Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The American Front Lawn

When it comes to suburban garden design, I've always been puzzled by the uniformity (isn't this the land of individuals?) and lack of imagination (isn't this the land where everything is possible?). Yesterday's post in Apartment Theory explains the American front lawn culture and I realized that my garden ideals are still firmly rooted in the Old World.

Our house came with manicured bushes, lots of lawn and flowerbeds for annuals. Since my dream garden is part nature, part English cottage garden and part fairy tale, there was a lot to be done. Among others, I've dug up quite a bit of lawn, both back and front, during the 3 1/2 summers we've spent here.

Small patch of strawberries, lettuce
and zucchini, July 2009.
Home grown strawberry cake - can
it get any better? "Och mitt i tårtan
skall namnskylten stå" (from Maja's
alphabet songs) 
Strawberry patch gone wild, 2011
The back yard strawberry patch is great! I love to give my kids the experience of gracing sun warmed berries straight from the patch. We haven't taken care of it very well, so we need to dig up all the plants and spread them out before winter. It started with 6 little plants two summers ago and they multiply faster than bunnies, so we've dug up a bit more lawn every year. This year we had enough berries for a birthday cake!

Narrow strips of lawn between driveway/walkways and flowerbeds are all gone :) The grass grew over the driveway and into the flowerbed, so it was a lot of work and it wasn't really pretty either.

Before - Silly strip of lawn between walk way and flower bed, May 2009
After - Lilies and other perennials now fill the entire space
between the house and walkway. 

Before - Another silly strip of lawn, this one is in the back,
between driveway and a flowerbed, July 2009
After - More space for perennials instead of the
high maintenance strip of lawn.

Can a front lawn get more boring than this? April 2010,
just after one of the maple trees had to be taken down.
The front lawn is still far too big for my taste, but with huge maple trees along the street, we end up with maple saplings everywhere. Those that grow in the lawn disappear after mowing a couple of times. However, with ground covering plants, the saplings need to be pulled up one by one. The ideal would of course be to remove all the maple seeds in the fall, but 
1) we never manage in time before it gets too cold, 
2) fallen leaves and wilted perennials make a great winter blanket for the perennials. So far, all our perennials have survived some cold winters very well. Unfortunately, with maple leaves come the seeds  and they grow fast during early spring.

For now, I feel pretty stuck with my large front lawn. As long as I haven't found a manageable solution to the maple saplings, I'll keep digging up the back yard lawn instead...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Slow Paint

Finally, the trim in the mudroom and porch has been painted. Yay! Also the sliding doors between porch and mud rooom and the door between mud room and bath room have two layers of much needed paint. It's all white. Between a full time job, three kids and great gardening weather, it has taken some time. I've promised myself to only paint in day light because it is so much easier to see any mistakes with proper light.

Finished the paint job.                                   Ready for wallpapering

White, #50003. linseed oil paint
by Allbäck and a good brush.
I used Swedish linseed oil paint. In fact, the flax, whose seeds have been pressed to make the oil grew less than 50 miles from where I grew up in Southern Sweden. It's available in the US from
In our previous house, we used linseed oil paint for ALL interior woodwork. For the ceiling, beaded pine board, we mixed our own white stain from linseed oil paint, linseed oil and a little bit of turpentine.
The paint is very relaxing to work with, especially when painting entire doors. It takes 24 hours for it to dry, so there is plenty of time to even out any paint blobs or irregularities.
A good paint brush is a must, you can order that with the paint. Contrary to "normal" paint, this goes on in thin, thin layers and the brush strokes shows a bit more. My doors and trim came pre-primed, which was nice.

The new fiberglass back door is going to be blue. For a long time I was waiting for stable dry weather and now it's too hot. Oh well, it has to be done soon.

I hope to have the mud room finished by our Independence day backyard cookout. Imagine how convenient it would be for guests to use the powder room right there by the back door!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mudroom planning

The mudroom is still not finished so meanwhile I can show the drawings I made before the building process started. I used powerpoint and pasted screen shots and pics of doors, cabinets etc.

