Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Name That Room

This is only very loosely related to the blog's new ecofrugal focus, but it's something that's been on my mind:

Last night, after a long session of working on the basement floor (which is progressing slowly, but surely), Brian remarked that the new floor had really transformed the room. It now looked, he observed, "like a room." This might seem like a non-statement, but it's actually a pretty striking observation. When we first laid eyes on that basement, it looked like a basement—a semi-finished, walk-out basement, but a basement nonetheless. From the fake wood paneling to the cruddy vinyl floor to the bare light bulbs, everything about it said that no one was really taking it seriously as a room. But the work we've put into it has transformed it into a real room—bright and well-lit and decidedly finished.

The problem is, we're still in the habit of referring to this room as "the basement." That makes it sound like a dark, musty area that's used only for storage, or perhaps for the occasional woodworking project. If we're going to start thinking of this room as a proper room, it needs a proper name. But what?

My mom has occasionally referred to this room-in-progress as our "family room," but that doesn't sound right to me. A "family room" is the room where you spend time as a family—as opposed to a formal living room, which isn't really for "living" at all, but only for looking at. If it gets used at all, it's only when company comes, and only when the company is someone you don't feel comfortable enough with to treat them as family and sit in the family room. But in our house, the living room is actually used as a living room; it's the place where we sit and watch TV and generally hang out. So the basement room definitely won't be a "family room"; if anything, it will be just the opposite, a big space that we use mainly for entertaining. I've heard of finished basements being referred to as rec rooms (for "recreation"), but to me that term suggests a space whose main feature is a pool table, or a foosball table, or perhaps a big TV set. Definitely not the kind of recreation we have in mind for our room, which will more likely involve board games and perhaps the occasional music party.

I suppose we could call the room the dining room, as our house doesn't currently have one, and this large basement room is the only one in the house big enough to accommodate a full-sized dining table. But this won't be the main room that we use for eating, and eating won't be the main function of the room. If we ever have dinner parties, we'll certainly have them downstairs, as it's the only room big enough, but the big dining table will be used for board games more often than for meals, and the room will also have a sitting area that doesn't fit in with the "dining" function. "Living room/dining room" is a term that might cover both functions, but our house already has a living room, and we're not planning to switch our main living area from upstairs to downstairs.

On the decorating shows, they often refer to a finished attic or basement as a "bonus room," but this term seems to imply that it's an extra space that you get thrown in for free—not really part of the main house. I want the name we give to this room to make it clear that it's a real part of our house, even if it's one we don't use every day. The names of most rooms come from their functions (living room, dining room, bedroom), but this room will be used for a variety of functions—dining, gaming, music, entertaining, and occasionally putting up overnight guests. So what do we call it? The game room? The party room? The great room (because it's large)? The gathering room? Or should we name it for its location, rather than its function, and just call it "downstairs"?

Any suggestions?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


It sometimes seems to me that there should be a word for the kind of changes you can make to a room that are neither redecorating nor remodeling. "Redecorating," to me, sounds like a job you can do in a day. It could range from something as simple as rearranging the furniture to throwing everything out and bringing in new furniture, but in either case, it doesn't involve any changes to the basic structure of the room itself. At most, it might entail repainting or replacing the carpet. "Remodeling," on the other hand, suggests making changes to the basic structure--knocking out walls, putting in windows, that kind of thing. It sounds like the kind of job that you expect to take weeks, if not months, and to make the room pretty much unusable in the meantime.

What there doesn't seem to be a word for is the kind of changes that fall somewhere in between, like the changes we're making now to our basement. Over the past few years, we've ripped out the paneling and the old vinyl floor, rewired the room and put in new light fixtures, built new windowsills, boxed in an exposed heating pipe, repaired and repainted the walls and ceiling, replaced the handrail on the staircase, and painted the stairs. We're on the home stretch of this massive project now, installing the brown-paper floor over the existing concrete. It certainly feels to me like we have done more than "redecorate" this room, but I don't feel like I can really claim we "remodeled" it, either.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to call this kind of work "refinishing." When you refinish a piece of furniture, you strip off the old varnish or paint or whatever and apply a new surface, while leaving the bones of the piece unchanged. That's kind of what we're doing here. Pretty much every surface in this room has been altered, but the basic structure--windows, walls, ceiling--is the same. I think this is a useful ecofrugal concept, because the kind of refinishing we've done in this room can have just as big an impact as actual remodeling, but it will generally cost less, use fewer resources, and produce less waste.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The IKEA Challenge

One of the most popular stories on the New York Times website today is "A Roomy 178 Square Feet," about a New Yorker who has crammed his tiny studio apartment with all kinds of objects on the theory that "the more stuff you put in a room...the bigger it seems." I guess there must be something wrong with my spatial perception, because to me, the room looked tiny, cluttered, and ungepachkit (an incredibly useful Yiddish word meaning "tastelessly overdone--too much of too many things at once"). Not that I'm such a minimalist that I like a room to contain one bed, one chair, one table, and no gewgaws of any kind. No, I like a few accessories to brighten up a space, but I like them to look like they belong in the space. I like it to look like some thought went into the choice of what to put in the room and what to leave out. I like there to be enough furniture to fill a space, but still leave room to walk around. I like to see three or four colors that harmonize together, not twenty different shades fighting with each other.

