My sweet sister in law sent me this question recently:

image courtesy of Horia Varlan via Flickr
"I have a really stupid, basic question but I've never had to deal with it before because of living in student housing. How do you nail up pictures and bookshelves and things? Is there anything more than just nailing or screwing it in where I want it? Do I have to look for a stud? How? If I'm using screws, can I just use a screwdriver or should I buy a drill and drill a pilot hole? Look how lost I am. What is your advice? I'm going to have to fill these holes when I leave the apartment."

There are a couple of options:

Image courtesy of Charles & Hudson via Flickr.
A stud sensor is a fancy tool that senses the metal
fasteners which attach the wallboard to the stud.
  1. 3M sticky hooks. These can supposedly be removed without damaging the wall and can actually hold things up.  Haven't tried them myself. 
  2. Studly.  You can nail into a stud or screw into a stud (yes, drill a pilot hole just smaller than your screw shaft; you won't need a pilot hole for 99% of nails).  You have to find the stud first.  Try using a magnet to locate where there are already metal fasteners holding the wall board onto the studs. Typically studs are spaced 16" on center, so once you locate one, try 16" away for the next one.  Nails are fine for most pictures unless they are very heavy, or you can use picture hanging hooks, which make tiny nail holes and are very strong.   For bookshelves or TVs, use screws. Be sure to 
    Stanley Hotel @ Estes Park, Colorado.
    Image courtesy of daveynin via Flickr.
    Really heavy items like big mirrors really
    need to be hung from more than one stud.
    get WOOD screws (not sheetrock screws, which are just meant to be strong enough to hold on the sheetrock).  A wood 
    screw will have a pointed tip and the threads will be coarse (not too close together).  Get ones that are rated for the weight you want to support.
  3. No Stud. If you want to hang where there is no stud, do NOT just screw or nail into the sheetrock.  You've got to use an anchor.  There are several kinds: plastic & metal wing toggle-bolts are most common (don't use lead, that's for a masonry wall).  I hate the toggles, so I usually use plastic anchors.    You drill a pilot hole for the anchor, set the anchor, then use your screw to hang your picture into the secured hole proved by the anchor.  

As you can see, not a stupid question. :)

You'll find everything you need on the "fasteners" aisle at HD or Lowe's, and the picture hanging stuff is typically all together in one spot.  

But What If I Don't Have Sheetrock?

hook on a picture rail
Image courtesy of karindalziel via Flickr.
Oh.  I happen to know you live in a new place, which means studs & drywall (aka sheetrock or gypsum board). If you've got plaster or masonry, it's a bit different...

For wood lathe & PLASTER, you can still use the stud approach, but not the no stud approach (the sheetrock anchors won't work).  

If you absolutely must hang something where there is no stud, consider the old-fashioned approach of hanging a picture rail high up on the wall.  The rail is a piece of wood trim that is attached to the studs.  The pictures then hang from the rail with often pretty long wire.  If you can find actual "picture rail" trim--which my HD & Lowe's do not carry--it is a very specific shape that will take supercool picture rail hooks.

On our lathe & plaster wall, I installed a basic chair rail (very easy to find), and then hang my wire from a nail in the top side.

If you have MASONRY walls like brick or concrete block, there are no studs.  You have three options.

  1. if you have brick, use a simple brick hanger.  It grabs a standard size brick and provides a hook with no holes to drill.
  2. Use a lead anchor/shield the same way you would have used a plastic anchor with sheetrock.  Drill a hole to fit the anchor, tap the anchor in and use the secured hole to fit your screw.  Do not expect that anchoring into a mortar joint will provide the same strength as the masonry unit.
  3. Use the picture rail approach mentioned above, but instead of hanging the rail to the studs, use lead anchors into the masonry.  
hang tight,

p.s. If you are a LANDLORD, picture rails are awesome, because it allows residents to hang stuff where they want them without adding holes to your walls.  


The Problem:

As far as I can tell, nobody really "speaks building" anymore, except for builders who do it all day every day.

cut floor joist
Image courtesy of ArmChairBuilder via Flickr.
Plumbers often only speak plumbing, and chop away at structural members in gleeful ignorance of what those members might hold up.  Rough carpenters speak framing and not moisture prevention. Masons don't speak roofing and roofers don't speak foundation.  It's a veritable Tower of Babel in the building industry.

And then there's most of us, who have to hire out for a drippy pipe or a leaky roof, or have to get professional advice on whether we can take out an interior wall.

