October 18

Entry dress-ups: front door

Help your home emerge from winter’s blahs by giving it the quickest yet most effective face lift you can: Add drama and design to the frame around your front door. After all, the entry is the first thing your callers see.

I studied the style and proportions of my house before sketching up new casing that I could either make myself or create by combining stock moldings from the lumberyard. My design would adapt well to many other entries–even those without a soffit overhead. But one of the effects I like best is the way my new trim package fills that eight-inch gap on top by butting against the soffit, seeming to support it.

Sitting down to design your own casing can be intimidating at first, but these tips should help:

* Look at entry-door trims on well-designed homes in your area. Familiarize yourself with different trim styles, such as Federal, Georgian, and Greek Revival, by consulting books on architectural detail at your local library.

* Experiment on paper. Take a photo of your front door and have it enlarged to an 8×10 size. Tape tracing paper over the print and draw various designs around the door.

* Do sample assemblies with pieces of molding. Your new casing will consist of three basic parts–two pilasters (vertical strips that flank the door) and a head (the horizontal crosspiece at the top). It’s easy to make the pilasters of a single board, but the head is usually built up from several different moldings.

Head for your lumberyard to check out its moldings –you’ll probably find a dozen shapes that have possibilities. The larger crowns, coves, beds, battens, and stops –plus half and quarter rounds–are all worth looking at. If the yard doesn’t have samples to lend you, offer to buy a couple of inches cut off each molding you want to play with. At home, set these short lengths on end and arrange them like blocks, building up full-size cross sections of various configurations until you find one that appeals to you. Then trace around each molding to get a profile like the sketch at right. If your design calls for a shape you can’t buy, consider making your own–as I had to for my dentil and “panel-raising” moldings.

My actual trim work started with the pilasters–made from hald-inch clear pine 5-1/2 inches wide. I routed parallel flutes then chamfered the edges. I stopped both flutes and chamfers about five inches from the bottom and three inches from the top.

After nailing up all trim, fill holes with an exterior wood putty, caulk all joints, prime the wood with an alkyd primer, and apply two coats of latex trim paint.

September 12

How to make your home a haven from allergens

Allergies are merely a seasonal annoyance for some of the 50 million people who have them. But for others, they’re a year-round struggle with watery eyes, a nose that won’t stop running and a horrible stuffy feeling. And for still others, allergies can trigger asthma attacks so severe that emergency care is needed.

If you have allergies, your doctor should prescribe a treatment program that may include antihistamine or decongestant medications or injections for severe cases. But the first line of defense is separating yourself from the allergen that causes the problem. And that starts at home.

“The more people can do to control their exposure to allergens where they live, the better the medications are likely to work,” says Stanley J.Szefler, M.D., director of clinical pharmacology at the National Jewish Center for Immunology and Respiratory Medicine and professor of pediatrics and pharmacology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. “A careful review of the environment is important to identify critical sites of exposure. If I suspect that environment is a problem, I sometimes ask a person to bring some pictures of the home to help identify sources of allergens,” he says.

Removing allergens may be especially important for young children: Studies show that early exposure to allergens may be linked to later development respiratory problems, such ly. If there’s as asthma. Scientists theorise that one of respiratory problems, such as asthma. Scientists theorize that one of the possible reasons for the steady rise in childhood asthma since the 1970s may be the increasing energy efficiency of our homes. This increased allows little exchange of outside air and hence more contact with allergens.

Your doctor can determine what you’re allergic to by taking a medical history and doing skin tests. But before you can begin avoiding allergens, you need to know what these allergens are and where they lurk. Here’s what you’re up against:

Dust mites These critters (so tiny you can’t see them) dine on little particles of skin that fall from your body. They like to live wherever you spend the most time–notably your bed, your sofa and your carpeting. (Nearly 100,000 of them can live on a square yard of carpet.) A mite produces about 20 minuscule waste pellets a day, containing a protein many of us are allergic to. The mites thrive in humidity and die off when the humidity drops below 50 percent.

Dander It’s not per fur that people are allergic to–it’s the protein in tiny flakes of pet skin and saliva that’s the culprit. Cat allergies are the most common, but you can also be allergic to dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, birds or other animals. Animal dander is light, easily remains in the air (especially cat dander) and is prevalent wherever pets live.

Cockroaches As many as 60 percent of people with allergies are allergic to cockroach body parts and droppings. Roaches tend to hang out near kitchens, although you can find them anywhere.

Mold Mold thrives in moist areas, such as bathrooms and basements; it reproduces via spores carried in the air, and this is what causes allergic reactions.

