Rethinking Reclaimed Wood

Even before Chip and Joanna Gaines of HGTV “Fixer Upper” fame popularized shiplap, reclaimed wood was inviting itself into homes of every style. The warmth, rusticity and sense of history of reclaimed boards adds character not just to the interiors of cottages and bungalows, but modern, minimalist dwellings, transitional structures and more.

With an industrial modern “farmhouse” aesthetic all the rage — even just a hint in that direction — reclaimed wood has never felt more at home.

It works especially well to set off areas of a home, signaling comfort and ease. Popular applications include front entry walls and accent walls behind dining tables, staircases, beds and free-standing tubs, as well as the bases of kitchen islands and even doors and fireplace walls, as long as safety is taken into consideration. In moderation, it works well on a vaulted ceiling to make the space seem less cavernous. But if that seems too dark or heavy, beams may provide just the right note of casual charm. To best showcase the wood, keep all of the nearby colors and patterns simple and subdued.


While it is hard to beat the real thing for authenticity with all of its peeling paint and age marks, there are drawbacks, namely heath concerns like lead in the paint, mold, mildew, volatile organic compounds, insects or insecticide residue, adhesives and other toxic chemicals. To reduce warping and end any insect infestations, lumber that has been guaranteed kiln-dried is highly recommended. If you have located lumber that you want to have kiln-dried, keep in mind that this can be a time-consuming process, taking up to a year for big, thick beams.

To avoid these issues, you might consider the many commercial planks made to look aged and “reclaimed.” Yes, that defeats the purpose of recycling wood from a shipping pallet, barn, boat, shed, mill or commercial structure. However, it may be worth it to get the look and feel without the downside of health risks, in addition to nails, splinters and warping, which creates additional installation headaches.

Many a DIYer has taken on the reclaimed wood accent wall and have both the horror stories and successes to prove it. While a fairly skilled and tenacious weekend warrior can make it happen, if you can afford it, I advise, at the very least, the services of a professional trim carpenter. For starters, all baseboards and door frames will need to be removed and reinstalled, as the wood will add considerable depth to the wall. This means that electrical boxes and the like also need to be moved forward to be flush with the new wall surface.


It is recommended that any finishing work be done to the planks or boards prior to installation. Then, the boards themselves need to be nailed — or, preferably, attached with trim screws — to studs, which should be marked before beginning. If the first board isn’t on level, the whole wall will appear to slant. If the boards are to run vertically, you will need to first attach furring strips to the wall. Regardless, the planks should be cut to various lengths and installed so that they don’t all end at the same place from row to row creating an unnatural uniformity.

The horizontal lengths of the boards should be spaced about the depth of a coin; many people use pennies as spacers. But it is the regretful DIYer who neglects to space boards end to end. Unless you provide room for the boards to expand as the humidity in the room fluctuates, you run the risk of creating a warping issue, which will likely pop boards off the wall. Bringing the boards indoors and letting them acclimate for some 48 hours can help reduce the risk of maddening warping. Then, there is the finishing work of concealing nail holes, caulking at the top and bottom.

While the results are dramatic, as you can see, the process can be time-consuming and frustrating. If I can help you with your reclaimed wood wall — or any other building or remodeling needs — please email me at

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member.


As we think about cleaning up our act a bit in 2019, let’s turn to laundry rooms

When a new year dawns, many of us are thinking about how to do things better, how to manage various aspects of our lives in a more efficient way that brings more pleasure or at least less stress. As many of us think about cleaning up our act a bit in 2019, my thoughts turn to laundry rooms.

Doing laundry isn’t everyone’s first choice of activities, but if the space where we do it is appealing, the work becomes less of a chore.

Let’s start with the room itself. First off, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a room. It might be a corner of your garage, a hall closet or an area within a bathroom, bedroom, mudroom, craft room or pantry. Ideally, though, you don’t want your laundry space located where other activities will intrude and it difficult to accomplish the work: sorting, washing, drying, hanging, ironing and folding. And, even though today’s machines are far quieter than in the past, there is some noise and it’s best if the hum and rumble doesn’t negatively impact adjacent spaces.

Be realistic about your limitations of space and other resources, as well as how the whole issue of laundry works in your home. You might love for family members to sort their laundry into bins in the laundry room, but your space may not be adequate. So be willing to do some work — and perhaps make some compromises — to ensure that your resources and laundry system mesh.

Depending on your space and budget, your machines might front load, top load or stack. If they front load, you can fold on top. Still, many homeowners prefer a counter surface over the top for seamless folding and storage of other items. Other homeowners prefer their machines on so-called pedestals, many with storage, for ease of putting clothes in and taking them out without a lot of bending. However, that raises the washer and dryer to a height that necessitates a separate folding surface.

