Back in 2017, when we lived in the yurt-shaped house, we noticed something interesting about warm summer evenings. Just before dusk, a cool and consistent wind blew out toward the water where it created subtle waves as it landed. The wind would last into the night and be gone by morning. When we moved to the guest house during construction, it happened there too. Summer evenings ended with a cool wind whipping to the west.
The wind didn’t seem connected to weather patterns. It was smaller than that; a phenomenon that was too localized to be in a weather report. I asked our neighbors about it and they shrugged their shoulders. It’s just something that happens and always has. The more I watched the westward wind, the more evidence I saw that it was shaping the landscape around us. The tall trees on the south side of our property were bent toward the water.
Whatever the cause, the wind was reliable enough to influence the design of Flattop. A cool and reliable evening breeze at the end of a warm day should not be wasted, so we looked for ways to use it. The big idea was to use the wind to flush out the warm summer air out of the house and replace it with cool evening air. To make that happen, we added operable windows on the east and west sides. Today, I’m happy to report that the system is working. The westward wind is like an air conditioner that kicks on after sunset. All we have to do is open the windows.
This is a prime example of why it helps to live in a location before building there. Wind, sun, and rain are free resources that can be put to work. Observing them for a couple of seasons before breaking ground can be helpful in making a design more efficient.
Despite all the watching and planning, we still didn’t know why the westward wind was happening. That all changed a couple of weeks ago when we hosted a small dinner party that included a retired Coast Guard officer. We talked about the wind and he said, “Oh, that’s a land breeze”. I had heard of a sea breeze before, but never a land breeze. I had to learn more.
What I found is a simple idea. The westward wind is caused by a difference in the air temperature over the land and the sea. When the sun goes down in the summer, the air over the ground cools relatively quickly as heat rises upward. The air over the water cools more slowly. This difference in temperature (and pressure) is what causes the wind. Cool air flows out to the water at a low elevation as warm air rises and circulates back to the land.
What I’ve been calling the “westward wind” was not specifically westward at all. I just happen to live in a place with a large body of water to the west. Maybe it’s really the “waterward wind?” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Still, it’s probably better than “land breeze” which is rather unremarkable sounding. I’m sticking with the “westward wind” for now.
The sea breeze, which we don’t notice as much, is the opposite. Sea breezes happen during the day and blow from the sea toward the land. This is because the air over the land warms more quickly than the air over the water when the sun is out. It’s also the name of a cranberry, grapefruit, and vodka cocktail that was popular in the 80s. It’s not surprising that there is no “land breeze” cocktail, because who would order that? Does it come with a garnish of dead leaves?
For now, rest assured that the mystery is solved and we’ve all learned a bit more about the weather.
You often hear that building a house requires thousands of decisions and it’s true. Large and small, the house comes to life in the form of answers to questions. Once it’s complete, the sum of all the answers hopefully harmonize and create a whole that feels balanced and connected.
When looking at the completed house, it’s easy to lose sight of all the decisions that achieved the look and feel of the place. Before we move on, I’d like to share some of the biggest stylistic decisions we made, along with the craft that went into making it real.
Flattop was destined to be a house made mostly of wood, a lot of which is the same that grows on our property. The framing is Douglas fir. The ceilings and soffits are western red cedar. I can see both these trees from our deck. Our floor is white oak and our deck is ash and the siding is Japanese cypress.
As you can imagine, this creates a melange of wood colors that have the potential to look chaotic. As the house was being built, we had to make a decision about the built-in benches, stereo cabinet, and floating shelves. My first thought was, “Oh no, more wood!” Would we throw another wood into the mix?
I asked our foreman, Casey, for his opinion and he mentioned Baltic birch plywood and the look of Kerf Design, a cabinetry company in Seattle. From the moment we saw the look of Baltic birch plywood, we were hooked. It’s strong, affordable, and easy to work with. Rather than add another solid wood tone, we’d use plywood and the look of the plies themselves as our standard for the built-ins. The light color and simple design felt Scandinavian and I’m so excited about how they turned out. Paul Lindersmith, who works with Drew, did an amazing job achieving the look we wanted.
