 80s, fondly recalls his visits, as a child, to what was then the home of his grandparents. On a recent visit to the old homestead, Mr. Metcalfe expressed delight at its resurrection.

Leading a room-by-room tour, he enthuses: “It was such a warm family place. And it is, again.”

The heart of the home is its amazing 20-foot-square farm kitchen, featuring Elmira-built, period, top-of-the-line modern appliances.

Adrian Capes is one of the partners whose loving touch turned Beamer Falls Manor into a contemporary tribute to a mid-19th century lifestyle. The range is gas and there’s an electric roaster oven, he says. Yet the thoroughly modern appliances feature cast iron look-alike fa├žades that convey the character of the home’s era.

Mr. Capes points to the care they took with everything — right down to the kitchen sink. “The sink is custom-made Mexican copper,” he says. “Then we placed it in an old wooden cabinet we picked up at a local auction.”

“The kitchen elicits oohs and aahs,” Mr. Tew says. “No one’s ever seen anything like it.”

Mr. Capes describes the gargantuan effort it took to return the original floors to their magnificence. In the kitchen, for example, they tore up the layer of linoleum tile that stood on top of plywood, which in turn had been laid on top of more linoleum. Once they got down to the pine boards, they scraped away a layer of paint and a veneer of varnish before finally arriving at the original wood.

The home, originally christened Norwood, had been passed down through several generations of Beamers and related Metcalfe family members, before being bought by an unrelated family about three decades ago. The wiring was “minimal and primitive,” Mr. Capes says, and the floor sagged.

The new owners began by cleaning the building back to the studs and starting all over. A steel I-beam was installed to shore up the floor. “It was clear to us from the beginning this was a very solid home,” he says.

In 2008, the proud owners decided to share their creation with the world, and opened Beamer Falls Manor as a bed-and-breakfast. That way, the home could help sustain itself until they retired. But circumstances changed and now they’ve decided to sell and move away.

The home is furnished with antiques of the era and Mr. Capes says the owners are open to a buyer’s offer for them as well. “I would think it natural that a buyer would want them. They go so well with the house,” he says.

If you buy Beamer Falls Manor, you’ll find yourself a short hike through the 132-acre forested conservation area — land donated by the Beamer family — to The Point, an outcrop of limestone that affords a spectacular view of Grimsby, Lake Ontario and, on clear days, the CN Tower and other sky-scraping buildings of downtown Toronto, 50 kilometres across the water.

The Point is popular with birders who congregate here to observe the annual migration of hawks, eagles, falcons and turkey vultures. Birders marvel at the creatures soaring on updrafts from the verdant valley of the Forty Mile Creek.

Nearby, the creek tumbles over the escarpment brow in a double waterfall, known as Beamer Falls. Along your way to The Point, you’ll hike the trail that hugs the edge of the valley, and perhaps happen by the spot where younger trees denote where a Metcalfe matriarch operated a teahouse during the 1930s.

Beamer Falls Manor could serve as a family or corporate retreat, or a place large enough to contain a family business, too. Capes envisions a country inn, perhaps catering to a raw or organic food clientele, or being rented out for weddings, or maybe even used as a mini-winery. That would require replacing the current juice grapes, however.

“I could see the great room becoming a wine sales store,” he says, somewhat wistfully.

The house has modern heating and central air conditioning. It is listed by Chris Tew of Royal LePage in Grimsby, for $1.998-million, without furnishings.

03 August 2010

Thinking Outside the Lawn

The Washington Post

When the suburb was invented in the 19th century, a pattern of landscaping was established that remains dominant, if not bullying.

Here's the deal: Place the house back from the street, hide its ankles with foundation shrubs, and give the intervening space over to lawn and perhaps a tree. It's easy, it's passive and it fits a long-held notion that one front yard should flow into the next in an unspoken gesture of neighborliness, even patriotism.

But isn't it at the core of American values to express ourselves freely? So let's toss the turf.

Fortunately, you don't have to look too far these days to find homeowners who have rejected the model and have turned their former lawns into ornamental gardens. They have built a space that is more interesting, more welcoming to wildlife and, contrary to expectations, brings neighbors closer together.

For many converts, a major aim of going turfless is to reduce the damage their lawn would otherwise do to the environment by avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers as well as by trapping storm water that can pollute waterways.

"The most harm we are doing in our gardens is related to lawn care and yard care, and awareness of that is growing," said Susan Harris, a garden blogger (http://www.gardenrant.com) and activist in Takoma Park who last year helped form a nationwide group called the Lawn Reform Coalition. Harris put a low fence around her front yard after removing the lawn and planting a decorative garden of herbs and low-growing ground covers.

