Brightening Your Backyard With a Fire Pit

Campers can attest to the warmth and comfort of a good campfire. Around it, stories are shared, bread is broken and nighttime chills are kept pleasantly at bay. Fire pits are a way for homeowners to bring that cozy intimacy into their very own backyards – no tent required.

Fire pits today are so much more than the name implies, easily built into any shape and size and able to be fueled by your gas line. With so many options, it's important that homeowners take a look at just how fire pits can be incorporated into their home designs.

Design basics
The main purpose for a fire pit is communal, a place where people can gather and enjoy the flame whether on a winter day or a cool summer evening. As such, plenty of thought should be given to the design of the pit. It serves not just a decorative element in the backyard, but a centerpiece for parties and hangouts. Brick and stone are common, simple and elegant materials for a fire pit, often built in a circle a couple of feet high, though the pit can be any shape or depth you want. A good example of a classic fire pit is shown in the example of this country house plan. Even without a fire, the pit is still an attractive element of the backyard that matches the gray pillars and concrete floor of the house design.

While a 3-foot-wide fire pit may be a perfectly tasteful and modest size, homeowners should not feel limited by convention. If the fire pit is the main attraction of the backyard, it may be more enjoyable to go big with something as large as a 6-foot-wide fire pit. Conversely, if you have other attractions in your backyard, such as a pool, it may be better to scale back to a more manageable size.

Important considerations
When designing your fire pit, there are a few essential concerns you should address. First, you'll want to make sure there is enough room for people to sit around the pit comfortably. Second, you'll want to make sure that the fireplace is shallow enough that people can actually see the fire inside. While a well-designed fire pit can look beautiful without being lit, you still want the fire to be an attention-grabbing element. Finally, if you plan on having a wood-burning fire pit, you need to make sure it's deep enough to contain the fire, which is its original purpose in the first place.

Beyond the pit
Of course, technology and design have taken the fire pit well beyond its humble beginnings. Metal woks, troughs, tables and even gas-fueled rock piles are just some of the more modern approaches being used in new homes. That means a greater ability to customize a fire pit to a home. A chic, metal bowl design could be a good fit with minimalist contemporary house plans. Sprawling, graded backyards could make use of two small pits or troughs strategically positioned at different levels. Pool backyards could make use of a fire-lit grotto. If there is a design you have in mind, chances are you can find it or have it custom built. 

You even have the option of blurring the line that separates indoors from the outdoors with full-blown fireplace, as seen in this elegant and luxurious patio design. With this particular patio, you can treat it as a secondary living room. Best of all, you, your guests and the fireplace are all protected from the elements, so you can enjoy the blaze come rain or shine.

Money-Saving Tips for Landscaping

If you want your home to be picture perfect, then you should think of landscaping as the frame. The right exterior design not only showcases your home, it also has the ability to put it in the best possible light. Also like a picture frame, landscaping can cost quite a bit more money than you'd originally intended to spend. 

Designing outdoor terrain wisely and economically is in many ways a unique response to lots and the floor plans involved. After all, you would never want to block an interesting detail lifted from modern house plans with shrubs, nor would you want to leave a two-story house's yard bare, making it feel exposed and imposing. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to save money while still creating beautiful yards. To better illustrate smart design, here are some tips and how they would apply to one of our contemporary house plans were it built in the New England area.

Account for site
This particular plan is designed for a sloped lot, so that the front facade appears only to be one story, while the backyard reveals a sprawling first floor, a sizable basement and an interestingly asymmetrical design. Given the cutaway nature of the home, there is plenty of opportunity for landscaping all around the house.

Homeowners may be tempted to blindly landscape their yard with all of the plants and trees they love, but that can end up with a large bill for unnecessary design. Landscaping should be a response to the house's focal points and design elements. As such, trees in the front yard would unnecessarily obscure the grand pillared entrance and the interesting stone wall facade. Low shrubs may be a better choice. As you walk along the left side of the house, you can start to incorporate taller bushes and trees as the wall gets larger. Flowers can also be used strategically to emphasize walking paths, creating a strong visual element that doesn't require an entire flower bed. By choosing plants as a tool for showcasing your house, you can save more money than by just designing a pretty yard.

