Monday, April 16, 2012

Let there be light, part 3

In addition to the problem with the living room lights, we had a problem with our kitchen lights, as I mentioned in the last post. In California, Title 24 mandates that a certain percentage of your lighting be fluorescents. As a result, most of the lights in our kitchen are fluorescents. The choices for nice-looking modern fluorescent fixtures are limited. We also wanted dimmable lights, and dimmable fixtures that would work with our GrafikEye system. There were only a few possibilities that fit the bill, and we had selected the Artemide Ventanas.

Within a year, we had some problems with a couple of the fixtures in the kitchen. The lights started to flicker in the way that fluorescents do when they're burning out. The problem turned out to be bad Lutron ballasts. I contacted Lutron, and they sent me replacements which I was able to install myself. This worked for a while, but last year, another light started flickering. Replacing the bulb did no good. So we simply programmed the lights out of the lighting system. This was inconvenient, as the other lights we had in the kitchen simply didn't provide enough light. (Yes, they were supposed to be functional as well as pretty!)

We got our electrician to come out, and he determined that the central GrafikEye dimming module that drives these fixtures was bad. He gave us a number of choices, of which, the easiest was to simply convert the fixtures to non-dimmable fixtures, and swap out the dimming module. I'll settle for reliability every day! Today he came to replace the remaining part, and within an hour, our kitchen lights were working, good as new! It's nice to have a well-lit house again!

Postscript: Last week one of our under-counter fluorescent bulbs burned out (after four years). Once we replace that lamp, all lights will be fully operational! Hopefully they will stay that way for a while.

Let there be light, part 2

As you may recall, we installed a fancy-schmancy lighting system in our house. The kitchen and living room lights are split into zones which are all controlled by a lighting system by Lutron, called GrafikEye. We installed 24 Lightolier halogen track lights in the living room (split into 5 zones), and four very nice dimmable Artemide fluorescent fixtures in the kitchen (among others).

Within a year, quite a few of the Lightolier lights had burned out. Our ceilings are quite high, and it wasn't practical to get up there every time a bulb went, so we waited a while before we tried to replace one. (With 24 fixtures, there is some redundancy!)

When we finally took one down and replaced the bulb, we discovered the light still didn't work. It was a faulty fixture!

Last summer I contacted Philips, the maker of Lightolier, about my problem with the fixtures. It turned out that this particular batch of fixtures had defective heat sinks. They offered to repair them and return them. So we took eight of them down (not wanting to be in complete darkness), and shipped them back to Philips. Several weeks later, repaired fixtures came back. (Yes, they were the same fixtures, but with different heat sinks, because I'd marked them all just to make sure.)

In parallel with that, we decided to switch the lamps out from halogen to LED. Having very hot halogens next to a wood ceiling is probably a bad idea in general (as the discolorations due to heat from the bad fixtures attests).  I put a test LED lamp in one of the repaired fixtures, and put it side by side with a halogen lamp, and waited a couple of days to see how I liked the light the LED lamp produced. It was a good thing I waited, because within a day, one of the repaired fixtures stopped working.

At that point, I contacted Philips and asked them to send me new replacement fixtures for all 24 of my lights. Unfortunately, the fixtures were not in stock, so it took a couple of months for them to arrive. Working with a local distributor, who was very very helpful, I finally received the fixtures two weeks ago. In the meantime, I had ordered 24 LED lamps from

Last week, our electrician came out and replaced all the bad fixtures with the new ones with LED bulbs. As they're track lights this is of course something that we could do ourselves, but it's better to have 20-somethings up on the high ladders replacing them than a couple of middle aged folks with breakable bones. The money was well spent! Now, for the first time in two years, our living room is fully lit once again! Hopefully we'll have no more problems with these lights. I'll detail the kitchen light saga in my next post.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


It's been a while since I posted, but thought it worthwhile to share my experience with property tax reassessment for our renovation, in the hopes that someone will find it valuable. We live in Santa Clara County, so what I'm about to say may not apply in other counties (and certainly not in other states!).