Pollen This seasonal problem can invade your home through an open window or plague you in your yard.


So does the idea of allergy-proofing your home sound exhausting? It doesn’t have to be, says Lanny J. Rosenwasser, M.D., head of allergy and clinical immunology at the National Jewish Center and professor of medicine and co-head in the division of allergy and immunology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver. “You want to do what’s necessary without eroding the quality of your life,” he says.

Some people advocate stripping rooms of all possible allergens, but others think this is overkill. “I have trouble getting hung up over the pennant hanging on the bedroom wall,” says Harold Nelson, M.D., senior staff physician at the National Jewish Center and 1 of 11 members of a panel of experts that developed national guidelines for diagnosing and treating asthma.

Instead, he advises, concentrate on the bed, where you spend about a third of your life with your face nestled up near pillow and mattress that are likely teeming with dust mites and their waste, or animal dander if a pet has been there. “Your bed is critical,” says Dr. Nelson. “If you don’t do anything else, treat the bed and you’ve done the major thing.”

And don’t assume that being allergic means you have to get rid of your beloved pet, which can be traumatic for adults and children alike. Although that’s the easiest way to banish the allergen, in many cases there are ways to coexist with animals, says Thomas A.E. Platts-Mills, M.D., professor of medicine and head of the division of allergy and clinical immunology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville.

So unless your doctor advises otherwise, start small with changing your life to accommodate your allergies. If one step doesn’t work, take the next. To help you, we offer the room-by-room defense plan outlined here. Dealing with carpeting can be a major challenge when you have an allergy-prone person in your household. But deal with it you must: A study at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville found that carpeting accumulates allergens at 100 times the rate of a bare, polished floor.

If you have thick or shag carpeting, your best bet is to remove it, particularly in the bedroom and family room and especially in the basement, says Dr. Rosenwasser. If that’s not practical, your next step is to try to keep the carpet as allergen-free as possible. Here’s how.

Keep Fido and Fluffy away. If the problem is animal dander and you have pets that can’t live outdoors, keep them away from the carpet (and furniture!) in living areas, says Dr. Rosenwasser, whose family coexists comfortably with a dog despite their allergy problems. “My wife has trained our dog to never come upstairs, to never get on the furniture. The dog has learned she can come to the edge of the family room and lie down on the wooden floor, but not on the carpeted areas.”

Realize that if your pets–or the pets of previous tenants–have been on the carpeting or furniture, you may have to treat the areas to deactivate the dander. Pet allergens can persist long after a pet is gone.

Time your vacuuming right. Vacuums swirl dust-mite debris and animal dander into the air, where they’re more likely to be breathed in than when sitting quietly on the carpet. Dust-mite particles settle down in about 45 minutes, so you can avoid many problems by having the person with allergies stay away until the dust has settled, says Dr. Nelson. With animal dander, however, this is seldom practical. “Animal dander stays in the air for a long period of time,” he says.

Choose the right vacuum. A central vacuum system avoids many problems by venting particles out-of-doors. The problem with conventional vacuums and regular vacuum bags is that allergen particles pass right through and into the air, says Dr. Nelson. Some filters, however, can trap animal dander and mite debris. HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are made of tightly woven fibers pleated to increase surface area. You can buy a special HEPAvacuum cleaner, HEPA filters to fit your vacuum, or new vacuumcleaner bags (non-HEPA) designed to be more impermeable than traditional bags.

“If money is on object, the best choice is a HEPA vacuum cleaner,” says Dr. Nelson. “If money is an object, then buy HEPA filters for your existing vacuum cleaner or try the new bags.” (If the allergic person does the vacuuming, a mask should be worn.)

Avoid water vacs. Vacuums that filter dust into a canister of water aren’t recommended for either dander or mite debris: These vacuums can spew out a fine mist loaded with allergens, says Dr. Nelson. No vacuum removes many mites because they cling so tightly to the carpet.

Avoid shampooing. Soap residue from shampooing can produce an irritating dust, and the wetness can encourage mite growth and mold. Steam cleaning is preferable since the carpet doesn’t get as wet, says Dr. Rosenwasser. “The key thing is to make sure you steam-clean at a temperature greater than 130[degrees] to kill mites,” he says.

