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Lead, mold, and asbestos

toxins in home remodeling

Nothing is more important than having a healthy home. Lead, mold, and asbestos threaten the health and well-being of your family. Every homeowner needs to know the risks and remediations for toxins in their home.

  • Lead-based paints were commonly used in housing until they were banned in 1978. If your house was constructed before then, there’s probably lead paint somewhere in it. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause serious health problems, especially for children and pregnant women. Lead paint can’t be completely removed, but the hazard can be mitigated by scraping, chemical peeling, and other methods.
  • Mold can grow where there’s excess moisture, which can be caused by leaking pipes, poor ventilation, damp basements, ice dam leakage, or rain seeping in through the roof or window frames. In addition to causing health problems, excessive mold can jeopardize the integrity of a building’s structure.
  • Asbestos was used in building insulation, walls, flooring, and structural fireproofing until it was banned in 1977. Asbestos poses a minimal hazard if it’s not damaged or disturbed, but a renovation or maintenance project may produce airborne asbestos fibers that are highly toxic. Before you begin renovations where asbestos is present, professional asbestos abatement is required both by state and federal law.

What if there are toxic substances?

When there’s a risk of toxic substances being dislodged in the house, a contractor must practice containment to keep the dangers from contaminating your home, and even getting into your neighbor’s yard. 

“There’s an expectation that that type of work practice should be happening no matter what, and frankly, it often doesn’t,“ Ron Peik, president of Alpine Environmental, told me recently. Ron has extensive experience with lead paint abatement, mold remediation, and asbestos removal. Based in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, his building restoration service has been featured on numerous episodes of the popular PBS series This Old House, helping the renovation experts handle complicated lead paint and mold problems.

What are the EPA Rules?

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (RRP) in 2010. It requires that “firms performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes … built before 1978 have their firm certified by EPA … and follow lead-safe work practices.” Massachusetts has its own certification standards, called the Lead Safe Renovator Rule. 

“Your painting contractor, or your building contractor that’s doing a renovation, has to be, at the very least, either RRP or LSR certified,” Ron explained. Homeowners can look up their contractor’s license number on the state or federal website, to make sure they’ve received the training. 

“But just because they have the license, doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to follow the work practice. So, it’s buyer beware,” Ron cautioned.

Can I stay in my home?

A lot of my clients ask if they can stay in their house during construction. “It’s a very good idea to remove yourself from that home,” Ron told me. “Dust is a major component for any construction, whether it’s new construction, just a simple renovation, or a major gut rehab. There’s dust everywhere. When you’re working in an old home, there’s a very good chance that you’ve got lead paint, there’s a good chance you’ve got asbestos. It’s never recommended to be in the house.

Of course, if you’re just doing a limited renovation, like a bathroom, you might be able to live around the work. But for the most part, it’s better to get out during the construction phase. It’s just not worth it to risk the health of your family.

Although you don’t want to be living in the construction site, if your contractor asks you to visit, maybe to make a decision or view the progress, you shouldn’t be afraid. “If they’re following the proper protocols, regulations and work practices, it should be a safe and clean worksite,” Ron told me.

He added that you should never visit “in the middle of the demolition, or in the middle of the lead-safe work, when the mess is being made. Those are really restricted work sites. You have to be wearing suits and respirators, and making sure that you’re not getting any of the toxins in the dust into your system. And if we’re doing asbestos remediation, as part of a renovation, those areas are strictly restricted to licensed asbestos workers.”

Plan Ahead!

It’s always important to know ahead of time what your contractor is planning to do. When it comes to dangerous toxins like mold, asbestos, and lead, it’s essential to get your contractor to put their actual work practices in writing before they start work.

“As an architect or a homeowner, you want to make sure that you get it in writing: What is that contractor going to do for a work practice, what are they going to do to isolate and contain the work area?” Ron said. “You know, people act like it’s going to double the price of the job, but it’s really not a substantial increase in the price. And it’s also the right thing to do, which makes it an even easier decision.”

Don’t know where to start? Get a FREE Project Coaching Call with me

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Old People and Technology

This video is a bit of a rant about stereotypes.  I personally love learning new ways of doing my job faster and better.  

When I was in graduate school there was a bit of controversy over the gaining popularity of the computer as a design tool.  This was back in 1992-1996, when we were still taught drafting by hand.  A prospective student asked the head of our graduate program if SCI-Arc had a computer department- “the computer is just a tool, we don’t have a pencil department” was his response.  I still wonder what that REALLY means.  Self-proclaimed Luddites refused to embrace the new technology and waxed poetic about drawing and building by hand.  Some people used computers to generate forms, but I don’t remember any drafting software being used.  I don’t think laptops were a thing then (only one person that I can think of in the school had a cell phone, the rest of us used the pay phones by the cafe).  I do have fond memories of drafting, of my lead holders and lead sharpeners and the electric eraser that felt so high tech and finding interesting drafting dots, the way that the sharp lead buried into the paper, the wider bit at the end of each line. I also have unfond memories of sweating onto drawings and tearing the paper and smudging the drawings and erasing holes in the drawings and not lining up the drawings correctly when putting it back on the board and so ending up with a non-orthogonal mess.  Drawing the same thing over and over and over was part of the education process, I suppose.  

