Salvaged Moments

From the beginning, I knew I really really wanted to incorporate some element of locally sourced, vintage or salvaged materials in my new build.  Saving something (anything!) from a landfill would make the house just a little more earth-friendly.  Hopefully it would add a bit of charm and character to the new house as well so it didn’t look so, well, new.  The contractor nixed my idea of using salvaged doors (too much work to retrofit an irregular old door into the perfectly squared new door frames).  I also didn’t want to go too crazy ’cause that’s too taste-specific and I want to sell this puppy someday.  So, perhaps creative tile design in the spare bath?  A lighting fixture?  A random fabulous find?  That sounded perfect.  Here are a few salvaged moments in the new house:

1)  Spare Bath:  Tile Surround 

There is a building salvage and surplus material store in Pittsburgh called Construction Junction ( ).  For months I’d been eyeing this giant box of yellow tile that apparently no one else wanted.




I was in love with this gorgeous shade of yellow, but had no use for it until my new build — I needed tile for the second bath and this was gonna be it.  It’s actually funny – the boxes were all in Italian, but I’m pretty sure “ceramica” means “ceramic” and they were all irregular – definitely not an even 6×6.  My design idea was to marry this simple classic yellow tile with a hipper, younger version:  the small square glass tile.  This old/new juxtaposition works well as a general design principle, I think.  So I bought new gray glass tiles as an accent, used gray grout, and here is how it turned out:



Add crisp white shower curtain and fresh yellow flowers to make a clean, happy place for guests to get ready in every morning!






2)  Kitchen:  Vintage Light Fixture

Anyone who has flipped through a builder’s options for light fixtures realizes that this is where they skimp.  Perfect excuse to forego the builder option and go huntin’ for a unique, personalized find.  I wanted a fabulous light fixture for the kitchen island, especially ’cause it’s one of the first things you see in the open floor plan.  I found mine at a local lighting store called Typhoon  ( ).  They have a great selection of refurbished vintage fixtures as well as new ones.

My find is a vintage fixture from the 1970s – I love that it’s not frilly, it’s perfectly gender-neutral, and I’ve never seen anything like it.  I also love how the round globes break up the square angles of the space in general.



3)  Kitchen Island:  Door Slab

I totally lucked out on this one and found a flat door slab made of walnut veneer – the color and beautiful walnut grain were perfect!  (Rather, I could foresee its perfection under layers of dust while it was sitting at Construction Junction).  A light sanding and couple of coats of polyurethane later and it was ready for some legs, which I got at IKEA.


I later found vintage door hardware to install over that hole in its side, too bad I didn’t snap a pic of it!

And this is how the old and the new came together:



4)  Master Bath Storage:  Vintage Bar Cart

This is one my favorite finds.  Not from an aesthetic standpoint, but from a functional standpoint.  I needed storage in the master bath, and it needed to be open or glass front storage (anything that wasn’t would be too bulky for the small space).  Browsing around one afternoon at a vintage store right down the street (Who New Retro Mod Decor, I found this bar cart:


This bar cart has a fabulous feature:  the entire top is an appetizer warmer that heats up!!  So, guess what I use it as?  A towel warmer!!  Not only does it store linens, but it gets towels nice and warm very quickly.  Just turn it on, hop in the shower, and end with a warm toasty towel 🙂


7 Blank Wall Design Inspirations

I have a common design dilemma — what do you do with a long windowless wall?   Especially when it’s the first one you see when you enter the house?

Relative to the open floor plan..

Relative to rest of room

Fireplace not mounted yet, it will be a bit further to right..

The 13 ft. run of blank white wall.  Fireplace not mounted yet, it will be a bit further to right.  (Ignore table)

So I went searching for a little inspiration – any excuse to surf the net ‘n drool over hot designs!  Here are some found options:

1)  Textured 3D wall panel


Instant texture and visual interest!

2)  Wallpaper mural


Very cool and definitely makes an impact.


