Urban Design

Design Spotlight: Modern Steel Handrails

One design trend that I’ve been seeing a lot of lately – and am absolutely in love with – is the use of horizontal-style steel handrails on interior staircases. The black finish looks especially beautiful when set against exposed brick, and a grey finish an add a very sleek, extra-modern touch to a space. Check out the photos below and see what you think!

Modern Steel Railing Exposed Brick

Image Courtesy of Pinterest.com


Image courtesy of GL Barnhart Construction


Image courtesy of GL Barnhart Construction



DIY Pumpkin Patch!


This weekend my fella and I headed up to Westminster, MD for an apple- and pumpkin-tastic weekend, and I may have gotten a little carried away when we were shopping the pumpkin patch. But I have to say, turning our front yard into a mini pumpkin patch has been WAY more fun than my usual practice of setting 2-3 basketball-sized pumpkins on our front steps. So if you, like me, are the type who enjoys a bit of seasonal flair about the house as the weather begins to cool, I highly suggest that you carve out an afternoon and head out past the burbs to one of VA or MD’s many pumpkin farms. (You can find a great list of options here.) Not only will you have a much bigger and more interesting variety of gourds to choose from, but they will be *much* cheaper than buying punkins in the big city – meaning you can stock up on enough of them to create a mini-masterpiece like mine above! For extra fun, grab a couple of apple crates or bales of hay as props to help create different height levels and add some more variety to your display.

Daringly Awesome or Just Daft?

Um, NOPE. That was my first though when I saw these photos of the “Cliff House” in Australia. This house was literally built off of the edge of a cliff. It is cantilevered out over the water, giving its occupants breathtaking ocean views on three of the home’s four sides. The views are breathtaking, the design is open and modern and spacious, but I’m not sure I would ever be able to shake the uneasiness of knowing that all that separated me from the rocky depths below was a giant free-fall. What do you think? (For more details about the house, check out the story from The Express by clicking here.) 

Courtesy express.co.uk

Courtesy express.co.uk

Courtesy express.co.uk

Courtesy express.co.uk

Courtesy express.co.uk

Courtesy express.co.uk

Swampy Yard No More!


Poor drainage is a problem that plagues many DC backyards. And nobody likes having to deal with a tiny swamp after every rain storm – not to mention the many mosquitos gleefully breeding every time said tiny swamp makes an appearance. Installing a permeable paving system can be a great way to improve the drainage in your yard while creating a beautiful-yet-functional outdoor space! When it comes to permeable paving systems, you have three options:

Option 1: Install pavers that have drainage holes as part of the design. The most common example of this is latticed pavers, like so:

Lattice Pavers

Option 2: Pick any kind of paver you want, but install them with enough space in between them to allow for drainage. That space can then be filled with drainage-promoting materials like crushed rock or pea gravel. Or, if you’d like a greener look and feel, you can plant grass, groundcover, or encourage moss to grow in between. Et voila:

Spaced Pavers

Option 3: There are pavers built specifically to create permeable systems without having as obvious of a look to them as the lattice type pavers above. Each individual paver has nubs carved into the sides so that when you line them up with their buddies, the nubs automatically form drainage holes. Here’s a great example:

Permeable Interlocking

And just a general note when landscaping your yard: whether it be front or back, you want to make sure the slope of your yard (known as the “grade”) is NOT oriented towards your house. You either want it grading away from house, or on a sideways slant that will direct the water into a permeable area like, for example, a flowerbed. You also want to make sure that it has a steady grade that will direct the water *out* of your yard, rather than encouraging it to pond and cause the aforementioned swampiness.

For more examples of all three types of permeable paving systems, check out my Pinterest board!

What to Do When you Can’t Have a Window?


The houses on Capitol Hill are chock full of fun, vintage details – some are beautiful touches of historic charm, and others are quirky details leftover from renovations in the 70’s. Here’s one of my favorite examples of the latter! This awesome interior stained glass “window” is installed above the kitchen sink on an interior wall of a Capitol Hill row home – i.e. in a place where a real window to the outside couldn’t possibly be installed. The solution? Backlight the stained glass and put it on a dimmer switch to make it feel like you’re looking out a bright, beautiful window while you’re doing dishes instead of staring at a wall! What do you think? Tacky, or too cool? (Please pardon the ultimate YouTube faux pas of filming vertically!)


