House rules

First of all, Leah and I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. We hope you can spend it with people you care about, and we hope you get plenty of good food to eat.

I’m certainly not an expert in home design, floor planning or house construction, but after looking for my first house in Alabama, building our current house and planning for our next house, I have some opinions. Some are consistent with standard home design, and some are just my personal view, so take them for what they’re worth. The rules are oriented towards designing a house, but I think you should keep them in mind if you’re looking for an existing house

The first rule is to design your house for the next owner. Quirkiness, eccentricity or even just out-of-the-ordinary taste may suit you, but it’s unlikely to be anyone else’s idea of what a house should be. It doesn’t matter if you think the next house will be your last, because it’s impossible to predict what the future holds.

When I was looking for a house outside Huntsville, Al, my real estate agent showed me a house that a retired couple built. It was an earth-sheltered, passive-solar house with a linear floor plan, like an old roadside motel. There was no central heating or air conditioning. Apparently the owners had read too many enthusiast articles about the virtues of earth sheltering and passive solar heating. As great as they may be, neither works particularly well in Alabama. They had installed a window air conditioner through a wall so that it stuck out into the garage, and then cut holes and put fans in the walls to try to pass the cool air or heat from the wood stove from the living room to the bedrooms. It was their own, personal vision, and it was supposed to be their final home, until they decided to move to Florida to be close to family. It was still for sale years later.

Build the house you want, but make sure it suits the needs of other buyers in your area. If every house in your area has a basement, your house needs a basement. If every house has three bedrooms, your house needs three bedrooms. If every house has central air conditioning, your house needs central air conditioning. If every house has an attached garage, your house needs an attached garage. If every potential home buyer is not a kooky hippie, don’t build a house that only kooky hippies will want.

The second rule is an extension of the first: building a workable house plan from scratch requires hard, thoughtful, informed work. The requirements for practicality tend to control floor plan layout, and every single requirement has to be remembered and met in some way. That’s why if you look at many house plans, they start to look alike.

The third rule is that a house design should meet certain standards for appearance and utility. For example, the tops of windows and the tops of doors on a given side of a house should all be at the same level. If you see a house that happens to violate that rule, you will probably think something looks odd even if you aren’t consciously aware of what the problem is. Ignore that rule and the next buyer swill probably feel some level of discomfort when they look at the house, and discomfort doesn’t sell houses.

The next rule is that a house should be designed for its location. A house on a slope should probably have a basement. If the slope is steep, the house should probably have a linear layout with the short axis aligned with the slope. If it’s in a hot climate, the roof overhang should be deep enough to provide shade for windows and the sides of the house. If it’s in a cold or even moderate climate, windows should be concentrated on the south-facing side. If there’s a view, put some windows so you can see it.

The next rule is that every plumbing fixture should be as close as possible to a water heater. Many (most?) house plans I have looked at ignore this rule because it’s just so convenient to scatter bathrooms all around the house. Put the master bath at one end and the guest bath (or kids’ bath) at the other end, with the kitchen somewhere in between. If the floor plan does that, some provision must be made to get hot water to every outlet quickly, or someone ends up waiting too long for hot water. There are ways to get around it, like recirculating pumps and on-demand heaters, but they tend to cost more. The best plans have a plumbing core, with kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room centered close to the water heater.

The next one is tricky. If you want a 1500-square-foot house, and you want rooms that add up to 1500 square feet, you can’t just draw a rectangle that’s 30 feet by 50 feet.Walls have thickness. Exterior walls are at least six inches thick, and interior walls are around five inches thick. You can either have a 1500-square-foot footprint and smaller rooms, or rooms that add up to 1500 square feet and a larger footprint, not both.

I have some personal rules, or at least inclinations. One is that I don’t like halls; they waste space that could otherwise be used for rooms. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to avoid halls, and I haven’t figured out a way to get around using them. Another is that bathroom walls should be sound-proofed or the bathroom should be located so that the walls don’t adjoin living spaces, especially living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens.

There are so many rules that it’s hard to list them. You know some of them, but you might not be aware of them. For example, every time you enter a room, you expect to find a light switch at a certain height and location next to the entry. If there are two exits for a room, like a living room or kitchen, you’re going to expect to be able to turn off lights at each exit so you don’t have to feel your way through a dark room. When you walk into the house and take your coat off, you’re going to look for some place to hang it up. Vacuum cleaners, sheets and towels need storage.

It’s hard to meet all the requirements even if you know about them. Our current house doesn’t meet all of them. For example, we don’t have a plumbing core. The guest bathroom is out in Siberia, so I end up washing my hands with cold water when I use it. I don’t like a plan that makes it look like you live in a garage with a house attached as an afterthought. Our house looks exactly like that; the first thing you see when you pull into the driveway is the garage.

