Saturday, December 29, 2012

Resolution road blocks

It's almost the witching hour for New Year's resolutions, and the most common resolutions include health, fitness, and weight loss.  Even our federal government is responsive to the pervasiveness of these themes, with four of thirteen common resolutions listed on this page invoking those goals directly, and some other resolutions (such as stress reduction) being ancillary to them.

Here's the question I have:  What are the local environmental influences that stand in the way of people attaining weight loss and fitness goals? 

I posed this same question to TJ Aulds, an editor with Galveston County Daily News who is documenting his weight loss experiences in a blog called "Fat Boy" (and who has lost 145 pounds to date).  Rather than regurgitating the rationale behind my question, here's a screengrab of it:
Like the rest of GCDN, his blog is now behind the paywall. 
Reality is never ALL one way or ALL the other way.  I myself do believe that personal responsibility is by far the largest variable influencing weight loss and weight gain.  But it's been demonstrated time and time again that human beings are exquisitely sensitive to their environments, usually without even being consciously aware of it.  Our surroundings play a pivotal role in the American obesity epidemic

I don't want to lead any witnesses, but at the same time, I'd like to provide a few examples of what *I* see as being deleterious local environmental influences. 

1.  Nowhere to walk.  A residential street with no sidewalks or shoulders telegraphs the message "No walking.  This is not for you.  This is only for cars.  You are not supposed to traverse this area unless you are sitting motionless in a car.  You are not meant to move around in this area." 

This nonverbal directive gets amplified when ignorant and belligerent people use their personal vehicles to block what few sidewalks are available, and when both innocent children and adult pedestrians get killed because they are forced to share the roadway with motor vehicles.  The environment says, "Not only is this not designed for walking, it's not even safe for you to walk here.  You need to retreat back to your house and resume sitting on your couch in front of the TV." 
Taking his life in his own hands:
A dog-walker on Wisconsin in League City.
Another unnecessary tragedy waiting to happen:
Pedestrians cross the Clear Creek bridge along FM 270.
Walking is not the only exercise option available to people, but if people cannot safely begin with walking, the single most fundamental and instinctive human exertive activity, it doesn't bode well from that point forward.  Walking is THE gateway to greater physical participation in life, but a lot of our surrounding environment has been structured to discourage us from doing it.

2.  Lack of healthy food availability.  For one thing, we have no healthy grocery chains such as Whole Foods within 30 miles of League City.  But the other problem is simple lack of stock among the mainstream stores that are located here.  In this post, I presented a collection of photos of some of the healthiest products that are chronically sold out.  And what I described there was just one blog post.  I face this barrier every time I go to the store - every week, every trip.
Here's yet another product I did not feature in my initial post on this issueApplesauce.  My family eats significant quantities of the stuff, and the only kind I buy is the kind with no added sugar.  Applesauce is naturally sweet.  It doesn't need more sugar than what the apples themselves provide. 

But our consumer environment makes it damned near impossible for me to procure applesauce with no added sugar.  Note the following about this photo above:
1.  The no-added-sugar product is sold out, whereas sugar'd products are still offered in abundance.  This is frequently the case.
2.  The no-added-sugar variety is placed on the very bottom shelf, making it hardest to find and hard to retrieve.  Sugar'd products are instead placed within easy reach. 

A few weeks ago, I faced an situation like this one shown above, and I got down on my hands and knees to check the back of the shelf, to see if any product was remaining.  I accidentally obstructed another female shopper in the process and so I said, "Excuse me for just a sec - I'm just trying to see if there are any bottles that maybe got pushed back out of sight - I'm looking for the no-sugar-added applesauce."  Startled, she stared at me and asked, "Sugar free? Are you serious?  In America?" 