3)  Faux stone


Cozies up the room…

4)  Wood


The rustic would be a nice contrast against the white and metal contemporary look I have going on right now…

5) Gallery Wall

gallery-wall (1)

Elegant and lovely. Unique as well since it’s your collection that can be added to over time. Plus, minimal work in the immediate – just paint single light color, and start adding framed art and photographs!

6) Removable wallpaper

removable wallpaper

Who knew? Peel and stick wallpaper!!

7) Last, but not least, the affordable designs with paint:  stencils, stripes, chevrons, and the abstract


Stencils are a fantastic alternative to wallpaper – easy, inexpensive, and you can choose any color combo you want.


These stripes are gorgeous.

Home interior with fireplace and sofas 3D rendering

Such a classic pattern..

abstract wall


Paint Colors (and the Value of Sweat Equity)

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

It was a near perfect day weather-wise in Pittsburgh yesterday.. . I spent the day painting at the Project with the windows open, iPOD kickin’ my favorite tunes, occasionally singing along (which probably made all the neighbors shut their windows 😉 ).  As I was up on the ladder doin’ my thing, my thoughts turned to my neighbors at my current house… They’re students, and able to live in a nice townhome because a father bought the house for his son.  Now I have the son and 2 of his buddies living next door and I occasionally leave the house on a Sunday morning to find used paper cups with remnants of beer strewed upon the lawn after an evening of partying, no doubt.  They’re good kids, and that cup is always gone by the time I return (townhouse fairy, perhaps?), but I can’t help but wonder how much they value their gorgeous kitchen (that the previous owner renovated) or the rooftop deck (which is one of my favorite places in my own house) when they didn’t technically work for it.

Then my thoughts wandered to a conversation I had with my sister.  When I was stressing about all the things I have on my plate and mentioned I was taking on some of the labor (e.g. painting) on the project myself, she asked, “Why?  Why didn’t you just hire someone to do the painting?”  Sure, I could have.  Of course I could have.  But I was driven by a need to contribute.  I needed to put a bit of my own sweat into this place.  Why?  I’m not sure, I just wanted to.  Since my construction skills are limited, painting it was.

When I was finally done for the day, after working into the wee hours of the night, I folded up the tarp, threw that last used paint roller in the trash, and looked around.  What I saw was a bland shell taking on life, a stark room turned into a blue jewel, and the beginnings of a serene retreat.  Then I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment, happiness and satisfaction (and also relief that the paint colors I picked actually worked!).  So I had my answer — I did it for this feeling.  This feeling you get when something is earned, not given.   That is the true value of sweat equity.  And how do you put a price on a feeling?  You just can’t — it’s priceless.


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The FLEX Space

This design feature is one of my favorite parts of the not-so-small-anymore-house.  As mentioned in my last post, it made me sad to choose a basement foundation because of the added square footage.  It felt like my “small house” vision was compromised.  However, out of this was borne an idea:  the FLEX space.

The main floor of the house is  940 sq feet – a 2 bedroom, 1 bath dwelling space with an open floor plan, lots of storage, lots of light and a view of the river.  Yum!  Perfect for the 1-2 person household, whom it was designed for by intention.

So what comes of the additional 600+sq feet in the basement — it will be a FLEX space.  This FLEX space is exactly what it sounds like — it is designed with enough flexibility to be used in multiple different ways.  Here is the current basement floor plan:

The FLEX Space

There a few key features which make it flexible:

a) its own separate entry from the garage

b) its own access to the yard from the large central space

c) access from the interior, and therefore from the upstairs main living space

d) plumbing and gas line installation to allow for future addition of a kitchenette if desired

e) several storage areas with 3 closets, as well as an open understaircase area

f)  this floor was built with appropriate fire-rated separation from upstairs so could easily be used as a legal separate unit.

