Staining vs. Painting

I was meeting with the lovely Amy Liesinger with Lampert’s Lumber yesterday to discuss another kitchen for our latest spec home and she kindly suggested that I should post part of our discussion on my blog.  How’s that for subtle?!  I am embarrassed to realize how long it has been since I’ve posted anything.  I could come up with a load of very creative and believable excuses but simply – I’ve been too busy and have completely neglected this thing.

Since it’s been a while I now have a number of fresh subjects to rant/advise/comment on so I should be primed for a good run this fall.  But I make no promises.

So, since I was just discussing a kitchen and debating the merits of white cabinets and trim versus stained cabinets and trim maybe this is the best topic to restart things…

I have had the opportunity to build a few model homes for the Parade of Homes since we started nearly 2 years ago.  I have had tons of feedback on each of these homes and I would like to offer an unbiased look at the benefits and drawbacks of each style of cabinets and trim:


Stained cabinets and trim offer the benefit of bringing warmth and character to a finish scheme.  Staining certain wood species tends to bring out the best (and sometimes worst) qualities of different types of wood.  For instance, maple is a funny wood as it does not like dark stain.  Often, when stained dark it can look very blotchy.  I prefer to leave maple with a clear natural finish.

On the other hand, woods like alder, cherry and even oak can become very rich and lovely with the right stain color.  The prevalence of “Honey” and “Wheat” stains have ruined oak’s reputation of a solid, attractive option.  It takes to dark colors very well and it’s surprisingly turning up again in some of the trendiest homes.

Stained wood is easy to clean and can be fairly easily repaired if damaged.  Colors beyond “Natural” hide scuffs and handprints very well.  You do need to take care to protect it from direct sunlight as the colors will fade and some cheaper varnishes can turn yellow over time.


It seems that every Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware catalog and most design magazines and websites feature painted trim.  Its popularity has soared in the last few years and it’s a nice, fresh alternative to stained trim.  It helps set off wall colors and goes with just about any décor.

Many people are shocked when I tell them that the popular painted trim is actually an upgrade on our homes.  Some builders will offer it as either a base price item or even a lesser-priced option.  Check their trim carefully.  I have seen many homes where the white trim is simply nailed to the wall and the holes filled and that’s it.  Be aware:  unless the trim is fully caulked at joints and against the wall, the holes sanded and all of it repainted after it is installed it will definitely look like you paid less for it.

Poplar wood is the most common wood choice for painted trim because it is not a “stain grade” wood.  It’s a softer wood and more prone to denting.   A newer alternative to solid wood is MDF (medium density fiberboard), which is an engineered wood product.  It is less expensive than solid wood and doesn’t shrink like solid wood but is more prone to chipping when it’s nailed in.

Painted cabinets are becoming very popular and again many buyers think it’s a lower-priced alternative.  This has not necessarily been the case.  To get a smooth, hard, high quality painted finish requires more steps in the process and many cabinet shops will charge more for it.  In addition, consumers need to understand that while all wood will expand and contract during the different seasons, this becomes more obvious on painted cabinets and cracks in the joints will be so much more obvious.

The biggest negative I’ve heard with white painted trim and cabinets is the fact that this stuff shows EVERYTHING.  A buyer needs to understand that this will require so much more regular maintenance to clean or touch up from hand prints, vacuum dings, shoe scuffs and dust.  I actually heard from a few people during the parade that said “never again” would they do painted wood, no matter how much they loved the look.

It’s definitely a personal decision but one that requires careful consideration.


My grown-up Christmas List…

In the spirit of the season I thought I’d share with you my own list of “wants, needs and have-to-haves” for building a new home.  I already built one 10 years ago but if I could do it over again, here are the things I would keep and the things I’d fix:

1.       Build a mud room big enough to hold backpacks, duffel bags, sporting equipment, musical instrument cases, snowmobile helmets,  jackets, tons of shoes, etc. I never realized that while the quantity of shoes and jackets won’t change as your kids grow up, the sheer size of them sure does.  Plus, remember that their interests accumulate more stuff.  Don’t be fooled by your kids at a very young age…plan for the future or figure out a way to climb over everything.

2.       A kitchen with a gas range and double ovens. Not everyone likes to cook and bake but I’ve found that my meals are getting bigger and bigger along with my kids – I have less leftovers than I used to and have to make a lot more at one meal.  A wall oven would really help me out.  Gas would also help me multitask better to provide a more easily-controlled heat, preventing boil-overs!