Doesn't that speak volumes?  A sarcastic wisecrack with an undertone suggesting that perhaps I should have my head examined for striving to avoid unnecessary sugar in my food choices.  This is how far we've fallen as a consumer culture.     
When I have to thwart supply and demand trends by timing my grocery shopping trips and hoarding food... when I have to crawl around on a grocery store floor in order to snag a lower-calorie sugar-free product - I'm sorry - those are very real environmental barriers to my dietary regime and overall health.  The ultimate responsibility for weight management may remain mine, but the world sure is playing hell with it. 
3.  A culture that pushes high-calorie foods using every conceivable psychological tactic This can overtake a person in the most unexpected ways.  I never eat junk food or fast food - never - but the wrong products still sneak into my house despite my strict controls and obsessive food label-reading.  A few weeks ago, one of those in-store grocery vendors, a sweet Grandma type person, managed to sell me a pizza-making kit.  I was so disarmed by her Grandma sales pitch and her cute little in-store toaster oven and warm, bustling Grandma demeanor handing out free samples that I bought the kit, realizing only after I got home that both the sauce and the pizza crust contained excessive amounts of added sugar (excessive in my opinion), to the point where the "whole wheat crust" (I was fooled by that phrase and neglected to look more deeply) actually tasted as sweet to me as a piece of pie.  It was supposed to be a bread - but instead it tasted like a dessert product. 
If I, an over-educated and constantly-diligent consumer, get suckered like this, what chance does the average American have?  I have a Masters degree in science and the so-called advanced wisdom of age, and I still get taken in!! What defense does the average American have against unhealthy products getting cleverly slipped into their lives?  Sure, it's their personal responsibility to eat healthy - but stuff like this works against them at every moment. 
4.  A culture that is recalibrating taste expectations even in non-food items.  Our culture is establishing an expectation that every food should taste like sugar - even pizza.  But it doesn't stop there.  I recently had to flush an entire large bottle of mint-flavored Listerine down the sink for this same reason.  I brought it home without examining the label, only to discover that it contained enough artificial sweetner to make it taste unbearably sweet (to my perception).
Sodium saccharin in the "Cool Mint" variety.
Screengrabbed from this site
For comparison, here is an excerpt from a description of the original Listerine, the one us old-timers grew up with in the age before rampant obesity.  Notice that it contains no artificial sweetener.  Caramel is the smallest-percentage ingredient chiefly in there for color. 
Screengrabbed from this site.
When people are conditioned to expect a sweet taste from every item they put into their mouths, even when it's not a food item, how is that going to influence their consumption habits and resulting weight management??  Humans are a bit more sophisticated than Pavlov's dog, but this kind of relentless conditioning still has an involuntary impact on people. 
5.  A culture that is increasingly developing sinister associations between weight management the expenditure of large sums of money.  I know I'm likely to get dumped on for this one, but what I see happening is the cultivation of an intentional association between fitness and wealth.  Almost everything we do in our culture has a pronounced commercial component to it.  If we're not being asked to pay for something, we wonder what value it could have. 
This is an aspect of TJ's weight loss that I find troubling: he had to pay a huge price for surgery ($29,000) and one of his primary physical training venues also comes with a monthly fee that I find to be huge - it exceeds my average electrical bill (as of today, they were advertising a "reduced rate" of $137 per month on this page).  Some folks, because of their personal health circumstances, may indeed require that kind of programmatic approach to weight loss, but not everyone does, so why aren't we seeing simpler promotions as well?  The answer is - because nobody can make any money from them.  It doesn't cost anything to go for a very long walk or a jog every day. 
Postscript inserted January 8, 2013:  Here's a screengrab from the GCDN homepage today:  "You do not need an expensive gym membership".  Thanks, guys!
Here is the URL (paywalled). 
It doesn't cost any extra to buy no-sugar-added applesauce (if you can find it).  But these ideas don't get any airplay because the rabidly-consumeristic culture in which we live drowns them out (said the small, insignificant blogger). 
So through various promotional campaigns and wildly-expensive "success stories", American people are coming to expect that having lots and lots of money is a prerequiste to effective weight management, and that subtle messaging becomes a psychological barrier, yet another imposition of the environment. 
And all of those individual little environmental impositions add up to a bigger imposition.  They do.  And unless we admit this, nothing will change. 
I could go on with additional examples of the environmental forces that are steering us away from healthy choices, but you get the picture from the examples given above.  I'd love to hear some additional assessments of what other people perceive in this regard, here or preferably on TJ's blog where they'd get wider exposure (said the small, insignificant blogger).
Happy New Year!  And may it be a healthy one. 
Every time you hear me say something that sounds a little wing-nutty to you, recall this photo above, contemplate the fact that I'm almost 50 years old, and then conclude that I must be doing SOMETHING right.  Yes, I avoid every unnecessary calorie, even if it means engaging in somewhat bizarre behaviors such as stalking unsweetened applesauce as if it were a Schedule 1 commodity.  I do those things because that's what it takes.  We have a lot of factors working against us in this culture, so it's important to be diligent about those practices and precedents that we can control. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whole-house ceramic tile

You may have spotted an unusual consistency across a half-dozen or so of my recent home design posts:
From a post on choosing a modern pendant lamp
From a post on making over an art niche.
From a post on developing an artistic coat rack solution.
From a post about finishing a room that must serve at least four different functions.
From a post about using area rugs as wall art
From a post about keeping expensive area rugs clean and free of dog smell
Yup.  We have ceramic tile throughout our entire house.  When we placed this order, our builder (Meritage Houston) announced to us that we were the first customer ever to order a house with tile in every single area - every closet, every bedroom, every square inch.

Not only that (and this is critical from a design perspective), it's the same tile throughout.  There are no seams or breaks across the entire expanse of the house.  That kind of visual continuity is really being emphasized in modern home design because it's clean and it visually expands and unifies all spaces, especially in an open concept or greatroom design. 

There's plenty of debate about the use of ceramic tile on the internet (such as this thread), with most commenters apparently coming down on the "no" side of opinion.  Let me explain the rationale for our "yes" decision:
  • Ceramic was not my first choice.  I wanted polished concrete, but our builder did not offer that option, and we had ordered so many other changes to our architectural plan that I couldn't see tying the builder in knots by bringing in a third-party contractor for the floors. 
Here in the southern U.S., most suburban homes are built slab-on-grade and so, by default, we end up with gorgeous concrete floors - which we then proceed to cover up with horribly cheap finishes such as nylon wall-to-wall pile carpet!!!  This option shown above is right under your feet and right at your fingertips, supposing you could find a contractor to do the finishing for you.
Screengrabbed from Texas Concrete which is doing business in (where else) Austin, Texas.
OK, polished concrete being off the table, I evaluated my remaining options thusly.
  • Natural stone would have been preferable and potentially more timeless, but just about all of the stone that is "financially attainable" for residential flooring is some grade of travertine.  Travertine has the following limitations:  It's soft, it's porous (it will stain unless you have a sealant, which means maintenance), and worst of all, it's almost always got a natural pastel yellowish cast to it. 
I have a good friend who has probably 2,000 square feet of travertine on the ground floor of his large house, and it looks much like this one shown above.  That floor is beautiful in its own way, but it throws yellow tones throughout the entire house.  Yellow would have been utterly incompatible with every color scheme I had planned for our home.  This kind of soft yellow backdrop is pretty much going to constrain you to using neutral and pastel color schemes, and I'm more of a primary-color person myself.  Unbreakable design rule: DON'T mix pastels and primaries. 

Travertine also looks very traditional and I was instead shooting for modern / contemporary / transitional style.

