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Sun-Powered

Sun-Powered

This article was published in my free newsletter, Ready for Rain.

From the moment we decided to move to Orcas Island, I became fascinated with the idea of self-sufficiency. I dreamt of using water from a well, growing food, owning a home-based business, and learning to build and repair some of what we need. That dream is becoming more real each year.

Some elements of self-sufficiency are built in at our location. We don’t have the option to connect to community gas, water, or sewage, so we have well water, a propane tank (below, left) and a septic system (below, right),

I take some satisfaction from knowing that my water, for example, is independent of a city water system. It still amazes me that it comes right out of the ground, ready to drink.

Solar energy was always part of the plan for the property, but a lower priority in the midst of ​building Flattop​. At the time, some government subsidies and incentives were being phased out or were uncertain. We continued to say “someday” and added a conduit from the roof to our electrical panel to make future installation easier.

The Reasoning

At our latitude, solar energy is not a slam dunk. The equipment is expensive, we have short, cloudy days in the winter, and lots of tall trees. The alternative, power from the grid, isn’t terrible. It’s mostly clean energy from hydropower and relatively affordable. We spent months debating the options.

A reality of island life is more frequent power outages than the mainland. Our electricity comes from the mainland through an underwater cable and is part of a network across the San Juan Islands. In stormy weather, a fallen tree on another island can take out our power for hours. Before recent infrastructure improvements, many homes were built with diesel generators for powering homes in blackouts. They’re expensive, require regular maintenance, and are not clean energy sources.

For the first three years at Flattop, we did without backup power. Batteries, a chest freezer, cell phone service, and a propane stove could get us through. But we soon discovered a bigger problem: our well and septic pumps depend on electricity to function. To put it mildly, these systems are required and motivated us to consider alternative energy sources. We needed a battery for storing power to use in a blackout.

We met with a local solar installer and learned about all the new subsidies and incentives. The “Build Back Better” bill (2021) reset ​federal incentives​ to install solar and/or battery systems. The federal government offers a 30% tax credit on the cost of the project (materials and installation) until 2032. That’s huge. At the same time, the state of Washington doesn’t collect sales tax on the materials. Our local power co-op also offers a 10-year financing plan at 2% per year. It felt like everything lined up. We pulled the trigger and began a 14-month wait for solar panels and a battery system installation.

The Investment

These projects ideally pay for themselves over time. The big question is: how long will it take? Our installer estimated that solar would cover about 90% of our annual power bill and we’d likely pay it off in 9-10 years. That 90% number may sound surprising. Here’s how that works:

Our connection to the electrical grid is now a two-way system. We pay for the energy we use and can sell the excess energy we generate via solar back to the power co-op. The power we sell back is then credited against our power bill. The excess power from long summer days will offset our winter electricity use. Another factor is that the cost of grid electricity is likely to increase over time. A solar and battery system insulates us from potential increases.

The System

In February of this year, a team installed 37 panels on our roof, which equals almost 16 kilowatts of potential power production. In the photo below, the roof is recovering from a huge amount of pollen this year.

The battery system has two batteries and together hold 13 kilowatts of power. To put that into perspective… Our home, right now, uses between 20-40 kilowatts of power a day. In a power outage, we can reduce our power consumption to make those 13 kilowatts last 2-3 days.

The batteries are connected to the grid, which keeps them continually topped up. In a long power outage in the summer, the solar panels can charge the batteries and power the home. Then, battery power can easily get us through the night. This is more difficult in the winter when the sun is scarce.

We expected the installer to ask for specific circuits to power, like the fridge, etc. That didn’t happen. They connected everything to the battery, except power-hungry systems like heating, clothes dryer, etc. Now that the system is up and running it doesn’t require any maintenance, aside from washing the spring pollen from the panels.

The Outcomes

A week after the panels and batteries were installed, we were streaming a movie on TV when one of the lights dimmed for a split second. The movie continued, the digital clocks remained correct, and we shrugged it off. A few minutes later, we received an alert that said, “Your batteries are powering your home”. We had no idea! It was working! Because the batteries powered the TV and internet connection, we could keep watching.

Today we have phone apps and a tablet in our kitchen that display real-time data for the solar system: what the house is using and what’s powering it. It’s fascinating and satisfying. Our home is a generator! Sachi of course, watches the data every day and this time of year is exciting because we’re breaking records each week. On recent sunny days, we sold back twice the amount of power we used.

