Sweat Equity and the House Construction Project 💦🏡

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 weeks of getting things done.

Sweat-Equity

On Thursday we met with Drew, our contractor, and like most days lately, we came away from the meeting with a list of things to do. The house project is moving faster and we have a growing number of decisions to make and projects to complete. It feels like a second job.

It’s gratifying to see it coming together in spite of the pandemic and social unrest. Big, longer-term projects like this can develop a sense of momentum that pushes it through. The time, energy, and investments we made early on are still propelling it and should get it through the finish line. It would feel daunting to be starting today.

We have entered a phase of commitment where we’re making final decisions about materials like flooring, countertops, tile, and decking that we may never replace. These elements will define the house for many years and the pressure is on to get them right the first time.

The last two weeks have been pivotal and below I’ll share with you what’s been keeping us busy. 

Early on, we told Drew that he could assign us projects to help save money and keep the project moving. The term for owners who save money by doing work is “sweat equity” and lately, we’ve been sweating a lot. The two-week period began with a painting project.

Before the metal roof can be rolled out and applied, the fascia boards needed to be installed by Drew’s team. These are the vertical boards along the roofline where the gutters reside. They needed to be painted at least twice and the first round happened at ground level.

metal-roof-can-be-rolled-out

Then, the wood backing that holds the fascia also needed to be painted.

wood-backing

Over the first weekend, the clock was ticking. The installation crew planned to start on Monday, which meant all boards needed to be painted by then. Sachi painted five sides of every board and found places for them to dry across the whole house and garage. Two boards for each roofline adds up to a lot of lineal feet and she was there until the sun went down. I tried to help, but arthritis in my back flared up and had me out of commission for a week or so. Thankfully that is a rare occurrence.

Once the fascia was installed, the real work began a few days later. Each screw hole and seam had to be filled with putty, sanded, and then painted again. There are two to four holes every sixteen inches around the entire roofline.

Plugging screw holes and seems
Plugging screw holes and seems
Third coat of paint
Third coat of paint

We did it all, on our stomachs, while hanging over the edge of the roof. I had never worked for multiple hours while on my chest and hope to limit it in the future. My back was fine, but we’re both still licking our wounds.

Outside of weekends, we usually try to work in the evenings once the workers have finished. This way, we can work on Common Craft (and book) projects during the day and do house projects in the evening. Often, that takes the form of research.

During these two weeks, we needed to make a decision about decking material. Many houses in our region use cedar, which is affordable and holds up well but requires regular care. Our goal was to find decking that lasts 20-30 years and needs virtually no maintenance aside from cleaning. It turns out that wood technology has come a long way recently and I became fascinated with the options.

The biggest innovation is called “thermal modification”, which turns abundant and sustainable softwoods like Ash and Pine into hardwoods. These companies essentially bake the boards with steam over long periods, which condenses them into harder, more stable products with up to a 30-year warranty. It’s been used in Europe for years and is now becoming more popular in the US. The products are all 100% wood, just modified. We’ll let the wood “silver” instead of having to stain it annually. Hooray for low maintenance.

As the fascia work was getting completed, the house was filled with plumbers. We’ve been fortunate to work with a talented one named Greg here on Orcas Island. Along with being a great guy, Greg is a strong advocate for efficient heating systems. Thanks to his advice, we’re using in-floor hydronic radiant heat and an “air-to-water” heat pump, which is supposed to be one of the most efficient systems we can get.

One of the things we love is when contractors have ideas that improve on our own. We walked around the house with Greg to decide where to install hose bibs for water. I’ve always been irritated with connecting garden hoses to spigots. They can be ugly, leaky, and difficult to screw on and off. That day, Greg mentioned that a new hose bib system was available that did away with the traditional spigot connection and replaced it with a system used on boats that clicks into place and only has a small cover on the exterior. Done and done.

The next day, we met our “window and skylights” guy. We have an 8’X12’ hole in the ceiling over our deck that needs a skylight. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The hole is too big for a single pane of glass and the roof’s slope means that multiple panes are prone to leaking. With Drew’s help and a bit of problem-solving, we figured out a way to make it work. Part of the estimate included expensive installation and Drew helped us keep costs down by taking that responsibility. Every bit helps.

The Skylight Hole
The Skylight Hole

As all this was happening, Drew reminded us about cabinets. We needed to get quotes and start that process. When a project is on a roll, we all try to think ahead and focus on potential roadblocks so there are no unnecessary delays. We need to get a cabinet maker in place, so we made an appointment that day. Thankfully, they are scheduling projects into mid-August and could make our September window. Phew.

This cabinet appointment created a deadline. They will be custom-built, which is both a blessing and a curse. Before the meeting, we needed to nail down exactly what we wanted in the kitchen along with cabinets in the bathrooms and laundry. The following weekend was spent designing the exact cabinets we wanted.

I created this to relate the basic idea for the master bath.

Master-Bath
Master Bath

In the background, a long term plan was coming together. There is a 24-foot wide hole in the west side of the house, facing the water. That hole will be filled with glass doors and panels that will arrive in two months. When they do, three professional installers will arrive to install it. These installers will spend three nights on the island and the budget for their lodging was based on each person in a separate hotel room. Lodging is really expensive here in the summertime. We knew we could do better, so after focusing on cabinets, we put time into finding an option the installers like better for about half the cost: a rental house with lots of social distancing space and full kitchen. A bit of research produced a win-win.

As the two weeks came to a close, we were back at the house to focus on the flooring that will cover about 80% of the house. It’s a big investment and we were looking for ways to save on the cost. Thanks to an email from the manufacturer, I saw a nice discount that ends in June. So we had to decide what floor we wanted, have the installer take measurements, and order the floors before the deal expired. We did it just in time.

Needless to say, we have a full schedule right now. But it feels good to be moving forward. It makes for long and sometimes exhausting days, but it’s all worth it. In fact, yesterday we were meeting with the cabinet maker on the mainland when Greg texted to ask about painting something he needed for the following day. We didn’t get home until 10 pm, but we grabbed paint and flashlights and got it done.

What I love about this kind of work, aside from saving money, is feeling like we’re part of a team. We’re all trying to make it work as efficiently as possible and I have a lot of faith that as a team, we’ll get results that exceed our expectations. 

Note: If you are interested in the specifics of the products we’re using, just reply to this email and I’ll be happy to share. 

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