Prioritizing Energy Upgrades

When people who own older homes think about green remodeling and reducing their energy bill, quite often the first thing they think of is adding solar panels (aka PhotoVoltaics or PV).  This isn’t a bad thing, because how could generating clean power from the sun be a bad thing?  However, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to making cost-effective energy upgrades and taking the time to dig a little deeper into the particulars of a given home may reveal that solar panels should actually be installed further down the line.

The new mantra in energy upgrading is “reduce before you produce”, because the most cost effective energy dollar is the one you don’t have to spend.  In most homes, particularly those built in the 70’s or before, there are numerous opportunities to reduce energy losses, instead of generating unnecessary power to compensate for them.

Depending on where the home is located and the climate involved, to save money, one course of action might be to get a home energy audit.  In many communities, these detailed performance tests and the recommendations for improvements that come from them are often subsidized by local and state governments and utilities, which further reduces the overall cost of upgrading.

One study in one area suggested the following priority for the particular home involved:

  1. Windows
  2. Wall insulation
  3. HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning)
  4. Roof insulation
  5. Solar

The recommended improvements for the house next door could be completely different, depending on improvements or remodeling that may have already occurred.

So if you want to make the most of your energy upgrade dollars, consider hiring a professional firm who can guide you through the process, looking for ways to “reduce, before you produce!”

It’s not just a shower… it’s an experience

“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.” – Nolan Bushnell

These shower drains may not help you become the next great innovator, but they will inspire you. Everyone loves to luxuriant in the shower, and what better way to enhance the beauty of your water oasis than with a stylish and highly functional drain?  These drains are not only decorative, they can melt into the tile floor with ease, or light the way, should you desire an escape from the daily glare of overhead lighting.  How relaxing to shower with only the soft glow of the LED to light the way!

Quartz Aco is a linear drain system that offers artistic solutions to shower drainage; there are several decorative grate styles and optional LED water activated drain lighting that adds chroma-therapy to your bathing experience.  Also, you can run the linear drain at the base of the shower wall allowing the shower floor to slope in one direction, creating less complex draining angle configurations and easier to install popular large-format tiles right on into the shower.

See link to website below:

You Never Know, Unless You Ask

One of our top business goals for several years has been to increase our Employee Owners’ job satisfaction.  Why?  Well who doesn’t like the idea of being happier?  The other reason?  Southwest Airlines has been known to provide some of the best service in the Air Travel Industry, and like them, we’ve learned that happy employees create happy clients.

Based on the kinds of things we’ve said and heard around Harrell Design + Build for years, we have had a hunch that people here are pretty happy.  While it was validating to be among the “Inc. Magazine/Winning Workplaces Top 50 Places to Work” winners, we’ve know that there had to be a way to actually measure and improve that happiness and satisfaction.

We just completed our fourth annual Employee Owner Survey and our Employee Ownership Committee is tabulating and analyzing the results to share with our team at our Full Staff Meeting in April.  Our survey was carefully designed to get a snapshot across multiple areas including customer service, communication, teamwork, trust, employee benefits and more.  This anonymous survey provides a means of not only quantifying our performance in these areas but also makes it possible for employee owners to share comments that help us understand how we’re doing in greater detail.

We’re fortunate to have a project manager on staff who loves statistics and she can slice and dice the data in a multitude of ways.  This creates some interesting perspective, but I think the most useful report she creates is one that ranks scores from highest to lowest for all four years, along with an aggregate score for each year.

Its rewarding to see that overall we have improved each year since we started measuring, but fascinating to see how some areas have gone up or down from one year to the next.  Obviously, seeing the results is only part of the goal.  Highlighting the areas that need the most improvement and creating a strategy to address them is where we make the biggest impact.

Our company mission statement is:

  •  To provide the finest full-service Design+Build residential remodeling in our area.  We strive to be our clients’ “contractor for life” and,
  • To foster a safe, stable, challenging and growth-oriented environment for our Employee Owners.

Our survey and the changes we make as a result of it help us to achieve this mission in a very proactive way.  And I think it’s a very worthy company goal.


Creative storage solutions by Lisa Sten

Over time, many homeowners become “real estate challenged” and find that their home doesn’t provide room for everything in their busy lives. With the high cost of property in the Bay Area, the thought of moving to a larger residence is frequently discarded in favor of remodeling an existing home to maximize its potential space. Beyond obvious living space though, people often forget that every attic, crawlspace, closet, nook and cranny holds potential for creative storage solutions. Professional design/builders are experts in identifying and exploiting unused spaces for higher capacity storage throughout the home.

Kitchen Space

These days, kitchens contain much more than a fridge, a range, dishes and cookware. As the social center of most homes, kitchens today accommodate a number of conveniences – multiple appliances, specialty cookware, pull-out bins for trash and recycling, homes with fold-down computers, spacious pantries, laundry appliances and display shelves, to name just a few. It’s easy to see that the heart of every home needs to face many challenges with clever design in order to keep pace with today’s busy family.