The Reasons:

Reason Number One.  Nobody builds their own homes/sheds/doghouses anymore; DIY is relegated to decorating (textures & color) and furnishings.

wiring being sealed behind sheetrock
Image courtesy of mealmakeovermoms via Flickr
If you want to know how something works, just ask any 7 year old: take it apart and put it back together.  Folks in all of history--up until a couple of generations ago--knew how to build.   Of course a few people had a variety of specialty skills, but any guy on the street could speak building, because everyone built their own homes (often more than once) and grew up helping each other raise barns and beams and roofs.

As time has worn on and our world been converted to a world of manufacture over making it with our own hands (curiously, that's what the word "manufacture" used to mean), we've collectively lost the knowledge.

Reason Number Two.  Spy-worth hidden secrets.  

The enemy culprit: SHEETROCK & FIREPROOFING.

Want to hang a picture?  Simple, right?  Wrong.  First you need to find out what kind of wall you have. Someone asked me this question last year and I was shocked how long my answer needed to be.

"Electric" Alan Hochberg via Flickr
Sheetrock a.k.a. wallboard a.k.a. gypboard is an expert at hiding the secrets of how a building is held up.  What is the wall made of?  Where is that stud?  Which direction do the ceiling or floor joists run?

Nobody can tell these things instinctively: they must be investigated on the other side of the sheetrock.

The secondary enemy: SYSTEMS.

Structure is not the only thing hiding behind sheetrock.  Building systems like plumbing and electrical wires are also hidden in the cavities of the same walls and ceilings.  And you don't want to accidentally drill through those.  Even a tiny hole can be catastrophic.

Reason Number Three.  Buildings have gotten a lot more complicated.

supercool shed
Image courtesy of Benjamin Chun via Flickr
From building code to zoning, regulations ensure that amateur DIY-ers are out of their depth when building an inhabitable building.

Homes today are huge relative to the one- or two-room starter homes our grandparents built.  It's not a one-day project for your and your friends to raise a roof structure these days.

Each building system is so complicated (even without a smart house) and requires specialty licensure that few people are doing that themselves.

And finishes, rather than being hand-applied over time are assembled assembly-line style. Furnishings, rather than being acquired or built over time, are purchased all at once on credit and delivered in a shiny truck.

chicken coop
Image courtesy of Allan Hack via Flickr
The Solutions:

90% of Americans' time is spent indoors.  NINETY.

First of all, go outside, because shame on us.
Breathe some real air.  Go to the mountains or the beach or the park or even the sidewalk and do your best to drive that number down.

Secondly, assemble stuff.
Build a treehouse, a doghouse, a shed, a playhouse, a henhouse, a deck, a dollhouse, your own house!

Thirdly, consider how a house might be DIY'd (that's not the first time I made up a word in this post).

One of the zessn schoolhouse students (who are perfectly awesome) turned me onto The Good House Book .  I had read another book by Natural Home magazine that I really enjoyed, and this one is even better for learning to speak building. I borrowed one from our library, but I think I should probably own this one!

Lastly, don't be afraid to take stuff apart and put it back together.

Happy Memorial Day: be sure to remember the sacrifice of those who have protected our great country in service!



I always look forward to the annual investment guide that Forbes puts out.  It's got timely and timeless advice and sometimes I remember the recommendations long enough to follow them.

In 2014, they listed 365 ways to "get rich" (at least, that's what they called it on the cover).  A bit sensational, but I'm going to list a few favorites.

Favorite Ways to "Get Rich"

#25  After setting an asset allocation, rebalance yearly; it forces you to take profits when stocks have surged and to buy more shares when they're cheap.

#46 Use different passwords for each of your online financial accounts; add optional security questions whose answers can't be found in your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles.

Image courtesy of Flickr
#47 Write down your passwords and hide them; tell one person where they are.

#60 Use salary increases to boost contributions to your 401(k).

#64 Don't abdicate investment decisions to your spouse.

#72 Aim to have five times your salary in your 401(k) and IRAs by age 55 and eight times before you retire.

#73 Dan Ariely: "If you can't save enough money, be really nice to your kids."

#80 Work for a charity for ten years and get your federal student debt forgiven.

#85 Before funding college accounts make sure you're saving enough in your retirement accounts.

#104 Back up your financial records using a secure cloud service.

#122 Qualify as a "real estate professional" to save big on taxes.

#124 Burton Malkiel, "Start saving now, not later: Time is money."

#140 Julian Robertson: Suggest your kid take an accounting course--"It was the course that helped me more than anything."