Buy natives and perennials
The kinds of flowers and shrubs you choose to buy will likely be the largest factor in your landscaping expense. Exotic flowers and shrubs that can't handle the climate are ultimately a waste of money. Stick to tried and true plants that will thrive in the region. Better Homes and Gardens provides a guide to the top native plants of the Northeast, many of which are easy to grow and maintain. Wild Anemone and Merrybells, for example, are both beautiful ground covers that can be used to line the sides of the house or demarcate the border of your property. 

Also, you'll get more bang for your buck with perennials. They last longer than other types of plants and also generally cost less. Be sure to accent with at least some kind of tree, which can become an essential focal point on the back end of a house as sizable as our example. 

Utilize mulch paths and built objects
This home boasts plenty of nooks and crannies. Laying down winding flagstone paths can be expensive and unnecessary, especially for a home that lends itself to a more humble landscaping approach. Mulch paths are cheaper than stone and match the country cottage vibe of the front-yard design. 

Buy and plant at the right time
Plants and seeds change in cost throughout the year depending on the season and kind of plant. Research the cheapest seasons for those plants that interest you before buying. Also, you should plant at those times that best guarantee survival. Summer can leave flowers and grass without water to establish roots. In New England, you should also be wary of fluctuating temperatures in early spring that might frost and kill plants.

Apps to Help You Build the Perfect Home

Designing your perfect home demands a keen eye, a good imagination and a reliable contractor. Pre-drawn house plans remove a lot of the stress that comes with developing a plan from scratch, but there's still a long way to go once the blueprints are made. Fortunately, apps are making house design and decoration easier than ever.

It doesn't matter what aspect of the home building process you're on, or what kind of plans you're working with, there's likely an app that will give you decoration ideas, help you better visualize the space, introduce you to the best new products and even better pick paint and window treatments. Here are some reliable apps that can help with your plans.

Getting ideas
Whether you're looking for indoor lighting inspiration or fire pit plans, Houzz is one of the best design apps out there. The website is home to over 2,00,000 design photos, easily organized for casual browsing. Homeowners in need of kitchen ideas can simply scroll through the collection of more than 500,000 images on the website. They can filter their search by browsing in terms of location or even style, so that homeowners with contemporary house plans can look at equally modern kitchen suggestions. If there's an idea that seems to stick out, the app lets users clip the image and save it for later. When it's time to buy a product, the app also has links to specific items in the photos.

Planning the layout
Chances are, you'll be spending plenty of time with your contractor figuring out the most efficient use of your floor plans. Yet, you'll want more than just a paper copy or PDF to work with. For the tech savvy, plenty of apps allow users to digitally map out their plans and decorate them accordingly. Some, such as Floorplanner and Home 3D, let you make a multi-dimensional rendering of the plans so that you can get a better sense of the size and scale of the space. Once it comes time to choose furniture, you'll already have a good understanding of what could work in any given room.

People that are already well underway in terms of construction may also want to consider MagicPlan, which automatically draws floor plans of your rooms based on pictures you've taken. This tool can be especially helpful if you're trying to determine how furniture is going to fit into a space.

Choosing window treatments
Once construction is complete, the design options will actually seem to multiply, as you must now choose the highly customizable details of your home. Window treatments are one of those elements that can greatly affect the look and feel of a room, as they filter the kind of sunlight that comes through while serving as decorative pieces in their own right. The Window Shopper from Blinds.com is a fun and engaging  way to find the perfect window covers for your home. Users simply take a photo of their window and outline the dimensions on the app. They can then browse through a catalog of digital window treatments as they would appear on the window. 

Selecting colors
Paint is another big decision in your new home, and many big companies already lend their name to a burgeoning field of color apps to assist in choosing the perfect shades. HGTV's Color Guide is a source of scrapbook inspiration, while Color Capture by Benjamin Moore will determine a palette based on shades in photographs you've taken. ColorSmart by Behr tries to match appropriate shades to photos of your room.  