In a remodeling project completed by our company, the original kitchen was woefully lacking in storage. There were no cupboards on the walls and only a few base cabinets among them, several were useless and inaccessible corner cabinets that hid hard-to-reach and, thus, forgotten cookware. Additionally, a center island housed a sink and dishwasher but provided little counter space for the large area it occupied.

Determined to find more room for the family, Harrell Design + Build designers created a kitchen layout that makes food preparation a breeze. Cookware, utensils and pantry goods are now conveniently accessed in the numerous cabinets, drawers and pullouts. A generous, sweeping peninsula provides plenty of counter space and enables the homeowners to prepare meals together while visiting with their guests. Ironically, the new peninsula layout created the possibility of a dead, unusable space in the sleek new walnut buffet, but the designer was not deterred. Instead, an ingenious pullout wine cabinet was installed to make use of the 30-degree angle created by the new peninsula.

In another kitchen located in Los Altos, a leak above the kitchen inspired the client to correct an inefficient room layout and improve storage in every available corner.

With little room to spare, every precious square inch was carefully considered for function and storage in this redesigned kitchen. The cramped under-stair storage area was opened up to the room, creating space for the owner’s new rustic table. The walls in the alcove were lined with shallow shelving for practical storage and display of collectibles. The existing stacked washer and dryer now reside in custom built-in cabinetry that cleverly conceals the appliances behind new flipper doors. The space now has a more open and organized feel to it that is brought together by the seamless blending of the warm, distressed-finish cabinets throughout the kitchen.

Laundry Space

In Portola Valley, a homeowner needed a solution for their laundry area. The original location was adjacent to their living room and they needed to find a more appropriate place for their noisy laundry. After careful scrutiny of the upstairs spaces, a wonderful solution was found.

An existing hall closet and the attic storage area located behind it were combined to create a spacious laundry room. Now suitably located near the second floor bedrooms, this small feat was achieved with only a modest amount of structural work. And, to ensure everyone’s comfort, sound isolation detailing and vibration specialty work was integrated to limit appliance noise and vibration from impacting family members in the adjacent rooms. Outfitted with crisp, white cabinetry, every compartment in this tidy area was detailed to the homeowners’ needs. Plenty of hamper baskets kept sorted laundry handy. Spacious countertops and a fold-down ironing board got clean clothes organized in a snap. A new skylight combined with a colorful (and quiet) floor made this a very cheerful and well-illuminated room!

Bathroom Space

With today’s hectic lifestyle, a bathroom needs to be correctly designed to make the space truly relaxing and luxurious. Excellent illumination and good ventilation are just a few of the details to consider in a space that may include a jetted tub, a shower or steam shower a private toilet area and mirrored lavatories. Of course, the need for appropriate storage within a bathroom has expanded. In addition to storage for linens, other space-saving built-in features may include hampers, makeup lighting, recessed mirrored

medicine cabinets with electrical outlets (for razors and toothbrushes), and plenty of drawers for toiletries.

Bedroom Space

Bedrooms and family rooms can also be designed for maximum efficiency to store just about anything. Details often include customized clothing storage (adjustable hanging roods, bins and trays, shoe shelves, tie racks, pull-out roods for garment bags and dry cleaning), dressing areas, entertainment systems and library shelving.

Thoughtful storage solutions can make the most of any space. One lovelyPortolaValleyhome lacked a playroom for the children and needed a guest bedroom for the frequent out-of-town family guests. Searching the home, the large unused attic above the garage provided the perfect solution to both space problems at once.

The generously vaulted room has plenty of space for the homeowner’s three children to read, play games, do homework and run around. A built-in desk, a TV cabinet and abundant storage systems house the many books, toys, games and videos for the children, as well as the linens (for the new full bath) and space for guest’s personal effects.

Displaying a chameleon charm, when company arrives, it easily transforms from a playroom into a luxurious guest suite. Visitors will find a comfortable room with plenty of natural lighting, a generous seating area, and a pull-down Murphy bed hidden inside the wall storage system and a desk area.

Imaginative storage solutions can be created in every home. Even the smallest of houses have hidden space that can be better exploited so that the home will function more efficiently for the family. So think bigger, get outside of your obvious floor plan area, and get into storage.

home remodeling - featured project

Sound Control in the Home

While discussing remodeling projects with our clients, we are often asked what can be done to “soundproof” certain areas or aspects of the home.  Our first and necessary response is to ask our own series of questions to determine how and where the objectionable sound (noise) is generated and where it is perceived, as the ultimate solution can be very different depending on the situation.   One distinction we try to make early on is the difference between “soundproofing” and “sound control”, because in the typical home, it is very challenging to reduce some noises to an imperceptible level.

Some situations we frequently encounter are:

  • Water noise in piping from an upstairs bathroom
  • TV noise finding its way into adjacent bedrooms
  • Footsteps on the floor above
  • Traffic noise from the street
  • Home theater acoustics
  • Home offices adjacent to bedrooms or family rooms

Each of these situations requires different treatments, and the range of treatments and associated costs vary depending on how intent our clients are on reducing the noise.