Regular readers know how much thought we put into the fireplaces. They are the beating heart of the house and offered an opportunity to create something beautiful, useful, and practically bulletproof. John Stoeck, our architect, created a design that exceeded what we thought was possible. It brought together the blackened steel, charred yakisugi, and stainless steel in a way that made it feel natural. To me, that’s the pinnacle of this kind of design. Once it’s complete, it feels like no other options could have worked.
It’s one thing to design steel into a fireplace and yet another to make it work. It requires an artisan blacksmith with experience to turn the designs into perfectly fitting panels and connections. We were fortunate to work with Jorgen Harle (Instagram), who lived on Orcas for 25 years before moving to California. Drew asked him to come up and help with our fireplace and we could not have had a better partner. His eye for design along with deep experience with steel and fireplaces created an indoor/outdoor unit that’s safe, functional, and beautiful.
Consistency is one of the best ways to create a sense of harmony in a new home. For example, we picked a color of white called “Simply White” (Thanks Sarah!) and used it everywhere. Cabinets, walls, ceilings, doors, trims, etc. The same is true for the countertops. We picked a variety called Saratoga and used it in the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, etc. The tile is the same everywhere. Then, we used black for window frames and hardware throughout the house.
These decisions on color and material created a look of contrast that we wanted: white with black accents, along with mottled grays. My cousin, Goff, who is an interior designer, once said that looking out of a window with black frames achieves a beautifying effect that’s like mascara around a person’s eye.
One of the problems I have with modern home design is that it can feel stark and lifeless. Early in the process, we decided that our home would feel warm, open, lived-in. For example, Sachi has strong feelings about doors and especially closet doors. To her, they create something to be managed and moved when no door at all would suffice. Consider our pantry, which we use multiple times a day. We decided not to have a door. Instead, the pantry is open for all to see. Along with being convenient, I think it adds character to the kitchen. We live here. The same is true for our floating shelves, record collection, bookcase, laundry room, etc. It’s all out there.
As with most building projects, Flattop was a team effort and I couldn’t imagine working with better people. Drew’s team, including Casey, has high standards and attention to detail that went beyond our expectations. When confronted with one of those thousands of decisions, Casey and Drew always had a reliable opinion and we grew to trust their instincts.
I appreciate you following along with this project for so long. It means the world to me.
I have come to call our house “Flattop” and there are a few things to know about this name:
Sachi is against naming any house because she doesn’t want it to sound pretentious. And I get it. Boats and houses can both have names that make unintentional impressions.
The marketer in me loves naming things. Having an informal name for a house can add a bit of personality and serve as a useful shortcut.
The roof of our house is not flat.
The name started organically in 2018 when we were living in the Yurt and using Amazon Alexa to play music. I created a playlist that was to be our up-tempo music for moving-in and celebrating. I originally called the playlist “The Yurt” and found myself saying “Alexa, play ‘The Yurt’ playlist” and then waiting for her to shrug her virtual shoulders. The words “the yurt” were not easy for her to understand. So, I decided to change it.
For inspiration, I looked out over the water, to the island that is closest to us called “Flattop”, which is a nature preserve. I said the words to myself and tried to image being a robot. Flat top. Play the Flattop playlist. Alexa got it immediately. Problem solved.
From that point on, the name stuck in my head, at least. It seemed easy and obvious. So I started using it for other things like folders on my computer and albums of photos. That’s the shortcut. It helps, too, that our property is flat and on the top of a hill. I’m not sure Sachi abides, but I think she’ll come around.
Flattop – Unadorned
There is a unique point in each house’s life when it’s naked and in its purest form. The work is done, but the people haven’t yet moved in. For us that lasted about 24 hours and I took the opportunity to take photos before it was hidden behind furniture, rugs, and all the things that bring it to life. Below, I’m sharing those photos along with sections of the creative brief from last week.
