Wish List

Great Toys for Grown-Up Girls & Boys

You may be too old to fire off a letter to Santa, but that’s no reason for the kid in you to let the holidays pass without making a decent wish list. From old games to new electronics, there’s something out there to please even the most discerning inner child. May your season be joy filled…and toy filled!

CHRISTMAS PAST Ask anyone older than 30-something to name their all-time favorite game. The across-the-board answer: Monopoly, the ultimate Boardwalk Empire. The game we remember has undergone a serious makeover as the Monopoly Revolution ($35 at your local Target), which upgrades the staid old board with sound effects and credit cards instead of cash. Buying houses you can’t afford in real life is fun! History’s happiest accident—the Slinky— has returned to the family staircase in a 14- karat, gold-plated-brass 55th Anniversary Edition ($100 at Buy.com). According to legend, the discovery that the spring could “walk” was completely serendipitous. The rest is history, with more than 300 million sold and still counting. Another beloved blast from the past is the Rubiks Cube, now available in a glitzy high-tech Rubiks TouchCube version (on amazon.com for about $70). Nostalgia is also available in book form. The Official Preppy Handbook, that iconic, tongue-in-cheek treatise on the WASP-y culture of the 1980s, finally has its longa waited sequel. One of the original authors has taken another satirical look at the “new old guard” in True Prep: It’s a Whole New World. Buy it in hardcover at your local brick-and-mortar bookseller, or go for the preppier Kindle or iPad editions.

CHRISTMAS PRESENT An unfortunate reality of being a self-indulgent grown-up is that fitness and exercise equipment often migrates onto our holiday wish lists. If you think walking (or even running) is for wimps—and can put off that new car purchase for another year—then you might want to trade in your treadmill for a Treadwall, a motorless rotating climbing wall that moves by body weight alone. The good news is you are never more than 1-2 feet off the floor. The bad news is that this will set you back about $10,000 (a KidWall version is less). Check it out at uniquefit1.com or call around to some climber-friendly gyms. If work intrudes on your workout, then consider equipping your home office with a Gaiam BalanceBall Chair (on Amazon.com for about $80). Chiropractically engineered, the chair continues working those core muscles even if you sit at your desk for hours. You’re basically buying the chair’s framework; the rest is BYOB (Bring Your Own Ball). It’s the same balance ball you use in your workout routines. Need to exercise on the road? You’ll have no more excuses away from home thanks to the Tumi Travel Fitness Trainer. It’s equipped with a pedometer, heart rate monitor, stopwatch, MP3 player and FM radio. Look for it at the Tumi store in the Short Hills Mall (or online at tumi.com) for about $165. Masochism comes in myriad forms, not all of which involve calorie burning workouts. Golf leaps to mind. Feeling the burn in this sport mostly happens between the ears. If greens are what get you blue, then consider the Laser Alignment Putting Trainer, which uses a laser beam to tell you when your putt is perfect— before you even touch the ball. Look for it online at hammacher.com for $329.95.

CHRISTMAS FUTURE If racing ahead of the pack gets you in the holiday spirit, then you’ll be happy to hear that the toys of tomorrow are here today. For instance, you can actually carry around a computer in a pen with the LiveScribe Echo Smartpen. It captures everything you hear, write or say and delivers it with just a tap of the pen ($170 for 4GB and $200 for 8 GB versions at livescribe.com; also at Target). Or treat yourself to a Gyration Air Mouse, which controls apps on your computer, TV or DVD player with a wave of your hand ($70 and up at amazon.com or compusa.com). Gadget gals are turning cartwheels over the latest Flip Video Cams. Their fetching case artwork belies their impressive HD video capabilities, with up to two hours of record time ($150 to $230). Best to go direct to theflip.com, where you can even upload your own photo for a personalized one-of-a-kind camera. If your final wish for 2010 (or final wish, period) is to careen down a snow-covered slope at 70 mph, then you’ll want to invest in an Airboard. Think of these Swiss-engineered inflatables as really Felixible Flyers. Popular for years in Europe, the Airboard has just begun appearing on American mountainsides. You may want to rent before you buy (they sell for $200 to $630 at airboard.com), and probably review your insurance policy. If your thrill-seeking tends to be a bit less public, then the Spy Net Secret Mission Video Watch may be more your speed. It’s a 21st Century take on those old decoder rings buried at the bottom of cereal boxes. It can audio record for 3 hours, video record for 20 minutes, and take still photos with a snake cam that lets you see around corners ($50 at jakks.com and also carried by Kmart).

Editor’s Note: Chris Gibbs is the brains behind EDGE’s “It’s A Gift” section. She’s been waiting all year to do this story!

Game On

 In Search of the Ultimate Sports Poster

Most experts agree that there are four cornerstones to a successful marriage. 1. Trust. 2. Honesty. 3. Unexpressed anger. 4. No sports junk on the walls. Many a man has tested rule #4 only to see that framed jersey or signed photo, without warning, donated to a local charity auction. Like a game of Jumanji, the priceless heirloom insidiously then works its way into another home, where it initiates marital chaos all over again. Bill Crouse is the exception that proves rule #4. One of the world’s leading authorities on Art Deco posters, his collection may be the best ever assembled. When Crouse purchases a sports poster, it’s invariably a jaw-dropper. In these pages we present a handful of sporting selections from the renowned Crouse Collection. You won’t find these masterpieces at your suburban gala or fundraiser. You will see them in museums and galleries in Europe and the U.S. (including right now at the Guggenheim’s Chaos and Classicism exhibit). If you want to buy them at auction, be prepared to spend somewhere in the mid-six figures!

Cycles Brillant • A. M. Cassandre (1901-1968) Only a few copies of this 1925 poster—a gleaming example of Cassandre’s adherence to minimalism—are know to exist. Not many commercial artists would be brave enough to hand a client an ad concept for a bicycle that shows no details of the product. Even fewer could actually pull it off.

Campeonato Abierto de Basket-Ball • Caroselli (Dates Unknown) The image of the angled competitor was popular among Art Deco posterists. In this advertisement for a 1934 tournament, Caroselli used this technique—along with an airbrushed black “cocoon”—to capture the energy of a layup.

Monaco/19 Avril 1931 • Robert Falcucci (1900-1989) This rarest of Monaco GP posters—possibly the only example in private hands—shows a Mercedes SSK in hot pursuit of a red Bugatti. Falcucci’s use of white streaks running the length of the racer, concentric arcs of white behind to convey the rush of the wind, and the bright palette of red, yellow and blue give this streamlined design great panache. A multitalented painter, decorator and illustrator, Falcucci received his formal training in Paris and served as the historical painter for the French Army.

Beristain/Todo Para Deportes • Jacint Bofarull (1903-?) on prior page Although Bofarull earned a reputation as a politically outspoken artist, none of his political leanings are evident in this promotion for Beristain’s Barcelona department store and its line of sporting equipment and apparel. Despite the fact that pipe-smoking is no longer a part of sports, it would not be a stretch to call this 80-year-old poster “timeless.”

Coupe Davis • A. M. Cassandre (1901-1968) In Cassandre’s advertisement for the 1932 Davis Cup, he grabs viewers’ attention by placing them in the path of an oncoming shot at net. The use of geometry and dynamic perspective in this extraordinarily rare poster— as well as the ease with which the design’s elements are assembled—are superb examples of what made Cassandre the most important Art Deco figure in the history of advertising posters.

Mistrzostwo Swiata/Krynica 1931 • Stefan Osiecki (1902-1939) Jerzy Skolimowski (1907-1985) This promotion for the 1931 World Ice Hockey Championships in Poland can barely contain the action within the frame. The featureless depiction of the competitors captures the team-oriented nature of the sport, while the flags along the bottom clearly convey that 10 national teams will by vying for the title.

Sables d’Or les Pins • Lec (Dates Unknown) For the dedicated golfer, playing a well-designed course borders on a religious experience. In this breathtaking 1926 poster, the artist captures this feel using a stained-glass style.

III Olympic Winter Games • Witold Gordon (1885-1968) Gordon left no doubt in this iconic poster where the center of the sports universe would be in February of 1932: Lake Placid. These Winter Games—the first held in North America—were opened by New York Governor (and soon-to-be U.S. President) Franklin Roosevelt. Gordon also designed the grand murals at Radio City Music Hall and the 1939 World’s Fair.”

World’s Greatest Air Race • Percy Trompf (1902-1964) The 1934 England-to- Australia air race covered more than 11,000 miles and was won by Lieutenant Charles William Anderson Scott and Captain Tom Campbell Black. Their scarlet DH.88 Comet finished with a time of 71 hours. Art Deco posters typically pared down or simplified the human element. However, in this poster, Trompf chose to zero in on the pilot’s face to convey the focus, determination and uncompromising will of the participants. Trompf created thousands of posters for companies in his native Australia, and attracted clients in England and Canada, too.

1er Campeonato Mondial de Football • Guillermo Laborde (1886-1940) This poster for the inaugural World Cup is the Holy Grail collectible for soccer fans. Laborde conveys the action and athleticism of the sport with just a few linear elements. An acclaimed South American artist and sculptor, he agreed to judge the poster submissions for the 1930 World Cup. Later, Laborde resigned from the panel and submitted two of his own—which came in first and third.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Tim Gazinski for his assistance in selecting and describing these posters. William Crouse’s 2009 book Grand Prix Automobile de Monaco Posters was hailed as “unmatched in the field” by the International Poster Center.

 

Local Talent

Buying art means buying smart. So what’s the deal with your neighborhood gallery?

In the typical suburban New Jersey home, you’re more likely to find a good guy named Art than good art. That’s fine if your goal is to own an undistinguished sofa-sized oil. But what if you want fine art—the kind that will brighten your life and fatten your bottom line? The answer may be as close as your local gallery. For those who believe you have to cross the Hudson to find investment-grade art, this idea may go against the grain. But the fact is that building a relationship with a gallery (or galleries) here in the Garden State can yield a far greater return—not just in terms of value and quality, but in so many other ways.   This applies to the seasoned collector as well as the novice. In fact, if you’re like so many New Jerseyans, the thought of opening your checkbook in a local art gallery is nothing short of terrifying. First things first. Let’s wrap our minds around the reasons New Jerseyans don’t buy art. Above all there is the intimidation factor. Most people are afraid they’ll be taken to the cleaners by an unscrupulous gallery owner. Second, they are nervous that their friends will make fun of a purchase that is different and modern, or simply out of character. Feeding this double-barreled paranoia is the fact that—particularly in the case of an abstract piece—one cannot specifically define the level of talent and technical skill involved in producing modern art. And on top of these very legitimate fears is the great, big elephant in the room: Why, when New York City is so close, would anyone buy art in New Jersey in the first place? Permit me to deal with this last objection first. Galleries here in New Jersey are indeed different than most galleries in the city. That is to say that they are friendly and approachable. If you think about it, it makes complete sense. Gallery owners are where they are, and do what they do, because they love and appreciate art. If they were in this business to make a killing, I hate to say it but they would be in Manhattan. What else does New Jersey have to offer art buyers that the city doesn’t? Well, there is a lot of first-rate talent that, for one reason or another, is only shown on this side of the Hudson. There is no comparison in terms of service. Try walking into a gallery on West Broadway or Madison Avenue and asking the owner to drive out to your place in Westfield for a consultation. That thud is the sound of his jaw hitting the floor. A gallery owner in or around your town, on the other hand, will likely welcome this opportunity. New Jersey art dealers are genuinely interested in the people who live around them, and cultivating relationships that extend beyond the buying and selling of art. They are part of the fabric of the community. Connecting with a local gallery also happens to be a superb way of adding texture to your social life. Once you’re “on the list” you’ll be invited to opening receptions whenever a new artist is featured. How often do you get to mix and mingle with new people who just happen to share a common interest? The majority of people attending gallery openings are like you—they want to know more about art and the people who buy it. (By the way, a free wine-and-cheese gathering is a wonderful springboard to dinner, a movie, or whatever else you’ve planned for an evening out.) Okay, so what about the financial side of the gallery relationship? Now more than ever, as we balance the merits of saving and spending, it is important to know what you get for your money when you purchase a work of art. Whether the price tag is several hundred or several thousand, dealers who live and work nearby are unlikely to “rip off” customers; they have reputations to uphold. If you happen to be one of the fortunate few who have five or six figures to invest in art, a good dealer will have solid connections to galleries that can point you in the right direction (and more importantly, steer you clear of the wrong direction). Either way, if your appreciation of art is tied to its potential appreciation, make that clear to the gallery owners you deal with.They will help you assess potential purchases (or emerging artists) with that goal in mind. Another advantage to buying in New Jersey—besides the good feeling that comes with supporting a local business— is that gallery owners here may be much more likely to work a deal that fits your finances. Their overhead is lower than in the city, which may translate into wiggle room when you whip out the checkbook. Finally, keep in mind as you shop or budget for fine art that you are buying something that could turn out to be a family treasure. Art is timeless. Art is priceless. Unlike a sofa or granite countertop, it does not depreciate the moment it walks through your front door. If you’ve chosen wisely, in fact, it could appreciate dramatically. And as it moves from your home to your children’s, and then to your children’s children’s and beyond, it serves as a link between the generations. In the meantime, this investment will enhance your quality of life every time you fix your gaze upon it. Indeed, as Pablo Picasso once observed, art “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Amen to that. Some other art icons have also had a thing or two to say on the subject. Jackson Pollock famously noted that every good painter paints what he is. Rembrandt suggested practicing what you know to make clear what now you do not know. Believe it or not, Michelangelo often insisted, I can actually draw. Clarity and simplicity enabled these great painters to create magnificently complex works of art. When it comes to buying art in the Garden State, a little clarity and simplicity also goes a long way. EDGE 

Editor’s Note: Kathy Donnelly is an art collector and dealer. She owns Beauregard Fine Art Gallery (beauregardfineart.com) in Rumson.

It’s A Gift

Tank Girl

Tank Girl

A (Saltwater) Fish Story Finding Nemo is not the problem. Keeping Nemo alive is. 