As those who live in California know, Proposition 13 was passed a couple of decades ago because property values were rising so fast that long-time homeowners were driven out of their homes because they weren't able to afford to pay for the increased tax assessment that came out of the rising home values. They weren't trying to sell their houses necessarily; only to live there. Prop. 13 changed the law so that assessments could only go up a small amount each year as long as the ownership of the property didn't change. Once a house was sold, it would get reassessed for the new owners at the new property value, and taxes would go up to what they "should" be. In years following, they'd creep up at the rate determined by Prop 13 until the next change of ownership occurred.

When a renovation is done, some part of the property can be reassessed. Going into our remodel, my understanding was that the property would be reassessed for the value of the new square footage, that is, the parts that we added on to the house. I also understood that the parts that had previously existed but were renovated would not get reassessed.

Our remodel finished around the time the economy tanked and the housing market plummeted. As a result, the assessors' office was swamped dealing with people who wanted their property taxes decreased, and it took them over a year and a half to reassess our house. Upon reassessment, we were shocked to discover that the value of the structure had almost doubled, especially given that we'd only added 750 square feet to a 3200 square foot house. It turned out that they had reassessed every square inch we had touched in the remodel, rather than just the new addition.

Our remodel finished in October 2007, and I had the assessor out to the house in the summer of 2009. I'd prepare a detailed explanation of repairs and other deferred maintenance we'd done in each part of the house we touched. I also gave him a spreadsheet of calculations on which I based my suggested lower assessment, based purely on the new square footage. He left sounding somewhat unconvinced. Several e-mail exchanges later and we were unable to come to a resolution, so I filed an appeal in fall 2009. In the meantime, we wound up having to pay an escape assessment for 2007-2008 based on their proposed value, a supplemental assessment for 2008-2009, and our property tax bill (new! higher payment!) for 2009-2010. It was a whopper! But pay it we did, as we had no choice if we were to avoid penalties and interest.

In May of this year, almost two years from the time we filed an appeal, we got notice of our hearing date in June. The case has to be heard within two years of filing an appeal or the county has to give you back the extra property tax you paid, and can't up the assessment until the case is heard.

Feeling woefully unprepared and not knowing how they'd calculated their view of the assessment, I contacted the senior assessor assigned to the case to try to get more information. He came out to the house, and I gave him the explanations and calculations I'd given to the appraiser two year's previous. I walked him through the house.

The visit yielded a couple of very useful pieces of information:

  • Although parts of a structure can be reassessed as "new" if they've been substantially rebuilt, the notion of what's "new" is based on standards of modern housing. Our house suffers from a few building trends from the era it was built: narrow hallways (not up to modern standard), and a low ceiling downstairs (since it was a finished basement). Our remodel did nothing to change those two aspects of the house, which was an argument in our favor.
  • The assessors' office is judged not on how much revenue they bring in, but how many cases they close by the deadline. At the time our appeal was to be heard, they had a ridiculous number of cases to close. Many of those cases were petitions for decreased valuation filed by people who had bought their houses shortly before the crash. Some were cases like ours. In other words, making it as easy as possible for the assessor to close our case was in our mutual best interest.

As the assessor left, he made an offhand remark that one part of that house (the part that really hadn't been remodeled) was completely out of the picture. So that was something!

A few days later, he e-mailed me to tell me that he was going to recommend for a reassessment based solely on the new square footage. Yay! He simply needed cost information. Although assessment should be about "value" and not cost, I was happy to comply. I prepared a spreadsheet with the costs related to just the new square footage, which included the amount apportioned to the new square footage only. In other words, if I paid $X for new windows, I estimated the amount that was attributable to the new square footage, since some of the new windows were for the existing structure. Amazingly the cost amount came out to what I'd originally asked our reassessment to be. I swear I did not dry lab this!

I sent it off to him, and then got a note a few days later saying that he was going to recommend that the assessment be changed to that amount. It wouldn't be final until the appeals board met, however. The appeals board met last week, and we got our official notification this week that our house has been reassessed. So now it's official! We'll get our refund check for the excess taxes in 4-6 months. I hope it will include interest and penalties!

