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Selecting Finish Materials

May 01, 2018 07:56AM ● Published by Matthew Schlueb

Selecting fixtures and finish materials for a new house or makeover can seem never-ending. There are endless possibilities, especially for a homeowner going through the process for the first time. Even after narrowing a choice down to a couple of options, the advantages and disadvantages of each can turn a simple decision into a set of difficult compromises driven by multiple competing priorities. Rarely is every preference and ideal satisfied.

For example, I recently offered an assessment of interior trim materials based on my experiences building previous houses to a homeowner with a house under construction. In their construction contract, the baseboards, casings and crown moldings were to be painted solid pine to match the size and profiles of the existing house.

However, as the renovations were nearing finish work with final construction costs solidifying in a cost-plus agreement, the homeowner was considering a change to MDF priced at half their budget for trim work. Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is an engineered product made from sawdust fibers, formed into boards using resin binders. Subsequently, it does not have the knots or imperfections found in solid wood, so it's more uniform and dimensionally stable, making it easier to work with during installation. It also takes paint better when purchased pre-primed. 

Aside from its environmental, cost and labor advantages, however, it can warp and delaminate when exposed to moisture in bathrooms or around a window left open during a sudden thunderstorm.

Finger-jointed trim, made from shorter lengths of knotless wood, is a third option. In areas exposed to water, finger-jointed pine holds up to moisture better than MDF, while still realizing some cost savings from the solid wood originally specified. In the end, this is what the homeowner decided to use, with MDF in the balance of the house.

There is no correct answer when selecting finish materials. Some decisions may be more obvious than others, but ultimately every choice comes down to subjective preferences, priorities and personal habits in the way one lives with their house. As an architect, all I can do is present the critical variables in an organized and clear fashion, so the decision-making process is informed and has a chance to go smoothly.

I have personally always found interior trim to be a peculiar thing. The ogee and cavetto curves that play in light and shadow provide definition around the edges of walls and openings, framing houses as life-sized pictures. What is the purpose of a picture frame, if not to set something into a pantheon, the recognition of an achieved aspiration? It is therefore no surprise to find the cabinets and coves of our houses decorated with such trimmings and delights.

Despite all of its intricacies and visual complexities, trim work is really about cleanliness—our human propensity for tidiness, finishing things off right down to the very last detail. It can become an obsession. So much so, to control the unpredictable natural world, we construct our own environment to move into, complete with carefully carved edges, not the irregularities of scratches and gnawings by an untold myriad of creatures found outside.

The American house and all of its technological advancements has taken moldings to new heights, losing sight of its original European intent. Optical effects to satisfy the eye through ornamentation began as imitations of wood timbers in carved stone. Eventually economics returned this sentiment back to wood for functional purposes, protecting against wear and tear inside. But the fabrication methods of today's machinery afford endless ornateness and sophistication of not just solid wood, but new composites, plastics and foams, feeding a compulsion to control one's surroundings more than an authenticity of material or visual effect.

Eliminating trim altogether, cold turkey, is one way to break this addiction, which is the approach modernists took mid-century. I followed this path with my own house. Exposing the raw edges where walls meet the floor seemed to be a more accurate reflection of the things at play, presenting reality as it is, not covered up. The real world is complex; shadows have gradations, despite our desire to see them as stark edges between dark and light.

This may not be as neat, but it feels more honest. The true nature of materials coming together, juxtaposed, all of their tangles and untied ends hanging out there in the open. Maybe an aesthetic rooted in such things might enable a familiarity with nature's unpredictables and unknowns—not because I need reminded, but to help me cope. Building confidence to confront all of life's rough edges.

At the very least, I saved a few bucks on material.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.

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