Another possibility is a product called HOST, a dry extraction carpet-cleaning system. It’s supposed to reduce mites without adding moisture. As a last resort, your doctor may advise you to treat your carpets with chemical products. Benzyl benzoate, marketed under the name Acarosan Moist Powder, kills mites. “It has to be used correctly,” cautions Dr. Nelson. “It must be left in a carpet overnight.” Because mites tend to die off anyway when the temperatures drop in the fall, the best time to treat carpets is early in the summer, he says. And while this product kills mites, it doesn’t remove allergy-causing dust-mite debris.

Another product, Allergy Control Solution, can be sprayed on both carpets and upholstered furniture. It’s made with tannic acid, which doesn’t kill mites but neutralizes the allergy-causing proteins in mite droppings and animal dander.

“This is most often appropriate for the person who moves into a place where there has been a pet to which she is allergic, or someone who gets rid of her pet and needs to rid her home of allergen,” says Dr. Nelson. Disadvantages include cost and time required, and the fact that tannic acid may darken light areas of the carpet or upholstery.

June 20

Tile your entry area

Has the carpeting in our entry area been made old and worn before its time by your family’s comings and goings? You’ve probably tried, over the years, the two common protective measures for carpets in heavily traveled areas: plastic mats and area rugs. But mats are unsightly, and rugs catch wear. And new carpeting, which won’t solve the problem, is expensive.

For a fraction of the cost of re-carpeting, you can tile your entry area and say goodbye to ugly mats and unfriendly rugs. Glazed ceramic tile is durable, comes clean with soapy water, and is easy to install.

The possibilities for your entry are almost endless with ceramic tile. It comes in a wide selection of patterns, shapes, and sizes. And colors range from electric blue through all the pastels to various shades of white. Tiled floors can look like a brick walkway or can form an abstract pattern of colors and shades. Sizes range from an inch-square (or diameter) up to one square foot.

This wide range of sizes comes in handy. If the area you plan to tile is small, narrow, or unevenly shaped, penny tiles(round tiles an inch or less in diameter) or one-inch squares make cutting and laying easy. If the area is basically square and there’s room to maneuver, larger tile will fit and entail less labor. For my area, I chose tiles eight inches square.

Tile is sold by the square foot, so the first step is to measure the area you plan to redo. Buy at least one extra square foot of tile. Cutting tile takes a certain touch, and you might have to sacrifice several of them before hitting your stride. A square foot usually costs two to seven dollars, so buying extra won’t overload your budget. Be sure to get glazed ceramic floor tiles; the types designed for bathroom-wall decoration won’t hold up under foot traffic.

My front door opens directly into the living room, so I chose a light-almond tile to complement existing furnishings. I decided to tackle a 56-by-68-inch area, which is big enough for two people carrying packages. To enhance both the look and practicality of the area, I gave it a curve and extended the tiles into an adjacent closet. Running tile behind closed doors also saves you from having to put an edging in an awkward area.

Use dressmaker’s chalk, which is soft and comes in colors, to mark the tile area. Cut away the carpet and the mat underneath. Tape a plastic tarp to the adjacent carpet. (In the step-by-step shots I didn’t bother with a drop cloth because the carpeting was soon to be replaced.)

The floor beneath the carpet is bound to have some imperfections–unevenness or abrasions–that might lead to cracked tiles. For a secure, workable surface, cut a base from 1/4-inch exterior-grade plywood (it won’t delaminate) to the exact dimensions of the tile area, then nail it down. Any minor imperfections in the plywood surface will be filled or smoothed over when the adhesive is applied.

Place the tiles down to establish the width of the grout lines and to get a count of the number of tiles that will need cutting. If you’re using tile that comes in sheets, such as penny tile, the grout lines between tiles are set, so you’re one step ahead here.

If you’re cutting tile to fit a curve or an irregular shape, use a tile nipper. Mark the cut line with a pencil, and nibble away small areas at a time. Don’t try to cut off large chunks, as tiles crack easily. And wear safety glasses for protection from flying ceramic fragments. A tile cutter–which you can rent from a tile dealer for a nominal fee–can be used to cut along a straight edge. Rough edges can be smoothed out with a whetstone and a little water.

Spread the tile adhesive over an area that you can comfortably tile before the epoxy sets (it sets fairly quickly). I recommend Latacreek liquid floor mix, which is a mild epoxy and, therefore, has more give than the conventional rigid adhesives, which can eventually lead to cracked tiles.

Set each tile in place with a gentle twisting motion. Lay one at a time, and check the alignment each time. If you don’t feel confident enough to space by evey, use plastic spacers available from a hardware store, or make them out of uniform wood scrap.