Folks with top-loading washing machines often find that they still want and need space above for laundry supplies and even decorative items. A shallow half shelf fits this bill nicely. The capacity of stacking machines is smaller, but may be necessitated by floor space. Stacking machines work well in closets with folding and hanging space to the side. For tiny spaces, there are even machines that wash and dry in the same unit. These are perfect for small apartments or perhaps a second, upstairs laundry area. In the case of the most compact closets, some designers hang shelving on the side wall to hold laundry supplies, placing the least used items toward the back of each shelf.

The desire to reduce clutter and make our homes function more smoothly has created a demand for all manner of storage solutions on the market. Nowadays, homeowners can find wall-mounted pull-downs and slide-outs, including, in the case of laundry rooms, drying racks, folding tables and ironing boards. Think Murphy beds for the laundry facility. Decorative wall hooks may work better than other systems for drying items that you want to air dry . More utilitarian type hooks on a pegboard or slat system might be just the thing for an unused stretch of wall when floor space is at a premium. I have even seen wall-mounted receptacles for lint, socks without a mate and coins that fall out of pockets.

As with a bathroom or kitchen, there is every reason why your laundry room or niche should be as appealing as the rest of your home, consistent in style and feel, even if it is in the garage. Some homeowners like to inject a little more industrial feel into these hardworking spaces or a vintage feel for that sheets-drying-in-the-fresh-air-at-grandma’s association. Either way, the space should reflect your home’s style whether formal or casual.

In addition to determining an overall style direction, we need to think about whether we want the function of the room to be concealed behind handsome cabinetry, shown off or some of both. An all closed-cabinet laundry space can look, well, closed-off. Yet, too much accessibility can look cluttered without a plan. If you want your laundry items to be easily within reach, consider storing them in coordinating baskets, bins and jars for a look that is both handsome and practical. If you have a collection of vessels, consider using them to provide more storage and aesthetic appeal infused with your personality. Generally, the look should be cohesive, but it doesn’t need to necessarily match.


Depending on whether you want to conceal or draw attention to your laundry area, you have options for covering the opening. Frosted glass, perhaps even with a “laundry” decal call subtle attention and lend a vintage look. French doors show off your well-designed space, while rolling barn-style doors both draw attention and conceal. While a pocket door saves much-coveted floor space, if your arms are full, they can be difficult to open. Think about a swinging butler’s door instead. If a door isn’t practical for your space, curtains suspended from rings on a tension rod will conceal.

Lighting is important in a laundry space. It should be bright enough to illuminate the work space and not located where you consistently cast a shadow over what you are trying to see. Many homeowners are going for a touch of whimsy by hanging small chandeliers in their laundry rooms. Others choose stylish lighting consistent with the lighting in the rest of their home. And speaking of style, if at all possible, incorporate artwork or family photos into the space. One of my clients is a high school art teacher, and she hung small framed reproductions of two of her students’ paintings of clothing in her laundry room: jeans and a kimono.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact or go to

Design trends whose time has come to go

Design is a tricky enterprise. If you are someone who feels some pressure — or good old-fashioned desire — to be up to the moment in home design, you may find yourself at the mercy of trends that aren’t the best choices for you and your family. If you step back and ask yourself if there are other more interesting or appropriate options than all the current crazes, the answers may lead somewhere far more appealing and authentic.

Open floor plans

Take for instance “open floor plans.” If you watch home design shows or even skim home design magazines, you know that open floor plans are synonymous with a stylish remodel. You may feel there is something wrong with you if you don’t want to take a sledge hammer to a wall. And sometimes there is good reason to open things up — for example, to avoid obstructing a view or, say, to keep an eye on the kids in the family room while you are in the kitchen.

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But sometimes not. You can bet that once the pendulum has swung in one direction, it is eventually going to swing back the opposite way. Reasons to close up spaces might be a desire for more privacy, intimacy or coziness, or, as in one client’s case, the need to restrict canine family members to certain areas through the installation of custom gates in doorways.

Stainless steel appliances

Stainless steel appliances can be terrific. They reflect light, complement both warm and cool color palettes and are rugged (though they do scratch, dent and can even rust), while lending an air of culinary sophistication . But, along with granite countertops (see below), they have almost become a cliché. So, if neutrals are your preference, why not matte black, brown, slate, “truffle“ or warm metallics, like bronze or copper? If you feel a bit more daring, go for maximum impact with a bright pop of modern color, like red or even a retro color like mint green.

Granite countertops

Granite countertops — yawn — have their place. And all materials have their drawbacks. For instance, you have to be careful about butcher block due to staining and burning, stainless steel due to scratches, and tile due to the creation of an uneven surface in addition to grout’s susceptibility to staining. Marble, too, will stain if not sealed; plus it is on the softer side and can be etched or gouged. But there are still more options. Consider quartz, soapstone, concrete and terrazzo, perhaps one of the most exciting, for aesthetics, functionality and ease of maintenance.