Brief: Exterior Appearance
“We want this house to feel like it was built for the PNW. It should feel at home among big evergreens, madronas, ferns, and rain. We love the idea of the charred siding, known as Shou Sugi Ban or Yakisugi.”
Brief: The View
“The focus of the house will be the view and maximizing the view and feel of privacy, both inside and out. This is also true for noise, which travels easily to neighbors. The great room and office must have views of the water, others are negotiable.”
Brief: Exterior Deck
“The west facing exterior has been a big focus. We imagine a thoughtfully designed deck that faces the water. We envision a roof that overhangs the deck, blocking sun in the summer and provides shelter in the winter. We’d like to have a place to be outside on cool days with heaters in the ceiling, perhaps. We imagine a grill and a fire bowl, or fireplace. We love the idea of being able to look at the water from the great room without seeing a railing.”
“The interior should be warm and cozy, probably with wood ceilings and floors. We imagine sloped ceilings that may be higher than normal, but no vaulted ceilings. Bi-fold doors open the great room to the patio. Further, we like the idea of the house being divided into two sections that are connected with a hallway.”
Brief: Fenced Garden and Dog Run
“We will need to think about placement of a deer fence and dog run that connects to the house.”
In September of 2017, two years before the first issue of Ready for Rain, we purchased property on Orcas Island. Starting then, the idea of eventually building a new house on the island started to dominate our thoughts. What would we build? What could we build?
Having been through the Hunter House renovation, we knew John Stoeck would be our architect and clearly remember the first time we asked him about the idea. It was game day and we were in downtown Seattle to pre-party before the soccer match, in full team colors. On a whim, we decided to check out a new bar at the top of a nearby hotel called The Nest. When we arrived, it seemed like a little bit of L.A. had been transported to the rooftop and everyone was looking fabulous; a bit too fabulous for Seattle, if you ask me. Too many white pants. Our casual Sounders jerseys stood out and I was proud to be a representative.
After ordering a couple of over-priced drinks, I called John to share the news that our offer had been accepted and we would be the new owners of a yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island. It was time to get to work. John, of course, was also excited.
At the time, we could dream. Working on house plans doesn’t mean you have to build a house right away. It means you’d like to, some day, when you can. Our intention from the beginning was to take our time and get it right. Happiness lives in anticipation after all.
Today, 3.5 years later, we are living in the house and thinking about all that has happened and how it started. Once John had a chance to visit the site, our work with him began with a creative brief, which is a summary of our ideas for the future house. It was the important first step for thinking through the house.
Below I’ve provided an abbreviated version of the creative brief we sent John that will serve to set the stage. Then, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll give you a tour of the finished product.
The Creative Brief
We imagine a house that is built to accommodate 6 people comfortably and sleep up to 10 if needed. 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath, 2000 sq. ft. or so.
We like the idea of a single story house with flat, straight lines. We’d like a simple, and timeless design. We don’t need trendy design flourishes. Instead, we’d rather focus on practicality and thoughtful elegance. We want the house to be efficient and as self-sufficient as possible. Solar may be an option.
It should be built for the PNW and feel at home among big evergreens, madronas, ferns, and rain. We love the idea of the charred siding, known as Shou Sugi Ban or Yakisugi.
The focus of the house will be the view and maximizing the view and feel of privacy, both inside and out. This is also true for noise, which travels easily to neighbors. The great room and office must have views of the water, others are negotiable.
The west facing exterior has been a big focus. We envision a roof that overhangs the deck, blocking sun in the summer and provides shelter in the winter. We’d like to have a place to be outside on cool days with heaters in the ceiling, perhaps. We imagine a grill and a fire bowl, or fireplace. We love the idea of being able to look at the water from the great room without seeing a railing.
The interior should be warm and cozy, probably with wood ceilings and floors. We imagine sloped ceilings that may be higher than normal, but no vaulted ceilings. Bi-fold doors open the great room to the patio. Further, we like the idea of the house being divided into two sections that are connected with a hallway.
