Pyrrharctia isabella: Wikimedia

Pyrrharctia isabella: Wikimedia

Woolly bear says: Oil prices are down. Fill the oil tank now.

The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a cold and snowy winter for New England. The National Weather Service predicts a “normal” one. What say you, woolly bears?

Folklore holds that the length of this cute caterpillar’s black and brown segments hint at the coming winter’s length. I can never remember which part–the black ends or the brown middle–means what. Fortunately, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has given some time to the subject.

Says NOAA, “The longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier, and more severe the winter will be.” Dear NOAA, what could possibly be “more severe” than long, cold, and snowy? Is there a dimension of unpleasantness I’m forgetting? Frosty-bity? Wind-burny? Icerageous?


Grown up Pyrrharctia_isabella. Wikimedia {pd]

Anyway, here’s the true fact: As a woolly bear spends the summer and fall gnawing on your dandelions and clover, it grows, and molts six times. Each time, the new skin has a wider strip of red hairs. Ergo, a woolly bear with long black ends predicts that you’re talking to a kid; a completely red one predicts that you’re looking at a ‘pillar poised on the precipice of pupation.

This puts the woolly bear’s predictive power on a par with that of the Farmer’s Almanac. Also like the Almanac, a woolly bear can survive freezing at -90F. Woolly bear don’t care how long winter is.


[PD] wikimedia

[PD] wikimedia

What is Zillow, exactly, and… why?

Well, back in the day, all real estate agents worked for sellers. In Maine, anyway, the seller’s agent collected a commission from the seller, then either found a buyer herself, or paid part of the commission to any “sub-agent” who could rope in a buyer. Maine, anyway, now does a good job of giving buyers a chance to retain their own advocate.

But a hangover furrows the brow of the industry still.

For one thing, the seller’s agent still usually collects the entire commission, out of long habit. The buyer’s agent is still typically paid by the seller’s agent, in Maine. Just out of habit. It works; it’s just peculiar.

And then there’s a headache known as Zillow. (And Trulia, etc.) Now that buyers are choosing agents of their own, those buyers have become a valuable commodity. Everybody and his uncle is trying to catch them, and then sell them to real estate agents.

And that’s what Zillow does. Now that buyers are free to take their own path to a house for sale, Zillow has done a particularly good job of making the path wide and easy to navigate on a smart phone. Zillow sells advertising space to real estate agents who want their smiling face to pop up beside your search results.

So that’s a Zillow: It collects house-hunters and sells them to agents.

Real estate agents resent the Zillows of the world for various reasons. Old-school agents see Zillow as a poacher, stealing buyers who used to be forced to deal directly with the seller’s agent.

Busy agents resent Zillow for telling their buyer clients that 234 School Street is available, when it is long gone. Zillow’s data is famously dirty, which wastes everybody’s time.

Me? I think the customer is always right: Home hunters want decent searching tools. Zillow solved a problem, and if it’s not yet perfect, it’s pretty good.

And now, to recapture those free-range buyers, agents are getting creative.

Some are now getting their own apps. (Scan the QRC below to test-drive my very own, built by Keller Williams. I’d love to hear reviews. It’s easy to delete if you don’t like it.)

Agents are also exploring the value of their proprietary data banks which, after all, are built, maintained, and updated at agents’ expense. Broker organizations are demanding that Zillow direct some of those free-range buyers back toward the listing agent in exchange for data.

But to my mind, the whole kerfuffle overlooks the goal of the seller: to present her house to as many people as possible. If Zillow can bring my client’s house to your attention, I don’t care what agent brings you to the door.

Next time: Redfin

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig

Hannah Holmes Keller Williams smart-phone realty search thingamajig


[PD] wikimedia

[PD] wikimedia

It’s meant, according to my favorite folklore, to go over the front door, not to dangle from an interior doorway. And the kissing is not meant to be the boy-girl kind.

Though there are 700 hypotheses on the origin of hanging mistletoe over a door, here’s my best interpretation:

(First, assume any plant that’s green all winter gets special attention in the north. Mistletoe is one of those.)

Now assume it’s the Dark Ages and there are no police. People, being people, are going to peeve each other, take one another’s sheep, slay one another’s relatives, etc.

There are also no Hallmark cards to send, with pretty writing inside that says, “All right, forget about the five chickens you owe me. I miss having that beer you make.”

Come the mid-winter festivals of “oh my god will this this darkness ever end,” people would bring green plants indoors to remind themselves to not kill themselves just yet. And there being no TV to watch, they invited the neighbors in for some story-telling.

If neighbors were slow to materialize, paralyzed by self-consciousness over stolen goods or murdered relatives, a signal was needed to indicate that, today at least, the need for company is greater than the need for vengeance. Remember that reading was practiced mainly among monks. So in Scandinavia, up went the mistletoe over the door–the exterior door, so that you knew from a distance you would be safe.

So says my favorite folklore: All who entered were assured of forgiveness.

The kissing? Kissing was not always romantic and spitty. Consider the Pope’s ring. Jesus and Judas. Kissing used to be really big in the sorting out of status. And as a symbol of allegiance. To kiss under the mistletoe was actually redundant: Both signaled that you were on the same team.

Today, anyway. Winter is long up here on the shoulder of the planet. It wouldn’t hurt to keep that mistletoe up for a while.




Image: CBT Architects

The technical name for the stuff is EIFS–Exterior Insulation Finishing Systems. The reality of EIFS: Styrofoam stucco. The problem: This exterior finish wants in.

I’m not presuming that the Miami developer behind the huge-ish housing complex proposed for Portland’s Bayside is committed to cladding that conglomeration with EIFS. I’m just saying that this rendering looks quite a lot like the finish you’ll find gracing the exterior of your local Target store.