Screengrab above from this site
    Wood flooring would have posed multiple design problems and burdens: 
  • It would have been cost-prohibitive to have wood run through every space in the house.  The c-tile we chose added only $10,000 to the base price which, when you're building a house, is manageable and a tiny percentage of the total mortgage.  A good quality wood flooring could easily have been two to four times that price (I would not have considered laminate or cheap grades of engineered product).  That would not have been a wise investment at our suburban price point. 
  • Wood also presents an undesirable color constraint.  I wouldn't have wanted a dark wood on such a massive scale, which meant I'd have to get a light wood, which would also have presented a yellow tone problem similar to travertine. 
  • I haven't shown most of this in any of my posts to date, but several of our rooms are dominated by natural wood furniture.  To have wood flooring beneath a bunch of wood furniture would have represented death-by-wood.  Wood overload.  No design contrast or balance could have been achieved. 
Look again at this photo:  How would this room have looked with a wood floor??  Not good.  I already have two wood tones in the four visible pieces of solid wood office furniture.  Without question, I needed a stone-looking floor to counterbalance all that wood.

Also, look very carefully at this overall color scheme.  This wood furniture is throwing all kinds of yellow tone.  What would have this looked like if the floor (supposing it had been travertine) had also been throwing yellow tones?  The result would have been death-by-yellow.  This is one of the most common design mistakes that I see suburban homeowners making - allowing too much yellow into their designs without corresponding tonal counterpoints.  This floor had to be an utterly neutral canvas if the result were to have any kind of sophistication to it. 

The neutral floor has the effect of legitimizing the blonde furniture in particular.  The blonde furniture "pops" against the neutral floor and looks "intentionally blonde" as a result.  If the floor itself had also been yellowish, the blonde furniture would have instead looked out-of-date (it's 20 years old, from back when "natural" oak was popular). 
  • We have a fairly large dog and I garden extensively.  Both of us dash through the house with muddy feet.  Wood floors would not have been able to withstand our collective abuse.  One of my previous houses had white oak through most of its first floor, including the kitchen (installed by the previous owner, not me).  Even though it was a commercial grade of white oak, it was an absolute nightmare to maintain that stuff in a wet environment like a kitchen.  We literally had to move out for a week to get it refinished, and the kitchen floor was still visibly wearing out much, much faster than the rest of the house, so where would that have left me in the long run if I had kept that house?  Doing wildly-expensive custom repairs at some point to re-match new sections of kitchen wood to the rest of the first floor.  This is way too much overhead.  Not practical. 
So our final choice basically came down to process of elimination.  In order to achieve the desired durability, color control (again, notice that there are no yellow floor overtones in any of my pics above), cost control, and design impact, ceramic tile was the only sensible option.  We chose as generic a concrete-looking tile as possible, and we chose it in the newer 18-inch size so it would look more in-style over the long term. 

I can't tell you how happy I am that we chose ceramic tile.  Here is my personal myth-buster opinion list in response to the most common ceramic tile criticisms:
  1. It's a safety / slip hazard:  In three years, not one of us has slipped and fallen down (except the dog as she's careening madly around corners).  This argument simply doesn't parse in most foreseeable scenarios.  Almost all tract-home suburbanites already have ceramic tile kitchen and bathroom floors by builder-grade default, as well as ceramic tiled entryways.  How often have you fallen down on those?  Not often, eh?  So why would you think it would be a problem in the dry areas your house when it's not an existing problem in your wet areas?  If you're very sloppy in your house, if you let small children drag food around your house and smear it on the floor, yes indeed, you might have a problem with slip hazards.  But I would not foresee a significantly elevated risk under normal circumstances of cleanliness. 
  2. It's hard on the leg joints:  We haven't noticed any issues.  Again, most of the leg-work people do in their houses is in the kitchens, which already have c-tile floors.  I tend to wear Tevas or tennis shoes during my marathon cooking sessions, for arch support.  I would do this regardless of how the floor was finished, because I'm old. 
  3. It's cold on the feet:  We live on the subtropical upper Texas coast.  A cool floor is a godsend for us.  I believe it helps to keep our home cool during the summer months.  The ground beneath the slab is cooler than the prevailing outdoor air.  Having a carpet on the floor would insulate against that subterranean coolness from penetrating through to the house. 
  4. It imparts a cold and sterile atmosphere to your house:  This is only true if you fail to complete your house with area rugs, furniture, drapery, and accessories.  Look at the pics of my house above.  Look at the living room with its 8' x 10' wool area rug.  Does it look cold, sterile, and impersonal? 
  5. Your house will be an echo-chamber if all the floors are ceramic:  This is only true if you fail to complete your house with area rugs, furniture, drapery, and accessories.  When you walk into an empty fully-tiled house that has no furniture, yes, it's an echo chamber.  But that's not how it's intended to be lived in. 
  6. It would be bad for resale value.  My realtor tried to argue this.  He said, "You know you're never going to sell that house with c-tile in the bedrooms."  My reply was, "You know I've never sold a house without a bidding war on it.  We are just a bit ahead of our time with this one.  By the time we need to sell this place X years from now, solid flooring will be de rigueur, and we will already be in line with the market's expectations."  I've been with my realtor for 20 years and he's handled six of our eight residential transactions in that time.  All four of our historical sales were by bidding war.  Even if solid flooring does not become de rigueur, there is already a sufficiently large buyer pool with asthma and other health conditions that would refuse to buy a house with wall-to-wall carpeting.  They would jump at the chance to buy a "done from top to bottom" place like our Centerpointe house. 
  7. Ceramic tile cracks if you drop anything on it.  More accurately, it will chip, but you have to really screw up to have this occur.  For instance, my husband dropped a heavy steel claw hammer from a height of eight feet and it carved a quarter-inch divet in one tile.   It's not something that people notice, although we may eventually get a tiler to replace that tile.  If you have a problem with ceramic tile cracking, then there may have been a problem with your initial installation.   
Anyway, there's lots more I could say in favor of ceramic tile, like how incredibly easy it is to keep clean (massive money and time savings on the cleaning aspect alone), but this post is getting long, so I will close for now. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Protecting a rug from dog smell

It's a challenge faced by millions of homeowners:  How do you keep a dog in your home without having your rugs and furniture picking up a parfum du chien - that characteristic stinky dog smell?  And how do you manage the dirt that they bring in from outdoors?  It doesn't matter how often you groom your dog - these problems will manifest.  We shampoo and shave our dog routinely and we still can't thwart Mother Nature, which designed dogs to stink, shed, and be dirty. 