I see the romantic attraction to living “off the grid” like a homesteader in the wilderness, but that’s not the goal. What we want is a home and lifestyle that’s reasonably sustainable, self-sufficient, and balanced with convenience.

Livability and Laundry ? ?

Livability and Laundry ? ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The idea of helping homeowners understand the construction process has been on my mind for about a year. As I wrote chapter after chapter, I was looking for some kind of unifying theme. While the explanations, tips, and advice are enough, I wanted to give homeowners a perspective or even a philosophy that helped them see the big picture. I imagined finding a name that was memorable, descriptive, interesting, and hopefully available as a domain name.

Sachi’s early input was to be very direct and focus on the problem it solves or the main value it provides. I agreed and started to look at options involving phrases like “how to build a custom home”, “understand the construction process” and “learn how custom homes are built”. It was at this moment that the challenge became clear. 

Home construction is a huge industry with well-established keywords and naming conventions. Virtually anything on the web involving “home construction” seemed to be dominated by much bigger, well-established brands that spend a lot of money to remain visible. Were we going to compete with them? No.

Even at a smaller scale, there are a wide variety of companies and individuals focused on modular homes, tiny homes, DIY cabins, campervan build-outs, etc. It was daunting to consider throwing something new into the mix.

We need to reach people who are planning to build a home or getting started. I know the feeling. The scale of the project and all the decisions that need to be made can feel overwhelming. Many of them are looking for tips and advice, but are unsure where to look. These are the people we need to reach.

I went back to the drawing board and we brainstormed ways to position this new resource. What could we call it? We asked: what is our philosophy? What do we believe about building a home? What’s unique about our perspective? 

These questions led us into familiar territory. Big Enough, at heart, is about lifestyle. I wrote it to help business-oriented people see a different perspective about building a business that supports their lifestyle. Whether it’s businesses or buildings, lifestyle is a big part of our perspective and something we value deeply. 

One of the amazing things about building a custom home is that it can be built to support the owner’s lifestyle. With a bit of planning, the owner can ensure that the house supports their day-to-day lives. A very simple example is laundry. It happens in virtually every house and a custom home is an opportunity to think about making it easy. This means thinking about where dirty clothes will collect and designing the house so that laundry is near the clothes. 

When we planned Flattop, these kinds of decisions were our focus. Our experience with other construction projects helped us think through all the details and work with the pros to build the house around our lives. To me, that’s the best-case scenario for any owner: a house that’s livable.

For example, our primary bathroom shares a wall with the laundry room and we saw an opportunity to add a laundry chute between the rooms. This way, dirty clothes never collect in the bedroom or bathroom. Instead, they can go straight to the laundry room. 

The idea of livability stuck with us. You can depend on builders and architects to make the house strong and beautiful. The pros will take care of building the house. But designing it to be livable is the domain of the homeowner. Only the owner knows their unique lifestyle and daily rituals. Only the owner will live in the house.

This idea had legs. Our brand could reference houses and construction, but carve out a niche around the idea of livability and encouraging homeowners to adopt it as a perspective in the design and building process. This means not only understanding every phase of the construction process, but doing within the theme of livability. 

I started to look for domain names and soon found that thelivablehouse.com was available. The Livable House. I liked the sound of it and so did Sachi. My only concern is that it’s not descriptive. The name does not imply that it’s a guide to the complete construction process, but that’s okay. I think of it like the popular cookbooks called The Joy of Cooking. The books are mostly recipes, but the theme is joy. 

So that’s what the new project is called: The Livable House. It can be found at thelivablehouse.com. I’d love to know what you think about the website. Please feel free to enroll in the mini-course. 

At a Crossroads ⤲

At a Crossroads ⤲

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

My friend Tony asked, when we had just purchased property on Orcas, “What’s next? You’ll build a house and move in… then what?” Sometimes Tony’s questions seem like challenges, but I think he’s mostly looking for ideas. He was asking about something years into the future and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I’m in the “then what?” phase now.