For many gardeners who have replaced their lawns, the shift is as much or more about finding additional real estate to play with plants as it is about going green. Wouldn't you rather look out your window to, say, drifts of lavender in June, or black-eyed Susans now, or asters in September and October, than to see a thinning and weedy lawn?

We visited four properties where the lawn is a memory, and the front yard a place of dynamic beauty.

29 July 2010

European Kitchen Trends

Appliance Mag

One of the striking trends at the Eurocucina 2010, according to Electrolux Design Director Thomas Johansson, was the use of revealing and concealing design elements, such as slide-open fronts to hide kitchen appliances.

The Milan Furniture Fair is Europe’s largest kitchen and furniture show and is considered to be at the epicentre of interior design.

The Eco-Sense trend was another trend apparent at the 2010 Fair, Johansson said, with a number of manufacturers taking a greener approach by addressing issues like sustainable materials and energy savings.

Authenticity was another important trend, particularly in the use of authentic wood, often combined with stainless steel, quartz, marble, Corian, and laminate. The wood used is either dark or very light, "veined, and valuable," Johansson said. This trend could also be seen in the use of "rough, structured surfaces with authentic beauty."

Johansson noted that glass was widely used on kitchen countertops and fronts, and could be enhanced with etching, satin or silver mirror finishes, and tints. Other hide-away features included the use of strategic ironing centers.

White and colored LED lighting was used widely in the exhibits, often partially visible under shelves or hidden in door fronts.

Johansson said colors were mostly white or off-white, brown/gray, and dark-brown. He also noted some primary color use and "emerging mid-tones like turquoise, dark acid yellow, fuchsia, and violet."

Johansson said kitchen layouts at the Milan event often used a central kitchen island and tall wall units, and the layout allowed the kitchen to fulfill its many roles as the room for cooking, socializing, and entertaining.

Lastly, Johansson witnessed a shift occurring away from "completely minimalistic design to softer aesthetics."

19 July 2010

New Kitchen: $500 Plus Sweat Equity

Boston Globe

For the past 10 years, Duxbury interior designer Linda Merrill lived with an ugly, cluttered kitchen complete with appliances from the early 1980s. “The room was dated and dreary, I was sick of it and embarrassed to have people see it,’’ she says. After struggling with what to do with the kitchen for a while, she decided to update it herself.

“Economically, it’s been a tough time in my industry. I didn’t have the budget to hire people to do the work,’’ said Merrill, who wanted the room to have the feel of a country kitchen with a little bling. “I thought it would be a fun challenge to see how far ingenuity and hard work could get me.’’

She got new appliances on trade from a business relationship, but the rest of the room’s transformation totaled less than $500. Working with friend Robert O’Connell, who has no professional construction experience, Merrill’s kitchen project took five months of Sunday afternoons. So, how did they do it? Here’s the step-by-step process.

1. Redoing the ceiling 
One of the kitchen’s most unappealing features was its 1980s “popcorn’’ textured-stucco ceiling. That was eliminated inexpensively, but required a good bit of sweat equity. “We literally scraped it off by hand, it didn’t cost much except a sore back and a lot of dust,’’ says Merrill. After the ceiling was scraped and washed, two coats of skim coat were applied, and it was sanded, primed, and repainted.

2. Updating the cabinetry

Since buying and installing new custom casework was out of Merrill’s price range, she gave the existing pine cabinets, which were in good shape, a new look. After cleaning, sanding, and de-glossing the cabinets, Merrill painted the cabinets with two Benjamin Moore colors: Essex Green and Black Forest Green as the second coat. She used exterior trim paint, so it would stand up well to wear and tear. Both coats were sanded with a fine steel wool to achieve an aged look. The cabinet interiors were painted a pale shade called Cooking Apple Green by Farrow and Ball.

Merrill was able to reuse all of the original brackets and hinges, but for the door knobs, she wanted to add a little sparkle and lightness to the dark cabinets. Inspired by high-end crystal knobs she spotted in a designer showroom which would have cost her around $700 to outfit all the cabinets, she combed eBay to find a cheaper alternative, which she found for less than $2 a piece.

3. Replicating bead board

Merrill wanted to panel the walls with bead board, but after realizing it wasn’t in the budget, she learned she could achieve a similar look with wallpaper made to emulate the material. “You can tell its not actual bead board if you knock on it, but you can’t tell just by looking at it,’’ says Merrill. The wallpaper cost $22 a roll, and sheathing the entire kitchen, floor to ceiling, took four rolls. To obscure the edge of the wallpaper, she added crown molding around the perimeter of the room.