Two of my recent posts (mostly this one but also this one) described area rugs we mounted on the walls of our home.  But we have other rugs that are presented more conventionally, as in, actually placed on the floor. 

One in particular gets heavy daily use by both humans and canine - the one in our living room that bridges the gap between our couch and our TV.   It's a New Zealand wool number, very well made and thick, weighing in massively at over one hundred pounds.  I watched it circulating on high-end retail websites where it was offered for almost $2,000 before I picked it up on Overstock for around $400 almost three years ago.  And as much as I love our "inside dog", I don't want her to ruin that rug with dirt and dog smell.  Overall, my house tends to be a bit cluttered, but it's never dirty.  I'm a low-grade clean freak. 

We tried a number of approaches to protect that rug for daily use, but all of our initial ideas failed. 
  • First we tried buying a second thin cotton rug that we could roll out over the top of it for her to lay on.  The problem there was that it would never stay in place and we tended to trip over the edges, given that it was a rug sitting on a rug.
  • We also tried laying an oversized towel (known in the retail world as a "bath sheet") on the rug, but this resulted in the same problem.
  • I ruled out any kind of plastic cover as simply being too ugly and too sterile.  We are not in 1970 any more (or Kansas either).
  • I tried using a cotton bed sheet, but the same problem happened again.  It would shift, roll, and bunch up every time we walked across it, creating a huge maintenance hassle.
I finally hit upon a solution by using a color-coordinated blanket - but not just any blanket.  It had to be one of those "plush" or "microfiber" blankets because they are mildly stretchy and really "grippy" - they furnish a lot of friction when placed on a low-pile wool rug.  Therefore, they do a much better job of staying in place.
That's our fifteen-year-old Mayo couch whose back pillows I talked about updating in this post.  The blanket is this $23.88 "plush" Mainstays product from Walmart in a full bed size, which means it's six feet wide.  The rug is eight feet wide so it leaves a bit of border showing on each side.  That's OK because the dog does not position herself near the edges. 

Obviously we don't allow the dog onto any of our furniture.  Do you suppose a fifteen-year-old couch would look that good that if a dog were allowed onto it??  Not a chance.   
In the pic above, you'll notice the other advantage of using this kind of blanket:  it can be tucked under the top couch cushions like this, which also helps to hold it in place.  Our dog usually sleeps with her body pressed up against the base of the couch, so dog smell would be rubbing onto that part of the couch if I didn't protect it along with the area rug. 

When we have guests over, we can temporarily pull up the blanket for a more formal look.  But the blanket is so well-fitted to the rug both in terms of dimensions and color coordination that sometimes people drop by to visit and they don't even notice that there is a blanket on the floor. 
Long photo exposure: the dog is still, but the tail be a-waggin', making for a blurry back end.
And oh my gosh, that blanket gets filthy.  I pull it up every couple of weeks to put it in the washing machine, and I am always appalled at how filthy it becomes.  If you've ever worn some of the new "microfiber" clothing, then you probably already know what a dirt magnet that type of fabric is.  The fabric is so porous that it just sucks up everything it comes in contact with - dirt, body odor, skin oils - sucks it all up like a sponge.  In almost three years now, I can't tell you how many times I've washed that blanket, but the rug itself remains clean and odor-free.  Ditto for the bottom of the couch. 

Some clever bugger is going to read this post and start marketing a microfiber product specifically designed to serve this pet odor-control purpose.  They'll advertise it on late-night TV as the latest consumer miracle product.  But don't be fooled - a cheap Walmart plush blanket will work just as well. 

And why would the dog be so inclined to press her ever-stinky body up against the base of the couch? Well, part of it derives from the animal instinct to seek the protection of confinement. But she has another more modern-day motivation as well.
Every once in a while, a mysterious arm will descend from on high, and a belly rub will be forthcoming.  That's definitely worth sticking close to the couch for. 

Post Update:  OK, here's a strange development.  After I took those pics above, I noticed that the blanket was a bit worn, and the dog's toenails had ripped a couple of small holes in it.  Time for a replacement, so as I was out at Walmart today, I attempted to buy a replacement, only to find that they have apparently discontinued the "full" size (which is 72" x 90" - the correct fit to have in front of many couches, including ours).  Choices in Walmart are now either 66" x 90" or 90" x 90", neither of which will work for my application.

And apparently Walmart is not alone in shedding the true "full" linen size option.  Amazon didn't have a source for one either.  And I've seen this repeatedly:
Since when does a full-sized mattress = a queen-sized mattress?!
Screengrabbed from an Overstock posting similar to this one
So this highly useful item is apparently now off the consumer market.  As near as I can tell, the only recourse at this point are institutional suppliers such as this one or this one.  I'll be ordering one of those in the near future. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Local Christmas spirit

'Tis the season for heartwarming but formulaic news filler featuring the selfless acts of various clergy, charity organizations, social service frameworks, philanthropists, and the like. 

But as I wait patiently for my family to get out of bed this Christmas morning (early risers they are not!), I'd like to pay homage to another manifestation of the spirit - the kind that the mainstream news media (MSM) never seems to feature. 

Every year around the holidays, it's the same predictable progression of stories in commercial newspapers and on TV: mass shootings and sale-driven mall brawls that I'm not even going to dignify by providing URLs. 