3.       A walk-in pantry…Did you see the one in our model home last spring?!  If I could do it all over again I would have that.  (By utilizing the square-footage on the floor plan for a walk-in pantry, you are getting more storage per square foot (floor-to-ceiling) at a lower cost per square foot than cabinets!  You could actually make your kitchen footprint more efficient and spend less.)

4.       Always the laundry on the main floor, next to the kitchen I know this is a debatable issue but I would never, ever put my laundry on the 2nd floor.  I know many people love having theirs located up by the bedrooms but I really don’t care to run up and down the stairs each time I change a load. We tend to do all of our laundry on one specific day so keeping it closer to the heart of the home has been best for me.

I love that I have lots of cabinets for storing detergent, shoe polish, cleaners and extra coffee pots.  I also have enough room to store the vacuum, cases of pop, the dog dishes and a small under-cabinet fridge.  It is definitely the hardest working room of my house!

5.       A laundry chute  I grew up with one – and once tried unsuccessfully to send myself down it – but having the ability to toss the laundry down at the end of the day would make the laundry chore more efficient

6.       A space designated to store my Christmas tree  Since we’re dreaming here…I’d love to plan a front closet large enough to allow me to simply cover my tree and slide it right in – decorations and all!  We used to have neighbors that had that and I thought it was pure genius!

Don’t forget to try to put a switched outlet where you think you would put your tree – no more using a timer or fumbling around to hit the power strip.  Just a flick of a switch!

7.       Plan for lots of functional storage in your master bath My master bathroom storage is really ideally suited to my needs.  I took the time to think about how I get ready each day and how I want to be able to access and store all of the things I use.

Plenty of shallow drawers – I have added organizers to them that store the q-tips, bobby pins, rubber bands and even the dental floss.  Nothing rolls around, they aren’t too deep to waste space and I don’t even have to look around for anything

A tall cabinet on “my” end to store EVERYTHING else.  This cabinet has a roll-out shelf at about chest height that stores all of my tall hair products – nothing falls over and none of it sits on my counter

I put an outlet in the back of my linen cabinet so my hair dryer can stay plugged in at all times and it sits on that roll-out and tucks quickly away when I’m done.

I should have added some way to hide my curling/flat irons away where they can safely cool out of sight.  I would gladly give up some of that tall cabinet storage for a “garage” door that opens on the side and has outlets for my irons.

8.       A separate bathing/toilet area in my kids’ bath: I don’t necessarily need more space but I would have definitely put a wall and a door separating the tub/toilet area from the sink area in my 2nd floor bath.  Two boys.  Enough said.

9.       A bigger hidden pipe in my entertainment center for all of the cord  Unless technology will soon transmit all the signals from entertainment systems wirelessly and affordably  I still stand by the pipe trick:  Our TV sits above the fireplace mantle and we installed a hidden PVC pipe from the back of each cabinet on either side of the fireplace up through the mantle to the back of the TV.  This was such a lifesaver to easily and secretly fish cords that I now provide this in my new homes as a standard feature.  However, I’d install a bigger pipe to accommodate more cords.  I never thought we’d try to hook up a sound system, DVD, satellite box and a game system all in the same location.  That is a crazy number of cords people!

10.   My biggest splurge – double-hung windows Not only do I think these windows provide a ton more character to the exterior of the home, double-hung windows are constructed in such a way that both the top and bottom portion (the sash) of the windows operate, allowing more options for getting fresh air in your home as well as the option for both of the sashes to tilt into the room to be cleaned.  I currently have casement windows that crank out and my 2nd floor windows can’t be reached even with our ladder.

Another hidden plus?  The screen is on the outside – no more squashed bugs and no more trapped moths when you shut the windows on those perfect summer nights!

So there you have it, my personal list of items I would plan for when building a house for myself.  Let me also take a moment to say that I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and a new year full of good health, prosperity and wonderful times with family and friends.

Merry Christmas!

One of my favorite architects has a new house to show off…

Many, many years ago I had the opportunity to work for a custom home builder in the Twin Cities during the summer when I was in college.  We were a very small office and I learned so much!  My boss had been an art history teacher prior to becoming a carpenter and then a builder so he really had a feel for good design and it was a very important time in my life.  A few months later I was home for Christmas break and Jim called and asked if I wanted something to do.  He was working with a couple that had hired a local architect to do their home and they needed a model built.  The architect was from the firm of Mulfinger Susanka Mahady and I immediately fell in love with their work.  The firm was well respected in the Cities and their partners and associates were gaining regional and national notoriety. I knew that they were people to follow and they have not disappointed me over the years!