How many finny lives are upon my head? As a writer and editor of reference books, magazine articles and web pages on the care and feeding of all manner of aquatic life, how many kids did I help to take that final, fatal step after Disney had entranced them with Finding Nemo? How many gazillion brave little Clownfish lives were sacrificed in the service of a silly fad…and what was my part in it? It breaks my heart. Even more distressing is the fact that I may be in the minority. The pet industry, with which I have been entangled, like fishing line around the foot, professionally as an aquatics editor the past 20 years (and personally as a hobbyist for over fifty), does not profit from our successes. It’s a paradox, and perhaps it carries a larger message to our critical selves:

Photo by Matt Wittenrich, courtesy of Jeff Turner Reef Aquaria Design

The industry that supplies the livestock and equipment for people who would like to enjoy a small slice of the coral reef in their homes and offices profits from the woes and disappointments of the average beginning aquarium fish hobbyist—particularly in the marine fish and invertebrate hobby. Does the average Joe (or Joanne) starting a saltwater tank stand a fighting chance? The short answer is Yes. The long answer is that keeping a successful marine aquarium is equal parts difficult and satisfying. I am here to tell you that it can be done…as long as you’re willing to keep your eyes and wallet open, and understand how this hobby actually works. I offer the following nuggets of wisdom to help the budding “tank girl” (or boy) build a foundation for success. • Captive-bred specimens are recommended for beginners in marine aquarium keeping, regardless of the species desired. Captive-bred animals are hardier, acclimated to aquarium living, and are virtually disease-free. Also, if your pet shop is selling captive-bred stock, you can generally assume that they actually give a hoot about the environment. • More expensive fish are generally in better shape than bargains. At the grocery store, wild-caught fish are more expensive and worth it. That’s because you are eating them. But in a good pet store, it’s the captive-bred fish that are more expensive. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but please buy the expensive fish. In the end, the dead fish is the most expensive one of all. • The biology of the coral reef is as complicated as it is achingly beautiful. The ability to duplicate the ocean’s floor is a skill that comes with dedication, experience, and a whole lot of reading and working with other like-minded people. An honest pet industry professional will find some way to convey this point to you. A hard-nosed one won’t. That’s because the pet industry counts on the great turnover in hobbyists. All those glass boxes at garage sales represent money down the drain for overwhelmed or under-informed owners…and countless tiny lives flushed away. • Patience, patience and more patience. Don’t become a statistic. Start slow and keep it simple. Is it too much to ask that people not buy their first saltwater aquarium along with the fishes, live rock, and invertebrates all on their first visit to a pet shop? I experiment constantly, and found the very best aquarium I ever kept was limited to live rocks for a whole year before I put any fish in. I always tell my friends to “grow something” in the water first. No matter how many products are available to help start aquariums quickly, the aquarist’s best friend starting out is time. • Patronize the local brick & mortar pet shop and—I’ll say it again—beware of bargains. Even though it may not be able to compete with Internet prices, your local pet shop was likely opened as a labor of love and expertise; these folks are looking to make a living, not a fortune. Pet shop insiders will be the most generous of people with their time, experience, and good advice. However, be aware of the fishmonger who repeats whatever it is you just said, who agrees with a wayward premise. (Yeah! I always feed live guppies to all my cichlids.) If the advice smells like a bucket of week-old dead fish, this is what you’ll probably have next week if you buy from this guy. I only thank my lucky stars that Clownfish are now being commercially farmed at facilities like the ORA hatchery complex in Ft. Pierce, Florida and need not be collected from the wild. Had Nemo been an equally adorable Banggai Cardinalfish, collection pressures on the small wild populations would definitely have put this species at serious risk, even though it too is able to be bred in captivity; just not enough to supply the demand for fish that a movie like Nemo would generate. Although some of us in the industry wrestle with our consciences, in the end we believe that every person who begins a saltwater aquarium—regardless of the outcome— gains new respect and appreciation for our delicate planet. I can’t think of any other exercise that shows us in such acute detail just how difficult it can be to keep a small being living under our care. Perhaps if more people dedicated themselves to maintaining flourishing saltwater tanks, the Gulf of Mexico would still support a shrimping industry, global warming would be addressed in a more proactive way, and we would realize that the line between the coral reefs of Fiji and the Arthur Kill can be an astoundingly fine one. EDGE 

 

 Editor’s Note: Mary Ellen Sweeney is the ultimate Tank Girl—a lifelong hobbyist and a razor-sharp writer and editor for aquatics magazine, books and web sites. 28

 

 

It’s A Gift

Feng Shui for Lovers

Don’t be misled by the racy cover slugs on your favorite supermarket magazines.
Solving tricky “bedroom problems” is not the exclusive domain of sex columnists.
For countless millions of troubled couples, the answer isn’t the art of love, but the art of placement.

AHong Kong-based movie director sought to smooth his turbulent marriage by trading in his traditional king-sized bed for one with rounded corners. All in the spirit of taking the edge off the relationship. In California, parents of four daughters in their twenties painted each of their bedrooms peach, a color the Chinese associate with romance and flirtation. To ensure future wedding bells. Having trouble in your marriage? Still looking for that special someone with whom to share your life? Do you sleep like a baby—a colicky one? Are you restless when you should be resting, waking up in the morning jumpy and nervous? Do you suffer from constant headaches or stomach cramps? Before contacting your local couples counselor, sleep specialist or gastroenterologist, consider this: your bedroom might be suffering from bad feng shui.

Feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, addresses the environment to achieve peace, harmony and tranquility. In a bedroom, a delicate balance must be struck between serenity and suggestiveness. Calming aspects are desirable and contribute to sweet, langorous slumber, but in a marriage or relationship, desire and intimacy also need to be stoked. We spend one-third of our lives in our bedroom, where we rest, relax and recharge our energies. No wonder that, to the modern feng shui expert, the bedroom is one of the most important areas of your home. Indeed, for thousands of years, the Chinese have believed that where you sleep will influence how you sleep—that the structure and layout of your bedroom can affect your well being. When arranging a bedroom, certain ancient Chinese principles should be employed: the flow of ch’i (which translates as “energy”), the balance of yin and yang, and the wholeness of tao (which translates as the “way of nature”). Common and uncommon sense also are invaluable. In a bedroom, to the Chinese, position is an important consideration—of the bed location, that is. Ideally the bed should be cater-corner to the room’s entrance, with a view of the door so that you can comfortably see anyone entering and not be surprised. This position is called the commanding position; it gives you a sense of control over your environment. A poorly placed bed may disrupt your sleep at night and make you edgy and unbalanced during the day. Given that the ideal bed-to-door relationship is not always possible, the best cure is to hang a mirror in a way that  reflects the door toward you as you lie in bed. In some cases, a bed lies between two opposing windows, so a draft blows continually, disturbing sleep. This can be cured by hanging wind chimes, a crystal, or light between the windows, thus symbolically disbursing the draft.

“Whether you’re looking for a little luck or just hoping

to get lucky, a little feng shui can go a long way.”

Avoid locating your bed under a load-bearing beam. If it runs down the center, it will be divisive to a married couple. One couple in Manhattan rarely slept together an entire night. The wife always got up in the middle of the night and slept in the guest bedroom. Her midnight rambling ended after they moved the bed out from underneath the beam.

Similarly, avoid having a beam running over your stomach or you may experience cramps and intestinal problems. A newer aspect to modern feng shui deals with all the senses—including lighting and tactile elements—in creating a romantic environment. While a good, bright light is fine for reading in bed, a softer light or pleasantly scented candle will enhance the romantic mood. Deep, slow music is also conducive to intimacy. In addition, silky, velvety fabrics create comfort and help fan the flames of love. Carpets that feel good under foot are preferable to hard sisals or cold wood floors.

Color also is important in a bedroom. While you should always select the colors you love, it’s worth noting that pink is best for romance. Light green and pale blue are also good, as they symbolize hope and development. And peach may be the way to go if you’re still in search of that special someone. Finally, it’s worth mentioning the importance of purging your bedroom of any keepsakes or reminders of failed relationships. Keep it positive. Flowers and happy images are far more effective at creating an atmosphere conducive to a happy connection. Indeed, whether you’re looking for a little luck or just hoping to get lucky, a little feng shui can go a long way.

 

Editor’s Note: Sarah Rossbach is the author of Feng Shui: The Art of Chinese Placement, which was described by The New York Times as the “bible of the practice.”

Net Results

The Good Earth

A sustainable solution to heating and cooling is right under our feet. But will it pay to ‘Go Geo’ in 2022?

A generation ago, green was a crayon color and sustainable was rarely heard outside a CPA’s office. Nowadays, these words are used to sell products, mobilize activism and promote environmental stewardship. They are flexible, sexy adjectives that pair nicely with more familiar words to create catchy phrases like “going green” and “sustainable energy.” For most homeowners, turning those ideas into meaningful action steps involves junking an ancient HVAC array in favor of a more efficient one. For a forward-thinking few, however, harnessing the constant temperature of the earth to power a geothermal heating and cooling system is the cleaner, greener and more cost-efficient long-term investment.

Traditional HVAC systems (also called air-source heat pumps) pull in the outside air as the exchange medium to regulate indoor temperatures. As we all know, the weather in New Jersey fluctuates throughout the year, so at the extremes of heat and cold, your air-source heat pump has to work harder to keep you comfortable—and puts a bigger dent in your bank account. On the other hand, geothermal heat pumps (GHPs)—alternately referred to as geoexchange, ground-source, earth-coupled or water-source heat pumps—channel the underground temperature into the heating and cooling systems of a home.

Below the frost line in New Jersey, about 4 to 10 feet under the surface, the earth maintains a subterranean temperature of approximately 54° Fahrenheit. With this persistent heat source, geothermal heat pumps can warm your house in the winter, cool your house in the summer, and, if equipped with a desuperheater accessory, even provide hot water to a home—all while using less energy than your standard air-source HVAC.

Geothermal stems from the Greek words “geo” (earth) and “therme” (heat)—heat from the earth. If you’re forming a mental picture of hot springs, deep caves, oceanic vents and molten rock, you’re correct. But, when it comes to a geothermal heat pump in your home, the “geo” in question is, well, dirt.

Modern geothermal technology dates back to the late 19th century, when the world’s first district heating system was implemented in Boise, Idaho. In 1892, Boiseans directed water from the nearby hot springs to provide heat to local establishments. In 1908, homes in Iceland began to use geothermal steam as a heating source; today, 90% of Icelanders use geothermal heat.
During the 20th century, geothermal technology gradually progressed, with innovators constructing geothermal power plants at hot springs and steam fields. In the 1940s, Ohio State University professor Carl Nielsen developed the first residential geothermal heat pump.

From there, however, the technology has done a mostly slow roll. During the energy crisis of the early 1970s, there was a brief spike in interest, but the technology was still wonky and geothermal heat pumps didn’t become popular until a decade or so ago. Now there are roughly 50,000 GHPs installed every year in the US alone.

Can You Dig It?

The first step in installing a geothermal heat pump is to dig a shallow trench and bury a loop of pipes, called a heat exchanger, underground. Once the heat exchanger is in place and connected to the heat pump inside your house, the loop is filled with a fluid, typically a combination of water and antifreeze. During New Jersey winters, the constant underground temperature of 54° is typically warmer than the air aboveground, which averages around 34°. The antifreeze solution in the heat exchanger circulates underground, where it absorbs the earth’s natural heat. The heated solution is then redirected back to the heat pump apparatus in your home, which warms it up another 20° or so and then sends warm air through the ventilation ducts in your house.
During the summer, when New Jersey temps average in the 80s, the same solution in the exchange loop absorbs the heat inside your house, sends the heated solution to lose heat underground and then returns the now-chilled solution to the heat pump to save you from the summer swelter. In this case, heat pump is a bit of a misnomer; the unit is more of an air circulator at this temperature.

When considering a geothermal heat pump, it is helpful to understand your options—for instance, what type of heat exchange loop you want (or need) to install. There are four types of ground-source loops to consider, with three closed-loop options and one open-loop option. Closed-loop systems operate in the same way as I previously described and are the most common type of residential heat exchangers. The three types of closed-loop systems are horizontal loops, vertical loops, and pond/lake loops.
Horizontal loops are typically more cost-effective than other GHP options, because you are digging out into your yard instead of straight down. However, horizontal loops require a decent amount of property to dig the trenches needed for the exchange loop. Once the trenches have been excavated, two pipes are connected and buried—either staggered at 4 and 6 feet deep, or side-by-side at 5 feet deep. Horizontal loops can more easily accommodate difficult geology, like bedrock, since they don’t require deep excavation. Vertical loops are better suited for commercial properties, properties that have limited space or homeowners who wish to minimize soil disturbance. In order to install a vertical loop, holes are drilled two feet apart and down to a depth of 100 feet or more, depending on the residence. Vertical loop installation is the priciest of the GHP options, but it may be necessary for certain properties.
Pond/lake loops make up the last of the popular closed-loop options, and they are a wonderful and relatively inexpensive choice for those with access to a nearby body of water. Pond/lake exchange loops are coiled under at least eight feet of water in order to prevent freezing. This type of system is cost-efficient and effective, however it must meet potentially restrictive criteria regarding the depth, volume, and quality of the water.

The last option is the aforementioned open-loop system. Unlike a closed-loop system, open-loop systems use clean water instead of an antifreeze solution as the heat exchange fluid. This requires a well or an adequate source of clean surface water in order to function properly. As with pond/lake systems, there may be local codes and regulations (for instance, on groundwater discharge) that could inhibit the use of this type of GHP.

Buried Treasure?

There are plenty of reasons to invest in a geothermal heat pump for your home. One of the principal arguments in favor of geothermal heat pumps centers on efficiency. Geoexchange is a remarkably green technology. When it comes to HVAC systems, geothermal heat pumps are the most efficient and the most sustainable. By harnessing the constant underground temperature as a source of heat energy, GHPs are particularly steady and sustainable systems in regards to energy consumption. According to the EPA, geothermal heat pumps use 25 to 50% less energy than standard air-source units and can effectively reduce overall energy usage up to 44%—and up to 72% when compared with standard electrical air-conditioning systems. They can also excel in particularly humid areas by enhancing indoor humidity control. Geothermal heat pumps are also quieter, saving you from the gnawing buzz of traditional systems. GHPs typically run at 40-48 decibels, while standard air-source systems can reach over 70 decibels when they kick on.

Geothermal heat pumps also have a longer lifespan than their traditional counterparts and require less maintenance. While a standard HVAC system has an average lifespan of about 15 years, the geothermal ground loop can last up to 60 years; the average lifespan of the indoor component is almost 25. You can also get a 25-year-or-more warranty for your geothermal heat pump, depending on the installer.

So what’s not to like? Well, installing a ground-source loop on your property requires intense digging and/or drilling, depending on the type of loop you plan to install. Not only can installation of an underground loop temporarily tear up your property, but the actual process can take quite a while. Retrofitting a GHP into your residence can take 6 to 8 weeks to fully complete. New installations in ongoing construction can take even longer, considering all the necessary coordination and scheduling with the other contractors. By comparison, an air-source heat pump typically takes less than a week to install. You also need to be aware of the type of soil your house is sitting on. Dense clay soils are the best option for geothermal heating and cooling systems, followed closely by wet, sandy soils. Dry, sandy soils are the worst option due to poor heat transference, so if this is the soil that you have on your property, your GHP may not function as efficiently.
If you live in heavily forested or (like my family) in earthquake-prone areas, you may want to reconsider buying a geothermal heat pump. Dense forestry means that there are lots of roots that could damage the underground exchange loop. Earthquakes can also be a major threat to your heat exchanger. Not only are repair costs expensive, but the hazards of soil contamination with runaway antifreeze solution can create a small environmental catastrophe.

The Long Game

Purchasing and installing a geothermal system will cost you several times more than a traditional air-source unit. The earth-friendly aspect of GHP ownership may be worth a premium to you, as well it should, but even the most ardent fan of green sustainability may choke a little on the price. So the big question is usually When does it pay for itself?
Let’s start with what we know. If you own a 3,000 square-foot house in New Jersey, purchasing and installing a traditional five-ton HVAC system will cost you around $8,000. Unless you love sauna-like heat in the winter and meat-locker AC in summer, your average annual operating expense for an air-source unit will be around $2,000 give or take. By comparison, a GHP unit serving the same home has an average annual operating cost of just over $800, due to minimal energy consumption.

The return on investment (ROI) in energy savings for a geothermal system typically pays back the upfront cost in 5 to 10 years, depending on a number of variables, but mostly on the initial installation expense—which is where the real damage to your wallet is done.