Barn doors and the farmhouse aesthetic

Barn doors are great … on a barn. But, seriously, they have their place in homes. However, the rolling style door with exposed hardware need not sport barn styling and should, instead, complement the style of your home. Plus, just because you have the wall space for this style of door doesn’t mean you should fill it with one. Well, maybe one as a focal point. But avoid going overboard. Instead of creating a cohesive look, you are liable to give the impression that you got a good deal on barn doors. Similarly, the farmhouse aesthetic, popularized by Chip and Joanna Gaines, is appealing to many, no question about it. But, too much shiplap and too many Mason jars can look contrived.

Midcentury modern, minimalism and shabby-chic

Perhaps as a function of the “Mad Men” craze, any brand that wants to appear instantly hip incorporates midcentury modern furnishings and accessories into their print and television advertisements. If you love midcentury design, by all means purchase some nice pieces. It is a sleek style that plays nicely with others. Similarly, minimalism suggests sophistication — this style can never be accused of being folksy or “cute” — but while it may create a beautiful magazine spread, it may not be practical or functional for a home in which real people reside. Fortunately, there are other ways to be hip and sophisticated, with authenticity and being true to oneself among them.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is shabby-chic, which is, at times, more shabby than chic. As with so many trends, what started out as one thing morphed into something else. The appeal of furniture and decorative objects with character and history gave way to pieces slapped together, painted or upholstered with poor craftsmanship. For a while it seemed that anyone with a piece of thrift store furniture, a staple gun and a can of chalk paint was cranking out “artisanal” home goods. With nothing against the DIY movement, there is a difference between shoddy and chic.

Decorative objects

Beware the overused pattern, like Ikat a year or so ago and chevron more recently. If those prints legitimately appeal to your sensibilities, embrace them. But, often, familiarity may breed contempt if you overload your home with what can be found in abundance in discount department stores, craft stores and on populist websites. The same applies to other style statements like oversized letters and word art in stencil or decal form on walls or panels, framed or unframed. How much of a style statement is it if everyone is making it? If a look is all over Pinterest, it is not likely to be a true reflection of your individuality.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, served as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact or go to

Built-in fire pits: Let them glow

Sure, you can buy a ready-made fire pit, set it on the patio, and enjoy the heck out of it. But, if what you seek is a little more custom and a lot more permanent, then these built-in fire pit ideas are sure to spark your imagination for a fiery focal point that will enhance your outdoor living for years to come.

November in Eastern Virginia is the perfect time to have a fire pit designed and built so that you can enjoy it throughout the fall, winter and chilly early spring evenings.

Several critical decisions are necessary as you begin the process. As always, being realistic about your budget is the key to not having months of regret. Next, consider size based on who you anticipate gathering around your pit most often. Fire pits can be quite diminutive for intimate gatherings or quite large and imposing presences. Covers can turn them into coffee tables when not in use.

Location is especially critical for anything built-in, including a fire pit. Safety is the primary consideration, e.g. your fire pit should not be too close to structures or in an enclosed area (your contractor or builder will advise). But next is a placement that takes full advantage of appealing views and, simultaneously, camouflages any unfortunate sight lines. You should also decide if you want your pit to be near the center of outdoor activity, even a focal point, or tucked by itself. But not too far. If people feel like they have to travel to get to it, it won’t be used often.

Closely related to location is shape. Custom fire pits can be virtually any shape, with circles, squares and rectangles meeting the needs of most homeowners. But semi- or half-circles are excellent space-saving choices along the straight edge of a patio, deck or retaining wall, and can capitalize on a view. An L-shape is an unusual configuration that might highlight a corner.

Material selection is probably one of the more satisfying choices to make given the variety of options on the market. Of course, all fire pits are lined with fire brick or something similarly fireproof. For the exterior, consider polished or natural stone, block, brick, tile, metal, concrete (but never concrete blocks, which can explode) and more. Whatever your use, your contractor should ensure that the manufacturer deems it safe for fire pit use. Considerations include whether you want your pit to blend with the surface on which it sits or contrast a little or a lot. Likewise, do you want it to blend with the style of your home or inject a contrasting note of tradition or modernism? Your answers to these questions will narrow the choices considerably.

And, finally, the type of fuel and flame you choose will have a lot to do with the ambiance created and how often you use the fire pit. Choose from wood, propane, gel or natural gas. A wood-burning variety lends rusticity and romance – that aroma, that crackle! – and is great for toasting marshmallows. But if you aren’t a hands-on type of person, it may turn into a chore. Many people like propane, but it has to be refilled and can run out in the midst of entertaining. Gel fuel is odorless and smokeless and creates a lovely flame, but it doesn’t put out as much warmth as other types of fuel and can be difficult to find, except online. If you have access to natural gas, you can have a line run to your fire pit. You will never run out of fuel, and it is inexpensive to burn. But the one-time cost of having the gas line installed will run you a few bucks.

