This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain
Under our house, we have a pile of lumber, decking, siding, and plywood that was leftover from the build. Nearby is a pile of two-man boulders. My goal is to use these resources to build out the landscaping at virtually no cost.
I tend to learn by doing. I might sketch out a plan for a project, but I’m always drawn to getting started quickly and stumbling through. And there are stumbles that waste both time and resources. But eventually, I learn enough about what doesn’t work to understand what does, and why. It should be noted that, on this approach, Sachi and I differ.
The Fire Pit
One of the features of living on Orcas Island is the availability of tractors. My next-door neighbor and three friends within walking distance all have them. When I tell them about the work we put into building a patio for a fire pit, they all say, “Why didn’t you tell me? We could have knocked that out in an hour!” And it’s true. We sometimes choose to take the manual route because it’s harder. We want to sweat. We want to feel it.
In this case, the manual route meant leveling the grade and moving rocks large and small across the property. It turns out that rocks are heavy and difficult to move with a little cart. But soon, I developed a system and started moving rocks with something approaching efficiency. I have bruises to show for it.
Moving the big rocks turned out to be the easiest part. Leveling the surface was also easy compared to covering it all with aggregate gravel. Bucket by bucket, we built up a 3-4″ base.
Within a couple of days, it was done and our friend, John, offered a fire bowl he didn’t need. It was the perfect fit for the space. So now, we have even more places to build a fire. Thanks, John!
The Potting Bench
In all the time we’ve spent in the garden, we’ve never had a proper place to work. We’d end up sitting on the ground to pot a plant or assemble a tool. I decided to fix this by installing a potting bench along our fence. In looking at designs, I loved the idea of the bench having a screen where potting soil can drop to the ground or into a bucket. This required a sketch.
I had all the lumber I needed, and dove into the project.
To my surprise, it came out even better than I imagined. We now have a potting/workbench in the garden. The surface is the same as our trim material, so once it silvers, it will match.
This project was a challenge; honestly, I’m still waiting for it all to fall apart.
In our first summer at Flattop, we thought it would be useful to mount gutters on the fence and grow strawberries. It didn’t work. Because there’s so little volume, it dries out quicker than you can keep it watered in the summer heat.
So, I had another idea: what if I built planter boxes that we could hang on the fence instead?
For this, I’d use panels of our decking, which is thermally-modified ash that is very rigid, but also a bit fragile. Without a fully developed plan, I started cutting pieces and gluing them together. Initially, I didn’t use screws because I was concerned the wood would break apart on the ends.
I built four boxes and let them dry for a few days. Then, I hung them on the fence and used spare wire fencing and weed barrier to create a bed that drains well.
They looked so good on the fence, and I was nervous. The added weight of soil and water would be the real test. Aaaand one didn’t pass. The day after I added soil, the first box I built came apart. Fun!
Clamps to the rescue. And screws. I ended up pre-drilling holes and covering those boxes with screws from every conceivable location. Lesson learned.
As of today, the boxes are full and currently growing basil, mint, dill, shiso, and zinnias. They seem to be holding for now. Time will tell.
Slowly but surely, the property that was wiped clean by construction is coming to life. We still have a lot of open space to work with and years to fill it. Hopefully, I can find ways to use the resources we have to do a lot of that work. I can’t wait.
Early in the design process, John, our architect, said something that caught my attention. He said our design would require a lot of steel. Not knowing much about engineering a house, I took it as a given for a house like ours. I assumed it was normal and expected.
Since that time, I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the house and when I bring up the steel beams, they are perplexed and ask: why do you need all that steel? In watching other houses come together locally, on the internet and on TV, the houses with steel beams seemed bigger and more complicated than ours.
This led me to wonder: why does our project require so much steel? Do we have a choice?
From the very beginning, before plans were drawn, we envisioned a roof that stretched out over the deck. This roof would be cantilevered and not have posts that obstruct the view. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. Why have posts if you don’t have to?
What we didn’t realize was the engineering required to make that roof a reality. The regulations for our location meant the house had to withstand winds of up to 144 mph. Without a beefy roof, a strong wind could rip the roof right off the house. Further, because it hangs so far off the house, it had to be strong and support a lot of wood.
So, we had a choice. We could have designed a different house on a different part of the property. We could have had a roof that didn’t cover the deck. But that felt like compromising on the dream of what the house could be. To make that dream a reality, steel was required.
We’ve now reached the point in the project where the steel beams are being placed in the roof structure, and John was right. It’s a lot of big steel.
Over the last week, the biggest and beefiest steel beam was delivered to the property and it took me by surprise. It was a behemoth: 34 feet long and a foot tall. It’s commonly referred to as an “I” beam and this one is 120 pounds per lineal foot. That’s over 2 tons of steel in a beam supported by two 4X4 steel posts.
A new, long-awaited phase of the project was beginning and I came to appreciate the complexity that goes along with getting the beam in place. Because it sets the standard for the entire roof, it has to be right. Once it’s in place, the rest of the roof is constructed around it.
When it comes to steel, the maxim “measure twice, cut once” becomes “measure 12 times, fabricate once” because corrections are so much more difficult and costly. The builder, framer, architect, and engineer worked to get every measurement right the first time. The stakes were high.
This process started when the concrete foundation was poured and screws were placed in the concrete that will hold steel posts that support the beams. The first time I saw these, I wondered how the concrete people knew where to put the screws. Their placement seemed important and I saw no evidence of measurements being taken.
This was one of the first lessons I learned about the process. The screw locations don’t matter a lot because the steel is designed around the screws and not the other way around. To get it right, the builders use wooden templates that document the position of the screws. These templates are then given to the steel fabricator so they can create a post with holes in the right places. It makes so much sense!
Until the beam is actually set into place, nearly everything is theoretical. The holes in the beam are supposed to line up with holes in the posts. The posts are supposed to fit onto the screws on the foundation. And everything has to account for the slope of the roof. While the builders have ways to fix problems on-site, the goal is perfection when the parts arrive.
With everything ready, the process could begin and Drew arrived with his 48,000lb crane truck. Seeing the beam moving around the site was a sight to behold and everyone was a little on edge. Its size and mass made it dangerous.
Within a few minutes, the beam was in place and I marveled at the precision. Drew could move a two-ton beam an inch at a time and place it perfectly over the posts.
Soon it was obvious: the theoretical had made a successful jump to reality. The holes lined up perfectly and the beam was positioned just as it was designed. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Over two tons of steel now rested on posts attached to the house’s foundation and created an essential part of the structure.
It was finally possible to see, for the first time, how far the roof would extend on the water side of the house.
I was fascinated by all the steps it took to make it happen. The plans, the engineering, the templates, the fabrication, the expertise. It all worked and now, our roof is not going anywhere.
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.