I have tried to keep the rules in mind while designing our next house. The garage in our next house will be hidden at the back. Our next house will have the plumbing fixtures closer to the water heater, although we won’t quite have a plumbing core. I changed the placement of the master bedroom and living room to take advantage of a view that I didn’t realize we would have.

Last night I thought I was finished with all but the details and was in the process of making a model of the house with foamcore boards. And then when I was taking a shower and thinking about this post, I realized that I had violated my first rule. I had planned for a deck on the front of the house that would have no ground access, which had necessitated putting the main entry on the least accessible side of the house. I realized that layout would look ridiculous, if not crazy, to anyone else. And Leah didn’t like it either.

So now we’re going to have access to the ground from the front deck, and a front door that is actually on the front of the house. Once I got to that point, several problems I was working with suddenly disappeared.

It seems that the rules actually have a reason behind them.

The Forrest


I was born and grew up in Rome, but I have lived in several other places over the years. I lived for about three years in Augusta, Ga. Then I lived for a year and a half at Lake Tahoe. I lived in Atlanta for about six years when I was in graduate school. I lived for about 12 years in Huntsville, Al. During all that time I have gotten my hair cut only one time at a shop other than the Forrest Barber Shop on Broad Street in Rome. I either waited until I got home to get a haircut, or I just didn’t get a haircut.

The shop is located to the right of the main entrance to what used to be the Forrest Hotel, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a well-known general who fought for the slave owners in the American Civil War. Here’s a shot I took on the day I got my most recent haircut.


The Forrest Hotel opened in 1915. Although it no longer operates as a hotel, the hotel’s barber shop is still going strong.

Here’s a photo of a photo of the interior that hangs on the wall in the shop.


I don’t know when this picture was taken, but it was probably in the 1950’s. The two barbers closest to the photographer cut my hair when I was a kid.

Here’s the shop today.

newshopA few things have changed over the years. There are only two barbers, and they’re both women. The chairs are different, but they operate in basically the same fashion. Someone decided to put up wood paneling over the original walls. One thing hasn’t changed: The Forrest Barber Shop gives haircuts. They don’t do hair styling.


Runner’s high

I have been following Pablo’s running accounts with interest and envy.

I envy Pablo for three reasons. The first is that he can run. A lot of us who started running at relatively young ages eventually end up with knee problems that either slow us down significantly or stop us altogether. That’s me.

The second thing I envy is Pablo’s enthusiasm. When I was running well, about 30 years ago, I loved it and couldn’t imagine not running. I miss the enthusiasm as well as the running itself.

The third reason I envy Pablo is that his running is improving. I think that if I had continued the kind of running I was doing at 30, I would be slowing down by now. That thought made me do a little research. I wanted to look at how runners’ capabilities change over time.

There are short distance runners, medium-distance runners, and long-distance runners. I completed a marathon at age 27 in 1977 but never ran another. My running improved from that time to around 1984 when my knees ruined my running. In those days of graduate school, I ran a couple of 5-kilometer races, which I consider just over short distances. I ran some 10-k races, which I think fall firmly into the medium-distance category, and one 15-k race, which I think is a long distance. The marathon is the quintessential long distance race.

Pablo has completed a marathon, which makes him a runner, not a jogger. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t completed a marathon can really understand what it means to run 26.2 miles. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. The running ability of the best marathoners is almost unbelievable. The best sprinters can run 100 yards in about 9.7 seconds, and then they’re done for. The best milers run at a pace of about 12.7 seconds per 100 yards, slower than a sprinter but not by much. The top marathoners run at a pace of about 16 seconds per 100 yards, only they do it for a little over two hours, or 461 times the 100-yard race. So I picked the marathon as the standard long distance to look at.

I came up with a guess at a plot of maximum theoretical running performance as a function of age. This is it, with running ability on the vertical axis and age in years on the horizontal axis.

Theoretical running ability as a function of age in years

Theoretical running ability as a function of age in years

Researchers at Marquette University found that the average age of the top five finishers from big world marathons, the ones that attract top marathoners from around the world, was 29.8 for men and 28.9 for women. That’s verging on truly aged in the world of extremely strenuous physical competitive sports, but from my perspective, deep into the barren and trackless desert of advancing age and increasing physical disability, those people seem positively callow. I assumed that those ages are the ages at which running ability peaks. So I called that peak 100 on the range of running ability.