The lessons for others who are asking for a reduction in their assessment is:

  • Do your homework. Prepare a set of written arguments that outlines why the assessment should be what you think it should be.
  • Do the math. Prepare a detailed spreadsheet with calculations if necessary. Include plans if it supports your argument.
  • Be persistent and don't give up.
  • Do as much of the work as you can for them, to help them help you. They have a ridiculously heavy caseload, and the less work they have to do, the more likely it is that you'll get what you want.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Last weekend, I went to the Ft. Mason Craft Faire with some friends of mine from work. This is a big exposition where artisans come to display their wares each year for wholesale and retail alike. Some of the people buying are local boutique stores that sell handmade items (like Earthworks in Los Altos, for example); others are members of the general public like myself.

Last year I'd gone to the faire, but because our house wasn't yet finished, I only went to get ideas. This year I went looking to buy, since we now have some big spaces to fill.

We did a tour of the biggest building, making note of the pieces/artisans that interested us. We then went to have lunch at Greens, a restaurant I've always wanted to go to (and it was good!). After lunch, we toured the second smaller building, and then it was time to decide.

In the first building, we'd seen some incredible stainless wall hangings by Bruce MacDonald, a Vermont artisan. (How he schlepped his art to SF is beyond me... the pieces are BIG!). "Spooky" was a 4' x 8' stainless etching (if you can call it that), which has incredible depth and changes depending upon the light. I thought it was perfect for above the mantelpiece, given that the light on that area changes throughout the day and night.

As I wasn't sure whether it would be big enough (or too big for that matter), I had Kurt do a mockup for me and send me a photo. He took some of the leftover cardboard from the sofa packing boxes and made a cardboard mockup that was a similar size. He sent me the photo and I saw it would work. I'd already sent him a picture of the artwork via phone to get approval to transact the purchase.

Our good friends who live in SF were coming to visit us that evening, and they graciously agreed to take Spooky home for us in their minivan, for which I'm very grateful. It barely fit.

But you can see that it fills the space well, and makes a stunning addition to the great room. And now Kurt doesn't have to look at that MOCA poster he was getting so sick of!

I still have a lot of art to hang, including some glass art I bought at the faire. Once I get it all hung I'll post pictures of a whole house tour!

New sofa -- Flexform Groundpiece!

We received our new Flexform Groundpiece sofa from on August 9th, the morning of my bday party -- what timing! It came packed in three large wooden crates, and in ten or so boxes within the crates.

Before we had the delivery guys unpack it, we had them move the Ligne-Roset Multy loveseat from the family room to the upstairs guest bedroom (where, believe it or not, was its originally-planned destination, even though it had done stints in the old living room, the scraper, and the family room, before arriving at its ultimate resting place), and move our old Roche-Bobois sofa from upstairs to the family room (again, where it was intended to go). Once that was done, we took crowbar to crate, and broke open the crate and ripped apart the boxes, and had them move the sofa inside to its destination.

Assembling the sofa was really easy. Looking at the sofa layout, each identified item was a piece that had to be assembled. The sofa had three "arms," two being leather bookshelves, and the other being a fabric arm. There were three seating areas, and a number of cushions. The entire sofa sits on a cylindrical bar of metal, and each individual piece attaches together by fitting the cylindrical pieces together with fittings supplied with the sofa.

The only problem I had was that I wound up scratching the hardwood floor when trying to fit two of the pieces together. But no matter, we just moved the sofa over the scratched area, and I later got some wood-filling wax to hide the scratch, so it looks just fine now.

We moved the Ligne-Roset Didier Gomez coffee table upstairs, since it goes better with the sofa than the old Peter Maly coffee table, which has gone downstairs with the other sofa. However, the new sofa is big enough that we'll probably have to buy a new coffee table at some point. The sofa also goes perfectly with the Minotti club chairs I purchased on So the great room is almost complete!