Choosing a design is, by far, the most exciting part of the process for most people. Be sure to consider the look of the fire pit and seating together, as they will function as a unit in your outdoor space. Bench seating looks sleek and urbane following the curved or rectilinear lines of your fire pit but, in actuality, if people are forced to perch on seating with no back, they won’t stay long. For large parties in which people move and mingle, bench style seating may be just right. But be sure to offer additional chairs for those times when lingering is the order of the day … or night.

As with most everything else in the design world, you are limited only by your imagination. Here are just a few ideas to set the process in motion:

If views are not optimal, consider situating your fire pit in front of a living or built privacy wall. Not only will you camouflage unsightly views, but you will create the feeling of an outdoor room.

Consider contrasting material for the coping or top surface and maybe design that surface to be extra wide for perching people or plates.

Sunken or in-ground fire pits are probably the least frequently chosen, but they can be beautiful and dramatic when placed at an infinity edge. They can also help create a more clean-looking and open space. They can, however, present safety risks, especially for children and, possibly, pets. And they necessitate end tables next to furnishings since they take the place of a coffee table.

A clear glass surround protects gel and gas flames and lends a contemporary edge.

If you choose propane or natural gas fuel, you have the option of concealing the base of the flames with lava rock (make sure it is dry) or fire glass in clear or a variety of colors for a bit of sparkle. Believe, it or not, stones can heat and explode, so make sure that whatever you choose is rated fire pit safe.

I will refrain from saying that I hope these ideas and considerations have you “fired up.” But, if you have a question about building or designing a fire pit, I am just an email away at

Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council.

Make your bathroom the best room with these inspiring ideas

The spa bathroom has been trending for several years. That we all want a relaxing retreat is a given. So, in this month’s column, we are going beyond the spa to take a look at just a few recent design directions that might raise the bar for your bathroom remodel or new build.

The word “trend” is tricky. Often a trend is really just a new showroom idea, introduced and promoted by a manufacturer in hopes that it will catch on. On the other hand, as soon as a new idea catches on and appears to “trend,” it quickly becomes the status quo.

But, honestly, if you like it and think you will continue to like it for years to come, it doesn’t matter what you call it.

Floating vanities. Virtually every luxe hotel room sports a floating vanity. And there is good reason. They instantly signal a modern sensibility. Typically, these vanities have clean, angular lines, but there is nothing to say that you couldn’t choose a more traditional style if that suits your taste and complements the rest of your decor. One of the nicest contributions made by this style of vanity is the appearance of more openness and spaciousness. But that can be quickly lost if homeowners begin to stuff baskets filled with towels, pairs of slippers, a bathroom scale and the like underneath. Resist the temptation and keep it clean.

Matte black. For many years now, chrome and brushed nickel fixtures have been favored. But, in very recent years, homeowners have begun choosing brass and oiled bronze for a more “heritage” appeal. The newest trend – there’s that word – that seems to have some staying power is matte black. I once heard a designer say that every room needs a touch of black to anchor the design. Finally, that seems to have caught on in the bathroom for a simultaneously vintage and modern look. How can that be? Designers manage it all the time.


Not only is matte black a striking choice for fixtures, but for shower walls. If you’ve ever watched the wildly popular HGTV program “Fixer Upper,” you have seen how Chip and Joanna Gaines popularized windows with matte black metal mullions, usually with large panes of glass between. That look is now available for shower walls, and it is stunning. You will sometimes hear these referred to as “Crittall,” which is a well-known English steel-framed window manufacturer that has been around since 1989.

Open shelving. Fairly recently, open shelving became popular in kitchens, usually used in place of upper cabinets. Even more recently, the look has migrated to the bathroom, with open metal shelving being the most up-to-the moment. Open shelving definitely keeps homeowners honest in the clutter department because it only works if what is visible is beautiful, minimal and neatly arranged. If you long for looks you see in magazines, I guarantee that much of what attracts you is the clean, uncluttered, “staged” space. Most of us hang on to way too many lotions and potions, small appliances and paraphernalia that we really don’t need or use. I urge you to purge. You will have so many more design options if you aren’t trying to accommodate a bunch of stuff of dubious import.


Graphic floor tile. Bathrooms tend to be monochromatic to keep the vibe calming and the feeling open. If you’ve watched another popular HGTV program, “Flip or Flop,” you’ll see that Tarek and Christina have popularized a monochromatic bathroom – often in tones of white, gray, and black – but with a pop of bold graphic pattern on the floor. By choosing tile in that same neutral palette, the bathroom still has a cohesive, relaxing feel, but with a little more sizzle. This monochromatic graphic approach is also suitable for an accent wall, including, say, the back wall of a glass shower.

