Building your own courtyard

The podium with the two chairs on which Heads of State listen to the national anthems during welcoming ceremonies are seen in the courtyard of the Chancellery in Berlin, prior to the first visit of Moldova’s Prime Minister, on July 16, 2019. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Today, we plan our courtyard.

Why a Courtyard? Because it’s the next best thing to constructing a moat, which would be fantastic. However, the challenge of keeping water in the moat to a consistent level, possible mechanical issues with the drawbridge, and the permit process, will in all likelihood be problematic.

As a result, we’ll be constructing the second-most-awesome type of residential appendage on the list of “things that make for a great home,” that being a courtyard.

What does one do in a courtyard that can’t be accomplished on a backyard deck, or front porch?

Why— holding court of course, reading poetry, or simply relaxing in this enclosed and serene space.

And, it’s the term “enclosed” that really defines a courtyard, and what gives it its inherent value, compared to the free for all, open atmosphere of a deck or porch.

Now, you may ask yourself, “Does my home really require a courtyard?”

To which I would answer, survival will most likely be achieved without one. However, would your home benefit from an extra bathroom in the master bedroom? Or, physical fitness area? Or, computer room? Or, any kind of more personal, designated space in the home?

Perhaps yes.

Now, if your home is surrounded with regular perimeter fencing, could this enclosed area be somewhat defined as a courtyard? No, that’s simply referred to as a backyard with fencing, which would otherwise qualify practically any area as a courtyard.

A courtyard most often occupies its own area, essentially creating a space within a space, and by definition has a clear separation from the outside world regarding its level of privacy and its contents.

Basically, the walls surrounding your courtyard should be at least six feet high, and be made of stone, or a heavy duty type wooden fence panel where the fencing planks are tightly installed against one another. Outsiders should not be able to peek into your courtyard, or easily view it from the exterior.

Part of the grandeur or mystery of the courtyard is being able to open the gate to a new area, or private space not commonly viewed by the passerby.

The floor of your courtyard should be of interlocking brick, slabs of rock and pea stone, or decorative concrete patio slabs. The courtyard should be free of the mechanical noise created by lawn mowers and whipper snippers, so no grass.

What does one put in a courtyard? All of your favorite things.

Traditionally, and if space permits, there will be a centrepiece. This can be anything from a raised stone planter box with a flowering tree, to a traditional concrete well, a fixture that served many a medieval courtyard. Or, if you’re of Greek or Italian heritage, the statuettes of half-dressed ladies collecting water by the shoreline is always a crowd pleaser.

Are courtyards, due to the stone flooring, and desire for serenity, to be considered no-child zones? Quite the opposite. Although the courtyard serves well as a place to read or write, it should also be considered a safe zone. Simple child’s play is to be encouraged, with an errant soccer ball breaking a cherubs arm, or decapitating one of the statuettes, only increasing its value.

The balance of the space can be filled with benches, lounge chairs, and a raised, bar type of table for enjoying a beverage or playing checkers.

With four walls of either stone or wood, and a patio slab floor, what goes overhead? Traditionally, nothing but clear sky, with the walls themselves providing some shade.

However, in order to make the space a little more useable in our climate zone, you may want to consider covering a portion of the courtyard space with a SunLouver pergola, a unit where the roof louvers are adjustable, adapting to both sun and rain.

Where to build your courtyard? Front-lawn courtyards can be a little ominous, but it still presents a great spot. Otherwise, choose any area in close proximity to the home.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Getting ready to play with fire

A backyard fire pit burns in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014. FILE PHOTO

Today we investigate the possibility of operating an open backyard fire pit.

Now, you’re probably wondering, why put all this thought into what’s essentially going to be a campfire in the backyard for the kiddies to enjoy roasting marshmallows, and a hub where the adults can dismiss their supervisory roles while solving life’s issues over a few light ales?

Because, just like we need signs that say, “Speed Limit 100 km/h,” “Don’t Walk on the Grass,” or “Don’t reach into cage to touch gorillas,” relying on the element of common sense when it comes to human behaviour has proven to be unsuccessful.

So, like everything else, including the operation of a backyard fire pit, you’re going to have to get a permit, and follow the rules.

What’s the consequence to not wanting to follow what is basically a pretty lenient set of restrictions? Well— nobody’s going to tear your arm out of its socket and hand it back to you after gnawing on the forearm proves distasteful, but the monetary fine will certainly put a damper on your evening. Plus, restrictions and regulations may vary from city to county.