Above is one of the four buildings now proposed for the strip along Somerset Street behind Trader Joe’s and the former DHS building. This thing will face a dignified, old, brick-clad building across Somerset. 

Screenshot (42)

Right: Monotonous facade offering “unvaried pedestrian experience.” Speaking as a pedestrian and a hater of change, I like it just fine. Left: TBD. Image: Google Maps

I’m delighted to read in The Press Herald that Portland Planning is leery of both EIFS and vinyl siding for this colossal project. That’s major.

I am, however, alarmed that some feel the proposed facades are “monotonous,” and insufficiently varied in terms of materials.


Image: CBT Architects

IMHO, they are not nearly monotonous enough, and the variation embodied in those scuba-mask projections and the random green squares combines the worst of the 1960’s and today’s tarpaper-townhouse aesthetics. Taken as a whole, the design reminds me of the Holiday Inn on Spring Street, which reminds me of a neglected beach in Florida.

While I’m kvetching, may I note that those roofs look suspiciously similar to parking lots, and not much like green roofs or solar arrays?

Now, to stop kvetching: I get that Portland housing costs are way too high for normal people. And that bricks are expensive. And that StyroStucco is cheap. And that vinyl is final. I get that. I vowed to tear the vinyl off my 1918 bungalow the day I bought it. Instead, I put on an addition with more vinyl. Some day, I’ll get around to adding plastic shutters, which will vary the materials and the pedestrian experience, and make the addition look less like an angular, white tumor.

Human shelter is an exercise in compromise. Its first job is to keep humans warm and dry. Its second is to ruin the planet as little as possible. The rest is up for debate.




Image: UMN Extension

Looks like its time to re-post this: Last year, half the houses in the neighborhood developed ice dams. Part of the reason? This neighborhood has tons of bungalows.

The bungalow is native to sunny India, where the deep overhang of the eave acts like an awning.

Maine and India have little in common beyond the bungalow. Here, that overhang gets very cold, because it’s not heated by warm air rushing upward through the ceiling and into the attic.

That fleeing warm air does heat the roof over the attic, however, and melts the snow thereon. Water runs down the roof as god intended. But then it hits the unheated overhang and promptly freezes. Over time, a ridge of ice forms atop the eave. Now running water backs up behind a growing ridge of ice, seeps between the shingles, and enters parts of your house previously reserved for dryness.

The slanted ceiling of a bungalow’s second floor makes matters worse: You can’t add much insulation there to slow the flow of heat.

The outdoor angles compound the problem, as intersecting roof lines direct a lot of water toward the valleys.

What to do? Don’t do this: In a fit of freezing pique I once took a pickax to my ice dams. It tore that ice right up! And the roof under it, too!

Prevention, as usual, is the sensible thing. Maintain a clear path for water to take off the roof. Rake snow off the eaves before the cycle sets in.

And if you must build a bungalow in Maine, insulate the heck out of it.



Photo: Jim Frederick; Spring Point Light

Machicolation: Architectural term meaning, literally, “neck smasher.” But it’s not what you think.

I actually don’t know what you think, when you picture an architectural item called a “neck smasher.” Here’s what I thought: My friend Jim Fredrick made this elegant photo of Spring Point Lighthouse. I wondered if the pendants on those brackets had a name. (They’re just “finials.”)

Then I wondered if those were eave brackets, or corbels. Which naturally led me to machicolations.

Back in the day–the Medieval day–crusaders of one persuasion or the other would sometimes chip at the base of your castle wall, or prance around down there shooting flaming arrows into your domicile. What to do?

Architects of the day hence added a tier at the top of the wall, a tier which cantilevered out on supporting corbels like an upside-down wedding cake. They left holes in the floor of this new tier. Through these holes defenders could now drop great, big rocks onto the necks of the pests below. The Spanish called the holes matarcane, something like “for killing dogs,” aka infidels.

Machicolation galleries were lovely to look at, utility and terminology notwithstanding. Thus they have been carried forward into modern architecture–particularly military architecture, and lighthouses. Alas, most of them now lack the actual machicolations.


Gallery machicolations atop tower; note “box machicolations” and/or latrine atop wall to left. [PD] Wikimedia



In 2009, just 22 homes in Portland sold for more than $500,000. What a difference five years makes: For the past 12 months, that number is 75. South Portland’s rise is nearly as steep: from 4 to 12 homes in the “luxury” category.

This jump in top-shelf housing pric

Portland sales over $500,000, in 2009, and 2014. MREIS data

Portland sales over $500,000, in 2009, and 2014. MREIS data

es is probably not a matter of existing houses selling for more. They are selling for more, but not that much more. What’s at work here is a new demand for new housing on the Peninsula. The demand for new construction, with parking, energy efficiency, water views, fine finishes, and perhaps a private elevator, is what’s new. And that stuff costs money.

South Portland home sales over $500,000, in 2009 and 2014. MREIS data

South Portland home sales over $500,000, in 2009 and 2014. MREIS data

In a more gradual process, existing housing is also spiffing up and pricing up.

South Portland, by which I mean the east side of South Portland, is showing a more organic growth pattern. There, it’s renovation that’s raising the prices. As time-worn bungalows and colonials hit the market, they’re updated, upgraded, and spit-polished to meet the standards of a new demographic.

So what does it meeeeeeeean, this sudden jump in swell digs?

I think it could mean a more balanced demographic, particularly for Portland. The City hosts more than its share of expensive social services and tax-exempt organizations. That dumps more of the tax burden onto residential and commercial buildings. The high-end building boom will spread the property tax burden more widely.

Does it make Portland — and South Portland– less affordable, more homogenous, and less, you know, fabulously weird? Gradually, probably: Yes. And that’s what cities do: They swell and shrink, breath and cough, reflecting the mass movements of individual human beings.