Wood. With all of their stone, tile, porcelain, metal and mirrored surfaces, bathrooms can possess a look that is both cold and hard. By injecting some wood – or even wood-look ceramic – into the space, you will soften the appearance with an organic richness. Wood tones are beautifully complementary to today’s preference for white and gray bathroom palettes because the warmth of the wood plays off the cool undertones of the gray. Depending on how the wood is used – especially if you combine it with metal, and perhaps expose well-crafted plumbing – you can achieve a kind of vintage industrial look that harkens back to the days when factory floors were made of wood.


Accessories. Just as open shelving has migrated from the kitchen to the bath, accessories have done the same. In particular, art – both sculptural and two-dimensional – and long, luxe drapes have taken up residence in the bathroom. Bathrooms and their appointments tend to be all function-related. Artwork creates a focal point that isn’t, while drapes tend to soften all of the slick, hard surfaces that characterize bathrooms. If you choose 2-D art, be sure it is properly framed and your bathroom well-ventilated to prevent moisture damage.

I hope my mini-roundup of some recent-ish design approaches has inspired you to create a next-level bath on par with the best room in your house. If you have a question about building, remodeling, or designing a bathroom that might well be the best room in your house, I hope you will email me at

Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council.

Behind the divide: Retaining walls add depth, dimension to landscape

Continuing last month’s theme of landscape dividers is this month’s focus on retaining walls.

If you’re thinking, “My yard gently slopes; I don’t need a retaining wall,” I encourage you to explore how today’s retaining walls add depth and dimension to your landscape, literally carving out intriguing outdoor rooms, regardless of your property’s contours.

If you drive around our area looking for examples, you are likely to be left with the idea that there are only a handful of options: stone, brick, interlocking blocks, timber, and concrete.  But, as with fences, retaining walls are limited only by imagination and budget.  And, some of the options blur the distinction between fence and wall.  So, regardless of what you call it, let’s take a look at some possibilities that are a bit more interesting than the status quo.

You might also come away with the notion that cracks, bulges, and outward leans are just a fact of life when it comes to retaining walls.  But in fact, those flaws are indicators of poor drainage and walls whose construction is inadequate to do the job they were intended to do.  So, first, a bit about construction.

As handsome as these barriers are, they are complex engineered systems that retain tons of soil and wage a never-ending battle with gravity and moisture.  Properly constructed retaining walls put the hard in hardscaping.  What goes on behind the wall is just as important as appearance—if not more so—and retrofitting an inadequately built wall is expensive and time-consuming.

Your landscape architect and contractor or builder will work with four main components: back fill, 4-inch perforated drain pipe, landscape cloth (to prevent silt and sediment from clogging the drain pipe) and deadmen anchors or tiebacks in order to vanquish gravity.  In all likelihood here in Eastern Virginia, your hired professionals will need to install footings dug below the frost line for mortared or concrete walls.  Non-mortared walls will typically be built on a gravel-filled trench below the frost line.  Whoever does the work will also establish a desirable lean into the hillside, one inch for every foot of height.  For all but the shortest walls, some kind of buried deadmen anchors or tiebacks will be used.

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Now for the fun part…

If texture is what you’re after, emphasize it with alternating neutral colors of your chosen material or with overlapping blocks that create deep shadow pockets for an almost basket weave look.  If your budget allows, or if your span is short, consider overlapping and stacked planter boxes for even deeper shadows and the opportunity to enhance with organic components.  Believe it or not, tires give a similar effect and also can be used as planters.

If what you need is a taller wall, what about shorter stacked walls for a terraced or tiered appearance?  A two-tiered design can create a wall with a planter box—or water feature or even fire pit—in front.  Consider a different material for each wall and maybe even running one vertically and one horizontally.

Lots of homes in our area have retaining walls built of horizontal timbers.  But what about placing vertical timbers like railroad ties or railroad sleepers tightly together and cutting off their tops to create a sweeping arc or maybe several intersecting crescents?  If your retaining wall is tall enough to offer privacy, you might consider cutting out a long horizontal window to add architectural interest and frame the view on the opposite side.

In the right setting, large irregular rocks, artfully piled—perhaps with plants tucked here and there—are hard to beat for a rugged retaining wall with lots of organic appeal.  Transition them to the surface below by nestling smaller stones and gravel along the base.  If something more artful, but still natural, is more to your liking, create a mosaic with different colored and shaped stones.  Be advised that sometimes these highly specific creations look dated over time or don’t evolve with the homeowner’s taste.

If you need both a functional retaining wall and a bit more of a boundary demarcation, why not top your retaining wall with a fence?  If privacy is not an issue, wrought iron could provide a nice contrast to an organic material like wood or stone.

A low retaining wall with a flat top and deep dimension can provide additional seating for an outdoor party.  Another thicker-type wall that is, admittedly, not everyone’s cup of tea is the gabion wall.  Dating from Medieval times and making a comeback, these walls are constructed from stones encased in wire mesh boxes.  If the mesh is wider and heftier, the stones can literally looked caged.  But with a thinner wire, the stones appear to be almost magically held together.  Gabions, though, need not be filled with rocks.  Pieces of driftwood, terracotta pottery, and more could be substituted.