What never seems to get transmitted with those stories is that mass shootings are extremely rare.  People pulling out guns, knives, and fists in order to secure some sale price on basketball shoes or cappuccino machines... these things are just astonishingly rare.  We have 312 million people in this country and an infinitesimally small number of them suffer from the type of acute mental illness that drives them to go on murderous rampages.  Each year, there are about twenty mass shootings in America.  This means that, at any given time, mass shooters number about one in fifteen million Americans.  That's just an incredibly low number which attests to the corresponding decency of the overwhelmingly large majority of people. 

But the MSM never puts that kind of thing in perspective as they flog these rare events to death with story after story, angle after angle.  Why??  Because if it bleeds, it leads.  They make money by telling those stories at the expense of stories about what's good in our society.  They make money by stimulating fear and distrust. 

There was a pretty cool story of collective goodness happening right here in Clear Lake within the past few days, and not a damned one of the commercial media outlets seems to have picked up on it. 

The pretty cool story is about what happened at Baybrook Mall

Do you remember previous years when there used to be radio reports of the holiday parking situation at Baybrook?  It's an older mall and the parking was not optimized to account for the current-day population load when it was built.  Every year like clockwork, there would be reports that the parking lot was X% full, Y% full, then 100% full.  It was important to know this percentage in advance of your shopping trip because you wouldn't want to show up and find no place to park. 

I found it curious that I didn't hear any reports this year - I turned on the radio to check and there was nothing.  My teenaged daughter wanted to go to the mall less than 48 hours before Christmas.  I first told her that we'd have to get a mall report, but I couldn't find any.  Then I told her that we'd give it a try, but I warned her that we might have to turn around and come home for lack of parking.

But then when we got to Baybrook, I saw this, which explained everything.
People had driven their vehicles en masse into the empty fields surrounding the mall, where they proceeded to park in a very orderly fashion, apparently without any guidance from external authorities.  In our area, which was the east side of the mall closer to IH-45, I saw nobody directing traffic.  I saw no curb ramps, no traffic cones, no taped off areas, or other types of temporary lane markers to help guide people.  People simply seemed to apply their collective common sense and got the logistics accomplished all on their own. 

Pic looking roughly east toward the IH-45 frontage road. 
Baybrook was indeed crowded.  Like, shoulder-to-shoulder crowded (the Fire Marshall with jurisdiction must have been hyperventilating into a paper bag at the mere thought of it). 

But do you know what??  Not a single person was rude to me in the one to two hours we were there.  I did not see a single person being inconsiderate to anyone else.  The extent of mutual cooperation was simply amazing.  It amounted to some of the best peoplewatching I've ever done. 

But that stuff never made the news.  Nobody got shot or beaten up, so that kind of thing is not newsworthy, right?  Thousands and thousands of American people found a way to spontaneously self-organize and accomodate each other under trying circumstances in the spirit of the season, but it's not newsworthy.

But it is newsworthy to me.  In fact, I think it's the most newsworthy thing of all.  Baybrook was just one example among countless other American communities which were undoubtedly manifesting the same type of consideration.  What if the newspaper headlines instead screamed, "AMERICANS BY THE MILLIONS DEMONSTRATE TRUST AND MUTUAL RESPECT"?  Wouldn't that be something?? 

Merry Christmas. 
Who needs curb ramps anyway?  If you're careful, you can just drive up over them without damaging the underside of your car.  And then carefully park in ways that don't block anybody else in the impromptu grass lot. 

Looking roughly north toward Baybrook Mall Drive.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas snow in Houston - not

No white Christmas for us this year - in fact, they're calling for possible tornadoes instead!

Ah, well, who can forget the legendary Christmas of 2004 when we were treated to an unprecedented wallop of whiteness??  Hard to believe it's already been eight years.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The four-function room

My husband and I made some unconventional choices when we commissioned the building of our Centerpointe house (the building of it plus the sixty-eight upgrades and structural modifications we added to the base plan, much to our builder's trepidation). 

For one thing, we did not want a McMansion, the type of massive suburban house that basically defines greater Houston, but which I feel is an overall waste of money, as well as posing poorer re-sale potential down the road as massive numbers of baby boomers retire and seek down-sized digs.  We just don't need that much space now, and we sure as hell won't need it when we are closer to retirement. 

For another thing, we were both past the stage in our lives where we could be satisfied by living in a generic tract home.  I'm sure that's been abundantly obvious from my many design and gardening posts. 

One of the decisions we made early on was to not have a dedicated guest room in our home.  If you run the numbers, you'll probably find that, in mortgage, local taxes, utilities, maintenance, and furnishings, your carrying costs for a guest room will average over a thousand dollars a year - and that's calculated in Houston where houses are dirt cheap, and that's at a time when mortgage rates are at record lows

This is the kind of annual out-lay that my husband and I could easily pay for, but this notion offends my conservative sensibilities because it represents the type of financial inefficiency that has come to plague the American middle-class, at their great silent slow-bleed peril.  Day by day, we tend not to notice the "little incremental wasted bits" we might pay on outsized mortgages or for trash service, but over time, it all adds up to represent a significant financial opportunity cost both individually and collectively.  I wasn't raised that way and those are not my values, so frugal lifestyle choices, which a generation ago were called "normal" but which have now become "thinking outside the box", are important to me from symbolic and self-identity perspectives as well. 

First function:  Guest room.
So no dedicated guest room in our house, but we did need a sleeping space for guests, and what that meant was that our "spare room" had to be designed to be convertible - to serve multiple purposes. 
In my last post, I described how we updated the style of this room, chiefly by using a rug as wall art.

