Why Home Construction Takes So Much Time ⏳

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.

Two years ago this week, we were working with John on plans for the house and had just completed a survey of the property. It boggles my mind that it’s been so long, but that was part of our plan. From the very beginning, we saw time as an asset and a luxury.

In those early days, we had an abundance of time, in part, because the house was still a dream. There were no contractors or deadlines. We could design and tinker and propose as we looked for ways to make the finances work. In the first year, the house existed purely on paper and we both loved pouring over the plans and debating every decision.

When we renovated the Hunter House in 2010, we were fairly new to construction and didn’t anticipate the number of decisions that had to be made in a short amount of time. Once the construction got underway, the clock was ticking and it seemed we were making daily decisions on the fly. The builder needed to know what kind of front door we wanted, what brand of fan to use in the bathroom and dozens of other things. At one point, thanks to solid feedback, we decided to redesign the kitchen and all the necessary decisions happened in a matter of weeks. 

In the end, we were extremely happy with how the Hunter House turned out, but also a little scarred by the experience of making so many expensive, pivotal decisions on the fly. We knew we could do better and the house on Orcas Island was our shot to think ahead, take our time, and get it right.

House plans have a way of creating their own momentum. A survey turns into a plan. A plan needs a building permit. A building permit means a contractor can get involved. The contractor has a start date and a window of time before the next project. It all flows together and it can seem like it’s a race to the finish, which is marked by moving in. We both feel the momentum and have consciously tried to balance progress with the reality that we are not in a hurry. Yes, we are excited and want the house to be finished. I can’t wait to move in. But at the same time, this period of the project is magical and something that is a source of happiness.

I’ve written before that, for us, happiness lives in anticipation. It reminds me of being a kid at Christmas. The long anticipation of Christmas morning far outweighed the experience of opening presents. The same is true for vacations or even a meal at your favorite restaurant. The anticipation can be a greater producer of happiness than the experience itself.

In anticipating the house’s completion, we’ve tried to be mindful that this phase is a time of happiness that should be savored. Rather than pushing everyone involved to beat deadlines and feeling the stress of delays, we’ve decided that we’re better off being deliberate and getting the job done right. We have faith that Drew’s team and his subcontractors will do what is needed when it’s time and unreasonable pressure from us isn’t going to help. Quality takes time. Besides, our life at the guest house is comfortable and affordable. We’re better off using that energy to plan the layout of the kitchen cabinets.

Building a house is a complex and time-consuming affair, in part, because so much of the work has to be done in sequence. For example, the great room side of the house is supported by three big steel beams that connect to one another. For the framers to start building the floor and walls on that side of the house, the steel has to be in place.

Building a house is a complex

It’s easy to imagine that all three pieces arrive and are bolted together like an erector set. And that could have happened. Drew could have just ordered the steel based on the measurements in the plans. But that’s not what produces the best results. The quality comes from getting the first pieces in place and then taking exact measurements for the next pieces. This takes time, but reduces the risk of having to refabricate and redeliver a piece of steel that doesn’t fit.

The Moment Frame Just After Installation
The Moment Frame, Closer

Even something as simple-seeming as a concrete retaining wall requires multiple days and a crew that rides a ferry to and from the island each day. Sometimes the ferries break down or someone gets sick. The team has other commitments. Days might go by. But in the end, it gets done and usually exceeds our expectations.

Our Driveway Retaining Wall
Our Driveway Retaining Wall

When we talk to people about the house, they inevitably ask when we’re likely to move in. Right now, we believe it will be early fall 2020. But that’s not a deadline. The house is going to take as long as it takes and that’s OK with us. We’ll spend the rest of our lives there. Besides, we have time to savor the anticipation.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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