We will need a garage with room for two normal cars, a small workshop, trash area and storage. We do not currently plan to have a cottage with the garage. If possible, we’d like to have a covered walkway to the house or some other connection.
The property is wooded and we like the idea of the big trees being integrated into the design if it makes sense. The trees may be well lit at night.
We will need to think about placement of a deer fence and dog run that connects to the house. We’d like to outline a few of the places to have a garden and possibly solar panels.
I had mostly forgotten about the creative brief until recently. I dug it out of email on a whim and couldn’t believe my eyes. Our initial vision for the house was mostly unchanged over the years of design and construction. There were thousands of decisions on how to make it happen, but the big ideas held from the earliest stages.
Lately we’ve had a few people ask about the genesis of the house and what was on our mind when we first envisioned what it could be. How do you approach building a new house from scratch? A few examples…
We purchased the property partly because of the west-facing view over the water and usable land surrounding it. Few things mattered more than optimizing the house for the view. It’s a factor that trumps things like sun exposure and wind direction. This was an easy call. The house needed to be aligned north-south with lots of windows facing west.
We lived in the Yurt for about 18 months and had the opportunity to notice the environment and the weather. In the evenings, for example, the wind often blew over the Yurt westward toward the water. After seeing this day after day, we started to consider how to use the wind to our advantage. Maybe we could create a calm outdoor space by using the roof as a shield. In the summer, we could flush warm air out of the house by opening windows on both east and west sides.
We both have an odd relationship with the sun. For us, it’s too bright and we wanted a house that could use its warming power, but also allow for outdoor spaces that shelter us from UV rays and glare. Living in the Yurt helped us appreciate how the sun moves across days and seasons. Our TV, for example, faced south in the Yurt, and the glare in the afternoons was pretty reliable. So, in this house it should face north, so the sun never shines on the screen.
I was surprised by the difference in temperature between Seattle and Orcas. Orcas is often 10 degrees chillier and that makes a difference in how long it feels comfortable to be outside. This observation pushed into the direction of trying to extend the seasons. We asked: how can we enjoy the deck earlier in the Spring and later in the Fall? This led to the idea of a covered outdoor room with heat sources like a fireplace.
I have a fascination with northwest architecture and always envisioned a contemporary house with a timeless design. That can be a challenge, so we looked for inspiration from materials that have stood the test of time, like charred siding that’s been a standard in Japan for generations. John arrived at the site with books about Japanese architecture and pointed out specific designs we could use.
Because the house is mostly isolated, we didn’t think much about fitting into a neighborhood’s style. However, we did spend time looking at island architecture. When we were looking for property in 2017, we drove up Buck Mountain and I saw a new house that had a feature I’d never seen. The house stood in two parts, connected by a suspended glass hallway. I loved that idea and it served as one of the inspirations for the footprint of this house.
We always considered this our forever house and as so many of our neighbors advised, we thought that single-story living would be best for growing older. Our property could support it, so that was an easy decision.
Island living comes with a healthy dose of self-sufficiency. The property came with a well, septic system, fiber internet, and electricity. If we added a propane tank, solar panels and batteries, we could comfortably approach self-suffiency. This included reserving a place for a productive vegetable garden and eventually a greenhouse.
This is only the beginning of all we considered but I hope it provides a look at what we were thinking in the beginning. Next week, I’ll share photos of where these ideas led.
We started with an agreement about what parts of the designcouldn’t change. When we first challenged John, the architect, to reduce overall costs, we told him we would not compromise on the view and we were all in agreement. Our attachment to this part of the design was, in part, personal.
Usually, when a house has a view, there is a deck with a railing. The railing tends to obstruct the view, but it has to be there. Some homeowners use glass panels to make it less obvious. Still, when you’re sitting on the deck, the railing is in the way.
This is especially true in our design. Most of our time would be spent in the “great room” which has a kitchen, living space and dining space. The west wall of the room faces the water and will be floor to ceiling glass doors. The view through those doors is the one feature we had to get right.
