The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022.
Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.
At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.
Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable.
The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own.
Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires.
The Pig War
In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”
The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot.
As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years.
During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands. By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.
When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.
I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.
The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.
The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up.
Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up.
Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there.
To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.
The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001.
I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work.
It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.
On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath.
After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.
A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed.
Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.
That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.
Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?
We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect. On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us.
Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins.
In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.
Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.
We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”.
By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower.
I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.
The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.
This week I have three very different movies to recommend. In fact, you could say that the theme of the week is variety.
Stowaway (Netflix) A team of three is on a mission to Mars and discovers that someone else is on the ship. I enjoyed this movie because it’s well made, futuristic, and centers on ethical dilemmas more than action. I didn’t expect Anna Kendrick as an astronaut, but it works.
Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) A heavy metal drummer in a band with his girlfriend loses his hearing and quickly transitions to a new life. This is a great film that’s raw, human, and well-acted. I came away with a new perspective on deafness. Riz Ahmed was great in The Night Of (HBO) and he delivered in this film as well. Paul Raci was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance.
Booksmart (Hulu) Booksmart made me LOL. Two high school seniors realize they’ve wasted time being focused on grades and decide to start partying before college. This, of course, leads them on myriad adventures. Fun and easy; a modern Superbad with female leads and a female director, Olivia Wilde. The soundtrack makes it even better.
Octopuses are having a moment right now and I admit to being fascinated by them. If you’re wondering, the plural of octopus is not octopi because the word comes from Greek and not Latin. Anyway, here are my recommended octopus stories in four forms:
- My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) – This film won a well-deserved Oscar. It’s the story of a filmmaker who befriends an octopus for over a year. But it’s so much more. The filmmaker, Craig Foster, free-dives in frigid water off the coast of South Africa and captures the drama of octopus life in beautiful form. Watch the Trailer.
- Octomom (Radiolab Podcast) – A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium discover, via a robotic submersible, a deep-water octopus who is protecting 160 eggs a mile beneath the surface. They visit her each month for four years and document her unbelievable process of hatching the eggs over time.
- The Soul of an Octopus (Book by Sy Montgomery) – Sy is a nature writer who became fascinated with octopuses. This book is her story of learning about and getting to know a handful of giant pacific octopuses behind the scenes at aquariums and in the wild. It’s a little woo-woo in spots and I wish it had more science, but was a fun read if you don’t mind the idea of animals in captivity.
- Salish Sea Wild: Shaking Hands with the World’s Biggest Octopus (5 minute YouTube video) – This feature was made by our friends on Orcas Island at the SeaDoc Society, which is a science-driven nonprofit focused on ocean health. Watch more Salish Sea Wild.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.
When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.
Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise.
The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:
- Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
- Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
- Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
- Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out.
Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.
Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it.
Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.
Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.
I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water.
With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe.
As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions.
Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG.
I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway.
I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.
As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
You often hear that building a house requires thousands of decisions and it’s true. Large and small, the house comes to life in the form of answers to questions. Once it’s complete, the sum of all the answers hopefully harmonize and create a whole that feels balanced and connected.
When looking at the completed house, it’s easy to lose sight of all the decisions that achieved the look and feel of the place. Before we move on, I’d like to share some of the biggest stylistic decisions we made, along with the craft that went into making it real.
Flattop was destined to be a house made mostly of wood, a lot of which is the same that grows on our property. The framing is Douglas fir. The ceilings and soffits are western red cedar. I can see both these trees from our deck. Our floor is white oak and our deck is ash and the siding is Japanese cypress.
As you can imagine, this creates a melange of wood colors that have the potential to look chaotic. As the house was being built, we had to make a decision about the built-in benches, stereo cabinet, and floating shelves. My first thought was, “Oh no, more wood!” Would we throw another wood into the mix?
I asked our foreman, Casey, for his opinion and he mentioned Baltic birch plywood and the look of Kerf Design, a cabinetry company in Seattle. From the moment we saw the look of Baltic birch plywood, we were hooked. It’s strong, affordable, and easy to work with. Rather than add another solid wood tone, we’d use plywood and the look of the plies themselves as our standard for the built-ins. The light color and simple design felt Scandinavian and I’m so excited about how they turned out. Paul Lindersmith, who works with Drew, did an amazing job achieving the look we wanted.