So, be sure to check with your local fire department regarding the safe operation of an open fire pit, and its bylaws.

The first step to backyard burning, other than operating a simple gas or charcoal barbecue, is to contact your local fire services office, and to request an open air burn permit application. The permit (for Cornwall and area) is going to cost you $100, which will be valid for three years. So, a pretty cheap application fee considering the fine for hosting an illegal burn is about $200 per infraction.

Essentially, the permit application is going to insist on a few conditions.

First, your fire pit will have to be located somewhere on your property that’s at least 20 feet from the property line, and any combustible structure. Trees and bushes, although obviously combustible, that encroach the 20-foot barrier, won’t necessarily sink this project. Unless of course, and upon inspection, the fire inspector deems you’re locating of the fire pit under an overhanging tree limb, is a site choice that needs reconsideration.

However, if you can’t strategize a fire pit location that keeps your flame at least 20 feet from your neighbour, or 20 feet from your home, or the extension you added to the deck, then you might as well shelve this initiative.

Next condition, your fire pit cannot be something that by definition, or sight, is homemade. So, the collecting or rocks to form a circle, a longtime tradition that created many a fond memory of outdoor camp adventures, which unfortunately and conversely led to even more forest fires, is not permitted.

Nor is the always classy, oil drum cut in half, which within a year usually rusts out at the bottom, then topples over, spilling hot embers onto the shoes of those unsuspecting marshmallow roasters not prepared for a quick retreat.

As a result, getting permit approval will require you procuring an official steel fire bowl, or approved stone type of outdoor fire pit or cooking grill.

Once you’ve solved the location issue and chosen an approved fire-pit unit, it’s pretty well clear sailing from this point.

Other conditions to burning will include having a readily available means to extinguish the fire in case of emergency. A simple garden hose will qualify as an extinguisher, providing that when Uncle Fred’s pant leg becomes engulfed in flames, and people are panicking, engaging the hose doesn’t mean having to first search for it in the darkness of the back shed.

Finally, part of the fire pit requirement is to notify your neighbours of your intention to openly burn, which can be a delicate subject to broach if existing relationships aren’t so great. So, be sure to get along with your neighbours, don’t ever blow smoke their way, and as a foolproof method to keeping the peace, invite them over for the first burning.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Find the source of those white stains

Efflorescence, a fibre-like mineral deposit — mostly salts — that indicates small, persistent moisture inflow. Before getting fluffy like this photo, it starts as white-coloured stains. Steve Maxwell/Postmedia Network

Got a tough laundry stain to get out? No problem.

Rinse the garment with cold water, then scrub in a little laundry detergent, let sit for a few minutes, then scrub and rinse once again.

Still not clean? OK, if were talking a piece of white apparel, try a little bleach, then rinse and scrub once again. Continue this process for 15 minutes, or until the next period of the hockey game commences.

If after giving this stain issue its due attention, the unsightly blotch consisting of a mélange of Molson Ex, chili sauce, and Dijon mustard, still persists, well, you’re going to have to live with the fact that balancing a meal on your stomach, the size of which could have fed a small village in Tanzania for two weeks, while watching the game, was probably a bad idea.

As a result, you can either live with the blotch, since a belly stain of this sort on a white t-shirt isn’t such an uncommon fashion statement for a man of your age, or toss the fine garment into a container in the garage containing various other undershirt apparel, that being the box simply labelled “rags.” Problem solved.

Now, what about house stains, and specifically, those relating to the white, powdery stuff on your brick or stone work— how does a homeowner deal with that relatively common stain issue?

Well, water, soap, and a little scrubbing will help, but it won’t solve the problem. The white residue often seen on cement floors, concrete foundations, as well as various cement sidings, including brick or man-made stone concrete products, is called efflorescence.

Taken from the French “to flower out,” efflorescence describes the action of salt in the cement product, or mortar, migrating to the surface of the concrete by moisture that has infiltrated the concrete.

Where does the salt come from? Salt exists in the ground, in the air, and can be found in just about every type of food and living organism.

If you’ve ever worn a ball cap on a scorching summer afternoon, where you likely perspired off a few pounds, then left your cap on the coat hook to dry at the end of the day, only to find a white residue having stained its surface by morning, that, in a nutshell, defines the action resulting in efflorescence.

Salt in the brick or stone gets liquefied by rain water or moisture that has infiltrated the brick. This salt infused moisture then makes its way to the surface of the brick through various pores in the product, then dries when it hits the open air, leaving a salt residue.