There are so many options for this little space!  Here are a few of my ideas:

1)  Integrate into the main living space, so the house is a 2 story, 3bedroom/2bath house.  If a small house lifestyle isn’t your cup of tea, this space offers breathing room.  Plus, the resale value is higher for a larger house!

– note that the “Bedroom” and “Flex Room” can be used for anything you need.  They can be a musician’s den, artists’ work space, dance studio, home gym, home office, traditional family room, game room (with a pool table!!), crafting room, sewing room, playroom, — basically anything you want!

2)  A completely separate living space, so there is a 2 BR/1Ba unit upstairs, and a 1BR/1Ba unit downstairs.  The best part about this idea — it can easily be converted back to a single family house simply by removing the kitchenette!

– this separate unit also has multiple uses:  basement income suite, guest suite, separate living space for aging parents or boomerang kids, and in-home business suite.

– it allows for the 1-2 person household to grow — if you purchase this house as a swingin’ single, the basement can be used to pad your income by renting it out to a friend, for example.  However, fast forward a few years and now you’ve grown into a family with child — you’ve now grown into this space, can easily convert it back into a main part of the house, and you wouldn’t have to move into a larger house!

– By the way, having it built as a legal separate unit from the ground up is much easier and cheaper than converting an existing basement into one!

What do you guys think?  Is the FLEX space appealing?

Small House Design: 3 Houses with Big Impact

I’m going to take a moment here to highlight 3 houses which had a huge impact on my own small house.  As I look back to almost a year ago when the notion to build a small house was just a speck of a seed, these ideas watered that seed and let it grow.  I want to give credit to these little inspirations:

This first one from Arkansas had the largest influence on my personal small house design.  The ultimate final floor plan of my house looks more like a distant cousin of the Arkansas house rather than its twin…  In the design world, this distant resemblance is labeled “inspired by. ..”

1)  Arkansas House:  1BR + 2 lofts, 1 Ba.  600 sq feet (not including lofts).  Favorite features:  exterior color scheme (I want an orange door!!), ceiling planks, full view of loft right upon entering (the wow factor).  Also, not pictured, is a sunroom at front of house which could function as a second bedroom or home office.

Whidbey Whidbey2 whidbey3 whidbey4whidbey5

2)   Laneway House:  1BR, 1Ba, 500sq ft.  Also called accessory dwelling units, these are constructed on a single family lot in the backyard somewhere.  I love the idea of using previously unused real estate ( i.e. defunct garage) and turning it into an income suite.  My favorite about this one is how it packs simple style into a tiny 500sq ft punch.   The finishes and fixtures in this space are clean, simple and beautiful.  The white subway tile surround in the bath — gorgeous!

Laneway1 Laneway2 Laneway3  Laneway5Laneway4 Laneway6

3)  Arado WeeHouse:  This house gets the credit for introducing me to modular construction.  I found it searching for floor plans for my narrow lot and when I saw the house on the crane, was like “what is this?!.   The Arado is 14′ wide and 336 sq ft total.  This particular one has no bathroom and there is no mention of where its occupants bathe or use the facilities (intentional omission?).  My favorite feature in this one is the floor to ceiling windows on both sides which visually expand this narrow house.  As an aside, these one level floor plans contain great ideas for space planning if you plan to convert an existing basement or attic into a separate income or in-law suite (though please don’t forget to add the bathroom).

arado5 arado1 arado2 arado3 arado6 weehouse6


Reasons to Hire (and Not Hire) an Architect

AIA 150 logo

AIA 150 logo (Photo credit: wallyg)

Are architects a necessary part of your small house construction team?

With all the online houseplans out there complete with blueprints, all the people out there with zero construction experience designing and building their own small houses, one would think that hiring an architect is completely unnecessary.  There are also inexpensive downloadable computer programs that let you design your own professional-looking floor plan.  Heck architecture might even be a dying field, right?  Wrong.