The most contemporary and sleek idea for retaining walls may well be steel.  Allowed to rust, it takes on a warm tone that lends both industrial and natural elements to your landscape design.

Whether your retaining wall is necessary to prevent a landslide or just desirable for reasons of livability and style, I encourage you to insist on proper, long-lasting construction and to push the boundaries of aesthetics.


If you have a question about building, remodeling, or designing a handsome retaining wall, feel free to email me at

Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council.


Cross the line: The choice is yours for whole world of creative fences

When most of us contemplate a new or remodeled fence, we ask ourselves these questions: How tall? Which wood? How far apart should the pickets be spaced? And what style post cap?

Let’s scale that fence and climb out of that boring box for good.

Of course, budget is a significant consideration for most of us. And if an inexpensive post-and-panel wood fence keeps your budget balanced, then that’s the fence you should choose. But if you have a bit more financial flexibility, there is a whole world of fences just waiting for you.

The purpose of your fence will determine, in part, what options are available. After acknowledging budget constraints, get clear about your needs regarding privacy, safety (e.g. if you have a pool), corralling the family child or dog, demarcating your property, or adding style to your residence by framing views and highlighting features. Then get creative.

Your fence should complement the style of your home and its surroundings, but it doesn’t have to “match.” Everyone is familiar with the typical styles of wood, vinyl and metal fences that we see all around us, so no need to review them here. But these same materials can be used in some unexpected ways . Plus, there are other materials that contribute to the endless options.

Instead of providing lengthy explanations of various design directions, I want to pique your interest with short descriptions of just a few design-forward applications of tried-and-true materials and perhaps some that you haven’t thought of. Think of these ideas as teasers. The internet will provide hundreds of additional visuals to supplement if you have been feeling fenced in by too few interesting options.

For starters, regardless of the material, color or spacing, running the slats horizontally will give your fence an instantly modern look. Add a chrome or aluminum frame – maybe just in a section near your home’s entrance – and, wow! If you choose wood, what about with a polished finish? Install the slats parallel to the ground, as well as to each other to open up the view with a slight Asian feel. Or how about installing them at an angle as louvers?


Example of Black Metal Fence and Gate

Concrete, stained or painted – or not – and perhaps alternated with sections of other materials, like horizontal slats, to prevent a fortress-like look often lends a resort-like ambiance. Incise lines into the wet surface to soften the look and connect it to other design features. Painted brick might be an appealing alternative to concrete.

If you want to create a stylish boundary that nicely says “keep out,” but don’t need the fence to provide privacy, safety, or containment, vertical timbers, spaced a few inches apart like freestanding posts – perhaps in a double row and at varying heights – can deliver a very smart-looking fence. Try this same idea with narrow, tapered, and irregular black steel pikes or identical straight-as-a-board freestanding iron slats for contemporary drama. More widely-spaced stainless steel light posts could do double-duty as both fence and landscape illumination.

Or how about freestanding vertical steel plates of random widths with ample space between each? Severe just got a dose of charm. Plus, they will look warmer over time as they oxidize.

Etched or laser-cut metal – think decorative fire screen – is likely prohibitively expensive for an entire fence, but could make just the right focal point when included as just one section of a more moderately priced fence.

If your setting leans in a tropical or Asian direction, a bamboo fence – vertical slats secured with a top and bottom rail – might be just what you need to finish the look.

Gabion walls are making a comeback. With a lineage that stretches to Medieval times, these wire grid boxlike forms contain irregularly stacked stone for an intriguing rustic appearance with both modern and ancient appeal.

And speaking of wire grids, “hog wire” fences – essentially wire grid panels (similar to chicken wire) with wooden rails – are nice for those who plan to create a green wall by growing vines on their fence. Choose wooden grid panels instead and you’ve got lattice with all its old-fashioned charm.

For some seriously sleek, upscale drama, tempered frosted glass panels are the ticket. They are perhaps best used as a focal point or alternated with fence sections made of contrasting materials.

Corrugated metal, maybe combined with warm wood slats and rails, can be simultaneously of-the-moment and a rugged throwback. Perforated metal, like copper, perhaps in woven bands to create a basket weave design, will weather over time and serve as a conversation piece the entire time.


Example of Spaced-Slat Picket Fence

Living fences are lush and organic. Try a hedge of fast-growing and dense shrubbery planted in the ground or bamboo planted in low identical planters, aligned in a perfect row.

Finally, if you just can’t leave your old friend the vertical wooden slat fence behind, try using slats of varying widths and spacing for an unexpected, but understated, rhythm. Or get really brave and try it in metal … maybe in a black matte finish.

If you have a question about building, remodeling, or designing the perfect fence, please email

Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate, Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council.

