In September of 2017, two years before the first issue of Ready for Rain, we purchased property on Orcas Island. Starting then, the idea of eventually building a new house on the island started to dominate our thoughts. What would we build? What could we build?
Having been through the Hunter House renovation, we knew John Stoeck would be our architect and clearly remember the first time we asked him about the idea. It was game day and we were in downtown Seattle to pre-party before the soccer match, in full team colors. On a whim, we decided to check out a new bar at the top of a nearby hotel called The Nest. When we arrived, it seemed like a little bit of L.A. had been transported to the rooftop and everyone was looking fabulous; a bit too fabulous for Seattle, if you ask me. Too many white pants. Our casual Sounders jerseys stood out and I was proud to be a representative.
After ordering a couple of over-priced drinks, I called John to share the news that our offer had been accepted and we would be the new owners of a yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island. It was time to get to work. John, of course, was also excited.
At the time, we could dream. Working on house plans doesn’t mean you have to build a house right away. It means you’d like to, some day, when you can. Our intention from the beginning was to take our time and get it right. Happiness lives in anticipation after all.
Today, 3.5 years later, we are living in the house and thinking about all that has happened and how it started. Once John had a chance to visit the site, our work with him began with a creative brief, which is a summary of our ideas for the future house. It was the important first step for thinking through the house.
Below I’ve provided an abbreviated version of the creative brief we sent John that will serve to set the stage. Then, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll give you a tour of the finished product.
The Creative Brief
We imagine a house that is built to accommodate 6 people comfortably and sleep up to 10 if needed. 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, 2000 sq. ft. or so.
We like the idea of a single story house with flat, straight lines. We’d like a simple, and timeless design. We don’t need trendy design flourishes. Instead, we’d rather focus on practicality and thoughtful elegance. We want the house to be efficient and as self-sufficient as possible. Solar may be an option.
It should be built for the PNW and feel at home among big evergreens, madronas, ferns, and rain. We love the idea of the charred siding, known as Shou Sugi Ban or Yakisugi.
The focus of the house will be the view and maximizing the view and feel of privacy, both inside and out. This is also true for noise, which travels easily to neighbors. The great room and office must have views of the water, others are negotiable.
The west facing exterior has been a big focus. We envision a roof that overhangs the deck, blocking sun in the summer and provides shelter in the winter. We’d like to have a place to be outside on cool days with heaters in the ceiling, perhaps. We imagine a grill and a fire bowl, or fireplace. We love the idea of being able to look at the water from the great room without seeing a railing.
The interior should be warm and cozy, probably with wood ceilings and floors. We imagine sloped ceilings that may be higher than normal, but no vaulted ceilings. Bi-fold doors open the great room to the patio. Further, we like the idea of the house being divided into two sections that are connected with a hallway.
We will need a garage with room for two normal cars, a small workshop, trash area and storage. We do not currently plan to have a cottage with the garage. If possible, we’d like to have a covered walkway to the house or some other connection.
The property is wooded and we like the idea of the big trees being integrated into the design if it makes sense. The trees may be well lit at night.
We will need to think about placement of a deer fence and dog run that connects to the house. We’d like to outline a few of the places to have a garden and possibly solar panels.
I had mostly forgotten about the creative brief until recently. I dug it out of email on a whim and couldn’t believe my eyes. Our initial vision for the house was mostly unchanged over the years of design and construction. There were thousands of decisions on how to make it happen, but the big ideas held from the earliest stages.
Lately we’ve had a few people ask about the genesis of the house and what was on our mind when we first envisioned what it could be. How do you approach building a new house from scratch? A few examples…
We purchased the property partly because of the west-facing view over the water and usable land surrounding it. Few things mattered more than optimizing the house for the view. It’s a factor that trumps things like sun exposure and wind direction. This was an easy call. The house needed to be aligned north-south with lots of windows facing west.
We lived in the Yurt for about 18 months and had the opportunity to notice the environment and the weather. In the evenings, for example, the wind often blew over the Yurt westward toward the water. After seeing this day after day, we started to consider how to use the wind to our advantage. Maybe we could create a calm outdoor space by using the roof as a shield. In the summer, we could flush warm air out of the house by opening windows on both east and west sides.
We both have an odd relationship with the sun. For us, it’s too bright and we wanted a house that could use its warming power, but also allow for outdoor spaces that shelter us from UV rays and glare. Living in the Yurt helped us appreciate how the sun moves across days and seasons. Our TV, for example, faced south in the Yurt, and the glare in the afternoons was pretty reliable. So, in this house it should face north, so the sun never shines on the screen.