4. Creating more storage space

To add surface space to the small kitchen, an old door was fashioned into a countertop along a wall. Supported by 2x2’s, wire shelving was installed below. To keep the shelves out of sight, Merrill made a curtain out of burlap — she also fashioned a roman shade for the window over the sink out of the eco-friendly material, which cost $1.99 a yard. For additional storage, an existing pot rack made of plumber’s copper piping was polished and reinstalled with new brackets and a heavy-duty steel chain off a ceiling stud above the new countertop.

5. Using what she had

To brighten the space, Merrill had recessed lights installed. But she left two original features intact: the original white Formica counters, which, she decided that after a good cleaning, worked well with the room’s new aesthetic. The black and white tile flooring, installed when she moved in a decade ago, was also kept.

“While the project took a while, the end result has been very personally satisfying and enjoyable,’’ said Merrill, who recommends doing a huge amount of research before embarking on a renovation like hers. “There are tons of resources out there, look at high-end stuff to get ideas for budget level. Don’t just rely on what they have at the big box stores,’’ she says. “Get inspired by House Beautiful and Martha Stewart, then look for inexpensive alternatives. You will be surprised at how much you can do yourself.’’

14 July 2010

San Francisco: What you can Buy in the Bay Area for $800,000

San Francisco Chronicle

Orinda, $779,000

58 California Ave. Beds: 3 Baths: 2 Square footage: 1,758 School district: Acalanes Union High, Orinda Union Elementary

Situated on a quarter-acre lot in the Claremont subdivision of Orinda, this updated single-story ranch features an eat-in kitchen with an island, wood cabinetry and stainless-steel appliances. The carpeted living room has a fireplace and doors that open to a spacious deck with views of the surrounding trees. There's also a brick patio in the front and a walk-out lower level that leads to the rear yard.

Inner Mission, $799,500

3083 22nd St. Beds: 3 Baths: 2 School district: San Francisco

The lower condo in a three-unit building, this home has a front balcony and energy-efficient windows. It's highlighted by a sleek kitchen that features top of the line kitchen appliances: Fisher & Paykel refrigerator, Grohe fixtures, a Blanco composite double sink, Bosch dishwasher and KitchenAid gas stove. There's also hardwood flooring in most of the public rooms, and the living room is centered by a fireplace. The property offers radiant heating and a landscaped garden with a fountain.

13 July 2010

From Ireland: the Making of a Modern Classic

The Irish Times

Interior designer Ger Smyth lives with her husband, Mike, and children, Simone and Jordi, in this Ranelagh house which they renovated. EMMA CULLINAN reports

When did you move here?

About three years ago. We acquired the house five years ago. It had been empty for four years. The gentleman who owned it had been in a nursing home. He was born here. It was very charming – and had the original wallpaper – but you just couldn’t live in it because the windows had been open for four years and everything was mouldy. Some of the ceilings had come through although we managed to hoist them up and saved them all which was fantastic.

I love period houses and the contemporary look. To get it all in one building was nice for us because we had been looking for years and years for the right period house. We were the underbidders on so many and just kept moving back into new houses.

We always wanted a double-height space and the back of this house allowed us to do that which was great.

Has doing the house up taught you about what clients go through?

It has been really good being at the coalface and to have gone through it myself and been there with the builders and architects.

Who were the architects?

Kelliher Miller. I work with them now. It’s been a really nice relationship. Declan Byrne of Shale construction did the building. I like working with him. It was the first time I had worked with them both and it was good for us all to see we could work as a team.

So you weren’t daunted by what needed to be done?

Being in business you can see the potential very quickly. It was a fantastic journey and was trouble free. The building was listed – we wanted to protect the period features and were not out to destroy the house anyway – so we got a conservation architect to do drawings and a report for the planning application. The conservation architect, Manfredi Anello, was fantastic and got it through planning first time. We had to pay a bit more for him but the reality was that we would have been in rented accommodation for months longer if the planning permission took longer.

How did you decide how to configure the space?

We were living in rented accommodation and used to come here every night during the building work which helped us to make decisions: it’s one thing looking at a plan, another to feel the space. That’s why I suggest that clients bring me in early in the process.

I will always say to a client, “how do you live in your house? Where do you read? What do you do in the evenings?” You don’t just build a house to have a nice interior – it’s to live in.

We wanted a room with no television and we didn’t want rooms that were never used. Both Mike and I work at home and the office in the back doubles up as a guest bedroom: it has an en suite. You don’t need a spare bedroom for when children’s friends stay over because they want to sleep on their bedroom floor.

You don’t want people away from you when you’re cooking so the kitchen remodeling joins it with the living space. And the children’s rooms are on the floor above, overlooking the living area, so we are near them when we are downstairs. I had a ladder of mirrors made so you can look up and down it to see what is happening on the other floor. Often in older houses people are either in the basement or up top, divided by the reception on the middle floor.

So you went over the design a few times: did you change things on site?

Yes, the architect suggested a cantilevered office window . With a terraced house the width is limited so this gave the office a larger footprint and is a nice design feature.

How did you choose the overall look?

I wanted a contemporary, classic look and there are a lot of different ways of approaching that. If you have lots of antiques you go that way but sometimes when young people own period houses they want a funkier look so I would use classic-shaped furniture with funky fabric and texture. So you pay lip service to the period.

If you think of the palette before you start, you can get a nice flow through the house. I chose off-whites and silvers. In choosing metals, you need to decide whether you will go for gold and brass or silver and aluminium and they will play roles right throughout the house.

It was a 1990s thing to have different coloured rooms: a terracotta room, green room, mustard room. Here it’s open plan so it’s not like you can open the door to old and new but there is a warmer feel in the period end and a cooler monochrome in the contemporary area.

You can make the palette topsy turvy: in the kitchen I have grey skirting and white walls while upstairs it is the other way around. I don’t use pure white because it is too sharp and cold. I’d use something that is more like a silver or very, very pale grey.

If a house flows well then you should be able to put any piece of furniture into any room, from another room.

What did you paint it with?

I particularly like the Simply range by Dulux. I tend not to stick to one brand but they have a lot of lovely slates. They grade the tones, so you get Slate one, two and three. You can use, for instance, Slate one on the walls and Slate three for the furniture, knowing they are all from the same family, just deeper and lighter. Sometimes you need a different tone on a different wall: if there is lots of light on one wall you can go deeper on that.

And you paint furniture?

In my own house I paint it myself but I don’t do that for clients: I have it made and spray-painted by a cabinet maker. I got our bed painted in the same colour as the fire and wardrobe – we’ve had that wardrobe since we first got married. It was pine then but has been many colours since. In my business new things keep coming in and making me want to start from scratch.

What’s coming in now?

Well, it’s like the catwalk in Paris – you are never going to wear the clothes. With interiors, you are trying to adapt the latest trends to a domestic situation. With children and pets you need to scale down.

The new trend is for mustards which look beautiful with greys but I find a resistance there. When people hire you they want things to last for seven years. I usually say to go with a neutral background and strong colours in the accessories which you can change. I have done show houses which is great, great fun because you don’t have a client who is going to live there so what you can do is amazing.

Has the extension given better access to the garden?

Yes. We didn’t even know the length or width of the garden when we bought it or that it had granite walls. When we cut it back we found beautiful plant tags – apparently the garden won prizes. We brought the level of the garden down by several feet and now the extension doors go right back. You can walk straight out into the garden and if you keep going, out the back gate, you can get on the Luas.

Where did you get the kitchen?

We designed it and got a custom cabinetry maker to put it together. I saw the glass cupboard in a magazine and he made it for me. We got the extra-wide granite for the island unit from Spain. You are usually limited to a certain width and length in Ireland. I went to Kuper Stone and said I didn’t want a join in the granite – I don’t like that – and he went to investigate and found this.

Where is your furniture from?

A lot is from Bo Concept which is great for well-priced sharper pieces and Roche Bobois is excellent for high quality soft furnishings. The sofa is from Bo Concept and the table and chairs are by Calligaris from Living. I love the fish-tail chair backs. I also buy contemporary furniture from Duff Tisdall

I try to make wide scope of shops. It depends on the period of the house. I go to Minnie Peters and Francis Street for nice occasional stuff from various periods, such as art deco. And I bring things in from abroad.

In my own house I ordered things in from abroad, like the free-standing bath from the UK, to test how reliable the companies were. Some things arrived and some didn’t so I knew who I could work with for my clients.

Could you be inventive and use ideas for your house that you could not do with a client?

Yes, but you have to be practical and this is a showpiece for clients. Also I don’t have an endless budget. I brought things here from my previous houses – I didn’t start from new – so would I have put all this together? No.

In most houses there is something that has to stay, that you have to work with.

Every client has a different amount to spend on home remodeling but I always tell them to keep something back for a wow object – it might be expensive but in six months’ time you’ll barely remember what you paid for it. This house has been walked through so many times: it is great to be able to bring clients here.