In 2019, horizontal loop installation fees ranged from $12,000 to $25,000 dollars, while vertical loop installation ran anywhere between $16,000 to $30,000. The total cost of a high-quality GHP in a large home could touch $50,000 in a structure where new ductwork and carpentry was necessary. Still, the ROI seemed reasonable for all the good you might do the planet.
Unfortunately, 2019 was a lifetime ago. The cost of everything—labor, materials, electronics, etc.—shot up during the pandemic. Many homeowners had to put their geothermal dreams on hold when they received the bad news that an additional $10,000 or $15,000 would have to be added to the original estimate. Most folks in the industry believe that this is not the new normal; geothermal project costs should come back into line at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Perhaps infrastructure legislation will help homeowners with the costs. Congress already extended a 26% federal tax credit for geothermal home energy efficiency upgrades until the end of 2022 (it will be reduced to 22% in 2023). Certain municipalities offer an “energy-efficient mortgage,” so you should consult your local banks and mortgage companies for information about that. And geothermal installers usually offer low- or no-interest short-term financing.

To be sure, the financial burden of “Going Geo” is not for everyone. Even in the best of times, with the best of terms, embracing geothermal is a long game. Ten years (or more) is a long time to wait to be made whole. However, if you are deeply concerned about climate change and, especially, if you’re the kind of person who wakes up in a cold sweat wondering how in the world you’ll pay your energy bills in 2030 or 2040, why not let the earth help you out a little?
And do the planet a solid in return. EDGE

Editor’s Note: Caleb Szarabajka is a freelance writer with a degree from Berkeley and a keen interest in earth-friendly tech innovations. For more information on geothermal heating and cooling, visit the Geothermal Exchange Organization web site at geoexchange.org.

Seller’s Market

An inside look at New Jersey’s unbelievable real estate boom.

Distressing unemployment numbers. A busted economy. Stay-at-home orders. A terrifying pandemic. In early 2020, it was time to cut your portfolio losses and forget about selling your house, right? Wrong. Against all predictions and, frankly, common sense, the stock market surged and the housing market went completely berserk.

Here in New Jersey, a pandemic-induced perfect storm saw home inventory evaporate by the summer of 2020, triggering bidding wars among panicked buyers fleeing New York City and Philadelphia. They were competing with first-timers hoping to take advantage of historically low fixed interest rates (as low as 2.1%) and voracious house-flippers looking at soaring demand for rental properties. The normally healthy and predictable housing market of 2019—which had only just recovered from the 2008 housing bubble—turned into a heart-pounding, high-stakes game of chicken between desperate buyers and stubborn sellers, which has continued into the summer of 2021. Who the winners are may take a while to sort out.

Pandemic pricing created a strange new normal, where a reasonable asking price was merely a starting point for bigger, better offers. If you were a realtor with a listing, you were sitting pretty. If you were chauffeuring couples from house to house, the property you showed in the morning had offers by afternoon. New Jersey was particularly appealing to unnerved city-dwellers who equated the garden in Garden State with a virus-free suburban/ex-urban/rural landing spot.

Millennials Drive the Market

The decision to move has become especially popular among Millennials, who represent the hottest age group in today’s market. “These younger buyers are ready to buy into the boom,” says Frank Isoldi of Coldwell Banker in Westfield. They are well-educated and well-versed in the finances of home buying. As they enter their 30s and their earning power increases, they begin to plan ahead—for a first home, for starting a family, for more space. They appreciate the financial perks that come with investing rather than renting. They are comfortable working remotely for companies seeking to reduce in-office space requirements without compromising personnel performance. This change in the business culture eliminates the need to “live close to the office” because the office can be right at home. As commuting has become a non-issue for many younger buyers, the concept of “geographically attractive” has been dramatically redefined.
That being said, New Jersey has become a particular hotbed of relocation activity because of its proximity to New York. You may not need to pull a 9 to 5 in the city every day, but physical proximity to clients, customers and co-workers—not to mention top-notch entertainment and dining—will never completely lose its importance or appeal.
Perception has also contributed to a red-hot New Jersey real estate market in 2020–21. Indeed, we are experiencing one of the rare moments in history where buyers believe it is the ideal time to buy and sellers are convinced this is the perfect time to sell. Just ask anyone in real estate: If you don’t move quickly, someone else almost certainly will.

“My buyers’ only concern is getting a house,” says Isoldi, who cites a tangible move from rent to buy along with COVID-phobia and lock-up lethargy as significant motivators. The downside of this frenetic pace is “fatigue,” he points out, explaining that some buyers are so exhausted from missing out on homes that they resort to unrealistically padded offers. This has led to a noticeable upswing in the number of withdrawals during the requisite three-day attorney review period, when some buyers and even some sellers have been known to back out.
“This scenario is not for the weak of heart,” agrees Stephen Smith, a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway on the Rumson peninsula in Monmouth County, who saw selling prices there jump on average 17% to 20% from the shutdown in March 2020 to March 2021. “The challenge for buyers is getting traction for their offer when there are multiple offers above the asking price. In Monmouth County MLS, we have a new ‘Coming Soon’ category for buyers to be able to view a property, online only, ahead of it going live on MLS. There are strict regulations preventing any property ingress during this period, but it enables the buyers to architect their offer with not only the number, but also the seductive terms along with a personal letter. The challenge for an agent is having the energy, the experience and the temperament to help your buyers woo the sellers. It’s a wild-wild west environment for everyone, including the appraisers, who need to keep up with rising values in order to support the financing for the robust contract prices.”

The secret to success? A smart buyer must quickly formulate the best possible offer, one that the seller simply cannot refuse. A bidding tug-of-war among the bravest buyers often leads to a seller resorting to a master list of the “highest and best” offers from which to select a winner. Long gone are the days of emotional and drawn-out (yet sometimes exhilarating) face-to-face negotiations—antidiscrimination laws have made those risky. Gone too is the endless trekking through open houses; realtors have upped their game on virtual tours. It is no longer unheard-of for an out-of-town buyer to make a strong offer on a home he or she has never set foot in.

What makes an offer irresistible? As always, cash is king. A full-asking-price offer is also tempting. An above-asking offer even more so. In lieu of an all-cash offer, buyers have been sweetening deals with the waiving of contingencies that were once accepted as part of the transaction, including no appraisal, no inspection, no house-sale contingency and a convenient and flexible closing date. “Love letters” accompanying offers have become popular, but there is growing concern in the real estate profession that they expose sellers, agents and even buyers to possible legal repercussions down the road (see sidebar on facing page).

Ask a New Jersey realtor what they’ve seen over the past 18 months that they couldn’t have imagined a few years ago and you get some really interesting answers. Jaynie Wagner Carlucci of David Realty Group in Westfield has noticed a couple of aggressive new buyer strategies. One is offering all cash for a house and then refinancing after closing. This eliminates the mortgage contingency, which is appealing to sellers in a hot market. “I have also heard of people losing a bid and then ‘stalking’ sellers by going on social media and finding some way to reach them,” she says. “For instance, they find mutual friends of the seller to create an emotional connection…and sometimes actually change the seller’s mind to win the house.”
Like many realtors in the Garden State, Carlucci has written successful offers for buyers who didn’t set foot in the house until the home inspection. In another instance, she had a client offer $100,000 over asking price with appraisal waiver who still lost the bid. Recently, she posted a fast-forward video of the staging of a house, mostly for fun. She ended up getting calls from 10 realtors, triggering a bidding war before the property was even listed.

Buyers and Sellers

Are sellers experiencing remorse that they sold their homes too early, missing future appreciation? Smith answers with a resounding No. Sellers, he says, are appreciative of this opportunity to capitalize on a hot market and are cognizant that the stimulus of this surge in demand may not be sustainable. “And buyers express little or no regret at having paid top dollar, because by the time the deal closes, they have often seen additional appreciation. It’s a win-win scenario, and a win-win-win if you factor in the State of New Jersey, which is experiencing a transfer tax windfall at a time when it needs the money most.”

One change in the business, Isoldi points out, is that the relationship with buyers has become trickier, while sellers have become easier to deal with. Realtors are reticent to make recommendations to buyers about making “best offers”—particularly waiving contingencies—but also when it comes to sweetening the deal in other ways. One buyer, he says, resorted to dangling expensive box seats at a critical Yankees game. Sellers, on the other hand, are more open to advice now, since the best agents come loaded with detailed metrics, a long list of “comps” and recent contract closings. And of course, proposing an attractive asking price is easier in a town such as Westfield, with an enviable mix of home sales, from brand new to historical vintage, in all price ranges.
Isoldi has been enjoying the energy and buzz in the marketplace and doesn’t mind the chaos. As he looks to the future, he is convinced that the market will stay strong, although it might not continue to rise at the same rate. In his opinion, there probably will come a point at which more buyers start to get cold feet and the seller boom levels off. Still, he points out, if interest rates stay low—and if the construction industry rebounds to feed the inventory, jobs increase and the economy stabilizes—the prognosis looks excellent. Despite so many “ifs,” according to Isoldi, “There’s still a lot of wind left in real estate’s sails.”
The real estate market shows no sign of cooling down thanks to the widespread availability of vaccinations and some positive signs of economic recovery. New Jersey’s current inventory shortage is projected to persist in the near term, keeping prices high through 2021 and into 2022. The consensus is that sellers will continue to maintain the edge in the tug of war with buyers, who will continue to find daring and creative ways to make their bid the best.
“Timing is everything when houses are selling as soon as they hit the market—or before,” Carlucci says. “Being able to act fast and in a compelling way is the key.”

How the Other Half (of the 1%) Lives

Match the properties with the stars!

In the seller’s market of 2020–21, a lot of over-the-top homes in America sold for big money. No bigger than on that “other” coast, where some eye-popping California properties went up for sale during the pandemic. For eight figures—guess what?—you get a half-decent view!

Coming in Hot

What’s fueling the rush to install home pizza ovens?

One of the triumphant survivors of COVID-19 in New Jersey was the old-school pizzeria. Only a handful of these stores shuttered and many actually saw an uptick in business. The curbside pick-up/home-delivery model had already existed for decades when thousands of restaurants in the state were forced to adapt or die. This gave pizza-makers a huge edge when everyone went into hunker-down mode.

But I know another reason why pizza-makers made it through with flying colors: We learned just how impossible it is to make a decent pie in a standard oven.

Some of us have come tantalizingly close, but it’s never quite right, is it? Even the most talented home chefs with “professional” equipment and designer kitchens eventually arrived at this conclusion. In fact, I’ll bet they were the first to pick up the phone and order out once it was safe. So how do you make an honest-to-goodness pizza-parlor pie at home? With an honest-to-goodness pizza oven.

Your first steps on this journey begin with finding an oven that meets all the necessary criteria and lines up with your budget, kitchen space and other needs. If you’ve got a buddy in the business, obviously that’s an excellent place to start, but for most of us the Internet is where the search begins. Google “pizza oven suppliers” and you’ll notice that the word forno—which translates as “oven”—appears in many trade names. Examples include Forno Bravo, a company that builds and ships from Monterey; Forno Piombo, a father-and-son team that annually produces only 160 custom ovens (starting at $9,500) that are inspired by Tuscany but handcrafted in the Napa Valley; and Fontana Forni, which offers made-in-Italy models using techniques crafted by generations of the Fontana family.

 

 

Pie Chart

Three billion pizzas are sold in the US each year accounting for $40 billion in revenues. During the pandemic, Pizza Hut and Domino’s saw delivery and off-premises sales soar by 21% and 36% respectively. Here are some other fun facts about pizza in America…

  • 41% of Americans have pizza at least once a week
  • About 12% consume pizza on any given day
  • The average American will consume more than 6,000 slices in a lifetime
  • There are roughly 2,000 pizza restaurants in New Jersey and nearly 70,000 in the U.S.
  • In a recent poll asking consumers to name their favorite food, pizza finished fifth—behind hamburgers, hot dogs, fries, and Oreos.

 

More important than finding a cool name is determining the type of oven appropriate for your situation. These are your four basic choices:

  • Brick Oven A centuries-old wood-fired method capable of reaching 700-1,000°F with a rustic look and taste of days gone by. These ovens can also be heated with gas or coal, or a combination of sources.
  • Deck Oven When space is at a premium, offers one to three decks made of stone heated by a gas or electric burner; not quite in the same league as a wood-fired oven, but it will look familiar if you frequent your local pizza place.
  • Convection Oven You may have one already; if not, you may want to consider one on your next remodel. It circulates hot air from the bottom, which gives you a fighting chance to produce a crispy, thin crust—but it’s not made specifically for pizzas, so lower your expectations.
  • Impinger Oven Uses specialized radiant cooking technology to distribute hot air from both the top and bottom to penetrate the pizza quickly and cook it in five minutes or less. You don’t typically find these in homes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t.

Ask any pizza aficionado and you’ll almost always be told that an authentic Italian pie can only come from a wood-fired oven with a traditional stone base. Although these ovens are not unheard-of in residential kitchens in New Jersey, you’re far more likely to find one a few steps outside the kitchen, on a patio or as part of an outdoor entertainment area. Would it surprise you to know that one of the top people in the outdoor pizza business is located in New Jersey? Decades-old Backyard Brick Ovens is right in the neighborhood, in Edison. Its owner, Scot Cosentino, is not only a master builder of wood-fired pizza ovens, but he takes pride in billing himself as a World Champion Pizza Maker. For more than 30 years, Cosentino has been designing, engineering and producing pizza ovens for sites ranging from private backyards to commercial restaurants.

Today, the company focuses on outdoor and stand-alone installations. Its brand name is Forno Bello and its most popular model is the Neapolitan. That oven is priced at $2,800, with an additional $300 set-up fee. Cosentino offers videos to his customers with instructions on setting up, lighting up, doughing up and dishing up his favorite recipes. He confirms that the pandemic has hardly dented the business, as many New Jersey families chose to invest in their homes over the past year: “Backyard ovens sold like hot pizzas during the pandemic.”

Okay, let’s stop for a second. I have never experienced daily cravings like I did while researching this story, so let’s talk about the kind of pizza that comes out of a great oven. The most basic traditional pizza is a margarita, which at its best is prepared with a thin crust generously topped with patiently simmered fresh tomato sauce and finished with generous slices of fresh bufalo mozzarella and an aromatic chiffonade of basil leaves. A less common, but equally traditional option often found on more sophisticated menus is the Pizza Quatro Stagioni. To live up to its label, this pizza is divided into four quarters, each symbolizing one of the seasons by featuring a vegetable typical of the time of year (e.g., artichokes for spring, mushrooms for fall, tomatoes and basil for summer, and prosciutto and olives for winter). Once again, all ingredients are crowned with a fresh tomato sauce drizzled over a thin crunchy crust.

If neither of these more orthodox versions excites your palate, the variety of pizza toppings available is limited only by the creative spirit of the resident pizzaiolo. Your pie of choice might reflect your mood (“I feel like…”), your budget (Wait, 30 bucks for what…”), or even the time of day (“I’ll have the Florentine breakfast pizza with bacon, eggs and spinach…”). I learned there is such a thing as a dessert pizza, too.

When I mentioned to my son how hungry this story was making me, he showed up with my grandson and a Ninja Foodie and we shopped for ingredients to create a couple of small, homemade pies on my countertop. Although certainly not wood-fired and perfect, they were okay. Which is something we all love about pizza: even when it’s just okay, it’s still pretty good.

A Slice of History

We all know that pizza originated in Italy, but where does the name come from? Etymologically, the word pizza is derived from the Latin pinsere, which means to pound or stamp—which became pinza and then pizza. Anyone who has watched a pizzaiolo (or pizza master) at work appreciates that making pizza requires much serious pounding of dough, followed by skillfully draping it over the closed fists of both hands and rotating it to stretch it to the proper circumference and thinness.