Integrated Drain Boards Are Smart Design

Counter space is invaluable in a kitchen, which means that efficient design is key. Integrated drain boards are one of the more ingenious elements you can incorporate into your kitchen. Best of all, their sleek but unassuming look makes them as fitting a choice for modern house plans as they  are for detail-oriented craftsman homes.

Smart solutions
When first moving into a home, kitchen counters look beautiful and untouched. Yet, inevitably homeowners must find places for spices, cutting boards and draining racks – one of the more unsightly, utilitarian aspects of a kitchen. The integrated drain board is an engineer's response to that problem. A section of the counter next the sink is slanted slightly so that water naturally pours into the basin. A series of ridges continue from the flat part of the counter over the incline to keep an even plane. Dishes, pots and pans that still need to dry can be places on the ridges, allowing water to drip onto the incline and into the sink. When it comes time to clean the drain board, all you need to do is wipe it down with a dish towel. Once you've put away the dishes, you have a countertop free of clutter.

Making room
The space saved by an integrated drain board makes it a good design element for kitchens large and small. With traditional drying racks, you would have to find storage space for them when they're not being used. When you're not using an integrated board, you can easily place a cutting board on top of it to create a flat surface for kitchen work. If you are cutting or cleaning raw vegetables or meat, you just need to remember to wash the drain board thoroughly, which is again made easy by its self-draining design. The only drawback is that the drain board is a custom part of the countertop, meaning that you need to make a decision to install one before laying down your chosen surface.

Matching to your home
The aesthetic benefit of an integrated drain board is obvious, as your kitchen will consist of fewer distracting design elements. For craftsman house plans, you may choose to have the ridges be the same material as the rest of the countertop. For more modern, minimalist home designs, you can choose to make the ridges metal to create a sleek, contemporary statement. Once you've decided on a drain board, the style is really up to you.

How to decorate with box beams

Ceilings are often one of the most neglected surfaces when it comes to home decoration. While a fresh coat of paint or an intriguing light fixture can be enough to make people turn their heads skyward, homeowners can really give their homes a distinguished, professional look with box beams.

If you're working with a soaring pitched ceiling based on luxury house plans, box beams can ground the design by adding some texture to the massive field. Should you be working with country house plans, then these faux beams lend an architectural flourish. Follow these tips to implement beams in a tasteful and sophisticated manner.

What they are
Box beams, also known as box girders, are hollow squares traditionally designed to resemble the beams that actually hold up roofs. In some buildings, particularly cabins and cottages, those beams may actually be exposed, adding a rustic charm. Yet, more often than not, they are hidden behind strand board and drywall. Box beams, which have no architectural function in terms of the structural integrity of the building, are meant to evoke some of the ambience of that obscured architecture.

Different styles
While box beams commonly invoke that key structural element of a house frame, they have evolved into a more encompassing design element involving a form of three-dimensional gridding across the ceiling. You have the option of simple, unvarnished 4×4 beams or you can get richly ornamented coffered ceilings that match traditional crown molding. While the style of your box beams are mostly a reflection of personal tastes, the width, thickness and overall layout should, in part, take into consideration the height and pitch of your ceiling.

Basic rules
No matter the ceiling, there are some general design guidelines you should follow in order to make box beams look good. First, it's important that they aren't so close together that they start to look like clutter. Generally, standard-sized box beams should have a minimum distance of 16 inches between each parallel piece, if for no other reason than to mimic common joist spacing. However, thicker beams may look better with more distance between them, as would smaller grids for thinner box beams. Also, if your ceiling is already textured with wood, box beams may make the surface appear too busy. Finally, make sure that the beams are perfectly orthogonal and evenly spaced, even if the wood itself isn't completely straight. Because box beams will extend across the length of your ceiling, it will be easy to detect angles in the grid.