But you can also see from this photo that this is an unusual room in several other respects as well.  I'll next describe the thought process behind those decisions.
The first and most fundamental thing a guest room must supply is a guest bed, but if you intend to have the room serve multiple purposes, it cannot be a conventional bed because they take up too much floor space.  There are basically three alternatives to a standalone bed:
  1. Sofa bed
  2. Murphy bed (aka "wall bed")
  3. Temporary bed such as the newer generation of inflatables.
Some of the inflatables are actually getting to be pretty advanced in terms of quality (e.g., this one looks good) but I immediately ruled them out for the following reasons:
  1. They just seem too insubstantial to me.  My goal is to be financially efficient, not cheap. 
  2. Too much overhead.  I don't want to have to drop what I'm doing in order to construct the Tinkertoy equivalent of a bed every time my teenager has a friend stay over. 
I was really, really fascinated with the idea of a Murphy bed, but here's what stopped me from buying one: you only get a single-function item for your substantial investment. 
Screengrab of a random Google ad.  By the time you get done factoring in the framework, the mattress, and some kind of low-end but decent-looking cabinetry or housing to hide it, you're going to be over two thousand dollars - no way around this. 
You're going to be paying over two thousand dollars for something that serves only as a bed.  Whereas if you take that same money and invest it in a high-end sofa bed, you'll get a bed AND a sofa - a really beautiful and practical high-quality leather sofa.  And after extensive research, that's what prompted my husband and I to choose this Natuzzi for our multi-purpose room (as always, no company pays me to endorse their products).
Here's the page for the product that we chose.  Google "Natuzzi sleeper sofa" if you want to see more links and more styles.  We really liked this nice clean timeless but modern or contemporary style.   
My husband and I were utterly horrified by the poor quality of most of the sleeper sofas on the market.  It's like the manufacturers had defined their sleeper sofa target demographic as being trailer trash or something - because don't most upper-middle-class Americans own McMansions by now, with their dedicated guest rooms??  And therefore people with money don't need to be buying sofa beds?!  That's the feeling we got during our extensive shopping and research. 

The Natuzzi was very different from the pack.  The mattress is a very good Tempurpedic - it feels to us like sleeping on a normal bed, not a flimsy mound of lumpy springs, which is what the other brands felt like to us.  I don't know if Natuzzi (an Italian company) advertizes as such, but one gets the feeling that perhaps they designed this thing for use in Europe, with its microscopic houses and flats - where home owners may need to sleep on something like this on a daily basis for lack of space.  And if it's going to be used daily, it better be good and it better be durable. 

Its engineering is really cool.
With most sofa beds, you pull off the bottom cushions and retract a very thin mattress out from within the bowels of the sofa.  The Natuzzi is actually engineered to be all one efficient piece.  You start by pulling the back forward...
...another view...
Have you ever "unfurled" a sofa before??  This is trippy. 
And here's the very comfortable result. 
Owing to this unusual one-piece engineering, we find that it works better if the "head of the bed" is actually farthest away from the frame, which is the opposite of how most people sleep in conventional sofa beds.  I place a little couch table or something near the pillows to hold guests' eyeglasses, travel clocks, or whatever. 
We have been extremely pleased with this choice.  My kid's teenaged friends crash on it, and either my husband or I will use it when he's doing rotating shift work, or when one of us has come down with a head cold and is keeping the other awake at night.  It's queen-sized, so plenty of room for two if necessary. 

And then when we are done with it, it furls back up again in two seconds. 

If you search for where to buy a Natuzzi sofa bed, the internet will return a bunch of high-end furniture stores around Houston, most of them contemporary or Danish.  But believe it or not, we bought this thing right here in Clear Lake.  It was at that furniture store on the northeast corner of NASA Road 1 and IH-45 - I believe it was Star Furniture which may have since moved to a new location on the other side of the freeway. 

The financial bottom line on this choice:  This Natuzzi was expensive - about $2,200.  But do you see what I've done here?  I may have purchased the Cadillac equivalent of an Italian leather sofa bed, but in the years since we bought it, I've correspondingly saved about $3,000 by not paying the costs on a typical dedicated tract-home guest room square footage.  Not only did I spend less money overall, I actually have something to show for that money - an excellent quality durable good that gets a lot of use and that we could take with us if we ever have to move to a new home.  That's my idea of a wise financial trade-off. 

Now for the other three purposes of this room.

Second function: Exercise room. 
You'll notice in the pics above that I had positioned a long thin black mat in front of the sofa. 
That's one of my older yoga mats.  This room must also function as our exercise room, but I don't want it to look like an ugly home gym.  The particular yoga mat shown here is a "lite" variety (it's thin - you can see ripples in the now-worn-out edges) which does not make for the best generic area mat (it no longer lays perfectly flat, so you'll trip over the edges if you keep it on the floor).  I will be ordering a much denser rubber mat which I will leave in front of the sofa at all times except when I pull it out into the middle of this floor to use it. 
Manduka is one of my favorite brands but I don't own one in black yet, which is what this room calls for design-wise.  They are extremely dense and lay perfectly flat (and they also make mats that are more appropriate for floor exercises that potentially result in more impact stresses than yoga... such as Pilates, maybe?  I don't know much about Pilates).  When I bought this navy blue one at Whole Earth Provision Company in the Galleria, the young, nerdy, socially-inept but endearing sales guy responded to my questions about durability with the response, "This mat will last longer than you will."  Ummmm.... I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be happy about that bit of perspective or not. 
Thinking outside the box:  Dedicating a dense yoga mat as as a decor design element in front of a sofa bed to provide visual grounding in the absence of a conventional area rug (because the area rug is instead mounted on the wall).  The navy blue Manduka shown above has to live in the back of my car, because if I try to shuttle it back and forth between my car and my exercise room, I will forget it in the exercise room and then I will show up at yoga class without my equipment.   For the sake of efficiency and to thwart middle-aged brain farting, I need one mat in each place.