The first description of pizza dates back to a 10th century Latin manuscript from a town in Southern Italy. Although many Sicilian-Americans claim owner-ship on this basis, the modern pizza actually traces its roots to Naples. In fact, a non-profit organization,

The True Neapolitan Pizza Association, was founded in 1984 to safeguard Napoli as the true pizza source. As a further fact, in 2017 UNESCO awarded the Neapolitan pizza its seal of approval by listing it as “intangible cultural heritage.” It is no surprise that actor Stanley Tucci, for the first episode of CNN’s Searching for Italy, opened with a visit to Naples for meetings with a family of mozzarella cheese makers, several San Marzano tomato experts, and some very famous pizzaioli as a proper introduction to the authentic roots of pizza in its native habitat.

Back to business. If you prefer an indoor pizza installation, the options at the low end begin with electric, compact, and countertop ovens that can start as low as $299. The Ooni Fyra is a popular pick at that price point. If you are willing and able to make a $999 investment, the Breville Pizzaiolo model qualifies as a very high-temp “smart” pizza oven. With no unique set-up involved, these ovens can sit on any flat surface in the kitchen to quickly turn out crispy 12-inch pizzas, whether you’ve made them yourself or grabbed one out of the freezer.

Although there are more sophisticated indoor ovens available, their installation requirements are more complicated and therefore more expensive. Typical kits are available from $1,500 to $2,500, but if kitchen remodeling is necessary to install, the average costs to the homeowner is likely to fall into the $15,000 to $20,000 range, which includes carpentry, tiling and electrical costs, as well as permitting and compliance with local ordinances. And as anyone who’s redone a kitchen knows, you can easily blow through that number if you look at a contractor wrong. The outdoor option may be a bit less intrusive, but is still likely to set you back between $5,000 and $20,000.

A final thought on “cost.” As anyone who spent time in a college dorm can tell you, the price of pizza is measured both in dollars and pounds. Think of all the empty freezer cases during the height of the pandemic; those carbs had to go somewhere. Maybe that’s why Pelotons were on back order and people started buying those black-mirror home gyms. Alas, the uncomfortable truth about our favorite comfort food is that consuming a typical pie—whether all at once or as reheated leftovers—can easily surpass 2,000 calories…and depending on the quantity of cheese on the pie, more than 200 grams of fat.

Is every bite worth the calories? Maybe not—if it comes out of a cardboard box from your local delivery joint or supermarket freezer. On the other hand, if you’ve crafted each ingredient by hand and it emerges bubbling from your own wood-fired, charcoal-fueled or top-of-the-line convection oven, I just have two words for you: buon appetito!

Smartening Up

Yes, there is hope for your dumb home.

By Rachel Rutledge

Is there anything more flattering than the discovery that you’re being fought over? You may not realize it, but as a suburban homeowner, you are the object of intense desire on the part of a very active group of venture capitalists, who are snapping up patents for future “smart-home” products and technologies. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that they are fighting over the companies that will be fighting for your business in 2015 and beyond. The battleground? Your “dumb” home.

We’ve been hearing about smart homes for the better part of a decade. These are the fanciful dwellings that practically run themselves, or at least do our bidding with a minimal amount of hands-on technical expertise. They know when we’re home and when we’re not. They run the lights and heat for us. They brew us coffee, start the shower and warm up the car on a cold morning. They remind us of appointments or can’t-miss TV shows. They even let us know when something under the floor, behind a wall or out in the yard isn’t working quite as well as it should. Unfortunately, because most of us live in older homes or apartments, a smart home has been out of reach. It’s been too expensive or too complicated to consider.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

Well, no matter how tech-averse you may be, it may be time to reconsider.

This is where those battling venture capitalists come into play. They look into the future and see every home as a smart home. And as investors, they want a big piece of the action. They want to own the stuff that will enable you and me and the elderly couple down the street to make our homes super-smart. And the sooner that happens, the sooner the venture capital generates a return. The result has been an acceleration to near-blinding speed of the technology and products that can actually make that happen.

It’s available, it’s affordable, and it’s not all that hard to figure out.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

Opportunity Knocks

Why the sudden surge in smart-home products? The answer is the “smart phone.” The Apple iPhone and its imitators have penetrated the communications market so quickly and effectively that whoever doesn’t own one now will probably break down and buy one in the next few years. Smart phones aren’t really telephones in the traditional sense. They are small, handheld computers that link wirelessly with computer networks, enabling people to communicate by voice. What smart phones (and tablets) are really good at is functioning as remote controls and monitors for smart-home networks. In essence, most of us already own the remote control to a smart house…we just don’t have the smart house yet.

As a consequence, the competition to sell you the technology needed to make your dumb home smarter is heating up fast. If you’ve been to a Lowe’s or Home Depot lately, you may have noticed a lot of new products in this category. They are often situated in high-visibility locations.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

PICTURE THIS…

Your alarm clock wakes you up…it turns on the shower to exactly the right temperature…your flat screen clicks on to your go-to morning show…your cell phone gives you a head’s-up on a developing traffic or weather issue between your home and workplace…as you move from the second floor to the first, the thermostat lowers on one level and rises on another…your coffee maker grinds fresh beans and makes a pot of coffee in time for your arrival in the kitchen…your sound system plays your favorite morning tunes or talk station…a tablet lights up with the front page of your local newspaper… the car starts and warms up for you…the thermostat drops 10 degrees…and the house locks and arms its security system as you speed away.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

Many of the brands should be familiar. Among the companies moving into this space very aggressively are Honeywell, Stanley and Kwikset, along with names that are quickly becoming familiar, such as Lutron and Nest. Nest, which made a lot of headlines in 2014 after being purchased by Google, was started by two former Apple engineers. Not surprisingly, Apple, Google and other major companies—including Comcast and Verizon—are hoping to carve out a dominant position in the smart technology market.

Getting Started

Are we really at the point where every family with a high-functioning phone or tablet can make their home a smart home? Indeed we are. If you have an Internet connection and wifi (a wireless router) in your house, then you are good to go. Just using widely available plug-in devices and changing out a couple of items like thermostats, you can create a basic mesh network that can be controlled from your bed, your car or your office through an easily accessible web interface using your phone.

“A homeowner can create an effective mesh network with a couple of wifi-enabled thermostats and a handful of plug-in devices that control table lamps,” says Andre Conway, an industry consultant who works with commercial and residential security clients in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. “The beauty of this technology is that the more devices you add, the better the mesh becomes and the smarter your home can be.”

“With a more advanced system,” he adds, “you can talk to your phone and instruct your house to turn down the heat, turn up the lights, start the dishwasher or even open the door for the UPS driver—and then lock it again once you’ve watched him drop the package in your house.”

A decade ago, none of this would have been possible without a hefty bill and a byzantine web of timers and controllers. Devices weren’t very good at talking to one another. Today, says Conway, with more open-code development, building a really good system yourself might set you back $1,000. More important than the bargain price is the fact that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to make it all work. Ease of use and affordability are the benefits to consumers from increasingly cutthroat competition.

So what can a smart home do that your dumb one can’t?As much or as little as you want it to. A smart home can be programmed to execute a variety of functions, saving time and money, or just providing added peace of mind. A smart home can even be taught to “anticipate’; there are sensors on the market that know who each household member is, where they are, what they are doing, and even what they might want to do next.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

PICTURE THIS…

You are busy at work or on an endless string of errands….you get a message from FedEx or UPS about a drop-off…the driver lets you know when he is at your door…you disarm the security system, unlock the door, and watch on a monitor as the package is dropped safely inside your home…you then re-lock and re-arm the system…on your way home, you decide to stop for a drink with a friend and tell your home to keep the heat down, plus turn on a couple of lights…later that evening you turn up the heat, turn on the music, run a bath at exactly 120 degrees, and preheat the oven…all from your car 20 minutes from home.

For those who want a smart home but don’t trust themselves to set it up properly, there are plenty of companies that will come in and do the job for a very reasonable price. As a rule, they don’t make their money selling you a system. Instead, they charge you monthly to make it work, much the way your cable companies charges you for programming and DVRs. The leaders in this field (for the moment, at least) are home security companies. The one you have now probably offers a smart-home package of some kind. If not, another security company will gladly rip out a competitor’s at no cost to secure your business.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

There are good deals out there right now, but those deals are likely to get even better as more players enter the game. In the near future, consumers considering smart-technology retrofits will most likely be choosing between their home-security company, their telephone company, their cable company or their Internet company. High-end audio/video installers will also be vying for a slice of the pie. Each will offer something enticing to get into your home. It is worth noting, however, that your existing security system won’t integrate easily into a smart-home makeover, unless your existing security company gets the job.

www.thinkstockphotos.com

PICTURE THIS…

You are away for a ski weekend and the mercury plummets…you get a text from your home that a pipe has cracked…the water to that part of that house is shut off…the heat near the pipe is turned up…you call a plumber to check the problem…using your smart phone, you let him into the house…you observe/record him as he works to repair the issue…you re-arm the security system after receiving a text that the plumber is done…you continue skiing…you return to a fully functioning plumbing system instead of a catastrophic flood.

Don’t Use Your Dog’s Name

What is the downside to all of this smart technology? Obviously, if you lose your connectivity, your home becomes dumb again in a hurry. A long-term power outage or Internet interruption means having to operate lights and appliances yourself until everything is up and running again. Every system is designed with manual overrides (and hopefully we can all remember how to operate a light switch), but there are some smart devices that become problematic during outages. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, some apartment dwellers with “smart” keyless locks felt pretty stupid when they couldn’t get into their units.

Perhaps the most significant potential negative in a world of smart homes is how incredibly dumb we are about passwords. Poor (or poorly protected) passwords in the hands of the wrong person could be catastrophic. Not only would clever criminals be able to disable your alarm system and open your front door, they could conceivably continue into your home computer and, through that, your work computer (Hello, Sony!). And because all of your devices will be part of a network, a smart lamp, smart dishwasher or smart garage door opener might be the softest point-of-entry for hackers.

Interestingly, in anticipation of this brave new world, Congress is working on a bill that would prevent manufacturers from selling you anything with a default password. In other words, before activating a product, you would be compelled to create a password. Currently, the percentage of people who never change the password from “password” or “12345678” is appallingly high.

If you are currently resistant to the whole idea of creating a smart home—either because of the aforementioned issues or simply on principle—be prepared to find yourself in the minority in a few years. It is easy enough to operate and cheap enough to afford right now, and the products will only get cheaper and more user-friendly. Soon, almost all quality appliances will be available with built-in wifi in order to integrate into a mesh network. And as your smart phone gets smarter, it will become the remote control you simply talk to and tell what to do.

Indeed, with each passing day, more and more people just like you will be walking through their front doors shouting, “Honey, I’m home…” only they’ll be talking to their house instead of their spouse!

Tall Story

When it comes to converting a dusty attic  

into a dreamy live-work space, be prepared to deal  with a dizzying number of variables.

Who among us hasn’t visited the house of a friend or relative, ascended into the attic and thought, Hey this could be a great extra floor? It’s fun to fantasize—to play architect, contractor and decorator—especially when it’s not your attic or your house or your bank account. Well, here we are in the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, with greater emphasis on telecommuting and remote-learning. Suddenly that unoccupied square footage is looking pretty tempting, isn’t it?     

“Building up” is nothing new, of course. In fact, many newly constructed homes include unfinished attic space that can be easily converted into an office or an additional bedroom or two when the time comes. 

 

However, for the vast majority of single-family dwellings in New Jersey, that is the exception, not the rule. When it’s your attic and your house and your bank account, there is a dizzying array of costs and considerations involved—and you pretty much have to get every one of them right. 

 

HEAD SPACE

 

First and foremost, there needs to be enough room up there to accommodate the expansion. Understand, therefore, that looks can be deceiving. By the time a proper floor goes down and sheetrock goes up, much of that open, airy feel will be gone. Whether you are thinking of a home-office, an extra bedroom or two, a man-cave, a she-shed or some combination, you will almost certainly need at least 100 square feet of floor space, more than two-thirds of which has enough head room for a normal adult. Those minimums can be monkeyed with a little bit, but not too much, because every town in the Garden State has building codes covering this type of interior construction and—guess what?—you’ll need permits and an inspector to sign off on your work when it’s done.  

 

Why all the fuss? One word: Fire. 

 

Unlike other rooms in your home, attic space is not only a potential deathtrap during a blaze (remember, fire travels up), but a high percentage of home fires in the U.S. begin in the attic, usually because of old or faulty wiring. A live-work conversion means you’ll be bringing lighting and electrical outlets into a space that may only have a couple of bare lightbulbs right now. That work must be done up to code and by a licensed and insured professional; it’s no job for a DIYer or your cousin who used to be an electrician. P.S. there’s probably a reason he used to be an electrician. Additionally, there must be an obvious egress in case someone is working or sleeping in the top floor. Attic stairways act like a chimney and are not always great escape routes. A window big enough to crawl out of is practically a given. A windowless attic redo is not impossible, but it is obviously problematic.

Lofty Ambitions 

 

In years past, the pros and cons of converting attic space often depended on a three-variable calculation: What can I afford, what will it cost me and, most importantly, is it worth it? Say adding a live-work space comes with a price tag of $50,000. Many homeowners—concerned whether they would recoup that outlay, intimidated by  the disruption of major construction and tempted by low interest rates—considered buying another house nearby with a bit more room.  

In 2020, things got a bit more complicated.  Housing prices in suburban New Jersey soared, office workers were told to stay home and children (school-age and in some cases adult kids) were suddenly underfoot, all due to pandemic restrictions.

In short, people in need of more space were more likely to stay put. The only problem, as mentioned earlier, is that your existing attic might not be  big enough to become legal bedrooms. According  to architect Bob Kellner, RA, NCARB, you might not be out of luck. Almost any “found” space, he points out, can become something usable—even fun and interesting—with a bit of creativity. 

“Where a lack of height or overall space makes a third floor imprudent or non-compliant, consider a loft space,” he suggests. “If an existing attic allows—even if shallow in head height—it can often be accessed by a ladder instead of a staircase. You can make a sleeping loft or play area for older children or a cozy workspace. This can be done without adding expensive dormers, raising the roof or losing area  on the floor below. It’s a what-can-we-do-with-what-we-have solution. And loft space is always best when it overlooks adjacent space where the ceiling has been removed so that area is ‘vaulted.’ People are looking for fun and interesting design these days—that is the case whether it adds to a realtor’s calculated living area or not.” 

MOVING ON UP 

Speaking of stairways, that can be a major expense when it comes to incorporating the attic into your home. Odds are, however you access your attic now will not be code-compliant. In most towns, you’ll need something at least three feet wide, with a specific rise and run, usually 10 inches high by 7 inches deep. This creates a couple of expensive problems. If your attic space is currently accessible through a crawl-space opening or pull-down stairs (which is the case in older single-story homes), then you are looking at 100% new construction. If you already have a staircase leading to your attic, grab your tape measure before you shout Yes! Some of those old attic steps are far too narrow  to pass inspection. Also, adding or reconstructing a staircase to code may end up consuming precious hallway space on your current top floor. Truth be told, the cost and/or inconvenience of just getting up the  attic kills the dream before it even gets on to the drawing board. How lucky those long-ago homeowners are who renovated their attics before the building codes tightened, and who are now grandfathered in. 