I was surprised by the difference in temperature between Seattle and Orcas. Orcas is often 10 degrees chillier and that makes a difference in how long it feels comfortable to be outside. This observation pushed into the direction of trying to extend the seasons. We asked: how can we enjoy the deck earlier in the Spring and later in the Fall? This led to the idea of a covered outdoor room with heat sources like a fireplace.
I have a fascination with northwest architecture and always envisioned a contemporary house with a timeless design. That can be a challenge, so we looked for inspiration from materials that have stood the test of time, like charred siding that’s been a standard in Japan for generations. John arrived at the site with books about Japanese architecture and pointed out specific designs we could use.
Because the house is mostly isolated, we didn’t think much about fitting into a neighborhood’s style. However, we did spend time looking at island architecture. When we were looking for property in 2017, we drove up Buck Mountain and I saw a new house that had a feature I’d never seen. The house stood in two parts, connected by a suspended glass hallway. I loved that idea and it served as one of the inspirations for the footprint of this house.
We always considered this our forever house and as so many of our neighbors advised, we thought that single-story living would be best for growing older. Our property could support it, so that was an easy decision.
Island living comes with a healthy dose of self-sufficiency. The property came with a well, septic system, fiber internet, and electricity. If we added a propane tank, solar panels and batteries, we could comfortably approach self-suffiency. This included reserving a place for a productive vegetable garden and eventually a greenhouse.
This is only the beginning of all we considered but I hope it provides a look at what we were thinking in the beginning. Next week, I’ll share photos of where these ideas led.
I once heard an anecdote about travel that said you’ll always fill whatever size bag you choose to take with you. A good first step to traveling light is selecting a smaller bag.
Having just moved to the new house, our forever house, I’m reminded that we’ve made a very permanent decision about the size of our bag. We set out to build an efficient home and now that we’ve moved, it’s obvious that some things are not going to fit and I take it as a good sign.
On Saturday morning, when the move began, I was optimistic. The first couple of trips were quick and I was feeling strong. We used our two SUVs and our landlord’s pickup truck to ferry it all from the guesthouse to the new place. We’ve always moved ourselves and this was no different. We moved it all and I’m more thankful than ever that our moving days are over. Saturday saw us take 26k steps and 100 flights of stairs, with box in tow.
The guesthouse is deceptive: It’s a small place, but there is amazing storage tucked into closets and overhead spaces. As the day wore on, our stuff seemed to multiply like wet gremlins. We’d clear the floor of boxes and then dive into another cavern of a closet to find office supplies, sweaters, and shoes we hadn’t seen since we moved from Seattle.
Over two days it was complete and we said goodbye to the guesthouse, our home since June of 2019. We are so thankful to have had the opportunity. Phew.
A few sticky notes remained, mainly representing projects that are 99% done and only missing parts.
Moving without the dogs getting outside was a challenge, so we built a wall to keep them away. It worked for about 30 minutes.
Once we got everything into the house, the sorting project began. Big piles became small piles and small piles were organized by category. Today we’re close, but the pod from Seattle won’t arrive until Monday and it has furniture for holding categories of piles.
Last night we dumped everything bedroom-related into a big pile on the floor. Every piece of clothing we own along with wooden coat hangers. I took on the job of organizing the hangers and it was stressful for a couple of reasons.
In 2019, we made the ill-fated choice to move them in kitchen trash bags. That might work, if coat hangers were not triangular and covered in hooks. Over time the bags ripped apart and any attempt to remove a coat hanger required dislodging a triangle with a hook from the bag full of triangles and hooks. The only path that worked reliably was to open the bag like the sharks belly in JAWS and let them leak out onto the floor. Still, some remained.
The coat hangers were a reminder of how much stuff we once owned. Presumably, we had enough clothes for all the hangers, yet only about one-third of them fit in our new closet. This bothered me for a while, but then I remembered that we used to live in a bigger house with more closets and in a city where a wider variety of clothes were helpful. Today, on Orcas Island, I don’t have a need for more than a few dress shirts. Truthfully, I’d could get by with a few shirts of any kind.
If nothing else, the process of moving three times in two years has helped us winnow down our possessions. Each time a box crosses a threshold, like the front door, it is examined and unwanted items are culled. This is what we’re doing today. There are now multiple piles of items that are going to other homes because we’ve made a choice about the size of ours.
It was a pleasure to have a discussion with Belinda about Big Enough and the potential for businesses to be designed with happiness in mind. One of the subjects that came up was the idea of “drag” in a business and how easy it is for businesses to accumulate processes and details that create drag. Our goal was to always look for the most lightweight ways to solve problems and believed that reducing drag was one path toward the lifestyle we wanted.