How do we clean off the efflorescence? First, scrub with a stiff bristled brush, then rinse with water. If the efflorescence contains calcium deposits, as well as salt, this is going to be a much more stubborn removal.

As a result, you may have to revert to using muriatic acid (diluted 1 to 20 in water). Muriatic acid is extremely corrosive. Therefore, you’re best to hire a professional cleaner for this task. They will have the proper clothing, ladders, and harnesses to safely work with this product.

The only issue with cleaning is that it’s likely a temporary solution. Efflorescence is unattractive, but not harmful to you or your brick. However, it is a sign of moisture entering the brick wall, or foundation, in some way.

So, avoiding further efflorescence issues means eliminating the cause. Basically, you’ll need to check your water management systems. This includes verifying the manner in which your landscape slopes away from your foundation, ensuring the roof valleys and flashings are effectively directing water to the roof’s edge, and everything in between. The in between stuff includes window sills, caulking around windows and doors, and making sure your roof edge properly deposits water into the eavestroughing.

If you’ve got efflorescence on your siding or foundation, moisture is somehow making its way in.

Next week, roof stains. Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Suiting up your home with siding

Conrad Hofmeister, installs siding in this July 6, 2015 file photo in Grande Prairie, Alta. Alexa Huffman/Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune/Postmedia Network
Conrad Hofmeister, installs siding in this July 6, 2015 file photo in Grande Prairie, Alta. Alexa Huffman/Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune/Postmedia Network

Whether you’re building a new home, addition, garage, or storage shed, one of the big decisions is going to be choosing the kind of siding that will best suit your investment.

Key to success? Don’t fret over which siding will be the easiest to install, or conceivably last the longest, resist dents or scratches, require painting, or cost you more or less money.

If you’re going all brick, or all stone, then there’s nothing to worry about. But, if you’re going to require a siding other than brick or stone, whether it be to accent the home, or completely cover it, then siding your home with the proper product, or one that best “suits” the home, is key.

Basically, siding choices can be slotted into four categories, vinyl, composites, cement board, and real wood.

Vinyl siding can be the least expensive of the three, if you’re considering the standard horizontal lap pattern, or the most expensive, if you happen to like one of the heavier stone or simulated cedar shake sidings.

One thing to keep in mind about vinyl siding, it doesn’t play well with others, and tends to look best on its own. So, if vinyl siding is what you’re leaning towards, then go vinyl all the way.

It’s often been the strategy, when building a modest sized new home, to install brick on the facade, with the three remaining walls relegated to regular vinyl.

This “looks good from the street, because the sides and back don’t matter so much” mentality only cheapens the structure, and let’s everyone know your house plan is fresh out of the 70’s.

So, if you can stretch the budget in order to have four brick walls, then terrific, you’ll end up with the classic “wolf will never blow me down” Ontario type home.

If the budget is fixed, then consider putting your brick facade money towards a higher quality, deeper tone, more refreshing and updated vinyl colour scheme on the entire house.

“Doesn’t vinyl siding fade, or break easy should it get struck by a hockey puck in the winter” is a question we field often.

Fade? Yes, and like everything else exposed to the sun, perhaps a little over time. And break easy? Well, things break easy when hit by hard, fast moving objects, just ask Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadians.

The convenient thing about vinyl siding is that it’s probably the easiest type of product to replace, even if the damaged panel is in the middle of a wall.

Solution to the puck issue? Build your kid a decent perimeter of rink boards. Otherwise, vinyl siding is a respected, harsh weather product.

Matter of fact, vinyl siding is the preferred product in the Maritime provinces and along the east coast, which arguably endures Canada’s toughest weather conditions.

Although style and affluence minimally affect the numbers, where cement-based products have failed, due to the constant moisture and corrosiveness of the sea air, and where wood and composite sidings require constant paint touch-ups and general upkeep, vinyl sidings do very well.

Composite sidings include such brand names as Canexel (wood fiber base) and Goodstyle (wood chip base). Composites are the closest thing to looking like real wood, and have the advantage of being significantly more stable than wood, which means they don’t warp or crack like wood.

Like real wood sidings, composites are a good accent product for stone and brick homes. Cement-based sidings, such as James Hardie board, work extremely well in our weather zone, and a super tough, fire proof, good looking siding that can work on its own, or act as an excellent complement to your brick or stone home.

Like wood, composite and cement products will require painting every 10-12 years, but don’t let this fact discourage you from the many great features of both these sidings.

Good building

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard