Archive | April 2011

Compact Florescent Lights are Bad for You and the Environment

There’s an old saying about choosing the lesser of two evils.  With what seems to be the gradual phasing out of incandescent light bulbs, known for their shorter life span and lead content, in favor of compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), arguably longer lasting, more energy efficient bulbs, the electronics industry presents that CFLs as a “greener” choice that will save people money on light bulbs and their electric bill; that CFLs are “the lesser of the two evils.”

Walt McGinnis argues otherwise.  A licensed electrician, electromagnetic radiation tester and a member of the EM Radiation Task Force, McGinnis proposes in The Dark Side of CFLs that CFLs are much worse than incandescent bulbs, arguing that they are bad for you and for the environment.

Here are the facts:

  1. They contain mercury
  2. They produce ultraviolet radiation
  3. They produce radio frequency radiation
  4. They produce electromagnetic radiation
  1. The level on lead in incandescent bulbs can easily fall into the realms of unreasonable, let alone the toxicity characteristic leaching procedure’s (TCLP) legal limit.  Lead is already a common in element found in most electronic devices that’s made its way into landfills over the last 100 years, let alone the history of harm done to human beings (Google: Romans and lead poisoning).  However, the mercury contained within CFLs (5 milligrams of elemental mercury per bulb) is much more hazardous to people.  If a CFL breaks and anything leaks it is considered highly toxic.  This doesn’t even go into the damage CFLs are doing in our landfills, soaking into our soil, seeping into our water, and drifting into our air.  Exposure to mercury can result in serious nervous system damage.
  2. If you’ve ever been out too long in the sun, you’ve gotten sunburn.  Part of this comes from overexposure to the sun’s rays and ultraviolet radiation.  If you’re continually exposed to the sun, without proper protection (sunscreen, hats, etc.) over a period of many years you’ll find yourself at risk for melanoma: skin cancer.  CFL’s produce ultraviolet radiation.  Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from CFL’s can give you skin-based ailments like rashes, and possibly cancer.
  3. If you ever heard an argument that cell phones caused cancer or any other illness, it would be rooted in the radio frequency radiation emitted by cell phones.  CFLs emit a very similar type of radio frequency radiation, and while, like cell phones, it is technically unconfirmed, too much radio frequency radiation can’t be good for you either.
  4. McGinnis cites some poll from Sweden wherein more than 3% of the Swedish population (about 290,000 people) reported that after they were exposed to electromagnetic radiation over an extended period of time, they suffered a variety of symptoms including joint stiffness, fatigue, sleep and memory problems, and in some cases cancer.  McGinnis, who is an electromagnetic radiation tester and member of the EM Radiation Task Force, notes that the levels of electromagnetic radiation that CFLs emit are harmful to your health.

In short, from cradle to grave, CFLs leave much more of a carbon footprint and are much more harmful to the environment than incandescent bulbs are.  McGinnis cites that in New Zealand, government officials lifted a ban on incandescent bulbs after concerns over CFLs safety arose.  With much of the world banning the sale of incandescent bulbs in favor of CFLs, it seems like the world has made the wrong choice in choosing the lesser of two evils.

Photo courtesy of Alvimann.

Smarter Steps & Tips to Building Custom

At the current time, the market for builders shifted two years ago from from spec homes,  to the consumer with extra cash in hand, who doesn’t rely on mortgages alone for their  funds. Last month custom building was up 11% . While this is not a huge number, this new custom build client can often afford to outspend a typical buyer, and seeks to construct a custom home despite a plethora of less expensive real estate on the market.

By choosing a custom home, they are allowed more control over its design, and desirous that their house reflects their needs personal style,  not a builders or the previous owners.

For even the best intending clients with money make costly mistakes early on in the building process. The purpose of this article is to help people get the steps in order, and to weigh all considerations upfront. Which helps keep you laser focused when going through the process.

I recently sat down to speak to Jim Pesavento from Concord Builders and Rich Cannavino of Cannavino Construction, two builders in the Western Suburbs of Chicago that are still building frequently.  If you are considering building a custom home, Jim & Rich  recommend bearing the following tips in mind:

Step #1. Know Your Likes/Dislikes, AND Consider Your Budget, the School District, and Taxes
The more you have mapped out ahead of time, the better you will be long term in your investment.   Slow down. Consider all the pros and cons of an area BEFORE you begin building a house.  Make a point to consider the style of home you’re interested in, overall cost, space plan/layout, taxes, and the school district. You want a top school district.

Each style of home has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Knowing the existing styles will help you plan out what you’re looking for and help you in locating the appropriate lot size.
This will also help you plan out what building materials will be used in the construction and the approximate square footage of your house; all factors that go towards determining the cost of a home.  The present approximate cost for building ranges from about $100 per square foot for a standard strictly spec home, upwards to 175-250 per square foot for a more refined home.

If you already know the style of home you want, get pictures that you like of that style (check a plans magazine, a book, or the internet) and show them to a custom home builder.  They can usually help determine the costs associated with that style and its details. The area’s school district and taxes will also factor into the cost of constructing in an area, as well as the overall cost of living in an area.
Find out all this information BEFORE you begin construction, and you’ll be able to make the most out of your area and your house.

Step #2. Find a Lot That Meets Your Ideal Municipality and Building Codes
If you don’t do this, you can potentially spend thousands of dollars drawing up a plan with an architect that is acceptable for the architect’s area, but unacceptable for your lot’s municipality.
The lot’s municipality determines much of what you can build, how wide you can build on your lot, how much square footage, how high your roofline can be, and the use of the lot. It also has to do with strictness of various codes. You need to determine this before you get started on constructing a set of plans.

Custom home builders are usually very aware of lot’s particulars, as they require empty lots to construct homes.  Talk to a builder before buying any property. They can help determine the potential dangers of a property, such as if it’s on low ground and could suffer flood damage or have an environmental issue that you won’t find out about until after you buy it (if its in an area with a certain soil, you will need to treat for termites and have extra precautions not to have bad soil under the house, etc). Builders and engineers are good at spotting the pros and cons of each lot choice.

Most custom home builders have great reference lists for reasonably priced architects, as well as a list of realtor’s they’ve worked with and could recommend.

Step #3. Interview the Builder BEFORE Hiring an Architect

Builders have far more insight on value engineering a house than an architect does.  And while architects can design something on paper all day long, they don’t have the same understanding of the cost difference style types and different features (Ex. Cost different between an arched window and a square window).  This helps consumers determine cost and establish the appropriate budget for their custom home before you take steps to hire a designer, reducing any risk of revision down during construction, and ultimately saving them money.

Builders can also provide additional insight into potential plans and features, and offering advice on how to properly execute an idea (This feature will generate lots of noise, so make sure you insulate that room properly for temperature AND sound).  Architects are less likely to be aware of things like this. Fortunately, most builders can refer you to architects they recommend based off their prior working experience.

Step #4. Hire an Architect That Works on a Flat Fee by the phase, NOT by the Hour
Work with an architect who will tell you exactly what the scope will be for the cost, per phase, and what the fee will be for any revisions. Usually, an architect will give you an hourly fee for revisions, or will give you another flat fee for work on several different revisions. Be sure to get a set of plans that will be permit ready (see #2) for builders to work off of.
By getting a flat fee, consumers won’t have to worry about paying an architect hourly to create something they don’t want and can’t afford.  Talk to different builders first, and start constructing an architect referral list from there. Make sure these architects work by flat fees, so there are no out-of-control costs for a set of plans. Be bold and ask or tell them that this is how you prefer to work.

Step #5. Only Work with a Builder Who Can Quickly Provide a cost ballpark of upgrades
Work with a builder who can give you a ball park on everything and don’t work with a builder who does cost plus for small changes in the field! Work with a builder that will show you his profit upfront as a flat fee. As how much change orders will cost. Extra costs because you want something added or changed should not always require much effort from the builder or a extra 10-20% markup. That is what cost plus is.