 

The cost of a new staircase typically starts at around $3,000, but that is not necessarily your biggest “hidden” expense. Another costly fix is at the top end of the stairs, where the bones of the attic come into play. When you go up there and look around, do you see a lot of 2×4’s? If so, that’s not a good look. These days, building inspectors like to see 2×8’s, 2×10’s and 2×12’s. In newer homes, this shouldn’t be an issue. But if you own an older home, then you already know that it’s full of surprises.  

The expensive surprise here is that the house may not have been originally constructed to bear a load beyond what it does right now. Even if you only intend to throw a spare bedroom up there, you need to know the difference between a “dead load” and a “living load.” A dead load is boxes and other junk that piles up in the attic. A living load is people moving around and shifting weight into different places as a consequence of normal working or living activities. A minimally supported attic and/or roof may not only require all new joists and other retrofitting, you may need to address what’s going on in the basement, too. It is rare that a new home office in the attic creates foundation issues, or issues on upper floors, but it is by no means unheard of. 

That’s what structural engineers are for.  

Even if all you have to do is bring in 2×12’s under the roof and 2×10’s under the floor—and are okay with the additional costs of labor and materials—you will lose an astonishing amount of space with these upgrades, which might end up being a deal-killer, especially if you’re only trying to pick up a couple of hundred square feet of live-work space. 

 

RUNNING HOT AND COLD 

At this point, if you’ve checked these boxes and are still determined to plow ahead, you’ll need to consider the most economical way to bring heating, cooling and ventilation to the renovated attic space. An HVAC professional should be able to give you an accurate assessment of the viability and cost of extending your current system to the new top story. Since you (or a previous owner) installed a system meant for the space you have now, it may lack the oomph to go up another floor. That means freezing-cold winters and, more  likely, blistering-hot summers, which is not part of an acceptable live-work equation. You can certainly add another unit or upgrade your existing one (if it’s nearing the end of its lifespan), and add new ducts and vents. Or, depending on the space, you may be able to get away with a mini split system, which may run as little as $1,000 installed. Keep in mind that you could also need rafter venting to move air behind any insulation you install. 

     

Oh yes. Insulation. You probably have some kind of insulation in the attic already. Don’t assume that it’s good to go and just sheetrock over it. Have it checked by a professional, or at least call the company that manufactured it and make sure that it is good for your new space, and that there are no reported problems. If your roof is uninsulated, get some advice on the right material from your contractor, or from the dealer if you plan to install it yourself. You’re likely to get a recommendation of batt insulation with a vapor-retardant facing. This can be a DIY project if you want to save a couple of bucks—just remember the vapor barrier faces outward between the joists. Finally, don’t forget about the insulation under the attic floor. Check it to see that it hasn’t compacted. Your insulation plan should also include high-quality windows and, ideally, energy-conserving thermal curtains. 

UNDER FOOT 

 

Where flooring is concerned, you have a lot of choices. While insulating qualities are a consideration, you want to avoid the mistake most people make in not considering noise-reduction. The more insulation you install and the thicker the subfloor, the less sound will transfer to the rooms below. Before you even get to  that part, though, walk around on the current flooring in the attic. If it’s squeaking or making other noises that can be heard underneath, then you must figure out why and then fix the problem. A good subfloor also should be level and secure. Another consideration in flooring  is quality. 

 

Because even the best-insulated converted attic space experiences the most temperature fluctuations in the house, don’t go cheap on materials. Get something that won’t swell or shrink. And if you intend to put something heavy up there—say, a bank of bookcases filled with books—ask your contractor to evaluate whether the joists can handle the load without cracking the ceiling below.  

 

The finishing touches to a renovated live-work attic space involve lighting and color choices. If the job is done up to code, it may not include overhead lighting, but it will have electrical outlets at predetermined intervals. The darker the space—and attics do tend to be darker than the rest of the house—the more up-lighting you should consider and the brighter and whiter your paint choices should be. If the space is your new home office, think about situating your desk or workspace near a window.   

I haven’t delved into adding dormers or bathrooms to an attic renovation, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. But it does bring me to a final point. Just because you can convert your unused attic into a great, usable live-work space, it doesn’t mean that you should. If the work-arounds and custom carpentry start piling up, the cost might well exceed what the new space is worth. Indeed, as crazy as it sounds, it might even exceed the cost of ripping off the roof and just adding an addition story to your home, which almost always comes with a six-figure tab. 

 

WHAT’S THE DAMAGE? 

 

The cost of transforming your dusty attic into a dreamy live-work space does indeed depend on a dizzying number of variables, which is why contractors exist. A talented one brings a mix of objectivity, subjectivity, foresight and experience to a project like this—most or all of which a typical homeowner lacks. The size and  age of a structure has an enormous impact on the budget, as does personal taste and flexibility with the “must-have’s.”  

 

What you must have is the financial wherewithal and the patience to get the job done right the first time, which means safely and legally. Can you squeeze out a renovation for under $10,000? Yes…a modest, utilitarian one—and that’s assuming your karma somehow shifts into overdrive and everything on the job goes exactly right. The real number to get everything you want is likely to start more at $20,000 or $30,000 (double  that if a small bathroom is part of the plan) and can skyrocket quickly from there, depending on quality, code-compliance and, let’s face it, dumb luck.

Green New Deal

Thanks to a bumper crop of home hydroponic and aeroponic products, more and more New Jerseyans are growing their own.

Around the time I returned home to New Jersey from a COVID-shortened “vacation” last March, I and much of the nation experienced pantry panic—an undiagnosed anxiety related to food sourcing and hygiene. A trip to the grocery store, to feed our family, was fraught with fears of air-borne disease droplets lurking in the meat section and vegetable aisles. I had no idea what was safe and germ-free. Once home, this anxiety spurred me to clear all our window boxes and plant seeds of radishes, chervil, basil, parsley and lettuces. I also joined a local farm CSA (that’s short for Community-Support Agriculture) that weekly provided a seasonal assortment of lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, peppers and squash, all grown within five miles of our suburban house.    

 

With the pandemic wave rising in the autumn of 2020, the cold dark months of winter bearing down, my home and CSA-grown supply of fresh vegetables ending and no idea where our place would be in the vaccine line, I began looking at options for how to provide a safe and local food source. I already had a grow light in the basement, so why not try hydroponics?

 

Like Zoom, Netflix, Amazon, Peloton and Pfizer, hydroponics is a pandemic growth industry and, with 20-20 hindsight, might have been a prescient investment in 2020. If you google hydroponics, over 67 million results pop up. Products ranging from $99 Kohl’s and $73 Wayfair contraptions to state-of-the-art growing units costing in the thousands, promise a pandemic-free pantry, with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. Producing this year-round, home-grown salad without having to venture into a potentially germ-ridden store, allows the indoor farmer to become the ultimate locavore.

 

Indeed, hydroponics lowers your carbon footprint: the produce is energy-efficient, wasting no gas for shipping from California or Peru or driving to the local green grocer. And in spite of the initial dollar outlay for a hydroponic growing pod, home-grown food, over time, is likely to be less expensive, healthier, fresher and more sustainable since you are employing only the water solution and the electricity for a grow-light, water pump and filter. The age-old parental advice of “eat your greens” might actually eat up less green… and there are many businesses eager to help you grow your own.

 

Tom Corvo, owner of Shore Grow Hydro, a three-year-old hydro-ponics retail store in Ocean, says there are many consider-ations that determine what sort of home-growing unit to purchase: Do you have the space, time Shore Grow Hydro and budget? Generally the lights are the most expensive purchase. One customer spent $50,000 to set up two rooms with hydroponics. Or you could invest in a simpler set-up of a lettuce raft floating in a 2 x  4-foot tray on legs with a grow light for under $500. The store smartly offers support: the last Thursday in every month, Shore Grow runs classes—from Hydro 101 for seed starting and fruiting to more advanced 201 classes for propagation, pest control and the finer points of automation.

 

I admit my mind glazes over when I learn that there are finer maintenance details to hydroponics than I’m used to (compared to outdoor gardening), such as checking the water for 5.5-6.5 PH and adjusting it, changing water every two to three weeks, choosing a nutrient (organic or not).  Yet, Corvo says that business is steady to good and expects an even greater up-tick in home-growing hydroponics, especially with marijuana now legal in the Garden State. 

 

On the opposite coast, there’s California-based Hamama, a micro-green growing system that pops up on my Facebook feed every day. The ads of this e-commerce hydroponics company are appealing and tempting. What intrigues me is the promise of healthful microgreens that grow quickly, easily and don’t take up a lot of space or energy—as well as no need for a water pump or filter. (So technically is this hydroponic?) Better yet, the company’s “starter kit” doesn’t cost a lot of lettuce: $35 plus free shipping. Costs can mount if you go all-in and purchase a “grow shelf” that accommodates six grow trays. I spoke with Camille Richman at Hamama, who reports that orders have increased during the pandemic and that their top-seller is the Super Salad Mix Seed Quilt, a growing medium that contains broccoli, kale, arugula, kohlrabi, cabbage and cauliflower seeds.  But the jury is out: Amazon customers either loved or hated the product—the seed strips worked for some and didn’t deliver salad for others.

 

By now, you may  have surmised that I’m in favor of low-maintenance systems. I gravitate to easy-to-use and safe products. So I also gravitated to a hydroponics off-shoot called aeroponics. Aerofarms Aeroponics is a growing system that combines aeration and nutrient misting that encourages faster plant growth. Newark is home to Aerofarms, a “data-driven” indoor vertical growing farm and company that has been in the news the last few years. This New Jersey “home-grown” business enjoys several partnerships around the state, nationally and globally. The company, which claims its growing systems need 95% less water than outdoor farms, has been selling its lettuces, herbs and microgreens to restaurants ranging from Red Rooster to Momofuku, as well as retail grocery chains including Whole Foods under the brand Dream Greens. Aerofarms also professes to be 390 times more productive per square foot than traditional agriculture. Privately owned, the company enjoys financial partnerships with Goldman Sachs, IKEA and Dubai Holdings.  Now Aerofarms is building the world’s largest aeroponic farm—90,000 square feet—in Abu Dhabi. 

 

On a much smaller, home-growing scale, Karen Campi sells the aeroponic Tower Garden to homes in New Jersey and partners with local schools in Summit and Bernardsville.  While hydroponics start crops from seed, aeroponics functions with starter plants.  Campi says the vertical growing units—an outdoor one ($620) and an indoor version ($970) with LED grow-lights—are selling so well she can’t keep them in stock. While Tower Garden offers a seed starting kit for $29, a first farming foray might be better served with $2 plant seedlings. The indoor tower can house up to 16 microgreens and 16 full greens at one time. Campi says that the plants last up to three or four months and recommends harvesting lettuce from the outside. Her enterprising college-age son Joe has started a Tower Garden Cleaning and Set-up business to help her clients maintain their towers. As a multi-tasker with a half-dozen projects in the works, I don’t want to think about upkeep. So perhaps Joe’s $120 maintenance fee per season for one indoor model, though pricy, could be worth it. 

 

If you choose to bypass Joe’s services, Beyond Organics Growers supplies the plant seedlings for Tower Garden. Theresa Reid, owner of the five-year-old company, says that the original business model was supplying restaurants and a few retail customers.  After COVID, the restaurant end of their business nearly dried up, but the number of home-growing customers grew. “The retail business more than made up the difference,” she says. 

 

During the winter months, Beyond Organics has been supplying Tower Garden customers with a wide variety of lettuces and herbs—romaine, arugula and spring mix being top sellers. Now the company is taking additional growing orders from tower owners (as well as garden patch growers) for its organic spring crops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, which are incubated in a rock-wall greenhouse with radiant heated floors. 

 

Be it hydro or aero, the mere act of watching something grow during the stark cold months—and then harvesting it—is emotionally and nutritionally enriching. In the chaos of 2020, high-tech home-growing presented a wonderful opportunity. The question is, how many of us will stick with it—and how many more will double down when winter comes again in 2021? As vaccines tame the pandemic and marijuana becomes legal, it will be interesting to see how this business evolves this year and beyond.

Point of Entry

Your front door matters a lot more than you think.

By Mark Stewart

My first job out of college in the early 1980s was a sales position and the first thing I was told by my manager was to buy a decent pair of shoes. A customer, he explained, is most likely to decide what kind of person you are and what kind of product you’re selling by the quality, condition and style of your footwear. My $20 Thom McAns, in other words, weren’t going to cut it. 

Upper Case Editorial

For whatever reason, I didn’t last long in sales—the company happened to be the one Glengarry Glen Ross was based on (second place is steak knives, third place you’re fired) so I count myself fortunate. I’m not sure I ever entirely bought the shoes idea. However, I do believe something similar applies to a home’s front door. The choices you make related to the entrance of your home can say as much or more about you than the cars you drive, the clothes you wear, the school your kids attend or all of the other traditional clues about substance, status and taste.  

Think about the last time you attended a party at a new friend’s house, or went home- or apartment-shopping. Aren’t you guilty of passing judgment on what’s inside based on what’s outside? It really is human nature to judge a book by its cover, despite the idiom that says you can’t. So I’ll say it: Your front door matters

According to the Internet, which as we know is right about everything, the average American will own three homes in his or her lifetime. That means, statistically speaking, if you’re on your first home, then you’ve got two more front-door decisions left. If you’re on your third home, well, you can probably skip to the next story. But wait! You can always shop for a new door—in fact, many people do. Which is kind of the point of this article. It’s a fact, in fact, that not everyone sticks with the front door that “came” with their current abode. As with other parts of a home, there’s always impetus for change or room for improvement

I have owned two homes and was fortunate that each one came with a magnificent and unusual front door that would have cost somewhere in the high four figures to duplicate. Fortunate because my spouse (who as a juror would be more likely to convict on the basis of a cheap, ugly front entry than on the basis of criminal evidence) would not have allowed us to move into or, perhaps, even buy our two homes had the doors not checked all of her boxes. As a side note, I have been endlessly amused when I catch people staring at our doors and wondering what kind of freaks live in our house. I mention this only to underscore how very personal a choice it is that we make when we choose  a front door

If you actually are in the market for a new door, or maybe just considering a different look, you don’t have to drive through too many neighborhoods to realize that there are a dizzying number of sizes, styles, materials, colors and hardware. Sometimes you’ll see a wow-factor entrance on an otherwise ordinary home. Sometimes you’ll see an utterly featureless front door on a really interesting house. Then there’s that door with a splash of color that’s maybe trying a little too hard. And of course, the door that announces to the world that you don’t care and, by the way, mind your own business. Which is also a choice, in its own way,  I suppose

I once talked to a builder who claimed a front door should be like a baseball umpire: you know it’s doing a good job when you don’t notice it at all

High Sierr Custom Door

The basic material choices for a really good-quality front door include metal, fiberglass and old reliable wood.  As wooden doors go, it’s difficult to go wrong with mahogany. It is substantial, durable and resistant to insects and rot. Another wood that is popular in areas where insect life is abundant is cedar, which actually repels wood-eating bugs and is full of natural preservatives. It also has an aroma that most people like. Oak is a popular wood for similar reasons, while cherry is known for its strength, density and ability to hold its finish. That’s why cherry is a popular wood for kitchen cabinetry

Round and Round

Upper Case Editorial

In 1881, a German company introduced the concept of a revolving door, which was meant to solve the problem of winter drafts and summer dust getting into commercial lobby spaces. In 1888, a Philadelphia inventor named Theophilus Van Kannel patented the three-panel revolving door, which made him a wealthy man. He also designed amusement park rides at Coney Island, which is probably why small children love to play in revolving doors…or are utterly terrified by them.