All in all, I've been extremely happy with my purchase. It's the perfect size for the space, it's unbelievably comfortable, and very beautiful, fitting in perfect with the decor. had great service, and the sofa arrived pretty much when they said it would. I saved a lot of money by buying it from them (versus buying locally, or even elsewhere in the US), and their service exceeded the service I've received at most local high-end furniture stores.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Window coverings

Do you think Kurt is trying to tell me something? The picture at the left shows the window covering Kurt has fashioned for the office window. It consists of some white paper, a "painting", and two Trader Joe's shopping bags. Quite creative and post modernist, really. A suburban collage.

I think he's trying to tell me something, but I'm not sure what. Maybe you know?

Okay, I guess it's really time to order some real window coverings for a few of the windows. The office gets morning light, and it is pretty annoying, esp. in the summer. The kitchen windows get the evening sun, and also need some covers. And I suppose we should get some window coverings for the downstairs guest room. Even though it's very private down there, it's still pretty sunny in the morning. No sleeping in for our guests!

I've gotten some samples from the Shade Store and will try to order this weekend. They carry a lot of really nice roller shades, as well as some panel systems which I will probably use for the downstairs guest room. Again, the decisions are overwhelming -- how much light blockage to choose? what color? what fabric? -- but I'll just have to buck up and decide! I was thinking of going with Chilewich fabrics, but it turns out that the ones I like don't really block enough light for my needs. Plus, the office window is too wide for what's available from Chilewich, so we'll probably choose something else.

It's really interesting how much you can buy on the Internet. The Shade Store will send you samples, and has a really helpful measurement guide for ordering the blinds. Their customer service over the phone has been really helpful. Having been to some local stores where they really didn't have many options for modern design, it's kind of frustrating to find these things locally. You either need to hire a designer (which I probably should do, but again, haven't been able to find someone local with the sensibilities I'm after), or go around to a number of stores and hopefully find someone somewhere who will have something you like that will do the job. OR, you could go on the Internet and search with Google, which is certainly a lot more time and energy efficient!

Form AND function!

Took most of today off work, so have a little bit of time to post. A couple of weeks ago our dryer went on the fritz. Well, it had shown signs of dying a while back. When we first hooked it back up, the temperature sensing part of the dryer stopped working. But timed dry still worked. A few weeks ago, the dryer just up and quit, right in the middle of a load. Didn't it understand that we had important laundry to do?

Laundry couldn't wait for the dryer to be fixed, and I didn't have much time to dry things as I had an upcoming trip to take, for which I needed clean clothing. To the rescue our outside cable rail! The cables work perfectly as clothes lines; the multiple rows of cables allow you to hang an entire laundry load pretty easily. Binder clips made good temporary clothes pins. The sun and the wind on the patio made for fast, effortless and cheap drying!

You'd think that we'd go completely euro and just dry things this way from now on, but truthfully, a dryer is a very handy gadget to have. We did a little bit of sleuthing, and found that in fact, the breaker had blown, and the wiring needed to be repaired. So we had to get both our electrician AND a dryer repair guy in to fix it.

It turns out that the same problem that stopped the time drying to work eventually stopped the dryer from working altogether. And it was a good thing that the electrical panel did its job with the breaker tripping or the house might have burned down, which would have been both sad and somehow strangely ironic, now that we're done with the construction.

The problem was that whomever initially installed the power cord onto our fairly new dryer (we'll just call him "installer guy" for now), didn't have the right screw for the job. So he used some random screw to affix one of the power-cord leads to the dryer. The act of moving the dryer out of the laundry room, and back to the laundry room once construction was done, must have jarred that ill-fitting screw loose. As a result, one of the power-cord leads was no longer securely attached to the terminal, and some sparking started to occur. At first, this affected the temperature drying circuitry, but eventually, it burned out the insulation on that lead and caused some sort of a short which resulted in the breaker tripping. Yes, they do make those fuses for a reason!

We now have a new power cord in place, and thanks to the appliance repair guy (Mr. Joe Chan, of Chan's Appliances), have the correct screw affixed so it won't happen again. And our dryer is once again capable of drying either through its timed drying facility or through its temperature-sensing abilities, depending on our mood. And although we still have this fabulous stainless steel outdoor drying rack, we've gone back to using it as a decorative railing. But it's nice to know we could hang laundry there again to dry if we ever wanted to.