All of which brings me to an idea I've been meaning to write about for some time: the IKEA challenge.

This idea first popped into my head when the 2010 IKEA catalogue came out (and by the way, yes, it really is spelled in all caps--at least, that's the way they spell it, and I think every person or other entity should have the final say on how to spell his, her, or its own name). As I leafed through it, marveling over the prices I got to thinking, "I wonder if it would be possible to furnish an entire apartment from IKEA for $1000 and still have it look decent?" What I had in mind at the time was a one-bedroom apartment like the one I used to have, with a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living/office area. But seeing this guy's tiny studio (which does, by the way, include an IKEA bed) has inspired me to try a new challenge: furnish a wee 178-foot studio so as to make the best possible use of the space. The pieces must fulfill all the same functions as in my original challenge--a place to sit, a place to eat, a place to work, and a place to sleep--but in one room. The budget is still $1000 ($1500 less than the guy in the article spent to deck out his place, even with all his clever handmade pieces and thrift-store finds).

To do this, it will obviously be necessary to pick out some pieces that do double duty. For example, we'll need a bed that can double as a couch, or provide storage space, or all three. Like, for example, this Hemnes day bed, which can serve as either a couch or a single bed, with drawers for storage underneath--and, with the drawers pulled out, can even turn into a double bed. However, much as I like this piece, I must admit that at $500--not even including the mattress or bed linens--it's too much for our self-imposed budget. No, we're better off with the Beddinge/Lövås sofa bed, only $200 with the most basic cover. We can add the $30 Beddinge storage box to store the bed linens when it's in its sofa form, making the piece even more functional.

So now we have both a bed and a couch. To complete the sleeping area, we'll need a dresser and a nightstand of some kind, and to complete the living area, a couple of chairs and some sort of coffee table. Here, again, it's double duty to the rescue. This eight-block Expedit bookcase, turned on its side, can be stocked with five of these little two-drawer inserts, to serve as a combination dresser and TV stand. A smaller one, stacked on top, can store books and accessories. The whole piece together costs $270. One of these little Lack side tables, available in a rainbow of colors at $8 each, can do double duty as a nightstand, and the matching coffee table ($20) can go in front of the sofa/bed and scoot aside at bedtime.

Chairs will obviously have to do double or triple duty as well--in the sitting area, the eating area, and the office area. So we'll need something light and versatile that's easy to move around, like these stackable Nordmyra chairs at $40 each. The plastic Herman chair would be a lot cheaper, at $15 each, but not as nice-looking, and we can squeeze the nicer ones into the budget if we make the $170 Norden gateleg table, with its folding top and three storage drawers, do double duty as a dining table and a desk.

So far, we've furnished the whole room for only $815 including tax, which leaves plenty of money in the budget for accessories to make this sparsely furnished area look less Spartan. Like a big mirror--say, this 29-by-29-inch Noresund, for $20--to visually increase the size of the small space. A nice Kroby floor lamp will add some light for another $30. We can add what decorators like to call "pops of color" with these Granat cushions, only $4 each, and this Hampen rug, $50, in bright red, and warm the space up with a nice Polarvide throw for $3.50. Throw in some extras--a wastebasket, a couple of potted plants, a few candles for atmosphere, and a handy desk organizer--and the total budget comes in at just over $970. That leaves us an extra $30 for any little odds and ends I may have forgotten. And the finished space looks, in my imagination, a lot more pulled-together than the apartment featured in the Times.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Driving the Bandwagon, Part 2

Last April I noticed that Brian and I were ahead of the curve on an emerging trend toward frugality. The cable-free, line-dried lifestyle we'd been living for years was suddenly considered hip. While it was a novel sensation to be a trendsetter, I figured it would never happen again.

Well, what do you know? According to this article on Bankrate, the latest trend among homebuyers is to seek out "lower prices, smaller floor plans, greener elements" and other features that "conform to their lifestyles." Many people want to live in neighborhoods that are walkable, close to their jobs, and/or convenient to transit. Formal dining rooms are out; energy efficiency is in. McMansions? So last decade.

In other words, buyers today are looking at the same criteria that we used when we were shopping for this house three years ago. We're trendsetters again! Next thing you know, millions of Americans will be driving 15-year-old cars, playing board games, and listening to obscure folk artists. Knock wood.

Monday, February 8, 2010

World's Biggest Craft Project

A year after I first thought of the idea, I've finally bitten the bullet and started installing a brown-paper floor in the basement. So far, I've managed (with some help from Brian) to cover about 25 square feet of a room that measures somewhere around 400 square feet. It is, shall we say, a slow process.

