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Safe at Home

Home smoking rooms are the closest thing to paradise for serious cigar smokers
Michael Marsh
From the Print Edition:
Edgar Bronfman Jr., Mar/Apr 03

John DiRocco loves his cigars as much as the next guy, but retreating to the driveway or the back patio whenever he got the urge to smoke one wasn't something he could tolerate, especially during the Connecticut winter. "Every time I wanted a cigar," he says, "I had to get up and go outside to smoke." Before long, DiRocco said enough was enough and began devising a way to smoke in the comfort of his home. Salvation came in the form of a home smoking room. Now whenever DiRocco wants a cigar, he heads to the heated, decorated and ventilated room in his basement where he smokes in peace amid a sports memorabilia collection that would do Cooperstown proud.

For Chris McDonagh, the idea for adding a smoking lounge came the day he decided to buy his home in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1998. Cigar in mouth, McDonagh toured the French Provincial-style house with his wife, Andrea, and a real estate agent, and it was love at first sight. "I was amazed by the living space," recalls McDonagh, a senior vice president of equity sales with Lehman Brothers in Manhattan. "Almost immediately I said to myself, 'I'm buying this house.'" One room in particular grabbed McDonagh's attention: a first-floor den off the dining room that previous owners had used as a library. "I saw this room and I knew it was going to be my room," he says. "I wanted to turn it into a place where I could entertain and where I could relax and smoke." Today, McDonagh calls the room his "entertainment mecca." It's also a smoker's haven, with everything from a ventilation system and a cabinet humidor to a full bar and a flat-screen television.

For avid lovers of the leaf such as DiRocco and McDonagh, home smoking rooms are becoming more common. Not only are they comfortable and convenient places to enjoy cigars, they double as rooms for relaxing while watching a baseball game or movie, entertaining guests, enjoying spirits or playing a game of cards or billiards. The simplest of rooms with the bare essentials can be created for little more than $1,000, but adding more sophisticated equipment and various accoutrements will push the total cost to several thousand dollars. If you're going to trick the room out, the sky's the limit. Each owner has a unique vision of how a smoking room will fit into the overall feel of his house, yet most share similar motivations.

The first is obvious: cigar smokers need a place to smoke. As any smoker is aware, acceptable places to smoke are disappearing. Just finding a smoke-friendly place where you won't be subjected to stares of disapproval or ordered to extinguish "that smelly thing" is frustrating enough. But recently a wave of antismoking legislation sweeping the United States has worsened the plight of cigar smokers. City and state smoking bans are being instituted across the country, making smokers' last refuge their homes. Even so, many men can't even smoke there, as their wives refuse to let the house be overrun by cigar smoke. So they need a room dedicated to smoking that can be atmospherically separated from the rest of the house.

Which leads to the second motivation. If you're already creating a smoking sanctuary, why not make it plush? It's as good a time as ever for building one. With the stock market ailing and the economy stumbling along, many homeowners are rededicating themselves to their homes, their most solid investment. They are spending more time there and putting more money towards renovating, remodeling and making their living spaces as comfortable as possible. For a cigar smoker, there's no better way of achieving comfort than with a smoking room. Not only will it provide a place to smoke -- no more shuddering in the cold, no more sitting on a cinder block in the garage -- it will also bring another dimension to the house, a place to relax and entertain friends and perhaps even family.

Surprisingly, building a smoking room isn't that difficult. To fashion a room that effectively rids the air of smoke and fits into the scheme of your house, you don't really need much. Once you have a room you want to convert and a contractor you trust, the only things missing are a budget and the imagination to create a space that's truly awesome.

John DiRocco started work on his smoking room in 2001, three years after he and his family moved into their 25-room residence in Wilton, Connecticut. At the time, DiRocco, a chief financial officer for a Connecticut investment firm, was undertaking a massive renovation project in the spacious basement of his home. After installing a state-of-the-art wine cellar that can hold 1,700 bottles and a recreation room complete with several arcade games and a billiards table, DiRocco set his sights on adding a home theater. He put in two rows of four recliner chairs, an overhead projector and a large movie screen, complete with theater curtains that open and close at the touch of a button. DiRocco added a sound system, along with a working bar and an antique popcorn maker, but one question remained -- what to do with the octagonal alcove off of the theater? Once DiRocco decided to make the space, which is 15 feet wide, a separate room, he brainstormed over what it should be. He soon realized his days of puffing outside were over. The octagon was ideal for a smoking room.

At this point, DiRocco approached Jim Bettridge, the owner of Bettridge Woodworks in Stamford, Connecticut. Bettridge, a private contractor who had built the wine cellar and parts of the home theater for DiRocco, set to it, with one of the first orders of business the installation of a ventilation system.

The ventilation system is the key element to any successful smoking room. If you can't effectively contain and rid the air of smoke, a smoking room becomes just another room, one that will lose its charm on poker night when your four friends light up at the same time. Which system you choose depends on a number of factors, primarily how much you're willing to spend. The more money you put into a system, the more elaborate it will be, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the most expensive option is the best system for your room.

For DiRocco's room, Bettridge employed a system that is commonly used by homeowners, an exhaust fan (similar to a bathroom fan, only more powerful) on the outside of the home, with ductwork leading to vents in the ceiling or wall of the room. Once Bettridge installed the fan into the side of the house, he ran several feet of insulated ductwork through the ceiling between the basement and the first floor, splitting it and creating two ducts in the room. This gave DiRocco's room two separate vents, located in the tiered ceiling, for exhausting smoke. The fan itself is activated by a wall switch and features an electronic timer, allowing the ventilation system to continue clearing the smoke after you have left the room.


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