#192 Don't let family wealth become a curse on your children.

#202 Don't count on an inheritance.  If you get one, don't blow it.

#219 Buy no more house than you can afford.

#249 Ramit Sethi: Set up systems to automate desired behaviors.  Leave your gym clothes at the food of your bed.  Have contributions to savings automatically deducted.

#269 Sign a living will, health care proxy and power of attorney, even if you're still healthy.

#278 Have your kid read The Little Book That Beats the Market by Joel Greenblatt.

#280 Start saving for retirement in your 20s to put the compounding winds at your back.

#311 Tap an IRA--not a 401(k)--without penalty for a first-time home purchase.

#365 Plan.


I can remember growing up and accidentally landing on Doctor Who while "channel checking" late at night.  At our house, this consisted of lying on the floor and reaching a foot up to turn the dial with two toes.  It didn't take very long to go through the channels, so it wasn't overtaxing: ABC, CBS, NBC, WGN, TBS, PBS and a local weather image.

Yeah, that show.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And if you stayed up "too" late, there wasn't much on.  Charlie's Angels reruns were over at midnight and quite frankly, what ON EARTH was going on with the strange stuff on PBS?  It had creepy music, and worse sets & props than the community theater or a soap opera.  No, I didn't get it.... not even a little bit.
This was also the era of fairly awful production qualities at Masterpiece Theater.  I can respectfully assert that I'm a convert there as well (ahem, Poirot, Pride & Prejudice, Foyle's War, and even Downton Abbey of late).

I didn't realize that like a lot of sci fi, the price of admission was getting past the unconvincing sets to a place where you could be challenged by the story lines and characters.

Enormous straw sculpture of a Dalek (Snugbury's Cheshire)
one of the Doctor's worst enemies
Image courtesy of Paolo Camera via Flickr
A Doctor Who Primer

It was only been the last few years that I'd heard enough buzz about the Doctor enough that I thought we'd give him a try.  We started with the eleventh Doctor and then went back and watched the ninth and tenth doctor before him.  I've dabbled in some highly acclaimed episodes from the early years: likely some of the very same episodes I'd snubbed as a kid.

If you're not a Whovian, you might be helped in conversations about the Doctor by knowing a few facts:

  1. The Doctor is referred to simply as "the Doctor" and not "Doctor Who."
  2. Versions of the Doctor
    Image © BBC via Wikimedia Commons
    (fair use)
    The Doctor is "regenerated" into different incarnations; each one has a different personality played by a different actor.
  3. The Doctor is very old (it varies with which episode you are watching, but lately in excess of 1000 years), and in theory may be regenerated into a child's form, a woman's form, or a non-human form, but so far as we know has always been a white adult male human from the UK.
  4. The Doctor is a time lord, meaning he can travel through space & time in his only slightly glitchy time machine, the TARDIS, which looks like a blue police phone box.  TARDIS is a machine but also has a soul, and she calls herself "Sexy."  Sometimes she's just called "the box," poor girl.
  5. The Doctor usually has companions that travel with him, who get to be really impressed by his brilliance and power and who must be contractually required to comment that the police box is bigger on the inside.
  6. A good portion of the travel includes trips to London, which is being invaded again by aliens.

Why has Doctor Who become so popular?

TARDIS image
courtesy of © via Wikimedia Commons
Some people say Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant or Matt Smith (the actors who played the Doctor in recent memory), the use of reasonably attractive men in their prime rather than older gentlemen.  Some say improvement in production qualities, some say writing (Moffat?!)


It's the TARDIS.  Everyone wants one.

Why should I want a TARDIS?

  • because it's an ├╝ber tiny building
  • because it’s bigger on the inside (get a tour at the link)
  • because it has a soul and a memory
  • because you can take it with you wherever you go
  • because it takes you on adventures (not necessarily where you want to go, but where you need to go)

Places of the Soul by
Christopher Day
a zessn pinterest board


Architect Peter Eisenman famously does not live in a house that he designed himself.  

Wexner Center for the arts, Columbus, Ohio
by Peter Eisenman (1989)
Image courtesy of TijsB via Flickr
“Architects design houses,” Eisenman said. 
“I live in a home.”  

Presumably, this distinction helps to explain Eisenman’s living arrangements. Most architects of his stature live in houses that they have designed and whose designs are published widely, but he divides his time between two homes, neither of which he designed and neither of which has been published.