Early in planning, Sachi decided there must be some way to hide the railings and maximize the view. Being 250 above sea level, we would look downward, through the railings, to the water.
The solution she proposed was a two level deck. The upper deck would be level with the house’s floor. That deck would extend out, and then drop 30 inches, which, according to county building code, doesn’t require a railing. Then, the lower deck would sport the required railings. Stairs on both ends of the upper deck would provide access to the lower deck.
This means the railings would be mostly hidden and create what we call an “infinity deck” view from the house. Drew, the builder, said it was a bit more expensive to build the deck that way, but we knew it was worth it.
With the view issue settled, we could think bigger.
The entire north side of the house was designed to be cantilevered, meaning it extended from the side of the house with no support aside from costly steel beams inside the structure. Architecturally, it was a beautiful part of the design, but was it required? No.
Originally, we considered the north side of the house to be guest quarters, with two bedrooms, a full bath and a powder room off the great room. Did we require so many rooms on the expensive side of the house? No.
Further, the house included a basement with walls made of concrete. In some places, the concrete wall was over twenty feet high. It was a good use of space, but was a basement required? No.
Bottom line: the square footage, cantilever and basement on the north side of the house were expensive and not required. Here’s what we did to change them:
Instead of two bedrooms and two baths on that side, we decided to have only one bedroom and bath, which reduced square footage. We made up for the missing bedroom by enlarging the office on the other side of the house so it could become a bedroom when needed. The powder room was moved near the office/bedroom.
Further, we decided we could do without the basement (and all that concrete) and the cool cantilever, with its steel. Instead, we would use posts and something called a “moment frame”, which looks like a soccer goal, to support the house on the north side. This new approach meant we could use approximately 55% less concrete.
This was the kind of compromise we had to make. No basement was fine. We have a garage. The bedrooms and baths were accounted for. The cantilevered design would be less remarkable, but the moment frame could still be beautiful.
The next big change was to simplify the overall design of the house and reduce the square footage. We loved the original footprint of the house and shape of the deck, but it was not conventional and was more expensive to build than a house with convenient right angles. You can see the difference below.
For these sorts of changes, you have to take it on faith that reducing the size and shape of the deck, for instance, will help. That’s because the deck is part of a bigger picture that includes changes to the roofline, the engineering of the posts that support it and more. Less square footage and a simpler design should mean fewer materials, labor hours, etc.
As we worked through this process, crucial time was passing. We set dates a couple of months into the future as the start date for the project. If we hit the mark, we could probably get a roof on the house before the winter storms arrive. Probably.
The scale of the changes meant going back through processes we thought were final. For a second time, we finalized new plans and handed them to structural engineers for new calculations and specifications. With their work done, we could apply for a revised building permit.
Slowly but surely, everything started to look promising. We were spending more time and money to redesign the house, but with the savings it produced, it seemed like a great investment. I felt confident that, in challenging John to save 25%, we’d been responsible and resourceful.
The reality, however, was that we wouldn’t know the full extent of the savings until the house was already underway. There wasn’t enough time. We just had to hope our decisions were the right ones.
As the process moved closer and closer to the start date, it began to dawn on me that soon, our beloved Yurt shaped house would be gone. Once the demolition commenced, there was no going back. Living on Orcas Island for the long term would require finishing the new house.
After a year of planning and dreaming, it was clear that something had to change. We couldn’t afford to build the house we designed. The estimate was just too high and it still had holes that represented additional expenses we would eventually encounter.
Along with all the practical roadblocks, I was feeling emotional ones. We’d worked so carefully to not only complete the design, but to line everything up to support the project. Drew was holding a spot for us on his schedule. The guest house was ready. The plans were complete. If we dilly-dallied too much, we’d miss those opportunities and be taking a significant step backward. This put pressure on us both to make it work.
Initially, we looked at possible options, including a construction loan, and considered delaying the whole project for a year or two. A delay seemed to open up more risk in the form of increasing construction costs, changing interest rates, lost opportunities, etc.