I further assumed that there is some kind of physical training program that would result in peak performance at any given age if a runner faithfully followed the program without injury. If you started at the correct age (whatever that age is) and followed the program, you would end up at the maximum (100 on the plot) at age 29.8 for men and 28.9 for women. Before that time, you would be performing at the limit of your own capability, but it wouldn’t be as good as you would reach at your peak. I have no idea what the changing capability would be, but I assumed it would look something like what the plot shows at earlier ages. You would, of course, start out at zero at birth.

A slow decline starts after the peak. There is some research indicating a decrease in ability of good to excellent runners of between a half a percent and one and a half percent per year for a number of years, and then a drop of around 7 percent per year starting in the 40’s. The drop is even steeper after around 65.

I think this would be the envelope for any person running long distances. If a person trained properly from the right age, his or her performance would follow this curve. I assume (without any good reason) that if you don’t start at the beginning, you can never reach the level of the curve for your age, no matter how well you train. So if a theoretical person started running at 22, he might improve dramatically but would never reach the best he could have done for any age if he had started at the “correct” age. That’s my assumption although it might not be true.

That means that Pablo may well continue to improve for years to come, although he will probably never be competitive at the top level of marathoners. If, on the other hand, I had continued to run without injury, at some point in the past I would have begun to follow the downward curve. I would look back nostalgically at the times I had achieved in my youth, while every race I ran took longer and longer.

And still, I miss running. I often think of how nice it would be to run on the course I take when I walk the dogs. I might have had to throw away my running watch, but I would happily trade the best watch in the world for a pair of good knees.


New house update

This is an update on our new house construction project. We have been working on a house plan for some time now, since not much work can be done on the property until all the permits are issued, and most of those depend on approval of a house plan.

We have certain criteria based on desires and the requirements of the lot. We had thought that the view, if there is one, would be downslope facing Lavender Trail. Due south would be about a quarter turn to the right, as seen from the house site facing Lavender Trail. We want a covered deck on the view side, which we will call the front, but no steps to ground level so Leah will feel more comfortable leaving a window or door open on the deck at night. We also want a sunroom on the right side of the house so that it will get as much sun as possible.

Our working plan had the living room on the right and the master bedroom on the left, both opening to the covered deck, and a sunroom to the right of the living room with doors into the room and onto the deck. And then Saturday as I was trying to lay out a line marked in ten-foot increments so we can measure the slope, I wandered away towards the Fouche Gap side of the lot and realized we could probably get a view in that direction along the ridge of Lavender Mountain and possibly down into part of Little Texas Valley. There are lots of trees in that direction, some quite large, but I think judicious clearing would allow a nice view. So now the logical place for the living room is on the corner where the master bedroom had been. Flipping the plan solves that problem but creates a new one. Since we won’t have access from ground level to the front of the house, the main entrance needs to be on the side where the living room is. Before we flipped the plan, it would have been easy to bring a walk from the rear of the house, where the garage will be, to a door on that side. Now, with the living room on the other side, guests will have to walk in a counter-intuitive direction around the garage and then along the side of the house. We may need a sign, but since we almost never get guests, it shouldn’t be too big a problem.

Most of the smaller house plans we have looked at have compromises in things like bathroom size. Some of them actually have a smaller master bath than guest bath, and neither of us will be happy with that. The master bedrooms are also much smaller than our current bedroom. So we are stretching plans to expand bathroom and bedroom size. The good news is that we have now managed to get a reasonable first cut of a floor plan with only a few of our own compromises, like needing a map to find the front door.

The next step will be to measure the slope at the house site. That is going to have an impact on another requirement, which is a way to turn around our travel trailer so we (and by “we” I mean “I”) don’t have to back down a long, sloped, curving driveway. I’m afraid it’s going to mean significant excavation. But we’ll know more in a few days.

I wrote the preceding on Saturday night. After I wrote that we had a “reasonable first cut” for our house plan, I thought more about how the garage roof would fit onto the roof of the house, and I concluded that we had a problem. I’m sure a good framing crew and a good roofing crew could solve the problem, but one of my aims is to keep things as simple as possible, so all Sunday afternoon I worked on a different floor plan, one that would resolve that issue and, at the same time, cut the square footage a little. Now I think I have managed it. There are some compromises; you will still need a map to find the “front” door. But if there’s one thing I have learned from studying house plans, looking at houses, and designing and building our current house, it’s that the entire process is one of compromise. Even if we had an unlimited budget, which, of course, we don’t, there would still be compromises. I’ll eventually build a model of the house, which will let us visualize the layout and how it will work. There may be changes after that. But another thing I have learned is that house plans often change during the construction process. Our current house lost a second story as we built it, and that’s a pretty drastic change.