You can bed the tile in a number of ways. I recommend wrapping a piece of wood in carpet, placing it on the tile, and tapping it with a hammer. A rubber-head hammer will also work, as will a fist. The extra pressure creates a better bond with the adhesive and ensures an even level.

Floor grout comes in a variety of colors. White grout, however, shows dirt quickly–which would defeat the purpose of this project. I chose an almond color to blend with the tile.

Prepare for grouting by wiping the adhesive off the tile and removing the spacers, if any. Then use a rubber-faced float to spread the grout along the tiles an into the joints. Smooth over air bubbles, and scrape off excess grout with the float. Apply a damp sponge in a circular motion to clean the tile, and smooth and set the joints even with the level of the tile. Use a jointer tool to compact and smooth out the grout lines.

Let the tiles sit for an hour or so before you start removing the haze of grout nd whatever adhesive is left. Clean and polish the tiles with a soft cloth or a sponge.

Try to stay off the tiles for about a day, until the adhesive and grout dry. To be on the safe side, keep foot traffic light through the entry for the next several days.

February 18

Sealing & insulating for energy efficiency

If you put together all the cracks and leaks in a typical Canadian home, you would end up with a hole in the wall the size of a window. Warm air escapes from a suprising number of places throughout the house. Here’s how it usually breaks down:

  • Basement sill plates 25%
  • Exterior electrical outlets 20% 
  • Windows 13%
  • Pipe and wire entrances 13%
  • Vents 10%
  • Baseboards, light fixtures, electrical outlets, attic hatches 7% Exterior doors 6%
  • Fireplaces 6%

Fortunately, it’s easy to patch these leaks. Caulking and weatherstripping is the easiest, most inexpensive do-it-yourself task you can undertake, and it can cut your fuel bill by as much as 20 per cent. And because it tends to comprise a series of little jobs, you can do a little bit at a time.

Finding leaks may take some detective work. Check to see if your doors and windows fit tightly, and see if exhaust fans and vents close properly and are sealed around the edges. To find leaks, try this simple test: get two sticks of incense. On a windy day, hold the two sticks together and light them so you can clearly see the smoke. Hold them near areas where there may be air leaks. A strong leak will dissipate the smoke and cause the tips of the incense to glow brightly. Slower leaks will blow the smoke in one direction or draw it towards itself.

Remember to check plumbing pipes, vents, and fans that may let cold into the kitchen, bathroom or laundry room. Use butyl rubber or latex caulking.

Before you begin to caulk windows, check for rot, mold, the condition of the glass, putty and paint. You might just want to replace them. If not, at least clean them up before you begin caulking.

If you are adding insulation to your house, caulking and weatherstripping should be done first. Otherwise you’ll be putting insulation over leaky walls.

Check behind your baseboards. Many houses have open gaps that can be sealed with caulking.


There is a lot to think about when buying caulking: will it be used indoors, outdoors or both? Also think about the color, whether you can paint over it, what surfaces it will adhere to, what size gap it will seal, what temperature is required for application, what preparation is required and how long it will last. There are many different types of caulking which are suited to specific jobs.

SILICONE: is suitable for indoor and outdoor jobs and is mildew and moisture resistant. It’s available in clear form and is therefore good for applications where you don’t want to see the caulking.

ACRYLIC/ ACRYLIC LATEX: can be solvent-based for outdoor jobs or water-based for indoors. It’s paintable and adheres to most surfaces.

BUTYL RUBBER: good for indoors, it has good adhesion on metal, concrete and other masonry surfaces. Ventilationis required during application and curing.

ACOUSTICAL SEALANT: good for sealing polyethylene air-vapour retarders, but should be used only where it is sandwiched between two materials. It bonds to most surfaces, especially metal, concrete and gypsum board. It is not paintable.

URETHANE FOAM CAULKING: available in spray cans, it’s good for wide openings and hard-to-reach places.

OIL OR RESIN-BASED CAULKING: not recommended because it dries out, may stain wood and have a short life span.


Weatherstripping is used around doors and opening parts of windows. When choosing among the many types of weatherstripping, consider the size of the gap to be sealed, the durability, appearance and ease of installation. To be effective, it has to close off the gap completely without interfering with the operation of the door or window.


  • Adhesive-backed foam, available in rolls
  • Inexpensive, yet least durable
  • For use along the bottom of vertical sliding windows, hinged windows, doors and along attic hatches.


