Finishing the Hunter House 🏠

May 07, 2019

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


[Part three of a three part series. Read parts one or two]

What I remember most about the final stages of building the Hunter House is the amount of stress involved. While I felt it every day, it was Sachi who took the brunt of it. In our relationship, she is the CFO and it was no different with completing the house.

final stages of building the Hunter House

In the early stages, the stress was lower. We refinanced the house to fund the start of the project. Over time, as the scope of the project changed, those funds dwindled and we relied on income from producing Common Craft videos for clients, which went directly to the contractor each month, leaving barely enough for living expenses. By the time the project came to a close, we had exhausted every option, from credit cards to family loans. The exhaustion extended to us, too.

the scope of the project

I sometimes look back on those times and wonder “what were we thinking?” House projects are a one-way street. If you take the roof off of your house, there is no going back. To live there in the future you have to do whatever it takes to complete the project. If you can’t, and the contractor doesn’t get paid, the work stops. Preventing this from happening was a goal that seemed harder to reach every month.

Jon the contractor placing a truss
Jon the contractor placing a truss

The stress was balanced with anticipation. After the workers left for the day, we’d walk through the house and try to imagine living there. We’d look at the plywood subfloor and imagine how our sample of wood flooring, measured in inches, would translate into thousands of square feet. We’d check-in on the tile and cabinets and railings and mostly ask ourselves, “Why is this taking so long?” Now we know: quality work takes time.

plywood subfloor

Along the way, we learned a valuable lesson about house colors. I spent time choosing colors for the house and became convinced that the body of the house would be light green with charcoal gray trim. It was a risky choice and I figured the neighbors would have feedback.

Difficult decisions, these
Difficult decisions, these

To test the colors, we bought samples and painted swatches on the back of the house. Like the flooring, we tried to imagine how a few inches would translate to thousands of feet. Once we liked a color, the contractor suggested painting an entire side of the house so we could see it in full. It sounded like a good idea and his painters went to work and painted the front of the house for all the neighbors to see. We soon realized two things:

  1. We got the color wrong. It was day-glo green and the contractor could only shake his head. He was not a fan.
  2. If you want to test a paint color on an entire side of your house, do it on the back side so fewer people will see it.
paint color on an entire side of your house

A big part of the process was learning how to work with an architect and builder. Being new to architecture, we didn’t fully know what to expect or how to apply some of the details in the house plans to the real world. But it didn’t matter. Our architect John Stoeck had a clear vision of what the house could be and took ownership of that vision and worked with Jon, the contractor, to make it happen.

John and Jon happened to grow up together and sometimes had arguments about how best to complete facets of the project. We’d stand with them in our half-finished kitchen and watch them spar. John, the architect, would listen to Jon, the contractor, and cross his arms and shake his head when he disagreed and then propose another idea. While awkward at times, we couldn’t help but feel that this was a necessary part of the process.

In projects like this, there is constant pressure to find the middle ground between design and budget. Being the owners, it’s up to us to make the final call, but we couldn’t make an informed decision without knowing the options. That’s why those discussions between the builder and architect were so pivotal. They exposed us to what was possible and at what cost.

A year and a couple of months into the project, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We wanted so badly to move in and finally get to experience everything we’d designed and planned and imagined. We thought that if we could just move in, the project would be complete. In this assumption, we were wrong. The project seemed to keep going and going. A steady stream of subcontractors visited over a few months to complete a long list of things like plumbing or cabinetry.

plumbing or cabinetry

At long last, it was finally complete. Our little house on Hunter Boulevard was now fundamentally different. It was the biggest project we’d ever take on and it turned out better than we ever expected. John’s vision came to life.

Street View
Street View
Back View
Back View

What started as an idea for creating a master suite had become a much bigger house. And thanks to our color choices, it was also one of the most obvious. While the green wasn’t day-glo, it was bright green and not everyone liked it. I, for one, took that as a point of pride. Over the first few years of living there, multiple builders and homeowners knocked on our door and asked for the paint codes for their own projects.

For all the expense and time and stress, we agreed that we’d live in the house for at least ten years so we could earn back our investment in quality of life. That was 2010. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about everything we learned in the process.

Going into the Hunter House project, we were rookies, but had good people showing us the ropes. We learned how to work with an architect and builder. We learned how to think about design and materials. We learned how to be realistic about timelines and budget. We learned the value of compromise and flexibility. And we learned it on-the-fly because it was required to get through the project. These are lessons you can only learn by doing.

After it was all said and done, Sachi and I discussed whether or not we’d ever do a project like the Hunter House again. We agreed that the financial stress was not something we wanted to repeat, but the design process was something we absolutely loved. Having been through it, we could imagine doing it all over again, but with a bit more confidence.

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