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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.

John Priber, a private contractor who lives in New Jersey, installed the same type of exhaust system in McDonagh's smoking room, and calls it the "minimalist approach." But that's not to say the exhaust fan system doesn't work. "A little fan goes a long way," says Priber. "It's the best bang for your buck and can be enormously successful."

Lloyd Knecht, the president of ANC Heating and Air Conditioning in Endicott, New York, agrees with Priber. Knecht, who has installed air systems in homes, hotels and offices, says, "You don't need an elaborate air handling unit, just one that is effective."

An exhaust fan with ductwork typically costs about $1,500, while a more elaborate system can run as much as $10,000. This would entail installing an air handling system (separate from a central air conditioning and heating unit), an electronic air cleaner and a energy recovery ventilator. The primary function of the air handler, which can be installed for around $5,000 and includes necessary ductwork, is to circulate air in the room. Along with exhausting air from the room, the air handler replaces air and, if you do not have a central air unit, can also work with a heat pump or air conditioner to provide heat in the winter and cool air in the summer.

While air handlers are equipped with filters, electronic air cleaners can also be used to catch smoke. These range from $500 to $1,000 (plus installation) and work by electrically charging smoke particles as they enter the filter. Metal plates in the filter are also charged, creating a magnet effect between the plates and the particles. While electronic air cleaners work better than regular filters in your air handler, they do require maintenance. The more you use the cleaners, the less efficient they become. Cleaning the system at least once or twice a year is necessary to keep it running effectively.

The last piece for an elaborate cleaning system is an energy recovery ventilator (ERV). Also called an air-to-air exchanger, the ERV is designed to work with your air handler and recovers warm or cool air that is being exhausted out of the room. The air that is recovered is then added to the fresh air being ducted back to the room. An ERV has an 80 percent recovery rate, which helps conserve household energy, and costs around $2,500.

With their ventilation systems in place, the next steps for Bettridge and Priber were designing and building the interior of the rooms. For Bettridge, this meant designing a ceiling that would conceal the ductwork, light fixtures, stereo speakers and electrical work. According to Bettridge, the tiered ceiling was the most difficult part of the room to build. Using cherry wood, Bettridge constructed the ceiling in separate panels in his wood shop, then fit the panels to the octagonal room, making any necessary adjustments. He also used the cherry wood to conceal the two vents. Unless you know what they are, they appear to be simply part of the ceiling's design. Finished, the woodworking is amazing, and works beautifully to give the room a classy, smoking room feel.

On the walls, Bettridge also used cherry wood for the wainscoting, and a brown paint to match the walls of the home theater. He added a marble floor, with an inlaid pattern matching the center light fixture, and glass display shelves. "All the surfaces are hard material," points out Bettridge. "This way you don't have smoke being absorbed by the room. You can wash down the surfaces and this prevents tar buildup and solves a lot of odor problems."

For Priber, the major work on McDonagh's 15 feet by 18 feet room, besides the ventilation system and light fixtures in the ceiling, was building a full-service bar and a cabinet humidor. The bar, decked out in a green granite surface and distressed copper piping that matches the room's copper fireplace, is complete with a sink, a refrigerator and ice maker, plus shelves for stocking bottles, glasses and other bar-related necessities. The highlight, however, is the cabinet humidor, which is loaded with McDonagh's vast collection of cigars, Cuban and non-Cuban. The three-shelf cabinet easily holds more than 20 boxes of cigars.

When the interior of the room is complete, the ventilation systems up and running, the real fun begins for the owner of a home smoking room. Personality will dictate how the room is furnished and what hangs on the walls. There is no right or wrong here, and the options are limitless.

DiRocco's room is dedicated to his sports memorabilia collection. "When Jim started working on the room," says DiRocco, "it was right around the same time that I started collecting sports memorabilia. I was running out of space and thought it would be great decor for my smoking room."

Indeed. DiRocco's collection is staggering, with hundreds of items filling the basement. Some of the items on display include authentic jerseys signed by Tiki Barber and Latrell Sprewell, football helmets signed by Troy Aikman and Johnny Unitas, and a pair of spikes signed by Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. It doesn't stop there. DiRocco has baseballs autographed by everyone from Willie Mays and Hank Aaron to Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski; Ted Williams and Barry Bonds to Harmon Killebrew and Nolan Ryan. He says his goal is to collect the autographs of all the players to hit 500 home runs, collect 3,000 hits and win 300 games. He is well on his way. Another prized item that stands out in the smoking room is a photograph of Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth posing with their lumber. The photo includes the signatures of all four Hall of Famers.

McDonagh, too, has a number of sports items, but his room is not entirely dedicated to memorabilia. It's much more eclectic, furnished with leather couches for more of a living room feel, and a home entertainment system that includes a stereo, DVD player and flat-screen television with a DirecTV hookup. The room has a cigar-store Indian, cigar art, and a number of other trinkets dedicated to his family, his love of sports and, of course, cigars.

So is there a key to decorating a home smoking room? "I think it's important to go with what's in your heart," says Elissa Cullman of Cullman and Kravis Inc., an interior design firm in Manhattan that devised the layout for General Cigar Holdings Inc.'s Club Macanudo, an upscale cigar bar in New York City. "The room should reflect a certain aesthetic that represents a person's personality and what appeals to them. You also want a warm and cozy atmosphere, but with a masculine feeling."

Both DiRocco and McDonagh have achieved this with their smoking rooms. Their fully functioning havens reflect their personalities and have a masculine feel. But most important, the rooms provide them with a place to smoke freely, to relax and to entertain. They have proven that with a little bit of imagination (and a skilled contractor), a home smoking lounge is worth the price, and that the benefits of having one are like nothing a cigar smoker has ever experienced.

"I'm always trying to maximize my leisure time with family and friends," says McDonagh. "My smoking room allows me to do that, and since putting it in, I've never been more comfortable in
my home."

"It is my own sanctuary," says DiRocco. "My escape room."

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