Make sure to have an idea of the style and square footage you’d like, and provide the builder with a copy of the plans to bid off on.
Find a builder with experience: one that doesn’t constantly “get back to you” with answers to upgrade cost questions.  This means that either the builder has a lack of experience with various costs or that the  builder is going back to inquire with his subs and then adding onto the costs , totaling it so he can be accurate in his numbers. An experienced builder knows what the approximate costs are already if you want a steam shower or body spa plumbing vs regular shower plumbing. Especially if he has good relations and has worked with the same subs for years.

Cost Plus is what typically cost the client the ability to design their homes to their wishes later or decorate. You need to keep your building costs down. Not by being cheap on finishes and quality, but by having transparent costs while building. You will not achieve this if you work with builder who quotes you cheap prices upfront, only to nickel and dime you on every single change throughout the length of building the house. Nor will you be happy in the end with what you have ended up paying.

Step #6. Hire Local
Local builders, architects, and engineers tend to have tight networks and strong working relationships.  This helps the overall building process go smoothly.  In the event where problems do arise, having this relationship helps to expedite the resolution of any issues.

Also, hiring local help always has a trickle-down effect, helping to boost the local economy.

Step #7.  Interior Features are a MAJOR Cost Component to Building a House
There will always be labor costs in building, and materials/brands (interiors) that determine the costs. While builders’ budgets are pin-point accurate on installation, their interior budgets vary.  Get a second opinion and double check the builder’s “list” of allowances with your designer.

It’s important to note that in the current market, a consumer often pays for upgrades in plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, tile, and carpeting ,  out of pocket. Because the comparable’s in most neighborhoods will not appraise out as high as their house would with all the upgrades.  The house has to appraise out or anything over that appraisal will have to be paid in cash at closing. This is a major extra consideration in addition to typical building costs that consumers have to bear in mind when assembling their dream home. It’s normal for a higher end house to go to closing with 75-200+K  in cash . The sky is the limit and of course, depends on the clients and their likes and needs. And that expense doesn’t matter to people with money…..  they don’t fret over  neighborhood “comparables” if they know they will be living in the house for the next 15-20 years. They want to enjoy their home, and want a special experience of living in that house with the upgraded features that creative designers & quality builders can bring to the equation.

Thank you to both Jim and Rich for their tips!

What’s the Better Investment: Condo or Single Family Home?

Here in Illinois, with today’s real estate and housing market, making a decision between selecting a condo or a single family home isn’t easy and there are many obvious pitfalls.

The short answer that wins regarding whether to buy a condo or a single family home….my choice from here on out is the single family home. Without a doubt.

1. State of Illinois Has Out of Control Workers’ Compensation Costs
Illinois is one of the states most affected by workers’ comp. (6th worst according to Lexisnexis.com), affecting condo owners, townhouse owners, community associations, and anywhere the contractors and subs are require to have high liability premiums as well as costly workers’ comp. in order to work on the premises. In simple terms, it costs a huge premium to hire expensive wage workers, which in this economy, tend to be the affiliated with the few companies that can afford to carry such insurance.

In a single family home, you should still hire qualified workers with enough insurance (depending on the overall value of your home) with workers’ comp. However, it won’t cost you the higher premium for a single family home than it costs for a condo, where many of the workers are insured to the max in order to work on the premises and costs are shared.

2. Assessments
This is something you simply don’t have in owning a home. You don’t have several workers like a door man, maintenance guy working full time, and so many laborers. Then on top of that, management fees to cover. And maintenance on everything under the sun.

These costs are shared based off the % of ownership of all the unit owners. For example, if your condo doesn’t have a deck but many others in your complex do, you may be assessed anyway because it may go considered as structural depending on its construction,  and those costs often are shared among all unit owners. I had a friend whose dry cleaning lady in her building was assessed 50K to pay for a deck when she didn’t have a deck. Not to mention that assessments only go up!  Consider that. Assessments, like property taxes, only go up. You have to really think about that when buying a condo.