Well, you may have noticed one of the names in the firm – Susanka – was none other than Sarah Susanka of the “Not So Big House” books.  Although I did not work directly with her I have always followed her work and read her books.  If you are not familiar with them, in a nutshell, they discuss the philosophy that more is not necessarily better when it comes to home design.  She is a strong proponent for smaller homes with efficient plans and lots of thoughtful details – window seats, display niches, lots of practical storage and minimal hallways.  I have tried to incorporate many of those elements in my homes and people do notice the difference.

A few weeks ago I suggested that people look to as one of the best places to find and organize new design ideas.  Here is a link to an ideabook that highlights one of Sarah Susanka’s newest homes, in Libertyville IL.  There are so many ideas here that one can use to design a smaller home with a very casual, homey feel.

…and really, isn’t that what we all want?  Take a look and let me know what you like or dislike about this home.

Winter Window Wisdom

So colder weather is here after a beautiful fall and you are dreading dealing with your windows this winter – if you had a brand new Holly & Company Home, you wouldn’t have that worry but that’s for another day.

I had a number of people speak with me at the Parade of Homes this fall about their windows.  Some said that their windows are fairly new but they were terrible and they wanted to replace them because they get water and ice on them and it ruins the wood trim.  I told them to slow down – it’s not necessarily the quality of the window.  Why?  Here is a short explanation of why windows get moisture and/or ice and what you can do to prevent it, saving you a lot of money and worry.  (My next post will discuss the air that blows…and blows…and blows.)

Where we live, when it can easily get to 30 below in January for an extended period, all windows – no matter what they cost – can potentially get moisture on them.  Why?  Think of your window for what it really is – a hole in your wall.  Your wall is probably insulated to a minimum of R-13 and most likely to R-19 if it’s less than 30 years old (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means, just follow the numbers:  the higher the R-value, the better the insulation).  The best windows on the market can only provide an insulating value of around an R-5 and that is with triple glazing (three panes of glass instead of the standard two).  Now, imagine it’s January during a raging blizzard and your home is at a comfortable 70 degrees and outside it’s -30 degrees.  That’s a 100 degree temperature swing!  Of course your windows will feel cold and you will feel cold sitting next to one.  On top of it, the air in your home is moist – most people feel comfortable with a humidity level of about 30% to 40%.  That is great for our skin and hair and preventing getting shocked all the time but it can cause condensation on windows.  This condensation can produce mold, damage wood trim and create a lot of headaches.

Why does water condensate on windows?  Think about summer now…you are drinking that nice cold drink and water droplets form on the outside of your glass, leaving rings on your table.  That water is coming from the moisture in the humid summer air and when that moist air comes in contact with something cooler the moisture will reach its dew point and “dew” will form on the cool surface.  Now back to the blizzard (sorry) – the warm moist air in your home hits the cold glass and then the dew forms on the surface of the glass and runs down and sits on your wood sill and ruins it.

So…how do you prevent this from happening and ruining your windows?

  • First, look directly under your window on the floor – do you have an air vent?  When possible, heating contractors will locate a furnace vent directly under a window so that the warm air will blow up and over the glass, keeping the air moving and keeping the window a bit warmer.  Unfortunately, we like to put things like beds and desks and sofas under our windows and this defeats the purpose of the vent.  Try pulling your furniture away from the wall a bit so the air can circulate better.
  • If you keep any shades closed during the day, try to keep them open a bit so the heat can get to the glass.
  • Check your humidity levels too – run bath fans every time you take a bath or shower and if you have a whole-house humidifier, make sure it’s set below 40%.
  • When you’ve tried these things and you still get moisture on your windows, the best thing I’ve found is the shrink film that you cut to fit and tape to your trim and then use a hair dryer to shrink.  I hate to say it but I use it every winter on my bedroom window.  I really take my time applying the film and then really take my time using my hair dryer to heat and shrink the film to the point that you really couldn’t tell it’s there from a few feet away.  You have to have a really good seal or your time is wasted and the film can’t do its job.  Not only does it prevent the moisture build-up but it also helps keep the drafts out – and my bedroom much more comfortable.