In terms of whether to stain or paint your wooden front door, the argument for staining is that it shows off the natural beauty of the wood. Painting gives you an infinite number of color choices, of course, and also offers added durability. The main argument against staining is that a natural-wood door with a lot of direct sunlight may need a fair amount of maintenance, whereas a painted door is likely to hold up better over the long haul. If you know for sure that you’ll be painting your new wooden front door, you can also get away with a less expensive grade of wood

Upper Case Editorial

Wilt’s Place

When Wilt Chamberlain played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers, he built a glass-walled mansion atop an old WWII anti-aircraft emplacement in Bel Air. The home featured a  14-foot rolling slab of redwood as the front door—supposedly it contained enough wood to frame 17 small homes. He claimed there was no need to lock it because he was the only one strong enough to open it. Gotta love Wilt.

The roller idea was cool, for sure, but also a nod to the realities of gravity. There may not be a side hinge on earth that could bear that weight. The lesson here is that traditional door hinges come with a weight limit, so when choosing hardware, know the weight of your door. An inexpensive door runs just over one pound per square foot, but an oversized oak door could weigh as much as 150 to 200 pounds.

STEPPING INTO THE 

Before we move on to other materials and options,  let’s do a quick dive into the history of the door. Logic suggests that doors have been with us since humans moved from caves into constructed shelters. That’s not entirely accurate, in the sense that for many millennia, the typical front door was really just a couple of layers of animal hides. Hinged or pivoted doors that swing smoothly open and closed (what we all think of as proper doors) are probably less than 5,000 years old. Archaeologists have found evidence of functioning doors in ancient Egyptian tombs and temples throughout the Middle East, as well as paintings of doors at burial sites, which presumably were meant to represent a passageway to the afterlife. These ancient doors were made of wood or stone, depending on their purpose and available materials. It appears that wooden doors were also being used in Europe around this time

Barbara McManus VRoma Project

The Romans took doors to the next level, using various metals, including bronze, and even creating sliding and folding doors. They actually had a God of doors, Janus, who also covered archways—another architectural specialty of the empire—as well as broader symbolic concepts, including beginnings, endings, time and duality. Roman sculptures of Janus often depicted him as having two faces looking in opposite directions.  A small temple, the Janus Germinus, was located at one end of the famous Forum, and was depicted on  a coin minted during the reign of Nero in the first century. At about the same time, during Rome’s occupation of Egypt, a Greek engineer known as Heron of Alexandria, designed an “automatic” door. Heron was quite the inventor. He is credited with developing the first steam-powered engine, the first windmill and the first vending machine

Guillaume Piolle

Doors became especially important after the fall of Rome, when order gave way to chaos (or so we are meant to believe). The Dark Ages actually weren’t as bleak as they sound, but a good, solid door was definitely important—whether you owned a castle or just a modest home. For large structures, such as  forts and cathedrals, Medieval architects favored oak  as a material, joining layered planks together with  metal reinforcement bands and fashioning heavy iron strap-hinges that functioned for centuries before wearing out. The wealthier or more important the home- or castle-owner, the more elaborate the door and doorway were likely to be

During the Renaissance, front doors became canvases for skilled craftsmen and often reflected the artistic traditions of different countries and regions. 

Upper Case Editorial

Michelangelo described the heavily adorned doors  of Tuscany as “gates to paradise.” The entrances made for French cathedrals were perhaps the most elaborately conceived doors and doorways in history. These monumental passages were often left open during the day to let in light and air, and then “locked” at night with a big, wooden or metal bolt that fit into or slid across an iron bracket. Mortice locks (a lock system cut into the door and door jamb) were fairly rare at this time for exterior doors

From a technological stand-point, doors and doorways didn’t change much after this. Windows were incorporated into exterior doors in places where the chances of an attack were remote. In the 1700s and 1800s, interior doors began to find their way into everyday homes. Prior to that, families tended to live in one

Upper Case Editorial

large, partitioned room. Doorknobs, door handles, door latches and other durable “modern” hardware began appearing during the Industrial Revolution, both in the U.S. and abroad. These finished goods were expensive prior to the days of mass production; in modest homes, doors were operated by pulling on a leather strap attached to a wooden drop-latch that was threaded through a hole in the door. In the latter part of the 19th century, during the Victorian Era, ornate hardware such as ceramic, brass or mirrored mercury-glass knobs came into vogue

Upper Case Editorial

One Good Turn

The modern lock-and-key set

Craftmaster

, unveiled by Linus Yale in 1848, is called a pin tumbler (or cylinder) lock. His son, Linus Jr., improved on this design in the 1860s. Since then, door locks have remained essentially the same, while most door keys have looked pretty much like the ones you see hanging on displays at your local hardware store. Here’s the Yales’  little secret: They actually built their empire on a concept originated in the 1780s by Englishman Joseph Bramah, a prolific inventor whose crowning achievement was the hydraulic press, a technology still in use today

Jen-Weld

OTHER MATERIALS 

Okay back to the 21st century. Wooden doors are not for everyone. From a maintenance, security and energy efficiency standpoint, a metal door (below) might be a better choice. The industrial look is very popular now, too, so for certain modern homes, wood doesn’t make a lot of sense. One crucial caveat about a metal door is that it either must fit the existing framing exactly, or you’ll have to rip out the entire front entrance. Hanging a new metal door on an old frame is asking for trouble; remember, you can’t plane down metal if it rubs or sticks somewhere. In terms of durability, metal doors are great but they don’t necessarily last a lifetime. Depending on how they are constructed and the climate conditions they face, even the most expensive steel doors can “peel” over time. They can also be marred or dented, which is difficult to repair and can invite rust. 

Modern Steel Door Co.

So what about fiberglass? Well, a fiberglass front door (above) would be a deal-breaker for my wife, but I wonder if she could honestly tell the difference between painted wood and top-quality painted fiberglass from more than a foot or two away. (I’m sure I’ll find out before she even finishes this story). I’m just saying “wood-grain” fiberglass products can look pretty convincing, if you ask me. The main drawback of this material is that it’s not one of the other two materials. The pros of fiberglass are many. Fiberglass doors have great insulating properties, they are more scratch- and dent-resistant than metal, and they have a similar “feel” opening and closing as wood does.   

If you’re keeping score, here’s where we are: fiberglass is best from an upkeep standpoint, metal (steel) is the best for strength and security, while for most people wood holds the aesthetic advantage.  

Price-wise, there are significant differences. A big, beautiful wood door can run $5,000 or more. Because they do absorb moisture, wood doors also need to be sheltered from the elements, under a porch or portico, so there may be an added expense there. Our current front door is almost four feet wide and nearly eight feet tall. It is magnificent. It is priceless. It is one-of-a-kind. However, on a humid summer day, you need to put your shoulder into it to get it all the way closed.  

A top-of-the-line thick-gauge steel door will run you less than half of a comparable-quality wood door, although it’s not really fair to compare them. As I mentioned earlier, the cost may rise significantly based on what you’re replacing and the condition of the door jamb and surrounding framework. You also need to hire someone who’s done a bunch of them, and done them well. You don’t want some jack-of-all-trades learning on your dime.  

Fiberglass comes in somewhere between steel and wood, even though you’ll see some advertised at bargain prices. Trust me, they are no bargain. You want a door you won’t have to think about for 20 years, and that may run you $2,000 or more installed.    

One final word of advice: Be smart about choosing your installer. If you are undergoing a wallet-ectomy to buy a top-quality manufactured door, regardless of the material, give a lot of thought to who is installing it for you. Most of the top brands have trained or certified contractors to deal specifically with their doors. Really, they do. So even if you have a favorite carpenter or handy-person, you might want to look at a list of recommended installers.     

What about the DIY route? Well, many years ago, I attempted to install a brand-new kitchen door in a very old house. I was young and stupid (in other words, still in my 20s) and figured a rectangle is a rectangle, a tape measure is a tape measure…how hard could this be? That door never closed without emitting the same exasperated groan my wife did the day I announced I could “do it myself.” 

Later, when we were selling the house, I could sense that the prospective buyers were spending a lot of time looking at that door and wondering what else I had “fixed.” I learned my lesson: When it comes to doors, skip the Thom McAns and go for the Ferragamos. It is money well spent.  

Board Report

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Drywall*

*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK

By Jim Sawyer

www.istockphoto.com

Drywall giveth and drywall taketh away. If you’ve ever had to build a new structure, add to one, or repair one that’s old or damaged, you probably understand the myriad advantages of using drywall. Relative to traditional construction and plastering techniques, drywall is inexpensive, light, safe, and requires far less expertise to install. And when it comes time to knocking something down, drywall is just as quick, easy, and inexpensive.

The disadvantages of drywall? It is easily damaged, it can be tricky to repair, it doesn’t do much to baffle sound or to insulate and, if it gets wet, well, there’s that nasty mold issue. In areas of the country (including our own) where floodwaters have inundated homes constructed with drywall, the result is almost always a gut job. Left to mold, a drywall home can quickly turn into a lung-choking teardown. By contrast, older historic homes featuring traditional plaster just need a basic hose-down after a flood; a splash of paint and they are good to go. No mold. No problem.

So it’s a trade-off. But on the construction industry’s big balance sheet—where the speed of construction and demolition can make the difference between a big profit and a razor-thin one—drywall is a no-brainer.

That certainly accounts for the tens of billions of square feet manufactured in North America each year. Say what you will about the ups and downs of the housing market in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, but the population of this continent continues to boom and people need places to live. So until some better material comes along, drywall is here to stay.

WHAT IS IT?

Drywall goes by many names: wallboard, plasterboard, and sheetrock among them. Whatever you call it, there isn’t a whole lot of science to drywall. It typically comes in a 4’ x 8’ sheet, usually 3/8” or 1/2” thick, encased in paper or a paper-pulp material. Thinner sheets are sometimes used to negotiate curved surfaces. Drywall is attached with special screws to wood or metal studs, and sometimes glued as well (especially on ceilings).

The white-gray material sandwiched between the paper is gypsum. Among its many qualities, gypsum is inherently fire-resistant. In addition, some drywall products come impregnated with glass fibers in order to further slow the spread of flames and smoke. Local building codes usually require that this type of board—which is 5/8” thick—be used in furnace rooms and garages, or homes heated by wood stoves.

Structures prone to flooding (either by Mother Nature or from plumbing or roofing mishaps) or in high-humidity areas are often built with mold-resistant or moisture-resistant drywall. Note the use of the word “resistant.” It does not imply mold- or moisture- “proof.” Mold-resistant boards are treated with a special coating and generally do not have paper, which is a favorite home of fungus. Contractors typically use mold-resistant drywall in bathrooms and kitchens. Sometimes this material is called “greenboard,” which technically is incorrect. Greenboard is slightly different (although it can be used in the same situations); it performs best in high-humidity areas of a home, such as a laundry room or damp basement.

What should you do if drywall is no longer dry? Tear it out and replace it. What if you detect mold? Do not dither, especially if someone in your home or workplace is allergic to the spores. The drywall should be replaced and the mold remediated. There are obviously professionals who do this, but an Internet search can show you ways to do it yourself. Proceed with care and caution. As with many dangerous organisms, the mold you see isn’t always the stuff you need to be most concerned about. If moisture has entered the back of a sheet that has been primed and painted, it has already had a lot of time to grow and spread before you start breaking it up. In these situations, trust your nose over your eyes—you’ll be able to smell the mold before you see it. And keep in mind that tearing it out is likely to release spores back into the environment and possibly into places it hadn’t been before, such as your HVAC system.

The British Museum

WHO INVENTED IT?

Now that the basics are out of the way, how about a little history? The use of gypsum as a wall material dates back more than 3,000 years. It is easy to get out of the ground, simple to process, and holds colors really well.

It was quarried for plaster in ancient Egypt in the Old and New Kingdoms—in 2017, archaeologists identified one quarry on the east bank of the Nile that measured three square kilometers. The ancient Egyptians discovered that gypsum could be ground into a fine powder and mixed with water to produce a bright, durable skim coat of plaster that could hold paint extremely well on interior walls in homes, temples, and tombs. Thousands of years later, it still looks great. The mineral owes its name to the ancient Greeks, who used it in much the same way. Gypsos actually means “plaster” in Greek.

www.istockphoto.com

Gypsum or lime were used more or less interchangeably as a component in plaster in the ensuing centuries. One of the most famous sources of plaster was in the Montmartre section of Paris, hence the name Plaster of Paris. The French like to say there is more Montratre in Paris than Paris in Montmartre.

They’re speaking literally in this case—the gypsum and lime deposits there were used in plaster and paint in the city for centuries. In the hands of French artisans, it was made to look like wood, metal, and stonework when those materials were either too cumbersome or expensive, or just unavailable.

US Gypsum

The process by which gypsum becomes plaster has remained relatively unchanged. It is heated to about 300 degrees, until the moisture is released and it becomes a dry powder—which is then reconstituted with water to be applied or shaped as needed. Gypsum being a mineral, it has other uses, too. For example, it was used in colonial America to improve soil quality; Ben Franklin was a huge proponent of this particular use, which reduced runoff and delivered additional nutrition to plants. In the early days of Hollywood, shaved gypsum was sometimes trucked in to mimic snow. Although gypsum is used in the manufacture of Portland cement—making up two or three percent of the mix—it is not what makes sidewalks sparkle (that’s mica). In case you’re wondering, Portland cement gets its name from the Isle of Portland, on the southern coast of England, not from Portland ME or Portland OR.

Getting back to drywall, the world’s first “wallboard” factory actually opened in England, in 1888, in the English town of Rochester, about 30 miles east of London on the River Medway. The Industrial Revolution was shifting into high gear and an alternative to traditional lath-and-plaster construction for interior walls intrigued British homebuilders: Wallboard used far less wood and required limited plastering expertise, and also avoided the weeklong drying process of traditional plastering. In addition, it could be put up in a poorly heated environment, which was a Godsend in England with its cool, damp climate (and historic issues with central heating). By the 1920s, it was the material of choice in most new construction in the UK.

In America, the plasterboard revolution came a bit later, and shifted into high gear during the post-WWII building surge. The first drywall factory in the U.S. dates back to around 1900, in upstate New York. According to the web site gypsum.org, the product was initially favored because of its fire-resistant properties and featured multiple layers of gypsum (which was cheaper and more plentiful than lime plaster) sandwiched between two pieces of wool-felt paper. In 1917, US Gypsum Corp. debuted “Sheetrock,” the now-familiar single, non-layered sheet of gypsum plaster completely encased in paper, which could be joined with smooth, even seams. At the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago, several building were constructed almost entirely of Sheetrock, which was a huge marketing coup.

By the Baby Boom years, when more than 20 million new homes were constructed in America, drywall was the cheap and easy workaround for traditional plastering. It has continued on as the material of choice for new homes, renovations, home repair projects—you name it.

FEMA

WHAT IS “CHINESE” DRYWALL?

In the seven decades that drywall has been widely available to homebuilders and homeowners, the domestic supply has had no problem keeping up with the demand, as gypsum is plentiful and easy to process in North America—until the early 2000s, that is. You probably remember the housing boom, but do you also recall that no fewer than nine major hurricanes smashed into Florida in the span of two-plus years, and then Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005? Demand for drywall soared and caught North American manufacturers by surprise. With the supply low and prices high, many builders in the Southeast turned to a new source: China.