Enjoying outdoor space year-round: 12 tips for getting decked

Designing the ideal deck is a bit more daunting than it seems. Go too understated and it may look like a dock. Go overboard, and it will look like the architectural equivalent of wearing cocktail attire to a backyard barbecue. But we can help.


Because we are fortunate in this area to be able to enjoy outdoor living almost year-round, I offer a dozen considerations to get you started on designing or remodeling the deck of your dreams.

1. Rules and regs. Familiarize yourself with your city’s regulations to find out what you can legally do. Your deck designer and builder will most likely need to apply for a deck permit requiring scale drawings of the framing plan and possibly an elevation to ensure that your deck will be safe and meet structural code requirements. Materials, fasteners, footings, railings, stairs and ledger boards will all need to be addressed.

2. Living the life. Is private reflection, an intimate dinner or drinks by the fire pit how you roll? Do you occasionally throw a large party or do you regularly entertain the masses? Essentially, you need to ask yourself what ages of people will use the deck, how, and how often. Whatever the answers, be clear about your needs. Think in terms of must-haves and like-to-haves and determine what your budget and space will allow.

3. In the zone. In all likelihood, your deck will accommodate a range of activities: some frequently, some occasionally. Establish zones or rooms for relaxing, dining, cooking and so forth. Designing a deck is not unlike designing an interior space with an open floor plan. Be sure to leave plenty of room for traffic flow around and through these areas. For instance, diners should be able to comfortably pull their chairs back from the table without hitting a railing and be able to circulate around the table comfortably.

4. Be materialistic. When choosing materials, be realistic about your willingness to engage in proper maintenance. Treated lumber or cedar is the most affordable, but requires power washing and, ideally, sealing. Exotic woods are rich-looking, but more expensive. Composites, PVC and the like are more expensive, but offer virtually maintenance-free longevity.

5. Size matters. The scale of your deck in relation to your home, especially, but also your yard, is critically important for a cohesive look. Some experts advise that your deck should be no larger than 20 percent of your home’s footprint. But it depends on several factors including how the deck is broken up with furnishings and such, its shape and its design. Manipulating the angle of the boards – vertically, diagonally, horizontally or in combination – can help break up the space and define zones. A bi- or even trilevel deck, or one with repeated angles, curves or bump-outs helps avoid that aircraft-carrier feel of too large an expanse.

6. Free range. If you enjoy grilling – a lot – an outdoor kitchen, complete with a wood-fired brick pizza oven, may be a must-have. But a simple grill, perhaps on a bump-out, may suffice. On the other hand, if your kitchen is conveniently located near your deck, you may prefer to cook – and possible even serve – food indoors and dine outside. Grills and decks go together like beans and slaw, but a nice gas grill that sits under its cover unused is an expensive piece of sculpture.


7. Cover up. Depending on the orientation of your deck and the trees on your property, the sun’s rays may or may not be an issue. But if you and the sun have different ideas about compatibility, design a portion of your deck to offer shade, either full – rendering it a covered porch – or partial, with, say, a pergola. How far apart the rafters are spaced and whether it is planted with a climbing vine determine how much sunlight penetrates.

8. Room with a view. Many of us enjoy our decks because of the view it provides into our yards or the surrounding landscape. But the view from inside the house out to the deck is also important for visual harmony. As you choose a design and furnishings, ensure that the view from the inside out is enhanced and unobstructed. Some strategies to help open up the view include a stepped-down design and a cable or tempered-glass railing system. If you choose a sleek contemporary cable system, be sure it won’t rust.

9. Stay connected. Visually and, often, functionally, decks provide a transition between house and yard. To ensure that the transition is smooth, consider not only the style of the deck and furnishings, but what lies beyond. Typically, decks, especially small ones, should reflect the style of the home. Larger decks, or those with more than one level, often look attractive if they become more natural or organic as they move away from the house. Where any deck meets the yard, a patio, pavers, stones or brick create a handsome transition.

10. Let there be light. Since, especially during the work week, many of us are only able to enjoy our decks at night, be sure to provide adequate lighting for ambiance, tasks and safety. Choose from under-rail lighting, string lights, well lights, stair lights, cordless fixtures and more.

11. Upstanding. We tend to think of decks as floors, but it is often the upright elements that create the most visual impact. Today’s market boasts an almost overwhelming range of railing styles from rustic to highly refined. Take your time, do your research – look at lots of photos – and pick the perfect railing for your application. If your deck is significantly raised, your skirting can be simple vertical or horizontal boards or something more decorative to complement the style of the home. Be careful, though, not to choose something overly busy, as it will provide an unwanted distraction and create an unintended focal point.