The mudroom was dimensioned after the cabinets. If you are going to build new walls any way, this is the cheapest way to achieve a custom built look. We did the same for the kitchen, laundry room and library in our old house. The windows and doors in the library were all placed after the IKEA Billy book shelves. The kitchen and laundry room was dimensioned after standard kitchen cabinets. After all, it is the same cost for a door no matter where you place it.

The Elfa system comes from the Container Store and I used their web tool for planning and then did screen shots that I cut and assembled with gimp before pasting them into powerpoint. (Do I dare to say that the super convenient Elfa system comes from Sweden? I grew up with it in the 60's and 70's and some of the old pieces are still in use in our house.) I took the drawings along when ordering the parts at the Container Store and it went very smoothly.

During the building process I taped these drawings to the walls to show builders, plumbers and electricians where to put what. I can easily imagine a room from a house plan, but to communicate a complicated (and not-so-common) layout, these sketches were good complements.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

My Next House Will be Superinsulated...

I should be painting and wallpapering, but daylight is already gone, so I better not. Instead, I'm jotting down my thoughts on insulation vs energy efficient heating techniques.

Since we moved into this house, I've spent a lot of time to figure out how to make it as energy efficient as possible. Plenty of insulation must be by far the easiest way. However, no matter how much we add to the walls and roof, the basement floor will always be a heat sink. And how do you insulate an existing basement floor (concrete slab without any insulation under) when the ceiling hight is barely enough as it is. That's where I get stuck.

Lowering the utility bills is a very strong driver. Those bills will only be more expensive with time and probably increase a lot more than inflation. However, "alternative" energy for heating the house is also costly.
- Geothermal heating/cooling - extracting heat from the ground means drilling or digging up the entire yard and buy a new furnace.
- If we installed more floor heating, it would be efficient to use solar heating since the water temperature is quite moderate. After all, we have a large south facing roof, ideal to harvest the sun's energy. But what is the price tag? However, I believe manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, repair, raw material etc. consumes quite a bit of energy for an advanced high tech system. How long do I need to use it before it has created as much energy as was put into it? The recovery of that energy need to go into the total environmental balance sheet as well.

So, I've started to dream about my next house. After all, in only 10 years, all three kids will most likely be off to college and it might be time for another project...

An article in the Chicago Tribune this winter really pinpointed the idea of superinsulated, passive or zero net energy house: Insulate like crazy and then a bit more, and you won't need a lot of expensive technology to heat or cool the house. The energy bill for a passive house is negligible. You only need a ventilation system that recovers the heat of the outgoing air. Sounds simple and with simple, there are fewer things that can go wrong. Almost the entire industry for alternative energy sources will be bypassed (for the purpose of heating/cooling houses and buildings).
Two studs would have been
plenty for this little window.
Earlier today, I tripped over the term "Larsen Truss" and had to look it up. It's a way to build a superinsulated house with no more lumber than you would use in a standard 2x6 framed house (!). With two layers of 2x4 studs, interconnected every so often, thermal bridging is also minimized. The other trick is that the sheeting is omitted. It is a clever mix of balloon and platform framing.  Here are description, pictures and comments. I understand that it is very unusual not to have sheeting in the US, but that is the standard way of building in Sweden, so I would think only tornado and earthquake prone areas would need it here. Is it a coincidence that a Scandinavian name is associated with this framing technique...

The triple studs under all our new windows is one of the few things I would have liked to do differently. Unfortunately, I wasn't fast enough to react when the builders framed the new outside walls. Apparently two studs are a must according to the building code. Especially, a small window like this does not need that much lumber. It just increases thermal bridging and makes less space for insulation.

I would LOVE to have deep window niches like we had in Sweden! Including everything from siding to drywall, those walls were about 12" thick.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mlle L's Room

2011-05-18, Wednesday

New windows, bathroom to the left and bedroom to the right
One of the bedrooms was heavily affected by the remodeling this winter. Except for the windows in the brick wall and extra insulation, not much has been said about it. The window that faced the old porch has been removed. That meant a gaping hole in the fake wood panelling.  So, while the dry wall guy was here anyway, I asked him to cover the entire wall of ugly paneling, window hole (framed in) and all, with a new layer of drywall. In that bedroom, the two "new" walls now have smooth drywall and the old walls still rough plaster. With many layers of paint, the plaster walls are not really that rough, but not smooth enough for wallpaper.

Below is a pic of the bedroom from shortly after we moved in a couple of years back. The dark fake wood paneling from the 70's and the window towards the old porch show in the mirror. The built-in closet and dresser took up the entire wall, but didn't offer much storage space in return. Soon, it was replaced by IKEA PAX wardrobes. All the walls, including the dark panelling, were then painted light cream.

This is the only available photo from the original bedroom.
The thick veneer closet sliding doors were hard to move, so they were removed right away.
After the dry wall guys left, I painted the entire plaster ceiling pure white. The walls got a coat of sky blue paint. (I had hoped for purple or pink, but oh well.) The new trim and windowsill (another one, yay!) have been painted with white linseed oil paint. 

An IKEA loft bed got its legs shortened and is now only 3 ft above the floor. Madmoiselle L moved into her "new" bed for 3 nights, but since yesterday, she is back on the mattress in her brother's room so I can finish the floor.

Shortened loft bed. The space below will become
a cosy hideaway
I've scrubbed and sanded the old hardwood floor. The old varnish was still good, but worn out in spots, so it got two coats of polyurethane. Tonight, after 72 hours of drying the bed can go back into its corner and then the corner where the bed now, can be varnished. Cleaning, sanding, wiping dust and patching a few spots took significantly more time than the actual varnishing - as always.
This is what I used:
Ceiling: Behr Premium Plus, Interior Flat Ceiling Paint, Ultra Pure White, No55B
Walls: Behr Premium Plus Ultra, Interior Eggshell Enamel, light blue, "Millstream", UL230-12
Floor: MINWAX Super Fast-Drying Polyurethane for Floors, Clear Satin
Woodwork: Allbäcks white (#50003) linseed oil paint, available at

New windows with window sills for lights, flower pots etc.
Shelf and curtains are in progress.
The two windows facing west make the room nice and bright. The neighbor's white wall reflects a lot of morning light. There is still some work to do on the curtais and shelf above the windows. I "just" need to get out the circular saw and the sewing machine - and find a couple of uninterrupted hours...

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Back Yard Cherry Tree

The rain has calmed down and the sun is shining, so gardening is much more appealing than painting trim and doors inside the house. On Mother's day (a week ago,) I got to spend some time at Gethsemane Garden in Andersonville while the kids were in Swedish School.
High up on my wish list are some fruit trees. There were a couple of apple trees left, but none of them with "crisp and tart" apples. However, I found one (!) self pollinating sweet cherry tree, yay! I payed right away and picked it up later in the week when I had a bigger car - and no kids with me. 

Finally, today, a pit had been dug deep enough. Big lumps of light brown clay needed to be broken up.  That part has been lawn since the house was build 60 years ago and before that it was prairie and forest. Mind boggling to think that I might be the first human ever to dig that deep in that spot...

The tree has two tiny green cherries. Wonder if we'll get them before the birds...

The edge around it is a fiber-plastic material made from cardboard juice boxes and milk jugs. It was wound up in a box and I didn't have the patience to let it relax for a couple of hours as the instructions said, but managed to straighten it out enough to match the circle. It's pretty neat to see my old milk jugs come back recycled and know that they are not in land fills!

Timberwolf Recycled Composite Edging System

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Builders have Finished Their Work...

The builders finished most of their work over a month ago. Final inspection was passed without hickups.  The only remaining work was a few hours of siding work, a small slab for the top of the toilet tank and a stopper for the sliding doors. The house got very quiet and the paint (walls and trim) job I did myself was slow and lonely. I ran out of gas for remodeling work and my business and my family needed some attention. Earlier this week their work was completed, everyone was paid and hands were shaken.

The top for the toilet tank was a long story. We wanted the white and gray Carrera marble, but it was too costly, so while not coming up with anything better, the primed but dusty and unfinished surface was just sitting there. While talking once again with the builders about it, they realized they would get marble scraps from their new project and a week later the tile guy came by and mounted a piece and we are SO happy that we didn't give up! It's nice and bright and as fresh looking as the subway tile with its light gray grout.

Look, a wall hung toilet and built in tank - a breeze to keep clean! I will come back to that in a later post.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Window Sill

Talked to the builders about getting a window sill and explained that I wanted to reuse some wooden brackets we had in storage. They were a bit surprised when I showed up with a board that was over 7 inches wide, but then made the window sill according to my instructions. To call this a window sill might be misleading. The more correct translation of the Swedish "fönster-bräda" or German "Fensterbrett" should be "window board".

A window sill can come in many styles and will of course give a different impression depending on window house style. However, after over 100 years, this is still considered being THE window sill engraved in the Swedish mind.
"Blomsterfönstret"  from 1894 by Swedish painter Carl Larsson.

A window sill with flower pots lives in the heart of many Swedes. 
Typical window sill in a Swedish apartment from the 40's and 50's.
Flooring works well for a window sill, here with wood from pear trees.
An Austrian window sill.  Otherwise hard sunlight, get softened by the plants. Imagine what the same kitchen would look like without the window sill and plants...

So how did my window sill turn out? Really well, I have to say. It was installed today and decorated before the builders even left the driveway. It still needs paint, though.

My window sill! It has been a long wait.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Not Without the Internet

Needed hardware for the sliding doors and levers for the other interior doors. Looked at Home Depot and Lowes and was not impressed with what was there.
Went home to do my homework and found everything I wanted on the Internet

Door hardware: Black has been on the wish list for a long time and I was not ready to give up. Found one model by Baldwin at that I think fit our style. I also got edge pull and flush pull in black for the sliding doors.
For an old door between the living room and the new porch, I got matching black hinges.
Baldwin 5445.PRIV
Lever for the interior doors from Baldwin.

Yesterday, I ordered floor registers for the three new vents from I hope these are as nice as they look on the photo.

Finally, I found my favorite paint! It is entirely based on flax oil and pigment. We used it (but another brand) for ALL woodwork in previous house, and it actually smells nice! The Allbäck paint comes from southern Sweden and the flax has grown not far from where I grew up. Neat!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring Cleaning in the Basement

The work in the basement is completed for now and it is time to clean up. I think that some of the dirt and dust has been there since the house was built 60 years ago. Oh my, talk about spring cleaning!

For two days, I've scrubbed the outside walls, cleaned the outside of the ducts (yikes!, especially on top) vacuumed spider web between floor joists and cleaned dirt and mud off the floor. The old storage shelves went back up, but this time in a more organized way that makes it easier to navigate the basement. Long term storage in one corner and the more often used items and food in another.
The old freezer is not going back to duty, so I called ComEd for removal service. They will even give me $35 for that :)

While working down there, my brain is busy figuring out what to do with the area we want to use for the television, play area and craft table.

We have seen enough of the pastel mint green walls are and want more color but still keep it as bright as possible. After painting the bathroom walls, the paint tray still had some blue paint, so part of the basement wall is now blue. Nice, but a bit too dark for the entire basement. There is some leftover cream colored paint from an earlier project, but that would be too boring. How about some stripes - vertical ones? One row of cinder blocks white and the next blue or green...

The old sliding doors from the bedroom closets have been lurking in the basement for a long time. With some hardware, they could be turned into wall units to screen off the storage and laundry areas. Easier, faster, more flexible and cheaper than studs and dry wall! The medium brown wood color would give some warmth to the room.

This week started off wet and more rain has been falling every day. The sump pump is going off every few minutes and the basement floor is still dry. What a relief!!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

IKEA Cabinet Hacker

Recently, I found a blog where people post creative use of IKEA furniture: IKEA Hackers. I was surprised to find so many fellow IKEA hackers out there. Obviously, I'm not the only one chopping up IKEA cabinets to get exactly what I want. We hacked quite a few closets in our previous house to make them look built in. Today, I introduced our builder to the art of hacking IKEA cabinets.

In the mud room, along the two long walls and just below the ceiling I've installed "above refrigerator" cabinets. The 15 inch tall ones fit precisely over doors and windows and gives not only lots of storage, but also a feeling of shelter when you are under them. I'm a big fan of the "Not So Big House" concept by Sarah Susanka. She talks a lot about ceiling height variety and a feeling of shelter.  Putting the cabinets along the ceiling gives all of that - plus storage. Last night, I worked on installing all eight upper cabinets. The deep ones are heavy and the not so straight old wall challenged us!

Once the cabinets were in place, we could glue and screw the cover panel (intended for the sides of cabinets) on the underside of the upper cabinets. While building my previous house, I learned that construction glue, or PL400 is incredibly strong stuff.

Tall cabinet is hacked to be narrow
enough to fit sideways under the
upper cabinets.
Tall cabinet is used to squeeze up the back
of the cover panel while the glue is drying. 

This morning, the top, bottom and back part of one of the tall cabinets was cut off to make the cabinet fit sideways under the upper cabinets. When you do that, the bottom and top loose their holes for IKEA hardware, so I just put in a few long regular screws from the side that now faces the wall. 

There is not enough space under the cabinet for legs or a plinth. When the builders showed up, they helped me with pieces of 2x4's and some shims to bring it up to the right height. It will all be covered with trim anyway. Tomorrow we'll put the other tall cabinet in place and prop it up the same way.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Today, the tile guys finally finished both the bathroom wall and the floor. I'm really happy with the result! You won't believe how hard it is to find blue floor tiles. Back in January, I found what I wanted at Lewis floors & homes. It was the same tile, but 12x12 inch.  That one was not in stock in the US, but had to be ordered from Italy. After I had looked in many other tile stores, I realized I had to go with the 18x18" of the same kind but put in in diagonally since the rooms are relatively small.
Fiddling with the layout before starting is well worth the time.

The subway tile was easy to find and not very costly. However the 3x6" tiles created quite a lot of work for the tile guys so in the end it maybe wasn't that much of a cost effective alternative. The only thing missing is a piece of stone or wood to put on top of the toilet tank. We thought we'd come across a scrap of something that we'd like, but that hasn't happened so far.


The siding guys did the entire the north side but ran out of material for west side

Half Swedish cottage, half non-descript ranch...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Wallpaper on Back Order

Today, I parked myself in the wallpaper store and decided not to leave until I had found something I felt excited about. Believe it or not, but I was confident when I left that I will be able to give the rooms the character I want.

Last time, I looked I didn't find anything, so I didn't have much hope to find a light light beige delicate pattern, but did not have much hope of finding it. Had an enormous stack of wallpaper books on the floor with one or two bookmarks in each. There were several that I liked a lot, but they would not give the room the character I sought. All of a sudden, exactly what I was looking for popped out at me from one of the catalogues! Wow, that made it easy! All the others were put away.

For the mud room, I made up my mind on the yellow striped one. It's white and yellow irregular stripes that looks handpainted. That will look sunny and cheerful with the white cabinets and blue floor. Unfortunately it is on backorder until May 9th.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wallpaper Choices

Had planned to use the old paneling in the mud room (vertical and painted sunny yellow) but for several reasons we decided to go with wall paper instead. The space is pretty small. so loosing 1/2 on each side of the room would make a difference. The other reason is that we don't have time or energy to strip the varnish and paint them.

Visited a local wallpaper store, where I was lucky to find Linda, a decorator of Swedish decent. How nice not to have to explain the Swedish style I was after.