The yoga mat isn't the only piece of exercise equipment in this 12' x 12' room:
Steampunk meets contemporary?  That's actually my decade-old Concept2 rowing machine in the corner, but coupled with my child's keyboard, a minimalist floating shelf, and a similarly-spindly floor lamp, it almost looks like a cohesive design moment has been established here.  Like it's supposed to all go together as a grouping of stylistically-related objects, rather than looking like a piece of exercise equipment simply jammed into an available corner.  That's the point.  I don't want it to look like a home gym. 
The wall rug rationale is further expounded thusly: I didn't want an area rug on this floor because I need to use the bare floor for these exercise purposes.  I need to be able to pull out the yoga mat and pull down the rower without an area rug being in the way.  Therefore the rug had to go on the wall.

Third function: Music room.
Obviously with the keyboard in the photos, you can see that the third function is as a music room.  I like to flop on the couch and listen to my child practice her piano skills, a family quality-time scenario that would not be possible if I had instead opted for a Murphy bed here. 

My husband and I also have hand-held musical instruments of our own, although we don't practice much.  But perhaps we will practice now that I've gotten this room finished, finally. 

Fourth function: Reading, quiet, and staging space.
The fourth function is defined by what you don't see here: no computers or TVs or other electronic devices in this room, and no clutter.  This also serves as a quiet room, a reading room, a napping room, whatever is needed in the way of temporary segregation. 

Because we intentionally left such a large open floor space, we also tend to use it as a staging room.  For instance, in packing for trips, we first spread all of our equipment and clothing out on this floor in order to do a visual inventory.  There's not another place in the entire house where we can do this kind of thing without interfering with foot traffic.  Almost all of our travel falls into these categories:  international and backcountry camping (sometimes both combined).  In each of those scenarios, you're in big trouble logistically if you forget a single piece of equipment.  So being able to first organize all travel items in a wide-open fifty-square-foot floor space is very helpful.  In other words, this room occasionally serves as the residential analog to an industrial laydown yard

So there you have it - our four-function room.  Happy holidays!  If your New Year's goals involve the achievement of greater degrees of fitness and home organization (which this site claims are two of the top ten most common resolutions), perhaps I've been able to provide a tiny bit of inspiration regarding both with this post (a two-function post on a four-function room??).

Friday, December 21, 2012

Using area rugs as wall art

It amazes me how infrequently area rugs are re-purposed as wall art.  Perhaps interior decorators are terrified of the idea, remembering the nightmarish but thankfully short-lived 1970's trend of putting shag carpet on walls, but it seems that basically nobody has attempted to re-interpret this idea for contemporary design applications. 

Seriously, as of the date of this blog post, there's just nothing out there:
Google auto-fill has zilch.
I mean zilch.  Which tells me that nobody is even searching for ideas on this.

Same with images.  I can't find a single decent example of an area rug used on a wall.  I did find this article, which extolled the virtues of the idea - but tellingly, it contained no pictures.  Same with this article - great logical arguments for doing it, but no photographic evidence of success. 

Even design trailblazer HGTV has apparently not yet hit upon this idea (hint, hint, link, link). 
So nobody is currently doing this kind of thing, except me, of course.  We wall-mounted our second rug the other day, so let me run through the before-and-after sequence to show you how (and why) we chose that option.
This was our bare target wall, in our "spare" room.  This room must serve multiple purposes, which I'll explain in a future post.  For now, let me just deal with the area rug which is sitting on the floor in this photo.
I am an Overstock fan.  Overstock does not pay me to say this.  Nobody pays me to say anything.  This is called "blue abstract rug".  It is the fourth area rug I've purchased from Overstock and I've been more than pleased with every one of them.  Overstock has literally thousands of area rugs to choose from.  Their website is easy to browse and their prices are excellent. 

Actually, Overstock should be called Overstalk, because it pays to over-stalk them.  Stalking the website periodically over the course of a month or so, and waiting for Christmas sales and also for a promo code to show up in my mailbox, I snagged this 5' x 8' abstract creation for just $97.92, shipping included. 

Screengrab above from this site.
When I was shopping for accessories for this room, I had that Overstock photo pulled up on my phone, and I was wandering around Pier 1 Imports.  I ended up buying this drapery panel (but note that the URL may not show the correct color) and this pillow to coordinate with the rug, but as I was being led around the store by my own cellphone, one of the salespeople was clearly curious about what the heck I was doing.  I showed her the rug pic, and she declared, "That is a work of art."  I replied to her, "Exactly - which is why I've placed it on the wall rather than on the floor."

So here's the project sequence - How to mount an area rug to a wall as art:
I mentioned in another post that nothing comes into our house without first being built as a cardboard mock-up and tested in place.  This was one exception only because we had already mounted another rug in a different room, so we knew what we were doing.  What I did instead in this case was draw the room, the couch, and the rug to relative scale, so that I could figure out the exact wall position in advance.   This was importantly mainly so I could experiment with how high above the sofa we could mount the rug and still have it look cohesive, rather than looking like it was a disjointed magic carpet about to fly into outer space.  We settled on the rug being about eight inches above the back of the sofa.
Knowing how far up the bottom of the rug was to be above the back of the sofa then told us how far down from the ceiling the top of it had to be.  We used Post-It squares to mark a horizontal line at that level, with the bottom of the Post-Its to line up with the top of the rug.

That blue painters tape you see marks the center of the wall, which was to line up with the center of the rug.