What we didn’t discuss was changing the design in significant ways. Like the project itself, the plans were not just a plan, but a combination of smaller, independent plans, all wrapped up into an overarching one. Those included a stormwater plan, a geology report, and structural engineering. Changes to the house plans would create an expensive ripple effect impacting all the smaller ones. And more extensive changes meant bigger ripples.
After the meeting where the number was revealed, John, the architect, immediately got to work on identifying ways to bring down costs. He found he could remove steel from the deck and worked with the engineers to simplify structures. His goal at the time was to maintain the current design and footprint of the house. It was encouraging to see progress, but the scale of these changes seemed too small to us. They would likely save money, but for the project to be affordable, we needed to think much bigger.
For a couple of days, I had been mulling an idea. We had designed a house that was unique and relatively expensive. Simpler houses on the island were being built for much less per square foot. Could we be happy with a house that is more like those? While I knew it wasn’t practical to start over, I started to consider large, fundamental changes. Rather than tinkering in the margins, what if we looked at changing big chunks of the design?
Initially, Sachi pushed back. She felt it was tantamount to giving up on the dream. From her perspective, we’d done everything we could to make this our forever house and we just needed to push harder to make it work. We couldn’t trade a year of thoughtful design for something inferior.
I expected this reaction. Sachi is one of toughest people I know when it comes to getting things done. She has a deep well of confidence and ambition. If something is in her way, she will apply everything she has to overcome it through sheer force of will. For her, the number was a barrier, but one that could fall with an acceptance of risk, sacrifice and hard work.
With her so convinced, I knew compromise wasn’t going to be easy. But I kept pushing. I assured her that I didn’t want to design a new house. In fact, there were parts of the house that absolutely could not change, like the unobstructed view of the water. I told her that I just wanted to think much bigger in terms of the scale of the changes.
In what I think was a turning point, I asked her to imagine going to John with a challenge. Instead of focusing on relatively small “value engineering” changes, what if we told him we needed to reduce overall costs by 25%? How would that work?
Before long, we were in agreement and started to think through the implications. We’d have to be prepared for the house to be a bit smaller and simpler. The changes would require us to pay for new rounds of design and engineering. We’d need to go through a building permit revision and push out the start date for the construction. It would be added cost, but in relation to the expected savings, it made sense and seemed like the responsible direction.
So that’s what we did. We met with John and told him we were prepared for major changes to the design and that we wanted to reduce costs by 25% or more. We told him that the view was the priority, but everything else could change. Further, the design changes had to happen quickly, as we might miss our window for construction this year. John accepted the challenge.
This was a turning point in the project. We were, to some degree, starting over. Within days, John arrived at our house with the familiar rolls of plans under his arm and more ideas to discuss. What I love about this process is that John doesn’t just show up with ideas that fit with our requirements. He gets excited and says, “OK, now look at this, it’s going to be SO COOL.” When he’s excited, we’re excited.
In this new phase of the project, however, the excitement was different. Previously, we were excited about the overall design and how awesome it was becoming. Now the excitement was about how much money we could save while also having a design we loved. That was the true power of having the estimate in hand. It contained line items for concrete, steel, deck material, ceiling material, flooring, labor, etc. We could look at it and say, “Let’s take out as much concrete as possible” or “Let’s simplify the deck” knowing it would save money.
Before long, we had recovered from the shock of the estimate and felt that we were doing everything possible to make it work. We were delaying expensive line items like solar panels and landscaping, choosing more affordable options for heating and air and using wood instead of steel. Even with all these changes, we’d still need a construction loan, but hopefully a smaller one.
What we didn’t have was extra time. In the northwest, the weather is dry through the summer. Then, winter storms arrive in late October and bring near constant rain and bouts of windstorms that last for months. Every builder tries to start new projects early enough to get a roof on the building before the rain arrives. For our project, that window of time was closing with each day that passed and we all felt the pressure. The house needed to be ready for rain.
We were faced with a now familiar feeling. To get the project started in time, the new puzzle pieces had to line up just right and now, as quickly as possible.
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.