Ask Katie: Kitchen keepers and cost savers in a rental

cover photo courtesy of Amazon.comQ: We’re planning to build a kitchen in a house we’re renting. The space is in a new addition (roughly 16x22) in a 1930s Sears kit house. Since we are never going to resell the house, we are looking for ways to do this cheaply with an eye towards investing in pieces we can take with us. As an example, I would rather use inexpensive flooring and invest in a good looking rug. Any other ideas?

Tim from Brookeville, MD

A:  This is a great question for a thrifty Yankee -- especially one who appreciates vintage Sears Roebuck kit houses. I have a few recommendations to offer. First, use and/or convert furniture and/or salvaged items to function as kitchen worksurfaces and storage units. Then, team these with affordable, stock, built-in cabinet cases and open shelves. Finally, round out the kitchen with economical fixture and finish alternatives. When it’s time to move, you could either take some of the items with you or be happy for the savings they offered as you leave them behind.

furniture/salvage accents
For example, sizable farm tables and baking cupboards served their purposes well in kitchens of yore. Why not put them to work in today’s kitchen -- particularly one added to your 30’s home? A sturdy table makes for a great

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Ask Katie: Shading a deck

Example of a wisteria-covered, rear-yard arbor in northern CaliforniaQ: We own a Spanish-style bungalow, built in 1928, in San Jose, California. We added an attached deck to the back of the house that we access from a sliding-glass door. I'm interested in putting up a permanent fabric awning to cover some of the deck in order to give us relief from the sun and to cool down the back of the house (I hope) as it gets direct sun for many hours of the day during the summer. We strive to maintain the historic character of the house in all improvements we make. What do you think?

Alissa from San Jose, CA

A:  As a New Englander, I’m not a fan of residential fabric awnings. They generally can’t handle our weather. Sure, folks remove them in the winter around here, but conditions in the shoulder seasons can be problematic too. Over time, the New England climate often takes a toll on awning material -- causing it to fade, yellow, mildew and/or tear.

Regardless of locale, there’s also the matter of the flimsy structures that typically support fabric awnings. Whether retractable or fixed, they can be rather unsightly, hardly a complement to your vintage bungalow.

Instead, I suggest you consider an arbor. A wooden arbor planted with wisteria (or another vine), like the one in the above photo, could provide pleasantly dappled shade. If the arbor covered a six-foot-wide swath of deck off the back of your house, it would be substantial enough to provide some relief from the sun without hogging too much deck space. Christopher Alexander’s pattern No. 167 “Six-foot balcony” in A Pattern Language makes the case for creating such a space six-foot deep, minimum, in order to attract frequent use. 

Constructed of cedar (or a similarly rot-resistant wood) the arbor could extend from the rear wall of your home and be supported on the other end by a beam with shaped ends. Substantial, chamfered wooden posts of the same material could in turn support the beam and sit on approximately 30-inch-high broad bases with slightly tapered sides to suit your Spanish-style bungalow. Depending on your home’s exterior finish, the bases could be clad with wooden shingles or perhaps stucco.

Or, you might consider adding a porch roof over a portion of your deck.  Again, it needn’t extend much more than six feet or so from the rear face of your house. I’d recommend an exposed wooden roof structure with wooden v-groove planking on its underside (running perpendicular to the rafters) and perhaps supported in a fashion similar to that described in the paragraph above for an arbor. The roofing material could match the main house, or you might want to introduce a contrasting material like standing-seam metal for a lighter, more stream-lined look.

The arbor is a softer solution than the porch-roof solution, but either would provide shade while complementing your home’s historic character.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Email architect Katie Hutchison ( your general-interest residential design question. Put "Ask Katie" in the subject line and summarize your question in a couple of paragraphs. Include your name, town, and state. Don't include any attachments. Check back with the Ask Katie category to look for Katie's responses to select questions.

Ask Katie: Dormer and exterior-detail conundrums

Q: We have purchased a Cape house on Long Island with the front elevation as seen in the attached picture.  A poorly detailed "Nantucket-style" dormer was added at some point. Also, there was a later addition (to the right in the picture) with two gable dormers.

We are about to renovate this house, and while we would love to avoid *any* dormers, they are just too essential to the interior space.

Any ideas? Feel free to comment on any aspect of the house!

John and Cary, Springs, NY

photo provided by homeowner

A:  I’m breaking my own “Ask Katie” rule here by including a photo with a reader question, but because it illustrates a number of design issues many homeowners encounter, I believe it’s worth sharing.


As I’ve mentioned before in House Enthusiast and in columns I’ve written for Fine Homebuilding and the Journal of Light Construction, dormers can be a great way to gain second-floor living space without adding to the building footprint. The challenge is to keep them from overwhelming the roofscape or throwing the massing off balance.

Unfortunately, the dormer shown on the original Cape is too flat-faced and prominent. My first thought was of cat ears. Had it been a true Nantucket-style dormer the center shed-roofed portion would have been recessed from the two dog-house (excuse the pet theme) dormers. Overall, it’s also too tall and showing too much shingle wall relative to the windows. It is, however, nested fairly well, meaning it’s set back from the main roof lower eave, set below the main roof ridge, and leaves a generous amount of the original roof on either side.

I imagine that whoever created the addition to the right, was influenced by the cat-ear dormer when they added the two independent dog-house dormers there. Or it could have been the other way around; the dormers to the right could have inspired the dormer on the original Cape. In either case, the two dog-house dormers on the right strike me as more successful. For one, their windows are shorter, which in turn resulted in shorter dormers which are less obtrusive. I also appreciate that the dog-house dormers over the addition do not include the shed dormer component in between them, so they aren’t trying to duplicate the other dormer, but merely respond to it. These I would keep.

The solution to the dormer over the original Cape may be to replace the cat-ear dormer

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Ask Katie: Thoughts on roofs and roof/wall-height relationships

Q: My husband and I are building a new house and are confused by roof pitches and wall heights. Does the roof pitch have a relationship to wall height?

Cathy from Hammond, LA

For having her question selected for this post, Cathy is receiving a complimentary set of KHS photo note cards.

A: Often it does. Roof slopes and the relationship of the roof to wall height (relative to the floor and ground) are critical to a successful design. Often the roof and its disposition are the most defining characteristics of a home.

roof slope 101
For the sake of discussion, let’s say there are three roof-slope categories. I consider a lower slope to be 7/12 and below. A steeper slope is 10/12 and above. A mid-range slope is everything in between. Think of roof slope in terms of rise and run. A 4/12 slope means that for every 12-inch horizontal run, the roof slope rises four inches.

Roof slope is partly a function of climate, available roofing materials, and structural considerations. The steeper the roof slope is, the easier for accumulated snow or water to slide or run off. So, wetter, snowier climates tend to have steeper roofs. Materials that perform well on a steeply sloped roof may be problematic on a roof slope below 4/12. Don’t forget that the primary role of the roof is to provide overhead protection from the elements. Roof slope can also have structural implications, with flatter roofs having different requirements than more steeply sloped roofs. Some roof/wall-height relationships can trigger other structural considerations too.

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Giveaway for best Ask Katie question

Click on this photo to see it in the KHS photo note cards/prints gallery.It’s been a while since I’ve received a good, general-interest question to address in an Ask Katie post. So, I’m sweetening the pot. If you have a residential design question that many might share, email it to me at and put “Ask Katie” in the subject field. Please do not include or attach photos. If I select your question to answer in the next Ask Katie post, you’ll receive a complimentary box (chosen by you) of KHS photo note cards. I look forward to hearing from you.

by Katie Hutchison for House Enthusiast