Eisenman characterized one home as “a dumb little apartment” in New York City with “a kitchen that’s not comfortable for two people to be in at the same time.” He characterized the other as a “wonderful old New England house, made of stone, brick and tile,” which was an 18th-century mill and is built over a waterfall. “No architect has ever worked on it,” he said. “You couldn’t design like this. It happens over time,” as successive owners altered it to meet their needs.

Offering an explanation for his housing choices, Eisenman said, “I am immersed in architecture all day, working in my office or teaching.” Afterwards, “I want to go back to my home, where it’s cozy.”

See the full article by Katherine Salant (The Washington Post, April 29, 2011).


Artists' Handmade Houses
a book by Michael Gotkin, 2011
I wonder what the architectural profession has become if people--even architects--don't want to live in overly designed spaces.

According to Eisenman in the article above, a home is
  • made of handcrafted materials,
  • built over time, and
  • cozy.

I'd like to add a few of my own.  A home is also
  • a comfortable place to relax and put your feet up,
  • welcoming to guests, and
  • an authentic place where real life is visible, not hidden.

A home is not
1964 Fridge Decor
Image courtesy of x-ray delta one via Flickr
  • perfectly organized and decorated,
  • perfectly clean at all times,
  • a work of art ready for a magazine spread,
  • a gallery for works of art, nor
  • a museum of residential architecture.

Our Home

Our home is constantly in a state of change.  It was built in 1906 with very traditional materials: a sandstone basement, brick exterior walls, and frame interior walls with wood lathe and plaster.  And it has seen many changes over the years, including a second storey apartment added in the 1950s.  

our 1906 house in 2006 when we bought it,
exactly 100 years old
What's horrifying to me about it is the alterations that were done in the 1980s, that decade of DIY courage and ignorance!
This was after the common wisdom of how buildings are put together had died out and before the birth of Youtube.  Home improvement was still happening, encouraged by the expansion of home improvement chains.  I'm often nervous to open up a wall from this period, worried that I'll discover the whole thing was held together with wood glue and peanut shells...

But back on point, this home has developed over time before we bought and since.  We didn't have the funds to do a complete overhaul when we bought it, so we are approaching it one space at a time.  Living here has imparted a much more in-depth sensitivity to what it could be; what it wants to be; what it needs; what we need as a family.
Handcrafted Modern by
Leslie Williamson, 2010

Building a Home Over Time

I often think about how generations past
almost always built their homes over time.  Start with a two-room cabin, then an outbuilding or two, then a lean-to addition, etc.  

People built what they could afford to pay for, even if that was only two rooms.  They typically built it themselves with locally available materials and help from extended family and community.  Their mortgage was often on the land and not on the building.

Early Mortgages in United States*

Kidner House, Nelsonville, Ohio
Image courtesy of gb_packards via Flickr

Prior to 1916, national banks as well as many state banks were prohibited from making 
real estate loans. “Even after 1916, many commercial banks refused to make real estate loans on the grounds that they were ‘illiquid.’ Those that were willing to make such loans believed it was ‘bad business’ to lend more than 50 percent of the appraised value of a home. Building and loan associations loaned up to 80 percent or more of the appraised value, but at [higher] interest rates ranging between 8 and 12 percent of the loan.” 
*This excerpt is from page 14 of History of Mortgage Finance With an Emphasis on Mortgage Insurance (2009) by Thomas N. Herzog, Ph.D., ASA is based on Sydney Hyman's paper Marriner Stoddard Eccles, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, Stanford, 1976. 

Are We Better Off Now?

Image courtesy of via Flickr
Is it better for banks or consumers that the standard limit on mortgages is now 80% of the value of the land and building?  
Consumers can get a loan that they might not be able to afford and banks are exposed when a defaulted loan is more than they can net after a sale.  On the plus side, families don't have to save up for a decade for a 50% downpayment.  

Tiny Homes & DIY Homes

Image courtesy of Tax Credits via Flickr
Can we reverse this approach of domestic entitlement and start living in homes that we can build ourselves as we can afford it, without a mortgage on the building?

There are challenges, to be sure.  
  • Zoning requirements & neighborhood covenants that require a minimum square footage;
  • building codes that don't make allowances for DIY methods like cob and rammed earth;
  • fears that only contractors can build a building these days; and even
  • social pressures to buy a large home and furnish it right away--on credit--to indicate that you are, in fact, an adult.

What's your definition of "home?"  



It's somewhat ambiguous, but the definition of affordability has to be related to income, right? Income as well as other debt & ob...