You can listen to the full episode at Work From Your Happy Place.
Triggered (Hulu) – Triggered is not a good movie in terms of minor things like acting. It’s clearly low budget and many elements seem overdone, from the make-up, to the petty relationship issues.
However, the premise is great: a group of campers awake from a night of partying with time bombs strapped to their chests that soon start counting down. They eventually discover that each time someone dies, that person’s remaining time is transferred to another member of the group. This creates a Hunger Games scenario with all sorts of dark motivations. The director, Alastair Orr, was inspired by the SAW series.
The film is also self-aware and works solidly within the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” genre, complete with tongue-in-cheek comedy and clever dialog. There’s an argument to be made that it is a comedy at heart. I LOL’d multiple times.
Every once in a while, you come across a dish that seems to defy the laws of cuisine; something so simple that it has no right to be as good as it is. The dish I’m referring to is SMASHBURGER! (Yes, I’m yelling, it’s required.) Below I’m focusing on the burger itself. Feel free to apply it to your own cheeseburger.
What you’ll need:
- Ground Beef
- Cooking Oil
We’re going to take that ground beef and smash it into a pan until it’s thin. Then, we’ll cook that thin piece of meat until the edges become brown and crispy. I’ve also heard the term “lacy” edges if you want to feel fancy. The key here is the taste of charred ground beef and salt.
Pour a bit of cooking oil into a skillet at medium-high heat. Let the pan and oil get good and hot.
Grab a fistful of ground beef and keep it loose. Do not massage it or turn it into a meatball. Instead, briefly, softly shape it into a ball like you have a bird in your hand.
Place the beef in the center of hot pan.
Place the bottom of a sauce pan on top of the beef and SMASH THAT SHIT until it’s about a centimeter thick. Foil on the sauce pan will keep it clean.
Then, salt it more than you think is reasonable. This is very important. It should look like a dusting of snow. See the loose and lacy meat at the edge of the burger below? That’s what turns into the most delicious bits.
Let the smashed burger fry in the sweet salty oil for a couple of minutes. Don’t worry about overcooking the meat. A perfect medium rare is not the goal. You’re looking for deep browning and crispy edges.
Flip it once and salt that side a bit too much, too. The other side may not get as brown, but you need to cook it. Throw some cheese on there if you’re going for a cheeseburger.
Now, the SMASHBURGER! is not precious. It’s lowbrow and should treated as such. Do you like ketchup? SMOTHER IT. Do you like meat frisbees? Throw it with a friend. Put it between pancakes, I don’t know. Just enjoy how good a salty fried burger can be.
We’ve made SMASHBURGER! many times and usually we have it with rice and a dark brown sauce called katsu sauce. It reminds me of when my mom used to make hamburger steak. It goes well with cheap beer, too. Enjoy!
My friend Dave, a Ready for Rain subscriber, recently asked how we can watch so many shows with day jobs and all that is going on with building the house. I told him that living in the guesthouse, in the winter, and during COVID, means we don’t have many other options when the work is done. We both love transitioning from a busy day into TV mode. My recommendations, like the ones below, reflect what we’re doing now. I may not be recommending so much TV in the summer, but I’ll still be commenting on whatever I find interesting or useful. For now, that’s TV.
Behind Her Eyes (Netflix Limited Series) First, let me say that I love the limited series format because it usually has a satisfying ending. This is the case with Behind Her Eyes. It’s a psychological drama that you have to watch it to the end. Also, the two female leads, Simona Brown and Eve Hewson, are amazing and distractingly attractive. Hewson is Bono’s daughter, FWIW.
Midnight Diner – Tokyo Stories (Netflix Series, subtitled) If you have any affinity for Japan, this is fun to watch. Most of the stories happen in a tiny Tokyo diner that is open from midnight to 7 am. Entertaining characters come and go, but the show is also about Japanese food. Each episode ends with a quick lessons on how to cook the dish that was served in that episode. Sachi watches it before bed because it’s so soothing. Charming, funny, and VERY Japanese.
The Biggest Little Farm (Hulu) A charming film about a couple who builds a farm that’s designed to work with nature and create a self-sustaining system. Along with a good story full of ups and downs, the nature photography is beautiful. John Chester, the co-creator of the film, is a professional videographer.
On the wall of the guesthouse, just behind our TV/computer, there is a grid of orange sticky notes with labels like “Appliances”, “Deck”, and “Flooring” that relate to parts of the house projects that have not yet been completed. It’s a constant reminder of all that’s been done and how close we are to finishing.