  • a more durable alternative to foam strips
  • works well on irregular surfaces


  • hollow or core filled, made of rubber or plastic
  • must be fitted carefully to ensure strong closing pressure for a good seal
  • attaches with nails, staples, or screws
  • used for doors or swinging windows


  • “V”-shaped vinyl strips can be used instead of foam, rubber or tubular gaskets
  • adhesive backed, easy-to-install, good durability
  • available in small or large “V” format
  • for use along the bottom of vertical windows, sliding joints of double hung windows and doors


  • similar to vinyl but generally used just for doors
  • installed using tacks


  • spring-loaded mechanism
  • adjusts to unequal distances from weatherstrip to door or window
  • installed using screws


  • system uses a magnetic strip and a metal strip
  • effective for doors and hinged windows
  • Sealing doors


  • a vinyl or rubber sweep screwed to door bottom
  • do not use where door must clear high carpet


  • vinyl or rubber strip attached to door thershold
  • provides an excellent seal but subject to traffic and weathering


  • attachment strip that fits over the bottom of the door
  • needs minimum clearance of 8 mm to 13 mm (1/3 to 1/2 inch) under door


INSULATING SWITCHPLATES: foam gaskets for electrical outlets and switches are easy to install, inexpensive and very effective.

EXPLORE THE ATTIC: Hot air rises. That means it heads for the attic, and from there it exits through leaks and cracks, accounting for somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of warm air loss. First, caulk the attic floor to prevent moisture from escaping to the attic – this easiest in winter, because you’ll probably be able to feel the spots where warm air is entering from below. Caulk around light fixtures, interior wall partitions, plumbing and electrical lines, chimneys, flues, bathroom fans and the attic hatch. A butyl rubber caulking is recommended. Then you are ready to insulate. Two words of caution: do not put insulation material near the chimney; never step between the joists – the ceiling won’t support your weight.

LEAKY BASEMENTS: The gap between the basement or foundation wall and the house wall – known as the sill plate – lets out 25 per cent of the average home’s warm air. The gaps should be filled with butyl rubber, urethane foam caulking or an acoustical sealant. For larger openings, use polyurethane foam. Any cracks in the foundation walls or slab should be patched with an appropriate material such as cement.

INSULATE PIPES: A couple of rolls of inexpensive pipe wrap are all you need to insulate hot water pipes. This helps reduce the energy lost when hot water starts to cool before it reaches its destination. As a minimum, you should insulate the first one to two meters (three to six feet) of hot water pipe from your water heater. Hot water will arrive at the faucet at higher temperatures more quickly.

INSULATE WATER HEATER: wrap your electric water heater with an insulating blanket to prevent hot water from losing its heat to the surrounding air.

FIREPLACES: a fireplace is not the best way to add warmth to your living room. A roaring fire may give off a cosy glow, but your chimney is actually a major cause of heat loss and drafts. When not in use, always close the damper as soon as the fire is completely out. Fireplace doors will also save energy. Also check where the chimney meets the wall and the floor. It could probably use some caulking.


Now that you have caulked, weatherstripped and insulated your home to lock in the warm air, it might be necessary to address the question of air quality. A well sealed house can often retain excess humidity, causing condensation on windows, mirrors and walls. In extreme cases, you will notice peeling paint, mildewed walls, water stains and musty odours. Ordinary activities like washing and drying clothes, cooking, bathing, even breathing, can add as much as 23 litres of water to the air every day. An air tight house will also retain stale air, lingering odours (cooking, painting) and second-hand smoke.

Your house may also need extra air supply if a fuel-burning furnace is operating at the same time as other major air-exhaust systems (including fireplaces, powerful exhaust vents or open windows on upper floors). This combination of circumstances can starve your furnace for air and impair its operation.

Opening a window may solve ventilation problems temporarily, but ultimately, it severely reduces the energy efficiencyof a home. The problem with a “leaky” house is that escaping air collects in the walls or attic, where it condenses and causes rotting. Cold outside air rushes inside, and it must continually be heated. Furthermore, the distribution of the fresh air throughout the house is completely uncontrolled and you will have lost any advantage you gained by caulking, weatherstripping, window replacement, etc. Air sealing saves the house structure, improves energy and improves comfort.

A heat recovery ventilator will solve the problem by giving you control over air quality and humidity levels. It automatically controls ventilation, delivering a steady supply of fresh air while creating a draft-free environment. Basically, the heat exchange is a box with two air streams: one supplying air to the house and one exhausting air from the house. The continuous supply of fresh outside air is made economical through the use of the HRV heat exchanger – while the air throughout the house is changing, most of the heat from the warm exhaust air is being transferred to the cooler incoming air.

The system also provides humidity control and eliminates the need for noisy bathroom and kitchen fans.