Getting the Construction Project Started ✅

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.


I have a confession to make. I’ve been keeping something from you. It’s been happening in the background for over a year and slowly but surely becoming more real. Here’s the deal…

When we first camped on Orcas Island and had dreams of property here, we hoped to find vacant land, reserve our spot on the island and maybe, someday build a house. Having learned so much with the Hunter House project, the idea of designing a home from scratch was as enticing as it was far away.

Then, we stumbled upon the Yurt. Suddenly, the idea of having a home on Orcas Island was real with no planning or construction required. Instead of reserving our spot and waiting, we could move in and have a second place in the short term. The Yurt, with its bohemian charm, was a perfect way for us to test living on the island.

What we really saw in the Yurt was location. The building is fine. It keeps us warm and dry. But the setting is what really mattered. The west-facing property and especially the view were worthy of bigger dreams and it is within those dreams that a new story started to emerge. We had to ask: what could come after the Yurt?

The Yurt, with an unfinished basement and lower deck with no interior access
The Yurt, with an unfinished basement and lower deck with no interior access

This question dominated discussions over dogs walks and dinners. It filled the spaces between work and weather. It was something, mostly imaginary at the time, that we could anticipate and plan and brainstorm. It was a new project.

These discussions eventually led to us to contacting our architect and friend, John Stoeck. Having worked with John on the Hunter House, we knew he would be the perfect partner and someone who could add reality and rigor to the low fidelity sketches in our minds. We told him we had purchased property on Orcas Island and would like to start thinking about what we could someday build on the property.

Within a week, we were sitting across from John on a ferry to Orcas Island and trying to find some kind of foothold in terms of what we wanted. I had saved a bunch of photos of houses we liked on my phone and we talked through what might work.

The prevailing thought was this: let’s start designing and see what happens. We saw the potential to take our time and work with John at a low burn that made the design work more affordable and less stressful. With time, we could solve any problem before the first footing is poured.

Time worked in our favor in other ways. The longer we stayed in the Yurt, the more we could learn about the weather and what to expect each season. For example, on warm summer evenings, a wind almost always blows from the east just as the sun is setting. You can hold your hand just above the edge of the western roof and feel the wind flowing over the house and down to the water, where it pushes layers of waves out into the channel. In the winter, the harshest, coldest storms come down from the Fraser Valley in Canada. These observations come with time and experience.

By slow rolling the design, we could account for the winds and look for ways to use them as a resource. We might consider using the east wind to cool down the house on a warm summer day or block the cold north wind in the winter. We could notice how the sun moves in each season and how it could warm the house in winter or influence outdoor activities in the summer. This was the beauty of taking our time and starting the design from scratch. We could try to account for everything, which is right down the middle of Sachi’s favorite activities.

This more deliberate approach was refreshing after the pressure cooker feeling of the Hunter House project, where we were learning how to work with a builder and architect who were also trying to solve problems along the way. The plans changed constantly as the house was taken apart and put back together. We constantly made decisions on the fly and with a feeling that the clock was ticking. With this house, it could be different. We could start with most of the decisions made on paper and try to prevent expensive course corrections in the future.

And for a while, we could pretend that building costs didn’t matter. That was something for later, much later. Maybe never. It was not clear if we’d ever build anything. We wanted to live for a while in the world of possibility and imagination, unencumbered by pesky things like costs and timelines and contractors.

We knew, of course, that actually pulling off a new house project would be an extremely heavy lift financially and emotionally. After spending a week at the Yurt we’d fall in love with the idea of building our forever house on Orcas Island. Then we’d go back to Seattle, walk in the front door of the Hunter House and I’d say, with a shake of the head, “We can never give this place up. This is our forever house.” We didn’t want to admit it at the time, but we couldn’t have both.

The only way to build on Orcas would be to sell the house we’d owned in Seattle since 2003, move to the island and put everything into the new project. This scenario meant lowering our living expenses and being on location, just in case.

That’s why this part of our story has remained behind the scenes until now. We’ve spent over a year planning a new house while never knowing if it would actually be built or how we’d pay for it. When I started this newsletter, I thought it might happen, but it was far from a sure thing. There were so many parts that had to line up just right and it often seemed unlikely. The last thing I wanted was to set an expectation and then see it unmet.

Today, however, things are lining up and I’m more confident than ever that we’ll see this project become a reality, possibly in the short term. If it happens, it will be the most consuming and complicated project of our lives and I want you to come with us, wherever it leads.

Between now and then, I plan to fill in some of the blank spaces regarding the plans we’ve made and how we made them. If it all works out, you’ll get to see the process from beginning to end.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

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