Flat versus pitched
This luxury house plan features both flat and pitched ceilings, each of which demand their own box beam layout. If you have a flat ceiling, then a grid will look fitting, but you can also just have a series of parallel beams. If your ceilings are low, just remember that the thickness of the beams will make them feel even lower. Pitched ceilings, however, will look odd with grids. A better approach is to have a box beam along the center ridge, with perpendicular boxes extending down the ceiling slopes, again with ample and even spacing. Generally, any time there is a ridge, you want to place your box beams along it, as demonstrated with the peaked ceiling in the foyer.

Exposing your beams
Of course, you may also have the option to expose the already existing beams in the house. However, that depends on you and your contractor's choice of building materials and your own desire for authenticity. Thick, solid beams require large, long pieces of wood, which are usually costly. Contractors generally use trusses or thinner joists instead of solid, square pieces of lumber because they are a cheap, efficient use of materials that boast comparable structural efficiency. Your option, then, is to either pay more for heavyset exposed lumber, or you can "box out" the exposed trusses or thinner joists by essentially cladding them with flat pieces of wood.

Tips for choosing your rugs wisely

When people talk floor plans, they're usually talking about home dimensions, and not their designs for decorating their floor. However, your choice of rugs and carpets can have a huge impact on the look and feel of a room. Homeowners looking to further define their space may want to consider how rugs can fit into their own designs.

Country house plans offer great interior design opportunities, and this one in particular is a good springboard to discuss how rugs play a role in the ambience of the home. Not only does it have distinct interior visual elements with which rug designs will interact, but it also features rooms of various sizes that pose interesting flooring considerations.

Avoid too small
Dimensions are essential when choosing a rug. Too small, and the rug can appear ill-fitted for its space. As mentioned recently in Residential Architect magazine, it will pull focus toward the center of the room as opposed to the entire space as a whole. While you want the rug to be an interesting and engaging element, you also want it to fit seamlessly with the design of the rest of the room. There can also be a more practical reason for avoiding small rugs – appropriately accommodating furniture. In dining rooms, for example, you want the rug to allow room for dining chairs. So, if you had an 8' x 3' table to fit in the previously mentioned designs' dining room you would want a rug that was at least 10' x 5' so that chair legs won't scrape hardwood floors. Also, as a general rule of thumb, you will want rugs to cover the entire floor space underneath a piece of furniture and not just part. 

Steer clear of big
However, rugs that are too big should also be avoided. According to HGTV, a rug should be 2 feet shorter than the room's smallest wall. Hall rugs, too, should have at least 6 inches of exposure from every wall. Having rugs any larger than these relative dimensions turns the exposed strip of floor into a distinct visual element, akin to a racing stripe along the sides of your walls. It can also give the impression that you mistakenly bought a rug that was too small to achieve wall-to-wall floor covering. Keep the dimensions significantly short of the wall and the size of the rug will appear intentional. In the great room of this design, for instance, the largest dimension of the carpet should exceed no more than about 18 feet at its largest dimension. Also, remember to fit the rug to the dimension of the room, so that if it is long and narrow, the carpet mimics the proportion. 

Consider material
You also have your pick of materials when it comes to rugs. Every material from wool to bamboo has its own characteristics beyond just how it feels underfoot. Fabrics interact with light in their own ways. They also have varying levels of durability and convenience when it comes to cleaning. Smooth and sleek silk often comes with a soft but rich sheen that lets light play off of it. Silk is also costly and hard to clean. Wool is often thicker and very soft. It also absorbs more light. Bamboo is obviously harder than these materials and reflects light easily. When it comes to our example floor plan, note the cozy ambience created by the stone arches, walls and fireplaces, as well as the exposed ceiling beams and the strong shadows cast by uplighting and lamps. Bamboo would feel out of place in this home. Thicker, more sumptuous rugs that further dampen the light or refract it in interesting ways better play into the feel of the space. Silk or wool rugs may be the best material options in this home. 

The pros and cons of a claw-footed tub

Claw-footed tubs, also known as freestanding tubs, can add a touch of sophistication and aged elegance to even the newest of homes. Yet, you'll want to give some serious consideration to their practicality and design before installing one.