Don’t let all that online information fool you into thinking that building a small house is as easy as choosing an online plan and building it.  In fact, some of those sites state in tiny print or as an offhanded comment,  “these plans may require the approval of a licensed engineer or architect.”  Aha!  I knew it couldn’t be so easy.  Who needs this seal of approval?  Your city’s building and planning department so they feel comfortable issuing a building permit.  So they know your small house isn’t going to fly away with the next snowstorm and ram into the neighbor’s house.  Obtaining this seal of approval is a hidden cost that isn’t so obvious at first (like surveys and soil testing).

Architects provide a range of services and the cost incurred depends on the degree of services you enlist.  Average cost estimates range anywhere from 5-20% of the overall budget, and even higher in some cases.  With a sample $200K budget, the architect’s fees can potentially eat $10-40K, leaving you with $160-190K for the other costs.  Since this is a substantial cost, it’s worth examining.

The all-inclusive architect package generally includes the following:

Pre-design phase:  they examine the lot and site conditions, determine zoning requirements, recommend the necessary surveys and soil testing, and basically do all the legwork to determine if your project is feasible.

Design phase:  they design the house according to your desire within the budget you give them.  If you want the most energy-efficient house possible, they will place windows in certain areas to ensure passive solar heat gain, they will set the required amount of insulation, they will design the roof pitch just right.   They also create blueprints for the builder to use.

Construction phase:  they provide references for local builders in the area.  Once construction starts, they act on your behalf with regular site visits to ensure that the builder isn’t cutting corners or making costly mistakes.  (Yes, even experienced contractors can misread blueprints).  They ensure things are staying within your budget, and if not, can recommend changes.

Post-construction phase:  interior design and landscaping services, as well as arranging for any third-party energy-efficiency ratings you’d like to have done.

Artist impression. Rob Thomas and Phil Cullen ...

Artist impression. Rob Thomas and Phil Cullen (2001). “Building an Enterprise Architecture framework”. In: US Customs Today April 2001. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you can see, the architect is your friend. Choosing to hire one depends on you.  These are the considerations while making your decision:

1)  What is the end-purpose of your small house?   For example, if you intend to use it as a rental unit on an inherited piece of land, you might not be picky about its layout and design.  A stock floor plan built to standard code could be satisfactory.  In this case, hiring an architect may not be worth the investment.  On the other hand, if you’re a retiree looking to downsize into this house for the rest of your life, hiring an architect will help you get the biggest bang for your buck.

2)  Do you want your house to “be” something specific?  I want my house to be at least 80% energy-efficient.  Someone else may want it to be handicap-accessible.  Another may want it to be the coolest looking house on the block.  An architect can help your house “be” exactly what you want it to be.

3)  What does your lot look like?  If the lot is highly irregular in shape, set on a steep hillside, or extremely small, then these are all very good reasons to hire an expert.

4)  Which specific services will you need from the architect?  If you have the budget and also lack any homebuilding experience, it might be appealing to hand over the entire project to the architect.  On the other hand, you may be an experienced contractor looking to build your own dream home.  You may only need the architect for the design phase, since you can handle the rest yourself.  For those of us who fall in between, maybe we could use an architect to design the house, create the blueprints, and monitor the construction site, but we are willing to do the rest ourselves, like the preliminary site investigation, interior design and landscaping.

5)  Do you have a builder?  And how good is he/she?  Here’s the thing – many established custom home builders have a stock set of houseplans or are willing to build from any plan you choose.  They may have their own team of architects and engineers who help modify any plan to suit your lot.  These builders also do everything from start to finish.  In my experience here in Pittsburgh, however, these large homebuilders have no experience building small urban infill houses – their preferred style is the McMansion.  On the other hand, if you’ve found a top-notch builder you trust, he/she would also be capable of making small modifications to any stock houseplan, get the necessary building approvals, etc. and you would not need an architect.

Speaking of builders, modular and pre-fab small houses are making a splash (ok, a just a small splash) here in Pittsburgh.  Stay tuned..