Regular readers know how much thought we put into the fireplaces. They are the beating heart of the house and offered an opportunity to create something beautiful, useful, and practically bulletproof. John Stoeck, our architect, created a design that exceeded what we thought was possible. It brought together the blackened steel, charred yakisugi, and stainless steel in a way that made it feel natural. To me, that’s the pinnacle of this kind of design. Once it’s complete, it feels like no other options could have worked.
It’s one thing to design steel into a fireplace and yet another to make it work. It requires an artisan blacksmith with experience to turn the designs into perfectly fitting panels and connections. We were fortunate to work with Jorgen Harle (Instagram), who lived on Orcas for 25 years before moving to California. Drew asked him to come up and help with our fireplace and we could not have had a better partner. His eye for design along with deep experience with steel and fireplaces created an indoor/outdoor unit that’s safe, functional, and beautiful.
Consistency is one of the best ways to create a sense of harmony in a new home. For example, we picked a color of white called “Simply White” (Thanks Sarah!) and used it everywhere. Cabinets, walls, ceilings, doors, trims, etc. The same is true for the countertops. We picked a variety called Saratoga and used it in the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, etc. The tile is the same everywhere. Then, we used black for window frames and hardware throughout the house.
These decisions on color and material created a look of contrast that we wanted: white with black accents, along with mottled grays. My cousin, Goff, who is an interior designer, once said that looking out of a window with black frames achieves a beautifying effect that’s like mascara around a person’s eye.
One of the problems I have with modern home design is that it can feel stark and lifeless. Early in the process, we decided that our home would feel warm, open, lived-in. For example, Sachi has strong feelings about doors and especially closet doors. To her, they create something to be managed and moved when no door at all would suffice. Consider our pantry, which we use multiple times a day. We decided not to have a door. Instead, the pantry is open for all to see. Along with being convenient, I think it adds character to the kitchen. We live here. The same is true for our floating shelves, record collection, bookcase, laundry room, etc. It’s all out there.
As with most building projects, Flattop was a team effort and I couldn’t imagine working with better people. Drew’s team, including Casey, has high standards and attention to detail that went beyond our expectations. When confronted with one of those thousands of decisions, Casey and Drew always had a reliable opinion and we grew to trust their instincts.
I appreciate you following along with this project for so long. It means the world to me.
Find more posts about Building Flattop.
I have come to call our house “Flattop” and there are a few things to know about this name:
- Sachi is against naming any house because she doesn’t want it to sound pretentious. And I get it. Boats and houses can both have names that make unintentional impressions.
- The marketer in me loves naming things. Having an informal name for a house can add a bit of personality and serve as a useful shortcut.
- The roof of our house is not flat.
The name started organically in 2018 when we were living in the Yurt and using Amazon Alexa to play music. I created a playlist that was to be our up-tempo music for moving-in and celebrating. I originally called the playlist “The Yurt” and found myself saying “Alexa, play ‘The Yurt’ playlist” and then waiting for her to shrug her virtual shoulders. The words “the yurt” were not easy for her to understand. So, I decided to change it.
For inspiration, I looked out over the water, to the island that is closest to us called “Flattop”, which is a nature preserve. I said the words to myself and tried to image being a robot. Flat top. Play the Flattop playlist. Alexa got it immediately. Problem solved.
From that point on, the name stuck in my head, at least. It seemed easy and obvious. So I started using it for other things like folders on my computer and albums of photos. That’s the shortcut. It helps, too, that our property is flat and on the top of a hill. I’m not sure Sachi abides, but I think she’ll come around.
Flattop – Unadorned
There is a unique point in each house’s life when it’s naked and in its purest form. The work is done, but the people haven’t yet moved in. For us that lasted about 24 hours and I took the opportunity to take photos before it was hidden behind furniture, rugs, and all the things that bring it to life. Below, I’m sharing those photos along with sections of the creative brief from last week.
Brief: Exterior Appearance
“We want this house to feel like it was built for the PNW. It should 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.”
Brief: The View
“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.”
Brief: Exterior Deck
“The west facing exterior has been a big focus. We imagine a thoughtfully designed deck that faces the water. 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.”
Brief: Fenced Garden and Dog Run
“We will need to think about placement of a deer fence and dog run that connects to the house.”
Find more posts about Building Flattop.
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.