Secret Rooms

When I was a little kid, I was *fascinated* by the idea of secret rooms! I loved reading mystery novels, and the hidden rooms that often played a role in the plot sounded SO. COOL. So I got a huge kick out of this article in the WSJ about real-life hidden rooms around the country! In DC homes, this could be a fun way to hide a storage space, or make creative use of your basement. Take a look for yourself!

Randall Perry/Witt Construction

Everyone loves a secret.

Hidden rooms and passageways might seem like the stuff of a Victorian murder mystery, but these spaces are increasingly popular in homes, with owners installing them for reasons of design, security and just plain fun.

“No one knows it’s there,” says Jerry Stubbs of the secret room he built under the garage of his Spanish Fork, Utah, home. “I put valuables in there, and our food storage and guns.”

Mr. Stubbs, a general contractor, excavated the space, then bought a Creative Home Engineering bookcase with a secret door for access to the room.

Since launching in 2004, Gilbert, Ariz.-based Creative Home has sold about 500 secret doors, says founder Steve Humble. Sales have increased in each of the past three years, he says, with 2014 on pace to be its best year.

Security is a prime consideration for many customers, Mr. Humble notes, but hidden spaces aren’t all a matter of safeguarding against potential intruders.

Hidden wine cellars and children’s playrooms are homeowner favorites, adds John Witt, president of Witt Construction, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Secret rooms aren’t Witt’s focus, but with word-of-mouth driving demand, the company takes on several such projects a year, he says.

Cardok, based outside Geneva, builds garages that rise out of the ground on hydraulic lifts, allowing owners to tuck their cars neatly out of sight when they aren’t in use. “It saves space, and it’s a very discreet design,” says Izabela Waligora, a project manager at the company. “It doesn’t spoil your entrance or your garden.”

Here are some secret spaces.

Like in the Movies

This bookshelf can be rigged to open via any number of mechanisms: twisting a wine bottle, pulling a candlestick, pushing on a book. Creative Home Engineering

A secret door is cool, but the real fun is in how you open it, says Mr. Humble, of Creative Home Engineering. His bookshelf installation, for example, can be rigged to open via any number of mechanisms: twisting a wine bottle, pulling a candlestick, pushing on a book. “Any kind of secret switch you’ve seen in a movie, I guarantee we’ve done that for a client before,” he says.

The company has seen a growing demand for biometric access devices like fingerprint and iris scanners.

Price: $2,500 up to $50,000.

A Speakeasy of One’s Own

Cellars are topped with trap doors that can be finished to match the surrounding flooring. Spiral Cellars

The U.K.-based Spiral Cellars company sells underground wine cellars built around a spiral-staircase design. Offering storage for a many as 1,776 bottles, the cellars are topped with trap doors that can be finished to match the surrounding flooring.

“So you have a good functional wine cellar, and it’s also very discreet,” says Lucy Hargreaves, co-owner and director of the company.

Of course, she notes, not everyone is interested in discretion. Some customers are opting for glass trap doors that let them show off, rather than hide, their collections below.

And then there are those who want the best of both worlds, and add a little mystery, too.

“We have a client who really liked the glass trap door, but he doesn’t want to see it all the time, so he keeps a nice rug over it,” Ms. Hargreaves says.

Price: $25,000 to $100,000

Hide and Go Seek Just Got Real

The room is hidden behind a bookcase that is part of the wall of a second-floor loft area. Randall Perry/Witt Construction

This secret children’s playroom was installed in a Saratoga Lake, N.Y., home that was built by Witt Construction in 2011.

The room is hidden behind a bookcase that is part of the wall of a second-floor loft area. The middle shelves are actually a door that simply pushes open, without any visible knob or handle.

“You’d never know it was there unless someone told you,” Mr. Witt says.

He says that children’s play areas are the most common secret-room request his company receives.

The company recently has done wine cellars in a similar fashion, he adds. The door “looks just like a set of bookshelves in the stairs, and they open up right into the cellar.”

Price: Approximately $9,000

Underground Parking

Cardok’s underground parking spots go from garden to garage at the push of a button. Cardok

Cardok’s underground parking spots go from garden to garage at the push of a button, making them popular with homeowners on small lots looking to maximize their space, says Ms. Waligora.

The design also can help skirt local building restrictions, she adds, such as when local regulations prohibit building too close to a property line. “This is a very practical solution because there’s nothing above ground,” she says.

Customers also can have an access built to their garage from their home.

Price: Starts at $51,000