These tubs are so named because they are elevated off the ground by four small feet. The fact that they are freestanding makes them a distinct design element in your bathroom. The feet are often carved and gilded, adding an ornate flourish to the tub. They would also look just as fitting in country house plans as they would in luxury homes. They're also often rather deep, making them perfect for long, relaxed soaks. 

However, the freestanding tub can also take up considerable space, and they require extra precautions on the part of bathers. Because they often sit highly and have a thin lip, getting in and out of them can be difficult for children and the elderly. As such, you'll probably want to keep claw-footed tubs for master bedrooms.

Also, for safety concerns, it can be a good idea to give generous space around a claw-footed tub. So, while some smaller house plans can technically fit this kind of tub, it's probably best used in baths with plenty of room, such as the one featured in HHF-8292.

Taking advantage of daylight basements

Daylight basements certainly seem to suggest a sunny disposition, and they definitely can be key to a brighter, more enjoyable home. Sometimes referred to as a walkout basement, this style commonly featured in craftsman house plans often features windows and even a door to provide access to the lowest level of a home. There are plenty of advantages to this kind of house design. Here are just a few:

More versatile rooms
Natural light is a key ingredient to the enjoyment of a space. Architects and contractors will often work hard to install large bay windows, light wells, and skylights just to get more sun into a room. Without some connection to the outdoors, rooms can feel dingy, claustrophobic or unnatural, even with the presence of plenty of artificial light. Basements are often designed to be or eventually become storage spaces as a result of them being dark spaces lined with cold, concrete walls.

The introduction of daylight, then, improves a basement's usefulness by making it feel more habitable. The recreation room presented in HHF-5316 is basically a daylight basement, and can be used for any number of purposes. It can be converted into a game room, a television lounge or even an arts and crafts space. Even though the space won't get as much sunlight as other rooms higher in the house, the mere fact that it can receive indirect light already makes for a vast improvement.

Maximal use of space
By increasing the versatility of your basement, you're also giving yourself the opportunity to use space more efficiently. House plan HHF-5316 offers plenty of versatility on its main floor, due to a large family room and a dining room that can converted into a flex space. However, the downstairs recreation room allows for a better use of space by providing a main congregation space for children sleeping in the second and third bedrooms. That way the upstairs can be better tailored to receiving adult guests while the downstairs can be geared toward children's games and activities.

A better blended home
In an attempt to gain more livable square footage, homeowners will sometimes add an extra floor to their home or raise the height of their walls. The two or even three-story home can often have a stark visual impact on a neighborhood as it juts into the skyline and towers over other homes. However, daylight basements often take advantage of sloping lots, so that while the back of the house reveals a full two-story home, the front of the house will appear more modest and unimposing with only one story visible.

Smoother transitions
The daylight basement is often touted because it welcomes in the outdoors. However, this connection works both ways. Daylight basements also serve as a good staging area for people embarking on or returning from backyard activities. If you have a lake behind your home or a yard large enough for running around, then the daylight basement can be used as a de facto mudroom and changing area. This way, people coming in and out of the house won't disturb people upstairs or disrupt the temperatures of climate-controlled rooms.

Why choose wallpaper

Homeowners often choose paint to add color and character to a room. However, not to be forgotten is wallpaper. Depending on your floor plans and your personal tastes, it may be worth hanging up the paint brush in favor of a pair of scissors. Here are the pros and cons of papering your walls:

Advantages
Wallpaper is usually more expensive than paint in terms of initial cost, but it also affords homeowners a greater range of decoration that may not be achievable with paint. While paint is usually applied as solid colors or simple geometric designs such as stripes, wallpaper can come in intricate patterns simply not feasible with the drippy stuff. Ornate wallpaper may look great in homes based on country house plans, where flourished pattern could lend to the ambience. The plan in this home could easily be spruced up with some ornament.

Another benefit of wallpaper is the ease of application. While it may require some finesse to perfectly align the paper on the wall, it is a lot cleaner to apply than paint.

