When architect Mies van der Rohe uttered his famous maxim, "Less is more," he was talking aesthetics and the beauty of simplicity. When Louise Rafkin praises simplicity in design, she is being practical--elaborate window and door trim and triple crown moldings are hard to clean.
Rafkin, a professional house cleaner and the author of "Other People's Dirt: A Housecleaner's Curious Adventures" (Plume, $11.95 paperback), has plenty of specific suggestions for designing a house that is easier to keep clean.
Rafkin's secret to cleaning success: Focus on the details and minimize the number of surfaces where dust can collect. Since dust falls down, Rafkin began her discussion with the floor. Hard surfaces, such as tile or hardwood, are easier to keep clean, especially in an entry foyer or a mudroom. Her favored floor treatment, which she has in her own house, is hardwood with area rugs under furniture areas.
To a house cleaner, wall-to-wall carpeting is "foolish," Rafkin said. It wears and tears at different rates. After a year the carpet under a couch will no longer look the same as the carpet in a heavily trafficked area--and both collect dust. But acknowledging that wall-to-wall carpeting is the least expensive way to finish a floor and what most people will choose, she advised--"for peace of mind"--a mottled carpet in a neutral color with a little texture. Carpeting with higher, denser pile can have a rich, silky look, but every footprint shows, especially on a floor that has just been vacuumed.
Even if your budget dictates carpeting for most areas, Rafkin still would get hardwood for stairs. Though carpeting looks good here, "it is nearly impossible to vacuum. An upright vacuum cleaner can't get in the cracks, and a battery-operated hand-held type doesn't have enough suction," she said.
Turning her attention to where the wall and floor meet, Rafkin characterized elaborate, traditional ogee-profile wall bases with their curves and small indentation as "dust collectors." They look great on move-in day, she said, but before long, someone will have to bend down and clean out the dust and bugs that will have collected there. A clamshell profile wall base with a shallow curve at the top is simpler, less expensive and a "dust resister." A straight wall base with a squared off top gives a clean, utilitarian look, but dust will still collect on it, Rakfin pointed out. A wall with no base at all, which Mies would have loved, also is a bad idea because the wall will get nicked by a vacuum cleaner, she said.
Central vacuum systems are offered by some builders as upgrades, but Rakfin found the long hose to be "cumbersome to drag through the house and the suction was not great if you were vacuuming any distance from where the central motor is."
Though dust falls down, also it catches on higher-up surfaces, such as chair rails and elaborate ceiling trim, which can look scuzzy when dust and cobwebs collect. Dining room chandeliers are another of Rafkin's "no way" details--"I'm anti-chandelier. You have to clean, clean, clean."
A plate rack or a bookshelf running along the top of a wall, however, is one detail that Rafkin said she likes. "You can take a certain amount of license because you can't see the shelf from the floor--the dust collecting there is out of sight."
Open shelving that is closer to eye level, though, is a "nightmare" and one that Rafkin frequently encounters because many homeowners have books, art objects or children's artwork that they want to display. Enclosing the artwork in cabinets with glass-paned doors makes her job easier, but Rafkin acknowledged that you won't be able to see the objects as well.
A two-story family room with a 16- to 17-foot-high window wall looks great in a builder's model, but most of those windows will be hard to reach, Rafkin said. Anyone who buys a house with such an arrangement will end up hiring a professional window washer with special equipment to clean both inside and out, she predicted.
For the kitchen, Rafkin recommended 42-inch-high wall cabinets that go to the ceiling instead of shorter 30-inch ones that leave an open area between the top of the cabinet and the ceiling. The taller, more expensive cabinets increase kitchen storage capacity; more important, installing them avoids a distasteful, periodic confrontation with the dust and grease that collect when the area above the wall cabinets is left open.
While master bathrooms are getting bigger than ever, they're not any easier to clean, Rafkin said. Walk-in showers--so big that you don't need a door or curtain to keep the water from going everywhere--are a "bear to clean" because the "no door" feature means larger areas of tiled walls to wipe down. The smaller shower stalls with clear glass that are also popular look great but spot easily. If you don't wipe them off every time you use the shower, the walls quickly look grimy, she said.
Very large mirrors, common in very large bathrooms, look great, but these are another of Rafkin's least favorite features. In most households, the mirrors over the sink have a "flossing zone" about two feet long and one foot high where little food specs collect. To clean the zone and have it look right, you have to clean the entire mirror, Rakfin said.
Many builders offer Hollywood strip lighting above the mirror. The even lighting given off makes applying makeup much easier, but these are a "drag to clean," Rakfin said. A less expensive lighting fixture above the mirror and to either side that has a plastic lens covering the light bulbs "looks kind of cheesy" but it's much easier to clean, Rafkin said.
As you plan your new house, Rafkin said, it's helpful to keep in mind that it will probably never look as good as the builder's model, even if you build one exactly like it. The model looks perfect because no one lives in it and the builder has an army of people to fret over every dust ball.