The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I have a memory that seems inconsequential, but meant a lot to me at the time. We had just finished the Hunter House renovation and had friends over as a small house warming. After a quick tour, a handful of people were sitting on the couch in the living area. Our friend, Kate, who had visited the house before the renovation, looked around the room and said, “Like, how does this happen? How do you even start this kind of project?”
Having just lived through it, we didn’t have a ready answer.
Thinking about that question today, I think the answer is something like, “Outside of the resources, it happens by having a big idea of what you want and then making thousands of decisions to make it happen.”
From light switch locations to decking materials or the dimensions of a room, nearly everything needed consideration and eventually, a final decision. With the help of an architect and builder, we decided our way through.
It’s these decisions, big and small, that can represent a threat to a house-sized project and the people working to make it happen. If homeowners can make decisions efficiently and without drama, it makes everything easier. The project can stay on track because decisions are what often what breaks through roadblocks. Of course, the opposite is also true. If a couple can’t compromise and make decisions without anger and resentment, the project becomes more difficult. Roadblocks build up and eventually blow out the budget and schedule.
The one thing that gives us confidence in the context of a big, hairy project is our ability to make decisions without drama. We first noticed this when we traveled together in 2006. Travel has a way of amplifying relationships, in directions both good and bad. A day of travel requires decisions about what to do, where to go, what to eat, when to rest, and more. If you’re in a foreign country, it might include stress from not knowing the language, oppressive heat, questionable food and jet lag.
Before we ever made decisions about home design, we learned, via travel, to make decisions without hurt feelings. One of those methods was through understanding who cared more about a specific direction and giving them ownership of the decision. For example, if I was excited to do a hike and Sachi was indifferent, it was up to me to organize and make it happen. She would gladly go along and vice versa.
What makes this method work is a rule we established that keeps things on track. Under no circumstance is the indifferent person to express regret about the decision at hand. If a relationship risks explosion, agreeing on one course and then saying, “I KNEW we should have done the other thing!” is the spark that can set it off. Everyone must go with the flow and keep an open mind.
We also became more aware of situations that provoked one another while traveling. Sachi identified a combination of factors that can turn me into a petulant child that is something like this: hunger, heat, back pain. Knowing this, she worked to anticipate and mitigate those situations. I learned that we have different travel styles and that my need to “do it all” was not shared by Sachi and was making her feel weary and exhausted. So, I got used to slowing down.
Back at home, our decision making process was different because there was so much more consistency. Today, we spend nearly every waking moment with one another doing the same things. We work together, make dinner together, walk the dogs together. This everyday proximity, over a decade, has shown me that we now share a decision making brain.
In moving to Orcas and considering a new house on the property, all these factors come to bear in the myriad decisions required to make it happen. We share a brain, but also methods for getting through the inevitable disagreements. For example, Sachi cares more about kitchen appliances, so I follow her lead. I care more about lighting, so I own that part of the project. A shared brain that is working on different facets of the project means disagreements are relatively rare. We’re both working toward the same outcome.
Of course, it took time to establish the vision of that outcome. At the very beginning, I spent time researching houses on the Houzz website. I searched for modern houses that were designed around a view. I looked up single story construction and houses that were in our region. I learned about energy efficiency, green buildings and trends in architecture. When I found something inspirational, I’d share it with Sachi and explain what I liked about it. Sometimes she’d wave it off, but often, she’d say, “Me too, I love that!” When that happened, I’d save the image. Browse the images we collected.
It was these initial discussions that laid the intellectual foundation for the house on Orcas. We came to early agreement regarding the big picture. The house would be modern, with a lot of glass that focused on the view. It would be single story and have a flat or slightly sloped roof. It would be efficient and use long lasting materials. It would sleep up to six people comfortably.
That was our starting point. We wrote a creative brief for John that outlined, in big swaths, what we envisioned. Using that document, he could start to think about the design and propose ideas. He could help us weed out early ideas that were too expensive or didn’t make sense.
And we needed the help. When a house design is young, the sheer number of options is nearly overwhelming. Something like a simple garage requires a deep dive into how we’d likely use it. Should it be heated? What about running water? Skylights? We had never owned a garage, so we could only guess. I knew I wanted a workbench, but that was about it.
That’s the thing about decisions early in a house project. They come with risks. Until the results of those decisions exist in three dimensions, you’re never sure how it will feel to actually stand in a room or look out a window. All you can do is trust the professionals, listen to one another, and make decisions with the best information you can find.
In the end, if it works as planned, people may one day sit on the couch, look around and wonder how it all came together. And our answer may still be the same. It’s having an idea of what you want and making thousands of decisions that you hope will fit together in the future.