In my practice I gave up hand drafting for AutoCAD in about 1999, then after 17 years switched to a 3D program.  I admire hand drawing, but the computer is faster and more practical for the renovation work that I do.  I get a lot out of it and I think my clients appreciate it too. 

Some people are interested in new programs that help them get their work done more efficiently, some people want to stick to what they know and love. They believe that their _______ (phone, drafting method, AOL) has served them well over the years and doesn’t need to change. 

I believe that this isn’t a function of their age as much as their interest level and personality type.  

At 52 I’m looking at ageism as a crazy social construct.  It makes no sense!  Don’t get me going about that again.   

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8 common mistakes to avoid while renovating

Today I’ve got a written version and a video version of my advice about 8 common mistakes to avoid while renovating. Each project is different and will have custom mistakes to avoid as well- I love finding- and helping people avoid- those mistakes!

Here they are, in no particular oder-


Budget isn’t realistic

So many potential clients come to me with a very low budget.  $100,000 is definitely a lot of money, but it doesn’t go too far in construction in the Boston area.  Renovations are difficult to budget for since taking apart an existing house involves so many unknowns.  I’ve noticed that many on-line sources are completely unrealistic on construction costs. Moving one wall involves demolition, framing, plaster, flooring, electrical- and repairing the area around the moved wall.  


Hiring a contractor just based on price, especially if his price was far lower than other contractors interviewed

You are entering into a relationship with a company that may involve some stressful moments.  The relationship will definitely involve a lot of money. Hire a company that you feel comfortable with, they and their subcontractors will be spending the next 4 to 6 months in your home.  If one company’s price is far less than the other bids, look into the reason for that. Asking for itemized bids will be helpful in comparing bids and determining what might have been excluded from the low bid.  


Not researching zoning before submitting a plan

Planning a whole addition that isn’t going to be able to happen without special permission wastes time and money.  You’ll need to research setbacks, lot coverages, open space requirements and square footage maximums before designing your addition.  


Changing your mind frequently during construction

Going through a thorough planning process will help to minimize changes during construction.  It helps many of my clients to see the space in a 3D computer model as the design evolves. A few small changes during the course of construction are likely, so review the process for change orders with your contractor before construction begins, and keep track of the change orders during construction.  $6000 here and $2000 there adds up quickly.


Choosing materials that you don’t love because of a difference in price that really isn’t that significant in the grand scheme of the project

Make at least one splurge on finished materials, something you will love and be thrilled to see every time you enter the room.  I chose a 2” carrera marble countertop for my kitchen, something I fell in love with and a far cry from my planned concrete countertops.  Seeing the sunlight on the marble and appreciating its depth and glow still makes me happy 10 years later.


Ordering cabinets before finished space can be measured

The cabinet company should measure the available space after the space has been plastered and is ready for the cabinets.  At the very least, they need to wait until framing is complete. Plans and reality can differ significantly, especially if changes have been made to the plan.


Planning to live in the house during an extensive renovation

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it depends on the nature of the renovation. If you can’t seal off the area under construction for the entire project, consider moving into temporary housing.  Renovating creates a ton of dust and debris. There will be early morning construction noises. There may be dishwashing in the tub. Setting up a temporary kitchen helps. Living on a construction site adds to the stress of the project.


Making choices based on resale

Avoid making design moves that are just odd.  Other than that, when are you planning to sell the house?  If you plan to be there for 5 more years at least, then design for yourselves.  We can’t know who the next owners of our houses will be and how much of the house they are going to want to change.

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Hoarder House episode 1

We’ve owned two houses. The first house wasn’t done until the day it went on the market and I suspect our current house will be the same. Many architects I know take on these projects as a labor of love. My husband and I fall for old houses in distress.

This is the first episode of Tales from my Hoarder House. We expect to release an episode every month. I hope that you enjoy it.

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Practicing while Female

Much has been written lately about female architects, or women in architecture.  Should we just not discuss it and do our jobs?  Should we highlight our accomplishments as architects and have special exhibitions of our work?   Should we attempt to figure out why women leave architecture?  Does being female while practicing architecture even deserve discussion?

It never occurred to me that being female and being an architect would be an issue. I grew up listening to “Free to Be… You and Me” by Marlo Thomas.  I was almost 6 when it came out in 1972 and all I remember is listening to it constantly.  I believed everything on the album, and why not? Throughout my teenage years I was somehow ignorant of the struggles that women still had in the workplace at the time (early 80s)  and could only have believed that the liberation movement was history.  It is entirely possible that a
s a teenager I was completely self absorbed and not very thoughtful about big issues.  I ended up going to a women’s college that confirmed that I could do whatever I wanted to do.   By graduate school I was part of a class that was over 50% female, so I still hadn’t had an inkling that my becoming an architect was going to be a problem for some people.  Sure, my grandmother told me that I should choose a career “more suitable to a woman” but I paid no attention.