In a single family home, if you are smart enough to hire a structural engineer to look very closely at all aspects of the house and you still find a good home, then what you see is what you get.  If you bought the house, then it’s yours, and there are no shared or subsidized costs or percentages of ownership.  These advantages tend to make single family home ownership a more cost conscious investment.

3. The More Systems to Maintain in the Building and Amenities
The more systems and amenities for upkeep there is in a condo, the higher the assessments and later, the special assessments will be. All areas of a condo building needs maintenance, even parking garages.

If something breaks in a condo (it doesn’t have to be yours), it’s going to cost you.  If something wears, it will cost you. Your costs are utilities , operating costs &  maintenance upkeep, and then the very expensive capital costs.  There is always work to do everyday of every week to the building and projects every month.

With single family homes there are only so many systems in a house,  and you don’t have to pay for other unit’s problems. So nice!

4. Warranty is Only as Good as the Maintenance on It
Condos often come with warranties which require additional maintenance.  For example, the builder leaves you with a decent roof….well you can’t just let it sit for 20 some years . You have to make sure that leaves and debris are clear of all the drains several times a year, the gutters if you are in a townhouse that has them, that you have heating cables for the winter for your flat roof, that you keep checking the flashing, recoat the silver coating when it starts to chip and flake and have a roofer up on the roof, once a year to walk it and make sure everything is wearing well.

So if you have hallway carpeting, you need to vacuum it weekly and then shampoo it at least one to two times yearly  to get 10-15 years out of it.

In other words, if your developer did his scope of work per the architects specifications,  and they have been confirmed to be correct specs by a structural engineer, then it up to you to make sure it continued to be maintained correctly from there on out.

5. Lawsuits Occur for Stupid Reasons in Condo Buildings
Condos have board members and management companies.  If the condo falls into a lawsuit, if they are sued, then it will end up costing the entire complex’s residents more assessment money. And there is nothing to stop a condo from being the subject of frivolous lawsuits. People not getting along, pet issues, parking issues, vendettas, a lawyer in the building who doesn’t like how the board is spending money……

Single family homes lack the board members and administrators and community drama which typically leads to these things.

6. Condo Unit Owners are Subject to Board Members Making Poor Decisions on Everyone’s Behalf
Condo board members don’t have to be qualified with an education in condo management to be on a condo board. Which I think is a problem that should be addressed when people are responsible for such large assets. There are often cases of money embezzlement from either a board member and surprisingly its happened with condo management as well.

As a unit owner, I don’t trust my management completely…I stay involved. And board members need to be armed with working knowledge in order to lead people in the building and to be able to sell budgets that need to be passed in order to properly maintain the building.

In a single family home, you decide how money should be spent in your home. There is no board for you to depend on or no management company to deal with. Your only drama will be from immediate neighbors .

7.  City population is Going Down, Not Up

The last census results came and and surprisingly show the city population level significantly down to 1920 levels.  Yes, its true.  It’s been all over the news, Chicago’s population is way down in the city.

People have choices now. They don’t have to live in the city to get sophisticated shopping and restaurants anymore.  Downtown Naperville is filled with gorgeous little shops and restaurants. Some downtowns are more charming than others, but smart entrepreneurs have opened shops and eateries focusing on those ex city dwellers who now have kids, and are craving a few hubs to hang out at. Where once there was a void, the voids have been filled.

But by far, the biggest motivator to real estate buyers for getting out of the city is the Chicago public school system. Parents want better schools for their kids and are willing to pay a premium to get them to the right areas where they feel their kids will be safer,  and will get a better education.

8. Chicago Condos are Plagued with Construction Issues
The city has often been blamed with many of the construction problems that plague city condos. But mainly, it’s the fault of the builder who ultimately is responsible to do the work to a certain standard.  For the most part, builders are either too cheap to hire structural engineers to check/verify all their plans, or the builder decides he wants to do things his way, and where the city is at fault is that they let the builder stray from a stamped , approved plan. Which usually means the builder gets to cut corners at the buyers expense later.

This has become a MAJOR problem  in the city. If see it as legal theft–why would it be anything less?