Unfortunately, drywall factories on the other side of the Pacific were focused on production and profitability rather than safety, and as a result, countless millions of square feet of defective or contaminated product found its way into American homes. The first sign that something was wrong came in the form of complaints by homeowners that exposed copper surfaces were turning black and “ashy.” Also, new refrigerators and air conditioners (which contain copper coils) were malfunctioning.

New West Gypsum Recycling

This made people wonder what was happening to their copper pipes and wiring—and they were right to wonder. The cheap drywall was giving off volatile gases, including hydrogen sulfide, which corrodes copper and also created health issues that included a range of upper respiratory problems. By the time the problem was identified, the tainted drywall had been used in somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 homes; no one can say for sure because much of the product bore no markings that could be traced back to a specific manufacturer. One manufacturer that did pop up fairly often was Knauf, a Tianjin-based company with a deceptively European-sounding name. Some estimates put the amount of Knauf drywall unloaded in New Orleans and various Florida ports at close to a billion pounds between 2003 and 2009. In the aftermath of this debacle, a New Orleans court ruled that homeowner’s policies had to cover the remediation of contaminated drywall. The IRS also provided tax relief for people who suffered property damage because of the tainted product.

www.istockphoto.com

They Did What?

While the substandard Chinese drywall flooded the market in the mid-2000s, domestic drywall producers—who had been ramping up production since the late-1980s—doubled down and invested heavily to further increase their output. Consequently, the deflation of the housing bubble in 2008–09 devastated the industry. North American drywall companies were suddenly stuck with huge supplies and withering demand. Many were in no shape to wait for the economy to rebound.

All was not lost, however. As the housing market receded, a growing number of builders, flippers, and rehabbers began snapping up cheap properties and foreclosures and demand for drywall began to creep up again. However, contractors noticed a rise in cost on drywall at a time when it should have been bargain-priced. This was accompanied by an inexplicable reluctance on the part of manufacturers to compete on price. Obviously, since the manufacturers could not boost profits by increasing volume, they had to raise their prices.

There is nothing illegal about this…unless they plan to do it together. Which, apparently, they did. The result was a class-action suit against eight companies near the end of 2012 that ended with a nine-figure settlement. It wasn’t the first time drywall companies had been slam-dunked by the courts; price-fixing litigation dates back to the 1920s in North America.

WHERE ARE WE NOW… AND IN THE FUTURE?

We are in good shape. Today, the drywall supply is safe and sound—which is good to know in an era of increasing environmental sensitivity. Unused sheetrock scraps can actually be recycled, keeping thousands of tons out of landfills each year. Also, a steady demand for installation provides jobs for millions of people who do not have traditional construction skills, creating an entry point into an important trade. The retail price in New Jersey for drywall is $10 to $20 for a 4’ x 8” sheet (depending on type and quality) and another $50 or so per sheet to install professionally, including labor, supplies, and equipment.

Since you’ve made it this far, you are probably wondering, “What’s in the future for drywall?”

I’m so glad you asked.

The industry is aware that its product is somewhat problematic in the climate-change picture, in that it does not insulate particularly well. A new material called ThermalCORE, developed by the German chemical company BASF and National Gypsum, a U.S. company formed in the 1920s, could be a game-changer for builders and consumers. The new drywall material is impregnated with tiny wax beads encased in plastic shells. During the day, the wax melts and absorbs heat. At night, the wax hardens, releasing the stored heat.

Builders in Europe have been testing a version of this technology and it has demonstrated an ability to reduce energy bills by as much as 20 percent. The cost of using ThermalCORE in a typical home in New Jersey would probably raise its construction cost by $5,000, which would be recouped in about five years.

Modern Love

Wow factor in Westfield

By Mark Stewart

James and Tina Wissel’s single-story, three-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home is not the only structure in Westfield that fits that general description. However, it is most definitely the only one of its kind. The Wissels designed their modern, single-story structure to take maximum advantage of their wooded, ¾-acre lot—pulling the outside in, and making the interior an open and inviting space for their family, friends and pets. They are living the dream few of us have the courage to pursue: a residence custom-built to accommodate their personal comfort, design sensibilities and family culture. 

The more time one spends in the Wissels’ home, which was completed in 2009, the more apparent it becomes that every detail, from the daring to the mundane, began with an original thought—hardly a shock, as James and Tina make their living as original thinkers. James’ father was a home-builder, and as far back as he can remember he was good at bringing ideas to life with his head and his hands. Tina’s mom and dad were clothing designers; function and form are coded into her DNA. James and Tina designed computer animation and editing systems in the 1990s. Today, they co-own Pure Couture, a thriving ready-to-wear fashion business.  

“We used our expertise and experience in design to create our home on a computer over the course of several months,” James explains. “From those drawings we made 3D scale models, and eventually these were translated into architectural plans.”

Their list of must-haves was extensive, Tina recalls. The majority of the space needed to integrate living areas—the kitchen, living room, dining room and family room—into a long, deep open design. 

“Our goal was to create space we’d use every day,” she says. “We didn’t want to end up with a dining room we use twice a year.”

The Wissels achieved this goal with 11-foot ceilings throughout the home, including three 11’ x 18’ glass walls, floor-to-ceiling mitered corner windows, and a kitchen nook featuring a curved glass window that offers a panoramic view of the oaks, maples and wildlife in their back yard. The kitchen features sleek stainless steel, with a sink and stovetop that can be covered to integrate with the rest of the appliance surfaces. The home’s ambiance is heightened by an interior waterfall that separates the living and bedroom areas, creating a natural sound barrier in the process. An exterior waterfall obscures the massive 42” x 11’ front door and creates a unique little entry alcove.

The home required the extensive use of steel; engineered lumber was used to create a spectacular unsupported 33-foot span.

“From what we first imagined, we achieved 85 to 90 percent of our initial vision,” James estimates, adding that although the goal of a designer is to marry form and function, sometimes one must be sacrificed for the other. “That’s how I come up with 85 to 90. We chose some details that are aesthetically pleasing but not very functional. However, in terms of what we wanted the house to be, we achieved.”

Which choices best met the form and function equation? Tina says the window walls work especially well. 

“They bring you closer to nature,” she explains. “We did a lot of landscaping before we built, and the way the outdoors pours in is breathtaking. I don’t think we fully appreciated the positive effect this would have on our children and pets when we were designing the house. The sunset, the moon, the hummingbirds—they’re out there free for everyone, but in other homes, you don’t always notice them. Here, they are at our fingertips.

Where There’s Fire…

Different smokes for different folks

By Mike Cohen

Most New Jerseyans live in “smoke-free” homes. That may change soon, but probably not the way you’d think. While the typical backyard cooking set-up includes a grill and possibly a barbecue, relatively few have incorporated a smoker. Smoked meats are nothing new, of course, but recently they are showing up on the menus of some of the region’s top restaurants. Chefs are paying top dollar for artisanal smoked meat, fish and poultry (and passing that cost along to their patrons); some have even assembled their own smoking operations on-site or nearby.

www.istockphoto.com

So how hard can it be for an average homeowner to add a smoker to the mix? Unlike grills and barbecues, which are fairly simple to operate, smokers can be somewhat counterintuitive. Before burning rubber to Home Depot or Lowe’s to get your new gear, it’s important to understand and respect the process. Unlike grilling (which involves direct, high heat from start to finish) and barbecuing (lower temperature and longer cook time), smoking is essentially the process of “preserving” food with a low temperature while adding salt and smoke. The smoke infuses flavor, while the salt pulls water out of the meat.

HOT VS. COLD

Most of the smokers on the market are “hot” smokers. They operate at a temperature of 160° or higher and are aimed at backyard chefs who want their food done relatively quickly. This type of smoking doesn’t really preserve the meat, as there isn’t enough time for the moisture to be removed. The pros tend to go for “cold” smokers, which involve a little more pre-planning and patience. The results are well worth it.  

Cold smoking typically is a two-step process. Salt is added to remove excess moisture and then the food is subjected to a long, slow smoking process. It involves cooking below 86°F for up to 32 hours. The heat source is kept away from the product and the smoke is pipped in. Some of the newer smokers can be dialed down to work this way. Both methods of smoking brown the meat, as amino acids in the food interact with some reduced sugars to produce the desired color. To create that “smoke ring,” nitric oxide from burning wood combines with the myoglobin in the meat to penetrate a centimeter or so in from the surface. You won’t see a smoke ring if meat is cooked in an oven.

Smoking is more than just heat and smoke. There are essentials to consider, such as sugar and salt for curing and brining, which add just the right combinations of sweet, sour and bitter flavors to your meal.

Curing your protein before smoking helps remove moisture and stop the formation of harmful bacteria (that’s a good thing) and will also enhance the flavor (that’s a better thing).

Brining meat in a mixture of water, salt and perhaps spices and herbs, dramatically impacts the flavor profile. There are many rules about brining, but a simplistic rule is 1 hour of brining for every 2 pounds of product.

For those who have medical concerns about sodium, there is another option. You can salt your meat prior to smoking. A mix of salt and pepper, herbs, sugar and honey can be rubbed over your food anywhere from 2 to 24 hours beforehand (which needs to be removed before it goes in the smoker). The idea is to draw out the moisture without the BP bump. Whichever method you prefer, the purpose of salting is the same: less moisture actually allows for a better absorption of the smoky flavor.

Not to be excluded from the conversation is marinating. Mixing spices, oils, vinegars and even citrus to meals both flavors and tenderizes your final product. Some marinades work best before smoking, while others work best after smoking and right before eating. Meats do particularly well with marinades, which can be as simple as applying Worcestershire sauce just before smoking. Technically, dry rub is a type of marinade. This spice and salt mixture, worked into the food prior to cooking, seals in flavor and softens the texture. This is a tad more subtle and delicate than salting, so get a feel for your particular taste-bud tantalizers before rubbing this all over your Whole Foods purchase. Finally, just for the record, air-drying your meat is another option. This will surely impress your guests, but your neighbors may wonder what the heck you’re up to when they peek over the fence the day before.

KNOW YOUR SMOKER

Not everyone is ready to do battle on a basic-cable barbecue throwdown, so it’s good to know which smoker best suits your lifestyle and circumstance before handing over your credit card or clicking the BUY button. Compact, stainless steel electric smokers, for example, tend to be economical and fairly mobile. Two popular brands are Southern Country Smokers and Masterbuilt (immediate right). They can cook food fairly quickly if that’s a priority—say, if your Thanksgiving guests are waiting for that smoked turkey to hit the table.

Kettle smokers (aka hinged-lid cookers) are the ones you often encounter at home improvement and hardware stores. Weber makes a popular model I see everywhere. This type of smoker (far right) also can double as an oven for larger pieces of meat or poultry. This is your basic charcoal- or gas- fired smoker that uses wood chips to create the smoke. Soaking your chips, or a portion of your chips, prior to burning will produce a longer, slower burn time—a critical component to backyard smoking success. In this variety of smoker, consider placing a water tray alongside your meal to prevent your food from drying out.

One caveat is that kettle smokers are not good for guys I call “Larry the Lifter”—who can’t resist taking periodic peeks at the meat. Every time you open the lid, all the smoke that’s supposed to go into the food goes into the air. It adds about 10 minutes per lift to your cook time.

Cold smokers make up a wide-open category that includes everything from purchased products to funky homemade devices. Their advantage is that it enables you to smoke a large variety of meats at the same time, or accommodate large cuts, and food can be smoked subtly and over a long period of time, which allows the smoke to penetrate without overpowering. The ProQ from Mac’s BBQ (left) is a good model, as it allows you to set up a heat source that can be monitored by way of a built-in temperature gauge. It also doubles as a water smoker. Water smokers are ideal for lean products, such as rabbit or quail, as well as soft and delicate fish.

For those who need to get their smoke on 12 months a year, gas smokers are the way to go. They offer hot and cold smoking with racking and hanging capacity. Easy to move and carry, they can be placed anywhere in the backyard, as long as they are far enough away from objects that you don’t want to sacrifice to the barbecue gods. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation around all sides of the smoker. The propane unit from Camp Chef (above) is a popular example of a gas smoker. Its temperature gauge enables you to switch between hot or cold smoking by dialing in the right temperature. Another benefit is not having to worry about overcooking or drying out the food, as you can control this like an oven.

TOASTING THE CHEF

In the prophetic words of Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, “The smoker you drink, the player you get.” I’m still not sure what he meant, but I can say with some authority that what you pair with smoked meats can dramatically enhance the experience. Chardonnays are quite the standard around backyard get-togethers, which is fine, but consider taking things a little farther. Get some advice on a barrel-aged gem from Napa or Sonoma that will match with the woody undertones of your meal—one that has a little malolactic fermentation will also add some buttery notes to soften the bitters of the smoke. Look for Far Niente, Cakebread, Frank Family and Neyers. Champagne-wise, the Blanc de Blancs are all chardonnay with the best coming from Cote des Blancs.

If you favor reds, resist the temptation to bring out the monster cab; with all the smoke in the air, the rich fruits may clash with your meal. Syrah from the Rhone Valley in France, with its characteristic pepper aroma leading you into the spice corridor is absolutely stunning with smoked meats. Think of JL Chave, Paul Jaboulet or Chapoutier for your selections. Washington State makes killer syrahs, even better than their cabernets, but don’t tell anyone— it’s the sommelier’s secret. Dunham Cellars, Gramercy Cellars, and Reininger come to mind as superb syrahs for your feast.

Zinfandel usually makes an appearance at most barbecue events and for good reason. Sweet raspberry with some spice hits the spot when taking down some smoke. Napa offers some real value, believe it or not. Consider Elyse, Summers and Chase as brands to trust without breaking the bank. Russian River and it’s cool climate seems to me to be the perfect spot for zin. Check out Williams Selyem or Joseph Swan.

Finally, if you have doctored up your smoky creation with a fiery rub and added some chilis to the wood, the great fill here is one of those fabulous sweet German Rieslings. Sugar puts out the fire, alcohol does not—it makes it worse—so do not grab that high alcohol content wine you think will pair power with power. Grab the good stuff from St. Urbans Hof or JJ Prum. 

INTO THE WOOD

Wood chips for the accomplished smoker are available just about everywhere. So too are wood pellets, but do your research as some pellets use binders, which is not good because binders can influence the food in a bad way. A safe way to ensure you are getting the good stuff?Go to your local lumber yard and ask for some sawdust. It’s cheap and effective. If you want to get adventurous:

Alder Wood Delicate and good for smoking fish—pork, poultry and game birds, too

Almond Sweet and nutty taste that goes with all meats

Apple Wood Sweet and fruity taste that works best with poultry, ham, beef and game

Cherry Wood Mild, sweet and very fruity—ideal for poultry, fish and ham

Grape Vines Aromatic and excellent with all meats

Hickory Best known and most widely distributed—very pungent and good for bacon and other dense meat products

Maple Wood Light and sweet taste, best for poultry and ham

Mesquite Expensive and also quite intense, as it burns very hot—best to mix with lighter woods as it can be a little bitter

Oak Strong flavor that’s good for longer smoking times, including brisket and thick cuts of meat

Walnut Heavy smoking wood that can often be mixed with other lighter woods—perfect with stronger red meats and game

SPICE, GIRL

Prepping your meat for smoking almost never requires a special trip to the grocery store. Most of these spices are already in your kitchen cabinet…

Allspice That nutmeg, cinnamon and clove aroma is perfect for brining and also for rubs

Aniseed Sublime with seafood and game meats

Basil Pungent and sweet—reserved for lamb, tomatoes and chicken

Bay Leaf Can be added to your smoking woods Caraway Peppery and perfect when making sausages

Cardamom Lemony and slightly bitter—perfect with salmon and brines

Chervil Fragrant and delicate, so use it with seafood and white meats only

Chili Add to your smoking chips—sparingly

Cilantro Sweet with some sandalwood notes and perfect with brines and rubs

Cumin Strong, so best in marinades

Dill Sharp, fragrant and sweet—where would our salmon be without it?