Now that I am 50 and have been paying attention for a while I am aware of gender inequality and bias but what I don’t understand is- why?  Why is it inappropriate for a woman to be an architect?  The following is a list of the reasons that I have been able to come up with:

As a woman I won’t be taken seriously by the contractors.  In fact, this rarely happens.  As the architect I am the agent of the owner and so they don’t really have a choice but to consider what I have to say- but beyond that I really have had great and respectful relationships with most of the contractors that I have worked with over the past 20 years.  Sometimes it is the subcontractors that have a problem with me, but rarely.  Once a framer told me to go shopping which was so out of line that I was confused for a few minutes.  A plumber I was interviewing for work at my own house said to me “Lady, you’d be a nightmare to work for” which I took to mean that he didn’t want the job.  Now that I think of it, does that have to do with my gender?  I could be a nightmare for that man as a man or a woman, I suppose, but I can’t imagine him saying “Sir/dude/buddy, you’d be a nightmare to work for”.

As a female architect I won’t be able to lift really heavy items as might a male architect. Architects don’t have to carry formwork or bags of sand or stoves around.  However, it is true that I can’t carry those things.  This may have more to do with me personally and being 50 but the reason is irrelevant since I won’t even attempt to carry the stove.

As a female architect I don’t understand how a building goes together because construction is only interesting to men. I have nothing to say about this other than- it just isn’t true.

I can’t think of any other reasons, but if you can think of additional reasons, please leave them in the comments.  Wait, don’t.

You may have already guessed that I do not believe one’s gender is an impediment to a successful architectural practice.  In the end, clients would be well served to choose an architect with whom they can relate, who will listen to them and interpret their ideas and goals, who is knowledgeable about codes and construction trends, who shares their values in terms of environmental impact, who understands their lifestyle and will help design a suitable space for them.

Here is the real burning question- where are all of the female general contractors?

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Being the client

Every once in a while, it is probably good for me to be the client. I’ve had two very disappointing design experiences this summer.  I am filled with a buyers remorse so acute it makes my eyes burn.  This morning it occurred to me- maybe this is the way my clients feel sometimes.  I hope not, but it is important for me to be sensitive to the fact that they may be panicking and regretting their choice of designer (me).

This summer I am reworking my online presence and I needed a new logo.  I went through an on-line site where a designer is chosen by the client based on their portfolio.  I was desperate and wanted something fast.  At the same time I wanted to pay someone for their time, so I chose the highest cost logo design that I could.  I looked at the logos and chose one a designer whose I thought looked hand drawn but thoughtful.  I wrote to her, sent her my current logo and some favorite recent images of mine. She sent me a design questionnaire but before I had a chance to fill it out (less than an hour later, I would have filled it out but I was driving to the Cape) she sent me her first draft.

Ugh.  You only get a few revisions.  I tried not to worry.  I wrote to her again about what I wanted and made more concrete suggestions, didn’t hear back, wrote again, didn’t hear back, wrote again.  This was over a couple of days.  Sure, that isn’t much time but my original deal was for a 48 hour product!  I had asked for feminine and strong, architectural and handmade.  I wanted to be wowed with a great idea.

Oh well.

Later, during a different project,  I freaked out over color choices.  Someone had chosen dusty purple and dusty rose for me.  I told myself  that to the designers I am probably an impossibly old lady and all old ladies love dusty rose and dusty purple.  Of course I was over reacting and I’m over it now, I simply asked for something different and guess what- I got it!  But at first- having been presented with a draft of the product with no explanation or narrative- I felt misunderstood and unheard and as thought I had wasted so much money and time.

What did I learn from this?  Be responsive to clients, to be otherwise just frustrates anyone.  Set a schedule that I (as the designer) can live with, and let the client know what is going to happen when.  Give people options.  Draw up the option they said they wanted and a couple of versions of it.  Most people I work with want to be involved in the design process, and they already have an idea of what they want.  My job is to make their dreams come true, as I like to say.

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“Greater Boston’s most flexible architect”

My Houzz profile states that I’m Greater Boston’s most flexible architect.  I came up with that one.  I felt that it was a truer statement than what they originally had, which said “Boston’s Elite Architect and building designer” or something like that.  Let’s be honest, I am not an elite architect. Have I ever aspired to be one? What does elite actually mean? “1. A select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities”.  In a city of 3,000+ architects, who are the elite among us?  Instead of measuring myself against the thousands of my colleagues I came up with the likelihood that I am Greater Boston’s (although not all of Massachusetts, that may be overstating) most flexible.  What do I mean by that?  I’m willing to work on almost anything. Every person’s project is important to them and I try to help them as much as I can. Sometimes people have already designed their project and I try to help them realize the best version of that design.    I don’t get hung up on designing everything myself and controlling every little bit of the project.  The more that people want to be involved with the design and the process, the better.  Maybe I am flexible because I can throw out ideas and not be offended if someone doesn’t like them.  All ideas can lead to something else.  I also consider myself flexible in a practical sense because my schedule seems to be very fluid and last minute requests don’t bother me.  Would I rather be an elite architect or a flexible architect?  Could I be both?