12. Decorate rich. Think function, comfort, style and longevity when choosing outdoor furnishings. As with decorating any space, choose a color palette and style – preferably ones that complements your home – and stick with it. Define areas with indoor-outdoor rugs and soften with occasional tables – ceramic garden stools are nice because they can provide extra seating for small folks – and incorporate indoor-outdoor pillows and potted plants. For upholstered furniture, invest in furniture covers and perhaps a decorative bench with an open-close top in which to store it. If you have to retrieve and return covers to a shed or garage that isn’t conveniently located, you won’t use them.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact or go to

Want a better closet? Here’s how to get started.

You might think that efficient, highly functional, and beautiful custom closet design begins with space planning. But you would be wrong. It begins with a purge.

Most people have clothing and other items tucked – or stuffed – into their closets that they haven’t touched in a year or more. Donate or discard all of those out-of-style, unneeded and unwanted items before you begin the closet design process. In doing so, you will best understand not only how many items you have, but what types. Even if your result is a few steps down from a boutique or haberdashery style space – for which we advocate – an accurate “audit” of what needs to fit back into the closet is the only way to plan a space tailored to your needs, whether you are designing a walk-in or reach-in closet.

Consider making a built in “hutch” the centerpiece of your new closet, complete with drawers, a catch-all surface on top, and shelves or cubbies above to save space in the bedroom by eliminating the need for a dresser. Then build out from there, thinking in terms of zones, especially if two people share the closet – or might in the future – and designing from the floor to the ceiling to make use of every square inch. No closet ever had too much storage space.
Closet Picture

Decide what might be better folded or rolled, like sweaters and T-shirts – clothing made of fabrics that can stretch and become misshapen – and even jeans and shorts. Allot adjustable shelves – and maybe some handy rollouts. These could be cubbies or deep drawers. For ease of retrieval, it is best that folded items are not stacked more than 5 feet tall. The top shelves of your closet are the ideal place for bins that hold less frequently used items like luggage, totes and shoe bags for travel, or seasonal items like bathing suits.

Drawers with clear acrylic fronts make it easy to see what is inside, but may also contribute to visual clutter. Figure out which matters more to you and choose accordingly. Shallow drawers are nice for hosiery, underclothes and nightclothes, though some people prefer an open bin or basket on a shelf for quick retrieval of these items, especially, socks.

Those slanted shelves designed especially for shoes are not the most practical, adaptable or space-saving design. We recommend flat adjustable shelves to accommodate shoes of different heel and platform heights, as well as booties and boots. Save the most space by turning each pair heel to toe. Other items requiring shelf space that you might want to stash in your closet include linens and pillows for the adjacent bedroom and bath.

Clothing on hangers takes up the most space, but is, obviously, a necessity. Measure the width of your hanging clothes to determine exactly how much space you will require. Be sure to include long hanging space – usually some 18-24 inches in width – for women’s dresses. Consider hanging coats in a foyer or mudroom.

Most everything else can be double hung, but it is still a good idea to make sure that rods are adjustable. In a walk-in closet, hanging clothing can be concealed behind doors for a very upscale look. Just keep in mind that they will take up more space and, unless the area is expansive, could lend a closed-in feel. For the neatest, tidiest and most cohesive look even without doors, decide on one type of hanger – plastic, wood, or velvet; not wire! – and stick with it.

An array of other closet accessories is available, and one can easily get carried away. One that is practical, though, is a pull-out belt/tie rack. Another that we really like is the pull-out hamper located in the bottom section of double hung space. If two people share a closet, each person ideally will have his or her own hamper or, even better, a pair of them for separating different fabrics. We favor the bag-style that can be unhooked from its sliders and taken to the laundry room.

If your closet offers enough wall space – including behind a swing door – where anything built out will not work, many women, especially, like a rail-type system with hooks for jewelry, scarves, hats and the like. Being able to see all of your jewelry hanging over hooks or in organdy bags suspended from hooks means it is likely to get worn more often.

Lighting is as important in the well-designed closet as it is in a kitchen and bath. If you can accommodate natural lighting from a window, we highly recommend it, though some fabrics can fade in direct sunlight. Because you lose storage space on window walls, we find that the space beneath windows is the ideal spot for bench seating for putting shoes on and taking them off. A small sturdy bench that doubles as a kind of movable step stool is nice for retrieving items up high.

But you will also need overhead lighting, which can be as stylish as you choose; just make sure it is bright and not behind you, or your body will cast shadows on what you are trying to see. Opt for a cool type of bulb, as incandescent light fixtures can cause heat to build, and all of that fabric in an enclosed space can become a fire hazard.

Other considerations for your closet, if space allows, include a television, radio, flip-down ironing board, full-length mirror from which you can stand back about 3 feet, and wastebasket for laundry tags and bags, receipts left in your pockets, and the like. Closets can be difficult spaces in which to vacuum, but area rugs underfoot can feel nice.

By keeping these guidelines in mind, your closet may become the best room in your home.

If you have a question on building, remodeling, or designing your dream closet, please email me at chris@

Virginia Beach native and James Madison University graduate Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council. Contact Ettel at or go to