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.