Disadvantages
The major downside to wallpaper is its longevity. While putting it up can be somewhat difficult, taking it down is even more of a chore. Paint, conversely, while more messy, is easy to cover up and redo. Also, wallpaper can start to peel or bubble in humid climates. This isn't as big of a problem as long as a home is air-conditioned, but should your HVAC break once, moisture in the air could wreak havoc on the walls.

A final consideration is taste. You should pick your wall decorations based on your own personal preferences, but you should also take into consideration design trends. Often, people find themselves liking what's currently in vogue, only to find that a particular design choice has fallen out of fashion years later. This may not be a problem in terms of appealing to your own tastes, but you may find it more difficult to match furniture and other decorations down the line to outdated patterns. Wallpaper is a commitment.

The verdict
You may want to consider wall paper if you would like particularly detailed wall decorations and are happy to live with your decisions for a long time afterward. However, if you are prefer more solid wall colors and are liable to change your mind frequently, then paint is probably the better choice.If you think you fall somewhere in between, you can always accent one wall with wallpaper.

LED fixtures in 2014 are lighting the way

The new year is looking bright, thanks to a host of fresh LED products designed to better light house and home. Featured in EcoBuilding Pulse's eco-friendly weekly product roundup, these lights merge sharp design with improved efficiency. For future homeowners, the potential cost savings of LED lights are worth a look. For people interested in energy efficient house plans, LEDs should be their first consideration.

These lights range from organic hanging fixtures to lamps to LEDs that resemble incandescents, building off of years of development and buzz. However, some consumers may be confused about the advantages and drawbacks of LEDs. While there has been plenty of debate over the benefit of LEDs, it seems that they may be the future of home lighting. 

The value of LEDs
LED stands for light-emitting diode, and it is a relatively new alternative to traditional incandescent bulbs. According to the Department of Energy, LEDs have the potential to be more energy- and cost-efficient than incandescent bulbs, due in part to a longer life and better performance in extreme conditions. Additionally, because they don't use a filament, they are more compact, easier to maintain and more durable than other types of light bulbs. The Department of Energy has even made the claim that LEDs could cut general lighting energy use nearly in half by 2030, thereby reducing energy expenditures as well as carbon emissions.

LEDs are often used as underlighting for counters, stairs and halls, or backlighting for shelving and appliances. Usually, they are embedded as part of a series of LEDs that lend themselves as a form of subtler track lighting. However, as LED products improve, they are being utilized as single bulbs in a fixture.

Still in development
While LEDs seem to be a perfect solution, there are a few reasons why they haven't become more popular in homes already. First, LEDs do not naturally produce white light, meaning that researchers and developers have had to put considerable effort into making LEDs practical for general home use. Second, the quality and efficiency of an LED light can vary greatly depending on the producer as those developers continue to fine-tune LEDs. Finally, the upfront cost for LEDs still surpasses incandescent, meaning that consumers are more reluctant to make the investment, even though LEDs can bring returns above and beyond that initial financial loss.

Because researchers are always improving upon LED designs, it's important that even skeptics keep up with the most recent developments in the field. With the proper research, energy conscious consumers are likely to find an LED product that suits their needs. If not, it's much like what Mark Twain wrote of ever-changing New England weather – if you don't like it, wait a minute.

A new year
Of course, that minute may have already come. More recent LED developments combine improved efficiency bulbs with interesting and innovative designs. One of the more distinguished lights to hit the markets are the Bio Mass Pendant Lights from Jay Watson Design. These slender, cylindrical hanging fixtures are made from a hollowed-out ash tree branch, with LED lights installed on the ends. This organic display would fit in perfectly with a rustic, country home, such as HHF-7908. Less showy are the recessed LED modules from Lutron, which can be adjusted for directional lighting, suitable for desk or kitchen tasks. 

If you are still reluctant about making the switch from incandescent to LED, there are also a number of designs that aim to resemble incandescent. Philips' SlimStyle A Shape and Switch Lightings' Switch Infinia both take on the familiar bulb shape that make them fit well with lamps.