It was my idea. I sat down with Sachi and challenged us both to think about all the parts of the project that were outstanding. I figured we’d brainstorm for a while and need to circle back when new ideas came up. This was not the case. As soon as I picked up the pen, Sachi started rattling them off, one-by-one. It was like they were neatly cataloged in her mind, waiting to come out. It all happened so fast that, by the time I could take a breath, we were done. There would be no circling back. They just sprang forth, fully formed, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ head.
Since then, the notes have been an ongoing source of discussion. It’s fun to be able to pull off notes like “Garage Door”, but it’s not worthy of celebration. Two burly guys installed it in an afternoon. Something like “Paint” deserves a glass of champagne. Maybe a few. Being the painters for the house, that note has extra relevance. It remains for a bit longer.
For the past month or so, we’ve spent full weekends at the house along with many evenings, painting the baseboards, window sills, door trims, and doors. I say “painting” but it’s NEVER just painting. Painting is a catch-all term for masking, sanding, dusting, priming, vacuuming, and more. And it’s never just once. I keep hoping someone will invent a single coat paint for our house’s interior, but it’s too late now.
The trim paint is turning out well, but it’s a high pressure situation. Everyday the house is full of builders who have, at some point, been painters. They know how it’s supposed to look and probably have feedback. In their shoes, I’d probably want to point out what needs improvement, but unsolicited advice is a hard thing to broach with the homeowner. So we ask and learn along the way.
One of the notes that felt good to remove was “Appliances”. Our kitchen is now fully outfitted with a refrigerator, dishwasher, ovens, sinks, faucets, a cooktop range and exhaust fan. They are installed, but exist in this weird middle ground between the warehouse and our everyday lives. The fridge, for example, is covered in protective wrap that helps keep it new looking in the milieu of construction. We’ve decided not to use them until we move in and can ceremoniously unwrap them with the knowledge that they were protected when it mattered.
Most of the appliances are Thermador and pretty conventional in terms of features. Our exhaust fan over the cooktop has a wifi connection for some reason. I’m not sure why, or if we’ll ever use it.
There is one unconventional appliance that I find interesting. Many months ago, we learned about a new product from Grohe called “Blue” that’s a water filter, chiller, and carbonator. Our recycling is always full of cans from carbonated water like La Croix and this device means we’ll soon have fizzy water, chilled and filtered, on tap.
When we planned the master suite, we noticed that the master bath shared a wall with the laundry room. Starting then, we started thinking about having a laundry chute in the cabinet between the rooms. This way, we could move dirty clothes from the bathroom directly into the laundry room and eliminate the need for a hamper in the bedroom. This is an early representation:
Like so many parts of a custom home, it was never clear exactly how it would work until it was time to build it. The team did an awesome job using the leftover cabinet material to create a smooth surface that matches by default.
Today, the laundry chute is, like so many things, nearly complete. The tile work is 95% done, but can’t be completed until the shower glass is installed. The steel wrapping for the fireplace is very close, but needs fasteners. A number of the delays are related to the supply chain. Home construction and renovation is popular during COVID and suppliers are having a difficult time keeping up.
We’re hoping to move in near the end of March and have told Drew that we’ll move in when it’s ready. We don’t want to be in the way and, in the context of COVID, prefer not to have people coming and going once we live there. We’ve spent 20 months in the guesthouse, we can do more if it means his crew can finish properly. While this is true for the interior, we’re less concerned about the exterior. The work on the deer fence, dog run, entries, and deck may take a bit longer. Perhaps those notes will move with us to the new house.
Along with the sticky notes, other things are disappearing. The impossible skyscraper of cardboard boxes is gone. A couple of weeks ago, we loaded up the car with all the light fixtures, locks, door handles and gadgets and dropped them off at the house for installation. Today, most are installed and look much better than a pile of cardboard on our table.
Here’s where we are today, in terms of the interior:
The notes, of course, are part of a much bigger picture. After years of planning it’s hard to believe we’re so close. I’ve found myself feeling a general sense of excitement and anticipation that’s powerful enough to overcome any lingering doubts and worries. It’s gratifying to feel a sense of completeness as the stress wanes. The sticky notes may not be removed completely for now, but they’re close enough to feel confident that it will happen. Someday soon, we will move in, unwrap the appliances, and finally, exhale.
The Chef Show (Netflix) – My first impression was “oh boy, another celebrity cooking show, no thanks” but a friend suggested giving it a try and we’ve enjoyed it. Jon Favreau, Chef Roy Choi and special guests cook a wide variety of dishes while Jon plays the inquisitive beginner. It’s not often about fancy food, but everyday food, done well. I also love the stop-motion sequences.