Fennel Anise flavor that is perfect with chicken and vegetables

Ginger Hot and pungent—works best with chicken and fish

Juniper Sweet and aromatic, ideal for brining veal

Lemongrass Mix it with your wood for seafood and white meats

Mint Refreshing when rubbed or brined with lamb and vegetables

Mustard Seed Use it whole in brines and rubs Oregano Spicy and sweet for seafood and light meats Paprika Sweet and peppery—produces a smoky taste

Rosemary Great to place atop the smoking wood or into brines

Sage Pungent and best with chicken, venison and mushrooms

Tarragon Very flavorful and palate-cleansing to mix with game and strong seafood

Thyme Perfect with lamb, beef, pork and sausage

BEER ME

Sometimes, that big slab of smoking beef deserves nothing less (or more) than a great beer. The rule of thumb is drink what you like, but if you are interested in tracking down some special suds, try Full Sail Session Black beer. Dark but deceptively light, with flavors of chocolate and roasted malts, it cuts through the fat like a hot knife through butter. With Texas-style brisket it is a jammer!

Got a leg of lamb going? Try Ommegang Abbey Ale from across the river in NYC. It’s high in alcohol but you won’t taste it, as the richness of the lamb will dumb it down. For all those fowl folks, a lighter quaff such as Saison Dupont from Belgium works. Its lively citrus and light carbonation with some pepper will clean your palate quite nicely, thank you.

Last but not least is pork, the stock in trade of all smokers and backyard grillers. Go with a smoky porter. Stone Brewery makes Stone Smoked Porter (right). A peat-smoked malt with the backbone you are looking for…along with a little coffee and chocolate!

Bath & Beyond

A look ahead. 

By Christine Gibbs

Over a lifetime, the average person will probably spend close to 20,000 hours in the bathroom. If you bother doing the math it comes out to almost an hour a day. When weighed against the time spent, say, in bed, it pales in comparison. However, what you do in the bathroom you couldn’t (or hopefully wouldn’t) do anywhere else. Which is why the bathroom gets a lot of attention but not always a lot of respect. In recent years—thanks largely to home buying and home improvement “reality” shows—Americans have started looking at their bathrooms with a more critical and creative eye…and wondering what the future might bring to that most intimate room in the house

First a little history. Humankind has made commendable progress when it comes to taking care of our business.

Black Book Archives

Though some would say we still regard the world as our toilet, the truth is that people have been thinking and rethinking the john for thousands of years. Historians have traced commodes to the Indus Valley civilization some 5,000 years ago, while some experts believe primitive toilets date back 7,000 years earlier than that. Leave it to the ever ingenious and pragmatic Romans to install the first pay toilets in Rome, in 74 AD. The first flush toilet was a royal one, installed for Queen Elizabeth I by Sir John (the original “john”) Harrington, in 1596. And, yes, the modern toilet really was designed by Thomas Crapper (left), in the late 19th century

In the 21st century, the trend has been toward transforming the bathroom from a traditionally functional space into an opulent retreat that more closely resembles a high-end spa than a place for personal hygiene. Indeed, the bathroom label itself may be going the way of quaint terms like powder room, water closet and loo. Today’s bathroom is morphing into a sort of sanctuary that could conceivably rival the kitchen as the most expensive room in the house. Above and beyond the soaring cost of fixtures and finishes, bathrooms today overflow with gym-quality treadmills, touch-screen televisions, surround sound equipment, and other high-tech digital paraphernalia.

www.istockphoto.com

The Cost of Fine Bathing

Whether designing a new bathroom or renovating an old standard, cost is always a bottom-line factor, and the typical bathroom project is never cheap. Why? Five-figure invoices often are a result of the fact that renovating or adding a bathroom involves plumbing, electrical and tile work that needs to be done by talented and experienced professionals. The guy who shows up on a Saturday afternoon to unclog your drain is not necessarily someone you want to trust with a more elaborate project. Furthermore, today’s new bathroom will have more equipment, more appliances, and more leisure-time gadgets per square foot than any other room in the house. An ambitious “reno” or a new build can eat up as much as 10% of a home’s estimated value, especially if you do not budget wisely

www.istockphoto.com

Is it worth the time, money and trouble? US News & World Report actually ran a story a year ago that estimated the return on investment for a gold-standard bathroom. First of all, that should tell you something about who can afford such a project. Second of all, the numbers are good but not great: sellers can expect, on average, to recoup about 70% of their investment upon resale. That’s more than 2 percent higher than the average kitchen remodel. Of course, most experts agree that a high-end kitchen and master bedroom with master bath is almost guaranteed to sell a house faster and at a better price (in some markets, the ROI can be as much as 90 to 100 percent), so it’s not an either/or decision. And updating one bathroom may not be enough.

“Homeowners are seeking a balance among all the bathrooms in the house,” says Elisabeth Woomer, Showroom Manager at General Plumbing Supply in Green Brook, NJ. “Everyone looks to economize, whether it’s a renovation or a new build—economizing more on the family bathroom down the hall, while splurging on the private en suite master bathroom

Costs are often dependent on geographical location and can range from as little as $12,000 to $15,000 in hard costs for a standard hall bathroom (not to include labor) to as much as $50, 000 to $80,000 for an all-out luxury master bath, she adds. “We find out what the client is passionate about and then lead them to the best options that satisfy their passions…without breaking their budgets.”

Although New Jersey tends to be a more expensive state in terms of labor and materials, those numbers are right in line with national averages. The National Kitchen and Bath Association annually publishes its Bathroom Planning Guidelines, developed by a committee of experts who analyze statistics, lifestyles, trends and building codes to present recommendations that “promote the health, safety, and welfare of consumers.” In a recent NKBA survey, 50 percent of responding members confirmed the cost for a bathroom ranged between $10,000 and $29,000, while 31 percent said their average price was higher than $30,000

www.istockphoto.com

To Remodel or Not to Remodel…

That is the question. Given the considerable cost of turning an old bathroom into a modern miracle, when should you finally decide to take the proverbial plunge? First, take a look in the mirror. Is it part of a creaky medicine cabinet over a pedestal sink? Now look down. Is that dingy linoleum or, worse, pastel tile that matches the toilet and sink? You may be able to kid yourself into thinking your bathroom is hip and retro, but you won’t be kidding anyone else. It’s old. 

The mistake some homeowners make at this point is to embrace a bathroom trend that’s already on the way out. A little homework is required here and, needless to say, opinions differ from expert to expert. But a quick look at interior design magazines and web sites can give you a sense of what’s in and what’s out. The Coastal Cottage motif? Out. Clean and contemporary with a touch of traditional is in. Bowl-shaped sinks sitting in the vanity? Out. Under-mounted sinks in leggy cabinets are in. Granite tops?Out. Quartz is the current choice for baths (as well as kitchens). Clean, white tile? Boring. Out. Daring, moody designs are in. That being said, with the current emphasis on clean lines, geometric shapes, and minimalist color schemes, a few small touches can make a big statement:

  • Skip the “pop” of color and limit even accessories like bath towels to white or gray tones.
  • Spring for a freestanding tub that you can strategically place within the bathroom to take full advantage of Feng Shui principles.
  • If space is at a premium, consider placing the tub inside a walk-in, no-threshold shower.
  • Showcase quartz and wood elements (yes, there are waterproof wood tubs).
  • Connect with the great outdoors by bringing in potted plants from your garden and adding a skylight, budget permitting.
  • Create an atmosphere with your lighting—it’s as important as the actual light fixtures you select.
  • Emphasize that geometric feel by hanging framed prints and personal photos.

Gadget Inspector

With the decision to re-do a bathroom comes a dizzying array of technology options. Brooklyn-based Watermark manufactures a Luxury Shower System ($7,000) complete with a full-color digital touchscreen tablet that lets you select from among nine different shower “scenarios” that program water temperature, pressure, volume, lighting and timing. Kohler makes a $299 shower head with an embedded wireless speaker that delivers music, news and sports. For$750 more, you can purchase Kohler’s Underscore VibrAcoustic Bath, which turns your tub into a Bluetooth-enabled system in which music vibrates through the water when the tub is full and fills the entire bathroom with sound when empty. If you’re into New Age chromotherapy, Tubz Hydrotherapy makes a product that turns bathwater into an array of colors that elevates ordinary bathing to holistic ritual. Light also plays a part in Graff’s Ametis faucet (below), which features an LED display that ranges from blue to red, indicating the temperature of the flowing water ($3,528). Hansa’s Canyon faucet ($1,490) works much the same way over the basin. The Airblade tap, from Dyson ($1,800), doubles as a hand dryer.

And it doesn’t stop there. Showers are now programmable. The RainBrain by Hansgrohe ($4,750) (right) takes total shower jet control to a whole new level, creating the equivalent of a stand-up body massage. How about a laser razor? Skarp makes a slick, minimalistic shaver that emits a powerful light to cut off your facial bristles. Its recent launch on Indiegogo (a crowdfunder for startups), raised almost $500,000 and is targeted to be available this year at $289. FitBit devotees will enjoy the Aria scale, which can be synched to a smartphone to record not only poundage, but also body fat percentage, body mass index (BMI), heart rate, and even let you know about the day’s weather forecast

And then there is the centerpiece that no one likes to talk about: the toilet. I’m not sure how this is calculated, but the average person supposedly spends about five years on (or in front of?) the throne over a lifetime. Not surprisingly, just about every major plumbing manufacturer is rethinking, redesigning, and reengineering it. The Kohler Numi (left) is a case in point. It does just about everything except attend to your most personal hygiene. Its seat senses your approach and raises and closes all by itself. It contains heating elements to warm delicate derrieres and doubles as a self-adjusting bidet with vented airflow. Upgrades include Power-Save mode for energy efficiency and emergency flush for power outages. And if that’s not enough to justify the $6,338 price tag, then there is Numi’s tastefully illuminated panels, its powerful yet pleasant deodorizer, its touch-screen remote, and its wireless speakers

In addition to the various technological bells and whistles they offer, manufacturers are also looking at the safety component of bathroom design. One of Jay Leno’s tried-and-true jokes is about how more people die each year in bathroom falls than in plane crashes (the punch line is, “Yeah, but when you fall off the toilet you’re not falling 30,000 feet!”). Still, it’s no laughing matter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter-million people over age 15 visit the ER annually as a result of a bathroom injury; 14 percent require hospitalization. Two-thirds of bathroom injuries are sustained in or near a bathtub or shower. The injury rate for women is 72 percent higher than for men. And, interestingly, you’re more than four times likelier to get hurt getting out of a tub or shower than getting in. Even if you’re not springing for the big bathroom reno, its worth doing a quick safety assessment. Look for poorly fitting shower curtains, slick tile floors, soapy tub or shower beds, antiquated or improperly installed glass shower doors, area rugs without non-slip backing, and space heaters. These are items worth an immediate upgrade.

Finally, there is the issue of ecological soundness. Most people undertaking a bathroom renovation opt for products and technologies that are environmentally friendly. There’s even a word for it now: Greenovating. The focus is on saving water, using fewer paper products, and avoiding dangerous cleaning agents. There are actually a lot of ways to “green up” our bathrooms. From Moen, we have a shortlist of ideas that don’t require much time or money:

  • Install Low-flow Toilets and Showers

Toilets use on average 27 percent of household water consumption; older toilets can use up to about 7 gallons of water per flush. Older model showerhead will use 5 to 8 gallons of water per minute, while a low-flow head can reduce that to 2.5 gallons or less without compromising water pressure.

  • Motion-Sensing Faucets

A mind-boggling amount of water is wasted by leaving the faucet running when washing hands or brushing teeth. A faucet with a built-in motion sensor remembers to shut off running water when you don’t.

  • Change Light Bulbs

An LED bulb consumes 80 percent less energy and lasts 25 percent longer. That can translate into a cost savings of $160 per bulb on your electricity bill over its lifetime.

  • Upgrade Bathroom Fans/Vents

Replace that old bathroom fan with one that is Energy Star-rated; it can provide up to 60 percent in energy savings.

  • Shop for Eco-friendly and Sustainable Products Look for the Certified Organic label on everything from bath towels to toilet paper. Any increased cost is more than offset by a lower environmental footprint.

Open or Closed?

Among the many decisions that must be made in advance of a major bathroom renovation, the one that catches many people by surprise is whether the new loo’s design will lean toward privacy or open space. More and more, the line between the master bedroom and master bath is becoming blurred. Did you ever think someone would ask you whether or not you wanted a door on your bathroom? It’s a personal choice, to be sure, and doorless bathrooms don’t yet qualify as a widespread trend. But don’t be surprised if you start seeing homebuyers on one of those reality shows saying, “We love the bathroom, but the door’s gotta go.”

Whether open or closed, large or small, his, hers or available to the entire family, one thing about the bathroom will never change: It is essential to daily living. 

In fact, all this talk of bathrooms has only made me yearn to retire to my own (rather retro) retreat. There I’ll draw a tepid, non-jet-propelled bath and I will relish the downtime despite the fact that there will be no lights and no music. There is nothing masterful about my bathroom, its shortcomings now only too apparent. But one of these days…  

TRENDS FOR 2016 

According to a National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) study, these are some of the top bathroom trends for 2016:

  • Neutral Color Palette

Earth tones rule the day, with off-white and beige not far behind.

  • Undermount and Trough Sinks

The undermount style continues to be the most popular selection by a wide margin, but the trough type is gaining ground.

  • Free-standing Tubs

Selected as a key trend by 67 percent of NKBA members in 2015 and predicted to increase this year.

  • Shower Accessories

Special lighting, convenient seating and hand-held showerheads top the list.

  • Polished Chrome Finishes

Selected by 80 percent of NKBA members as the most popular finish in 2015. Satin finishes in gunmetal and brass are growing in popularity.

  • Pampering Luxuries

Radiant floor heating, steam showers, smart toilets, and even coffee and wet bars were cited as trends by 25 percent of NKBA members.

  • Aging in Place Amenities

Seniors are focusing on age-friendly safety and other conveniences, including comfort-height toilets and no-threshold showers, in addition to traditional grab bars, taller vanities and lever door handles for easy opening by arthritic hands.

A LITTLE BUDGET CONSCIOUS 

A year ago, the Huffington Post addressed the issue of how to put your money to best use when renovating a small bathroom. 

With $500… 

  • Apply a new coat of paint, preferably in a soothing, neutral earth tone.
  • Take down fluorescent or incandescent lights and put up energy-saving LED bulbs.
  • Buy some fresh, inexpensive accessories such as towels, plants, and prints.
  • Expand storage by installing shelving and hanging racks.
  • Rip up that germy old flooring and replace it with light and bright economical new tile.
  • Consider investing $20 in a Glow Bowl, the motion-activated mechanism that transforms any toilet into a dazzling nightlight.

With $5,000…

  • Reach out to professionals for help in upgrading plumbing and wiring.
  • Optimize space by relocating or buying new fixtures that make you feel like you’ve moved into the 21st century.
  • Invest in top-drawer ceramic or stone tile, and pay someone who knows what they’re doing to install it.
  • Leave enough to get your bathroom repainted.