Putting down the pieces of paper is actually kind of fun--a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. To make them look natural, the pieces need to be torn from the roll rather than cut, creating an uneven edge. So they have to be fitted together to avoid leaving bare patches without too much wasteful overlap between pieces. It does get a bit tiring after a while, kneeling on the concrete and pressing piece after piece of paper into place, but it's also satisfying to watch the finished area expand. The really tedious part is preparing the pieces of paper. Each piece has to be torn from the roll, thoroughly crumpled, and unfolded again, to create wrinkles in the paper that will absorb the poly and give it a nice marbleized look. The paper is fairly heavy and stiff, and it's remarkable how fast your hands can get tired crumpling and unfolding dozens of pieces at a time. After several hours of this, my back and knees feel fine, but my hands are still sore.

So, this isn't a quick and easy weekend project, but I'm hoping the payoff will be worth the work. Even from the little bit we've done so far, it's clear that the end result will be much more interesting than a plain painted surface.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Midwinter's Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday not much celebrated except in elementary schools (and, of course, in Punxsutawney, PA). It's a pity, because this little-observed festival is all we really have these days to commemorate the midpoint of winter--the halfway mark between the winter solstice (which comes amid all the hustle and bustle of Christmastime) and the spring equinox (which leads the way for the spring festivals of Passover and Easter). In the past, various festivals occurred at this time of year, from the Irish hearth festival of Imbolg to the Catholic Feast of the Purification of Mary, or Candlemas. It's a traditional date for taking down Christmas decorations, as described in this poem by Robert Herrick. And the tradition of watching the weather for a sign of spring is reflected in the old English rhyme, "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, / Winter will have another flight. / If Candlemas Day bring clouds and rain, / Winter will not come again."

Okay, perhaps it's not realistic to believe that spring will ever really come this early just because a groundhog can't see his shadow. But even so, this day is a sort of a turning point in the season--not the beginning of spring, but the beginning of the end for winter. We may still have six weeks to go, but we've made it through the darkest and, with any luck, the coldest days. Under the snow, the bulbs are waking up, and soon we'll see the first green shoots of crocuses and snowdrops. The sap is beginning to rise in the trees, and soon it will be time for maple sugaring. For gardeners, it's time to order our seeds and start plotting out next spring's vegetable beds. Winter may not be over, but its days are numbered.

So, for all those who want to honor this point in the cycle of the seasons, here's a little poem I wrote four years back while traipsing through the bleak brown February landscape--tentatively titled "Groundhog Day."

This is the heart of winter,
the certainty of cold.
No snow to make the landscape bright,
no ice to glaze the branches;
just brown, and grey, and mottled green,
mud thick as molasses.
Past is the cheer of holly boughs,
the flickering gold of candles.
This is the long wait for the dawn,
for the first shout of green.
This is not the time for fruits,
not the time for flowers;
this is the time for hidden things,
for seeds that stir beneath the soil,
for frogs that sleep in beds of mire,
for sap that rises in the wood.
This is a breath held, and held, and held.
This is not the end of the year but the beginning.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Other Popcorn Report

I think popcorn is just about the perfect snack. It's healthful, filling, and easy to make. Of course, if you load it up with butter and salt, it's not quite so healthful, but in its natural state, popcorn is a nutritious whole grain with about 125 calories, nearly 5 grams of fiber, and less than 1.5 grams of fat per quart (according to the USDA Nutrient Database). The only problem is, making this kind of stripped-down popcorn usually requires an air popper--a big, noisy appliance that takes up space and can be a hassle to extract from your cabinet. So for the sake of convenience, most people go with pricey, overpackaged microwave popcorn, which is exactly the opposite of ecofrugal. According to an analysis in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, microwave popcorn costs anywhere from 4 to 13 times as much as regular jar-packed popcorn, and each bowlful comes with a throwaway microwave bag and plastic wrapper.

Fortunately, there is an elegant solution that offers the convenience of microwave popcorn without the waste: the reusable microwave popper. This simple device costs about $10 and takes up no more cabinet space than a regular bowl. After some trial and error, I've found that the organic popcorn from the bulk bins at Whole Foods works best in my home microwave. I measure 1/4 cup of kernels into the popper, punch in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, and pull out a full bowl of fluffy white popcorn with no more than half a dozen duds at the bottom. I don't even have to transfer it to another container--I just drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle it with salt, and dive in.

A pound of the bulk popcorn costs about $1.60 and yields about 13 bowlfuls--12.5 cents per bowl. The cheapest microwave popcorn I've ever found (an off-brand on sale at the Dollar Tree) cost twice as much per bag. So an inexpensive microwave popper is an investment that will pay for itself after, at most, 80 uses--which, at the rate I go through popcorn, means about four months. And because I keep the popper and the popcorn both within easy reach, it actually requires no more work than unwrapping one of those wasteful little bags.