Chef (Netflix) This movie, starring Jon Favreau as a chef, inspired the TV show above. Roy Choi consulted on the movie and the story is inspired by Roy quitting a high profile job to start a food truck. Worth a watch. Food is love.
Nomadland (Hulu) This movie just won a Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and I can see why. What I love is the immersive style of production. It feels like you’re seeing life through the eyes and ears of Fern, the main character, played by Francis McDormand, as she becomes a member of a community of nomads who live out of vehicles. It’s directed by Chloé Zhao and has amazing performances by actual community members who were found as the film was being made. Zhao also won best Director, a first for a woman of color. We’ll be hearing more about her, I’m sure. More here.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Sometime in the middle of the house project, I learned a lesson about chimneys that has fascinated me ever since. We were talking about the metal tubes, or “flues” that would eventually stick out of our roof and vent our two wood-burning fireplaces. According to the fireplace company, the size of the fireplaces meant the flues needed to be eighteen feet high to work.
What? Eighteen feet? I thought there must be some mistake. An eighteen foot flue meant we’d have two 8 foot metal tubes sticking out of our roof. Why did they need to be so tall?
At the time, I received the end-all-be-all of answers to this question: physics. Unless we could somehow bend the immutable laws of physics toward our needs, the flues were going to be that tall. Apparently, it’s about “pull”, as in, “Without a flue that’s tall enough, you can’t get a good pull and it will be difficult to start a fire and keep smoke out of the house.” That sounded important, but I didn’t really understand the connection between height and effectiveness.
After a bit of research, I think about it like this… The flue is like a straw that sucks air out of a home and carries fireplace smoke with it. Like a siphon that sucks liquid, this kind of vacuum can be self-sustaining, but has to be jump started. Thankfully, we don’t have to suck the air from the top because we can push it from the bottom with heat from the fire.
This is why the length of the flue matters. Once the heated air starts rising, it creates a draft going up the flue that pulls fresh air into the fireplace. That supply of fresh air is what feeds the fire. To keep it going, the air needs to stay warm and travel upward for long enough to establish a flow to the top. That’s the “pull”. Once it’s going, the room can stay smoke-free because the fireplace is constantly sucking air up and out.
If the flue is too short, the flow is difficult to start because the warm air needs to travel upward for a while to get the flow going. That’s where physics comes in. According to a formula I don’t fully understand, the sucking action will happen reliably when the warm air travels about eighteen feet from the fireplace.
This article from the Chimney Safety Institute of America was once of the most helpful I found on the subject.
This was fascinating and I started to look at every chimney and flue I could find. They were all much taller than I remembered. The physics of heat and air flow were governing so many homes that flue height was unremarkable or even invisible. Like gutters and downspouts, they eventually just blend in.
Our Yurt-shaped house had one:
For a while I was concerned about the aesthetics of having two shiny metal tubes sticking out of our roof. Would it look weird? Would people wonder why they were there? My fears faded when I looked more closely at other homes on Orcas Island. They all had unreasonably tall flues that I’d never noticed before.
On Orcas, wood is a very common form of heating. Many homes, maybe a majority, have a wood burning stove that’s a major source of heat in the winter. Multiple companies cut, process, and deliver cords of wood to wood sheds throughout the year. One company, called Axe and Wedge has a well-designed website and a newsletter with nice photography and personal stories.
Before the house got started, we took out a few Douglas firs that were too close to the foundation. The wood was a much lower quality than you’d use for furniture and we needed to get it out of the way. So, we made a handshake deal with a wood processor. He removed all the logs in exchange for dropping off two cords of seasoned (ready to burn) wood in the future. A cord, if you’re curious, is this big.
In the Hunter House in Seattle, we had a natural gas fireplace that was stylish and came on with the push of a button. We thought we’d use something similar in the new house. But then we started visiting more homes and saw that wood stoves and fireplaces were part of island culture. Island homes burn wood. Thankfully, it’s abundant on the island, renewable, and mostly carbon neutral.
This realization helped me adjust to the idea of the big shiny flues. Along with being essential, they also told a story. This house has fireplaces. It burns wood. The flues became a design accent in my mind and something I looked forward to seeing on our roof.
For us, the fireplaces are not essential and won’t be used as a primary heat source. We have efficient in-floor radiant heat, so the fireplaces are for power outages, occasional heat along with ambience, sound, and smell. I can spend hours poking fires and I can’t wait to do so.
A few days ago, part of the flues were installed and I love how they look. Soon they’ll get taller and that’s OK with me. This is an island home.
Related: Designing our Blackened Steel Fireplace.