Just understand that many factors can contribute to moisture build-up on windows and the window company or the builder is not necessarily the one to blame.  However, if you have drafty windows…that’s for another post entirely!

Cement or Concrete…How to sound like you know what you are talking about.

It took me until my 3rd year of architecture school to learn what I am going to tell you today.  It was in Materials and Methods class at NDSU that Professor Martens explained to us the cardinal sins of construction terms.  He said, “It’s not mason-a-ry, it’s masonry.  It’s not cement, it’s concrete.  It’s not a pillar, it’s a column.  If you say it or write it incorrectly in class or on your work, it’s wrong”.  It was that straightforward talk that set me on the right path of not sounding like an idiot when I spoke with contractors.

I am offering this advice to you not so you won’t sound like and idiot but so you will properly understand your architect, builder or designer when you have a meeting.  If you happen to hear them say it wrong, you can correct them and really impress them.

For the record, here are a few general terms that would come in handy during a site visit or a design review meeting.

  • Cement – it’s actually only an ingredient in concrete, the product that is poured for your foundation walls, sidewalks and driveway.  Call it a “concrete” sidewalk.
  • Grade – on a site visit, it refers the lay of the land, the rolling of the hills.  Up in Fargo-Moorhead, we don’t have to worry too much about that changing a whole lot.  We only need to worry when it’s not sloped away from the house enough and water runs back against the foundation.
  • Pillar – while not technically the wrong term, it’s not widely used any more.  Say “column” and you will sound more fashionable.
  • Cantilever – more commonly referred to as a “bump-out”.  Technically, it’s a floor or walking surface that seems to hang out over the wall edge.  The farther you cantilever something, the stronger the structure that supports it has to be or it will fall off your house.
  • Dormer – better than “those pokey pointy things on a roof with windows”.  A dormer is a projection from a roof that typically allows a window to be installed within the roof space. See next item…
  • Gable – a type of roof form that typically looks like a triangle – the top of the wall is cut at the top like a triangle
  • Hip – a type of roof form where all sides of the roof edge are flat and not pitched.  Looks a lot like a pyramid or a series of these arranged together.
  • Shed – a type of roof form that is typically low slope (not steeply pitched) and often found on a dormer or porch or bump-out.  It gets its name because it…wait for it…sheds water.
  • Fascia – (FAY-sha) is the vertical part of the edge of the roof, often the same color as the trim of the home.  The gutters attach to this.
  • Soffit – it’s the horizontal, flat part that returns the fascia back to the house.
  • Egress – the term used to identify doors and more specifically windows that are appropriately located and sized to meet code – so someone can safely exit them.

I could really go on and on…but that would be overwhelming and boring.  These first few terms should help you for now.  I dare you to use them in everyday conversation!

Best place for finding and organizing your ideas…so far

While the summer kept me busy out of the office, I did get introduced to a wonderful website that I want to pass on to you guys.  Go to and see what a wonderful resource it can be for those of you in the planning stages of designing or building a new home or remodel project.  Not many people are blessed with the ability to effectively communicate/describe something that they see.  Photos are the best way to have this kind of conversation and is probably one of the best resources I’ve found for doing this. offers visitors the opportunity view thousands (and thousands) of photos submitted by builders, interior designers, architects, homeowners, etc. and they are all tagged and categorized.  It’s so easy to find just what you are looking for!  The best part is if you happen to find a photo that you like you can create a free account and add it to your own “ideabook”.  You can write notes on what specifically you liked, you can create and save different ideabooks for different topics – mud rooms, exteriors, styles, colors – you name it.

Then, once you have your ideabook sufficiently full, you can e-mail it to your designer or builder so that you can convey your design intentions more clearly.  I have been telling people for years to get magazines and rip pages out and put them in a folder and take notes so when you are having your design meeting you can point right to something and say “This is what I want”.  Now, that process has evolved in our digital age.

Try it out…share your ideabooks with me too – I would love to see what you guys find appealing.

Unexplained absence…

It’s been a very busy summer and I must apologize for the lack of posts.  Now that school has started and things are back to a routine I hope to post more.  Right now we are in the midst of the Parade of Homes in Fargo-Moorhead and boy has the traffic been great!  I’ve had a lot of wonderful, positive feedback which just tells me that I must be doing something right.  I hope to have a few more homes started this fall so you should check back with me in the spring to see my new stuff.