The one Post-It note page that is higher than the rest marks the place where the water lines run through this wall cavity to a bathroom sink that is on the other side of this wall.  We didn't want to risk nailing into those lines, so we avoided the space six inches on either side of this position.  As always, you have to be careful not to puncture water or electrical lines when hammering nails into walls. 
Correspondingly, we put a piece of blue painter's tape in the very center of the rug. 
Because this rug is eight feet wide, we had to employ some means of control so it wouldn't be flopping around as we were trying to lift it onto the wall.  I rolled it up like a scroll on each side...
...and used ordinary binder clips to keep each side from unraveling.
I can't show the part where we nailed it to the wall, because it was a two-person job, meaning the camera person was unavailable to shoot pics during that part.  But here are a few tips on the nailing.
We use ordinary finish nails with small heads.  Don't use a rusty hammer for this because some of the rust might rub off on the rug, which would be bad. 
We started in the very center, and then worked our way out from there, pulling the rug taut and nailing about every ten inches or less.  TIP:  Don't hammer the nails all the way in.  The rug is probably going to stretch under its own weight and relax a bit after it spends some time on the wall.  This might make it sag a bit, so you may have to go back, remove these nails, pull it tight again, and re-nail.  Leave the heads sticking out far enough for the hammer claw to grab easily. 
Now you have to see the "BEFORE" picture one more time...

...and the "AFTER".

The only thing that I might go back and tweak here is the paint.  This room still retains the builder-grade paint scheme.  Not only is it a generic beige with traditional white ceiling, it's not executed properly because the white ceiling extends down the vault, for a disjointed feel.  Some builders are creating interior ten-foot ceilings on eight-foot stud walls by vaulting thusly.  It's a great way to achieve the additional height while spending very little extra money (ten-foot studs would be much more expensive), but it creates a painting dilemma like this.  The second rug-room photo further down in this post will show you how this type of partial ceiling vault should be painted. 
Tell me what else I could have added to that wall to create that much impact for less than one hundred dollars - I'd love to hear.  The Pier 1 salesperson was quite correct - this IS a work of art.  At a tiny fraction of what actual art would have cost me. 

The effect of rug art is similar to having an accent wall covered in a graphic wallpaper.  Here's somebody else's excellent blog post describing examples of that, but I'll tell you my issue with it:  I find wallpaper accent walls to be too visually dispersed.  There's no focal point to them.  My eyes zig-zag back and forth across the entire wall looking for a place to alight every time I see one.  If you use a rug instead, the graphic pattern is contained to a discrete area and the focal integrity is maintained.

The secret to having an unconventional wall-mounted area rug turn out to look pleasing is as follows: 

You have to be absolutely disciplined about the stylistic cross-referencing.  In this room above, the design discipline is achieved partly through the stylistic restriction (every element is contemporary, and contemporary style is very forgiving of the unconventional), but mostly through color control.  Every color in that room is tightly constrained.  Every color in the accent pillow is also in the rug - and I don't mean it's close - I mean those shades are exact.  The color of the sofa leather is prominent in the rug.  The drapery panel and the throw both match the exact shade in the rug.  If the colors were not constrained, this would instead look like a dog's breakfast.

My family is well aware of my obsession with thinking outside the box on all matters, including home design.  When we got done with this most recent rug installation, my husband said, "I bet you anything that we are the only family in greater Houston with two rugs on our home's walls." And my teenager replied, "Yeah, I know, but I kind of like it." 

Ah, yes, two rugs.  Let's talk now about the other one. 

In our other rug-wall room, the design discipline is established using the opposite strategy:  some measure of internal validation is achieved using color coordination, but mostly it's done via geometric and thematic cross-referencing:

This one I HAD cut out of cardboard prior to purchasing it a few years ago, and I mounted the cardboard on the wall in successive sizes corresponding to the different purchase options for this rug.  My husband and child were adamant that I had to get this size, the largest one that would fit.  Smaller sizes looked lost. 

I love ferns.  Love them.  Always wanted an art piece something like this, but could never afford "real" art.  This rug also came from Overstock and was more expensive than the one shown above.  If memory serves me, it was about $260 - still far less money than a large art piece would be.

Added bonus for this particular wall:  soundproofing.  My teenager's bedroom is on the other side of that wall.  This rug cuts down on the rock 'n' roll that is able to come through. 
So let's run down the constraints on this example.  Even if you don't consciously notice stuff like what I've tabulated below, your subconscious artistic eye will register these details very well when it returns a verdict on whether or not you enjoy the visual result:

Color cross-referencing:
  • The grey on the upper right fern almost matches the grey that runs up the exterior wall and across the ceiling (I had to de-blue the wall color a bit) and also the grey of the slate tiles inset into the conference table.
  • The cream of the left fern and the outlined fern matches the cream of the end-cap wall exactly.
  • The charcoal of the rug background matches the charcoal of the office chairs, the photo frames, the lines in the African basket in the foreground, and many other elements in the room.
  • The different wood tones are paired with each other (desk with bookcase; conference table with half-round table), which is essential if you want to mix wood tones in a single room.
Geometric and thematic cross-referencing:
  • The unruly plants on the rug match the unruly plant hanging in the window.  These two elements impart the same "feel", which leads to a cohesive impression. 
  • The shape and scale of the window itself are echoed in the shape and scale of the rug, so they look like they go together as being giant rectangles (for those of you with a scientific bent, they have virtually the same aspect ratio). 
  • Three square photos on the wall, three square inset slate tiles in the table form a balanced visual right-angle. 
  • The arched forms in the ferns echo the arched forms in the chandelier, which happens to be a Meritage builder-grade standard fixture which I like and retained here (although we later flipped it upside down for better illumination of this table surface). 
  • The "feet" of both office chairs appear similar to claw-like roots clinging to the stone floor (i.e., the primal plant theme expressed in the abstract). 
  • Running the paint up the exterior wall and across the ceiling rather than painting a traditional ceiling also adds to a primal flavor.  Where do you often find ferns?  Clinging to the rocks at the mouth of a cave.  The paint choice gives a bit of sophisticated cave-like feel. 
So there you have it - examples with actual pictures of how to use area rugs as wall art (conventional tract home thinking be damned!).  Artistic basis thusly explained, I'll follow up with a future post detailing the rationale behind the sofa room's functional development, because the rug art was only the first step for that one.