Sound is transmitted from one area to another in three ways: Airborne, Impact and Flanking

  • In airborne transmission the sound of a phone ringing travels through the air, for example, around a loose-fitting door, or through the cavities in an un-insulated wall, or through heating ducts.
  • In impact transmission, the impact of an object on one surface of the floor or wall is transferred to the other side, such as footsteps on the floor above, or a ball bouncing off of an exterior wall.
  • Flanking transmission passes the sound vibrations into the building materials themselves such as pipes rigidly attached to framing, with the framing carrying the noise to other places in the home.

Another question we ask is whether the concern is sound coming into a space (traffic noise through living room windows) or sound getting out (your son’s rock band practicing in the garage and disturbing the neighbors).

Sound control is a complex issue and must be factored in to the home as a system.  One way to reduce airborne noise is to make the room as air tight as possible, with insulation, caulking, and gasketing –  but then what about ventilation so you can breathe?  Speaking of ventilation, if the room is very quiet due to sound control measures, will the sounds that used to be masked, say air rushing from a heat register, suddenly become more apparent?

Another way to control sound is to introduce mass as a separation, for example a cast iron drain pipe instead of ABS plastic, or special sound board or double layers of drywall to a wall assembly.

Isolation is yet another tool, and for example, drywall can be attached to the wall with resilient metal channel to decouple the wallboard from the framing, thereby interrupting the sound path.

In highly specialized spaces such as a media room, home theater or home recording studio, you may want to consider hiring an acoustical engineer because just as important as reducing incoming noise, factors such as the shape and dimensions of the room, finish materials, location of components and other features can have a more dramatic affect on sound quality than the expensive speakers or other sound equipment you might use.

As you can see (or hear), with sound control, there is no “one right answer”.  While some sound issues can be quite challenging to deal with, others might be addressed satisfactorily using some fairly common, if not standard, building practices.  Our advice?  As with any remodeling project, find a designer or contractor you can trust, who will ask the right questions before they propose an answer!

Spring Clean Up For Your Deck

With skies clearing, temperatures warming and flower buds forming, it won’t be long before you find yourself yearning to spend more time outdoors.  What better place to enjoy summer than out on your deck, unless of course, it looks weathered, worn and unsightly.  Doing a deck tune-up, while not effortless, can be a very rewarding experience because the improvement in appearance can be quite dramatic.

First off, it’s best to make sure the deck is sound, as it doesn’t make much sense to improve the appearance, if repair work is required.  Obviously if the deck or railings feel unstable in any way, you may want to get a professional opinion or structural assessment about what can be done to improve that.  But if it feels sturdy and the framing is accessible, inspect it to make sure that the connections are tight and that there are no obvious signs of rot, insects or other damage.  Older decks in our neck of the woods are sometimes constructed in part or even completely of untreated Douglas Fir, a strong wood when protected from the elements, but highly susceptible to rot and insects when exposed to weather because it lacks the natural protections found in Redwood or Cedar.

Clean loose debris from between the deck boards with a putty knife and leaf blower.  If the deck boards are too tight (less that 1/8” apart), you may want to make adjustments because the boards need air to circulate around them to avoid rot.  Next check the nails, screws or clips that attach the deck boards to the frame.  If they are loose or not flush, reset them to tighten them up.

If the boards are extremely weathered or splintering, sanding the deck will be the only way to smooth them out, but you may want to consider getting professional assistance if this level of repair is required.  Next it is important to have a few days of clear, dry weather before and after cleaning and finishing to make sure the finish material makes a good bond with the deck.

As a rule, decks should be stained/sealed rather than painted because stain penetrates the wood and erodes slowly over time, but paint is a relatively thick surface coating that with traffic and exposure can lose its bond and chip off.  Once painted, it is very difficult to remove the paint and go back to stain, so if it is painted, the surfaces will need to be well prepped and cleaned prior to applying new primer and paint.

If re-staining, a good, clean, and dry surface is important.  Commercial cleaners are available and typically their active ingredient is oxalic acid.  Pre-rinsing the deck will loosen the largest particles and help the deck accept the cleaner.  The cleaner can be applied with a broom or brush then allowed to sit for several minutes to remove stains and ground-in dirt.  Persistent stains can be given a second cleaning, but be sure to “feather in” to avoid a spot-cleaned appearance.  Then a good rinsing is in order with a strong spray (not stream) of water.  Avoid pressure washing unless you have had a lot of practice as it is easy to scar and even shred the wood surfaces with the high-pressure spray.

Once the deck has dried out for a couple of days (and there are a couple of dry days in the forecast ahead), a new stain/sealer can be applied.  The other extreme of direct sun should also be avoided.  Finishing the deck early in the day will give the stain/sealer a chance to penetrate deeper into the wood before the heat begins to dry it out.  To avoid variations in the finish, it is important to keep a “wet edge”, and doing a section at a time with a clean break such as at a deck board or other termination point will yield consistent results.

Of course, if this all sounds like too much work to you, don’t let that stop you.  Harrell Design + Build would be happy to lend a hand because we know that properly maintaining a deck will add many years to its life, saving a lot of money in the long run, as well as providing a pleasurable place for you to enjoy those lovely days of summer and warm nights ahead!