And its my final reason for encouraging buyers to stay away from condos units because they are so often ticking time bombs of assessments to come-that don’t make them affordable at all.

Photo courtesy of clarita.

Mini Cabins Providing Affordable Getaways

We recently ran across a copy of Cabin Life, which is a great magazine for those who love cabin living. In addition to sustainability, the small cabin is the new thing.

The mini cabin, which is less than 1,000 square feet and surrounded by an acre or two of land, is how many people are still fulfilling their getaway dreams without breaking their budgets these days. Here are a few examples:

A deck expands the space of The Turtle House in St. Paul, MN.

This is “the original weeHouse,” located in Pepin, WI.

And here is the Sherman Oaks weeHouse in Sherman Oaks, CA.

The magazine is full of inspirational stories of people who are building their dream getaway, so we suggest you check it out. And once you do, let us know what you think! Did you find it as inspirational as we did? Are you interested in a mini-cabinet getaway?

Photos via Alchemy Architects

The Wonders of Eye Exams

We know we’re an interior design firm, but today we want to talk about something a little off topic from decorating and remodeling: retinal scan machines. Admittedly, this is slightly random, but CMR Interiors’ Candice Mathers recently heard from her aunt about a woman who had breast cancer but didn’t know about it until it showed up on her retina scan. Amazing, right?

Retinal scans are often used as an identification measure since the human eye is similar to a fingerprint: everyone has a unique retina. But eye exams can also help detect diseases—and not just eye diseases! As Dr. Ari Weitzner writes on Eye Doc News, Ophthalmology Online:

“Ophthalmologists can detect many ‘silent’ diseases that no other doctor can. For example, we can find tiny clots in the retina blood vessels that can often mean that a patient is at high risk for stroke or heart attack, or, can be a sign of leukemia. I have saved many lives this way.”

These scans can also detect cancer, diabetes, cardio vascular disease, brain tumors, eye disease, hypertension, and getting a retinal scan can also save your eyesight. You can have a hemorrage without knowing about it….macular degeneration or a detached retina.

Its not a painful at all–and it gives a very clear scan of the inside of the eye.

We think it’s important for people to get yearly eye exams yearly to  check their overall health , because this scan does have a preventative nature to it . An eye exam typically costs about 140 out of pocket unless you have eyecare insurance .

Image by lukedavison

6 Handy Design and Renovation Resources

Did you know April is National Decorating Month? For the occasion, we thought it’d be fun to offer some helpful design resources. Since we’ve done a number of posts that provide design guidance and solutions, we decided to look back at our blog and compile six of these in one convenient location—this very post!

  1. 5 Steps for a Great Interior Design Consultation
  2. Part 1: Building Custom Homes or Large Scale Renovations
  3. Part 2: Smart Planning for Custom Homes and Large Renovation Projects
  4. Chicago Townhouses: Renovation and Interior Design
  5. Popular Kitchen Renovation Trends
  6. How to Work with a Tiny Master Bath

Hopefully these will get you all set and ready to go with your design projects for National Decorating Month. What do you have planned for your interiors this April? Let us know! And if you need new construction selection expertise, design consultation, or turn key design for interiors, contact CMR Interiors.

Updating Outdated Interior Design

Why do people want to redecorate? One common reason is that they’re surrounded by dated interior design. If you’re in this camp and trying to determine exactly what’s “in” now to appropriately update your décor, you’re in luck. House Beautiful recently posted its take on “5 Top Trends in American Decorating” for this year. What are they?

  • Bright and bold colors are freshening up otherwise traditional furniture and accessories.
  • Extremely large great rooms are being separated (not by walls, but by furniture arrangement) into unique and functional zones.
  • A space for gathering and eating in the kitchen that’s versatile enough to be stylish and comfortable.
  • Toning down the severity of completely modern looks by adding softness and warmth.
  • A compilation of styles in one space to lend a collected look.

Check out House Beautiful for great visual examples of each of these trends. Which of these trends are you most excited about?

Photo: Francesco Lagnese for House Beautiful