For the porch I wanted a very light colored with light light beige delicate flower pattern, but did not have much luck finding it. The sunny two-tone yellow striped wallpaper that we had in our previous house and I would like for our mudroom was also nowhere to be found. I decided to think beyond yellow stripes. I found some from from Norwall,  York - Three Sister Studio and St. James - Ready Set Grow:

Red and white stripes would look fresh with the blue floor and even bluer
back door. However,... I would love to see this in a decorating magazine or
in a friend's house, but red isn't really my color. 
Cute and certainly popular with some members of my family.
However, a warm color on the wall might be better and after
all, a ball park theme is really far away from the Swedish style.

I like this, no doubt about it. However... not in my house.
The colors are not crisp enough and a little too American
for me to be happy with for several years. 

The right colors and I love polka dots! However,...
I'd prefer the dots to be lined up along the diagonals
instead of vertical/horizontal.
It is a serious but fun and playful option, though.
This would give the right "feel" to the mud room, but I would like
something with more yellow. There will be lots of white cabinets,
so the visible walls are not that big. Hmmm...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday Blues

I have been procrastinating the blue paint colors for too long now. Here is my dilemma:
I like the blue tile floor which has all the shades of medium blue worn jeans. Lots of soft blue, but also some white-begie-light brown mixed in. However, I'd like to get the rooms a little bit more colorful and clean looking, so I'm trying to pull the blue a little bit towards red and decrease the grayness.

In our old house, we had a lot of blue shades R80B in the NCS system which means 80% blue and 20% red. There are of course a lots of variation depending on how much white-grey-black is mixed in. I would say, that blue is seen as quite "clean blue" - not much towards purple nor towards green. The floor certainly has more green in it than that, but if I could twist the paint a little bit, I would be much happier.

Finally, today, I decided on Behr's Premium Plus Ultra Hawaiian Blue, UL230-7 for the bathroom walls. Let's see how that turns out and then decide on the back door.

Taking photos of paint colors is tricky and then it depends on your computer screen what you'll actually see. This looks not so far off on my (MacBook) screen. As you can see, the electrician arrived as soon as the tile guys left. Soon we'll have light too!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Warm Floor

Now all dry walls are in place, so it is time for the floor to get some attention.

Everyone who has experienced heated floors knows how nice it is to walk barefoot on them on a cold winter day. My previous house was built on slab (well insulated towards the ground) with radiant heat  built in. Each room had its own thermostat so we kept the bathroom a little bit warmer and a porch like room a little bit cooler than the rest. If the sun was warming one room, the rooms on other side of the house were still comfortably warm. In a corner of the entry hallway, all the water tubes came together to a distributor system and the floor was always extra warm right there. That made a perfect place to just toss wet mittens and hats in the winter - a very popular solution with kids!

Radiant heating in the floor is very high on my wish list, but getting a new boiler just for the few square feet we now are remodeling did not make sense. For energy efficiency reasons, we did not want to install electrical heating either. However, plumbing and heating ducts are all low enough to make room for  a layer of cement with, for now, empty tubes under the tile floor. This will allow for a floor heating at a later stage.

Monday, the heating tubes were mounted, one loop for each room, thermostat tube in the floor and wire in the wall. So all options are available for when we upgrade our furnace/boiler later. It probably won't be before we have remodeled other areas where we want to put in floor heating as well.

Mud Room
 Documenting is crucial! There is a whole bunch of photos like these, but with much higher resolution filling up my hard disk. Everything will be covered up and if you desperately want to attach something to the floor, you need to know where the tubes are.
Everything will be covered up with floor, trim and wallpaper.
Documenting where the thermostat tubes and cables is very important!

The cable will be covered up with wallpaper until we
install the rest of the floor heating system. This is where
the wall thermostat for the mud room will be placed.
Tuesday, the bright orange hoses got smothered in a cement compound.

Yesterday (Wednesday,) the cement compound was finished and shower base and the toilet tank was installed. I was busy figuring our wall paper and paint and before I knew it, the toilet tank had been installed and covered with drywall. Sorry, no pictures.