Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Is your house "usable"?

Are there things that annoy you about the "usability" of your house? Does it sometimes seem like the architect was a drooling moron when certain aspects of it were specified?

Its likely that most houses were designed (not necessarily built) "to code" when they went up. However, "to code" doesn't guarantee that the place is a delight to reside in.

Take for example -- my house.

The master bathroom originally had a single light in the ceiling (and one over the sink). The way the walls were layed out and the ceiling light positioned, the shower stall didn't get any light at all. It was always in the shadows making you feel like you were showering in a cave. This was to say the least, very annoying. Last year I finally got around to rectifying this dreary situation and installed a wet location light in the ceiling of the shower stall. The difference was dramatic. I think I spent maybe $30 on the light/wire/switch/etc needed to do the job. That was one of the most rewarding $30 I've ever spent in my life. It pays me back every time I shower.

It took a few hours of up/down a ladder and crawling around in a 130 degree attic (being careful to not fall through the ceiling) to do the job though. Had that same light been installed when the place was originally built, it would have taken the electrician no more than an additional 20 minutes. Alternatively, they could have just positioned the ceiling light a bit differently and it would have illuminated the
shower OK.

In this country at least, Christmas lights are quite a common thing for people to put on their houses. Why do architects ignore this cultural reality? Why not specify a switched recepticle up under the eaves so people don't have to do horrible things like run extension cords all over their yards or out a window, or pinched under a door? This is in reality a safety issue. Cords dangled out windows aren't guaranteed to be plugged in on a GFCI which outdoor things getting wet should be on.

We typically electrocute a few people a year and burn down a few houses in this country because of this blindness to the American cultural reality of Christmas lights. I caught my neighbor last year running his Christmas light off a cord pinched under his front door plugged into a non-GFCI recepticle. Two years ago, a guy in Miami was electrocuted walking around in his front yard because of such a dangerous lashup. Christmas is supposed to be a happy time. Dying because your house killed you shouldn't be part of the normal holiday plan.

A few years ago I fitted my house with a switched recepticle up under the eaves (fed by a ground level GFCI so it would be easy to reset), with weather cover that allows the Christmas lights to be plugged in while retaining rain tightness. No dodgy extension cords laying in the yard. I am a happy man.

Have you ever noticed that builders often put small shallow cabinets above the space where the fridge normally is parked? Those cabinets are effectively useless because they're so hard to reach. They're usually empty or contain mystery contents you haven't seen for at least 10 years, in which case you dare not open the doors anyway.

In my case, because of the uselessness of those small cabinets, the top of the fridge has become the place of repose for a small B&W television I'll turn on to listen to the nightly news. Parking the TV ontop of the fridge presented new annoyances though -- the dreaded extension cord hanging like clothline was needed to reach one of the normal countertop recepticles. Reaching up to the top of the fridge to turn it on and off, while not excessive work, was slightly irksome too.

While pondering a random pile of electrical parts and wire today, the solution to the TV/fridge popped into my mind. I would put a (GFCI protected because this is a kitchen) recepticle up on the wall alongside the fridge with a switch down at a convenient level to operate the recepticle. This design (which I just got done installing) is a vast usability and safety improvement over the dangling extension cord and reaching up over the TV. Total time to install was a couple of unpleasant hours belly crawling in a hot attic, but I used materiels already in inventory, so the cost today was zero.

The top of fridges seem to collect electrical things like small TV's radios, lava lamps, etc. Why can't architects anticipate this kind of obvious usage?

As you can see, I'm not too fond of architects who design stuff with poor usability characteristics. They are paid well for their talents, and the public has a right to expect better from them.


The Merry Widow said...

You sound like my late husband! He was so practical, he squeaked! He would definitely agree with the shower problem, we rented a place in Cali that was like a cave, if the power went out, the master bath became completely black. And the shower was in the dark anyway! I may have my son remove that stupid cabinet, it's really useless as you say!
Good morning, G*D bless and Maranatha!


Purple Avenger said...

so practical, he squeaked

Guilty as charged.

Earlier this year I spent a few weeks doing some electrical work on a new $10M mansion going in Palm Beach.

The plans called for some crazy lighting control system called Lite Touch to be install everywhere in the house where an ordinary switch would be -- even in the "guest cabana" which I was working on (a whole house in its own right). The system has automatic dimming controls, preplanned lighting programs, etc. Basically, its an expensive system for people who have more money than brains and want to pay big cash for something that will annoy them and be failure prone for the next 30 years.

The ridiculous thing is that it uses a keypad to do everything regarding the lights. If one is in a hurry to get to the bathroom, the last thing you need is to be groping on some keypad for the right button to turn the lights on. An ordinary switch could have been used for the bathroom lights, but NO, they had to have this absurd system even in there.

I walked away. There are some jobs so fundamentally nutty thay're just not worth your sanity to be around.

Maybe if I'd not spent 20 years as very practical computer engineer before deciding to change careers and do some electrical construction for a while, I'd not be so critical of these insanities.

The Merry Widow said...

Oy! I don't blame you, if I've got to go in the middle of the night, I'd take a darn flaslight to bed with me, rather than fiddle with something dingey like that! The first few times someone throws up or has diarrhea because of it, they will either admit to stupidity, or travel on with the pride and let the "help" clean up!
There is such a thing as pride in your work, that mess wouldn't give me any. Wonder who's "brilliant" idea that was?


Purple Avenger said...

Wonder who's "brilliant" idea that was?

It seems there's a certain amount of "one-upmanship" going on in Palm Beach these days among very wealthy.

I'm sure it was the architect's idea of what would be "cool" among that crowd. Actually, the Lite Touch system is a somewhat older system. There are even crazier things on the market people are buying.

I can see some automated lighting in large office buildings and such as a power saving measure, but a house doesn't need that sort of nonsense. I prefer practical thing like an ordinary switch. A good quality switch (which isn't stock in most houses) will last a lifetime and only cost a couple of dallars.

The Merry Widow said...

And never give you any headaches! Agreed, sometimes architects have more dollars available than sense.