There is a common perception that completing a project like a house leads to a period of doldrums. The excitement of the project wanes and leaves a hole in the day-to-day that feels like something is missing. I expected to feel it by now, but it hasn’t arrived. If anything, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. The excitement of the house project came with a healthy dose of stress and anxiety for us both. The space it left in our lives is one we’re not eager to fill. Plus, there are years of house projects ahead of us, mostly in landscaping. 

Projects on the professional side of life seem equally complete. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Big Enough being published and it no longer demands a lot of attention. Common Craft, the Explainer Academy, and The Art of Explanation book are all stable.

This all begs the answer to Tony’s question: what’s next? 

A few months ago, we had a call with our friend, Dave, who now lives in rural New Hampshire. He’s a regular RFR reader who is planning a significant home remodel. He said something that had been in the back of my mind for a while, but I hadn’t fully considered it. In preparing for his house project, he looked for books and resources for people like him. He wanted to understand the construction process, what to expect, how to overcome the challenges, make decisions, etc. In his experience, there was a dearth of materials along these lines. 

Dave encouraged me to take what we had learned in building Flattop and transform it into a book or something similar for people like him. That chat with Dave lit a fire under me. I’ve always been passionate about home design and the construction process. I have years of real-world experience across multiple projects. I have connections with builders, architects, and multiple homeowners who are in-process now. 

So, I started writing. Through 2021, I’ve written about 70,000 words, all focused on explaining the process of building a custom home, phase by phase. Sachi has been my editor and brainstormer. Through it all, I was never sure where it would lead. 

My initial thought was to make it a book and it’s currently written in that form. But that didn’t feel like the right medium. It’s not a story as much as a reference work or guide. It’s the resource you turn to when a new phase of construction is on the horizon. 

I asked a couple of friends who are currently building homes about the potential they see. Our friend, James, was enthusiastic about the idea and had a suggestion. He said, “This feels more digital than a book. You’d want downloadable documents, videos, and visuals.” Yes. Yes. Yes.

Once again, a friend suggested a direction that helped us see the opportunity more clearly. All the writing could be turned into multimedia content that lives on a website instead of in a book. It could be easily updated and priced like an online course.  People could access it on any device at any time.

For the last couple of months, this has been the dominant idea in my day-to-day life. When the workday is done and I’m ready to relax, this is where my mind wanders. I have to resist not working on it and I take that as a good sign. Passion, is a necessary ingredient, along with time. Best of all, in true Big Enough fashion, we can make this idea happen ourselves.

So, dear reader, this is the next thing. Many of you have been with me through the entire house project and your ideas and input have been invaluable. For this next project, I hope we can continue what we’ve started. More soon!

Designing for Dogs ?

Designing for Dogs ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

When building a house, it’s easy to assume that the builder and architect will account for what’s needed. You’ll surely have the desired number of bathrooms and a roof that keeps you dry. There are also things that are unique to you and your lifestyle. Daily rituals and long-standing annoyances could be improved with a bit of forethought, but only if they are communicated to the team. This is an important lesson we learned in building Flattop: Be diligent in accounting for ways the house can be designed to improve your day-to-day life. Communicate what you want and the pros will find ways to make it work.

Once the house was mostly complete, attention turned to the fencing. We shared our ideas for a small fenced area that aligned with the side of our garage. Gates flank it on the short sides of the rectangle. One gate leads to the driveway. The other leads to a larger fenced area that wraps around the house and contains our garden and back deck. 

This system of fences was designed with great intention and not without a bit of confusion. You could see the questions wash over the builders as they tried to understand what we wanted. “So you want a fenced area that leads to a second fenced area? With a gate in between?” Yes. Exactly. But only four feet high.

They built it exactly as we wanted and today, the system of gates and fences is emblematic of our efforts in making the house work specifically for our lifestyle. Builders and architects can work wonders, but they won’t live in the house. They won’t use it every day. They don’t have access to the daily rituals and events that fill the day. That information is the domain of the homeowner, who must explain what is needed, a few times, to make sure the house fits with these routines. 

We have dogs. We wanted Flattop to be a house that minimized the impact of PNW wet dogs and dirty feet on our nice new floors. We imagined waking up on a wet December morning and needing to let the dogs out to do their business. We could let them into the large garden area and watch them return happy and covered in mulchy mud. Or, we could leash them and walk in the rain, careful to avoid muddy areas. Or, we could design the house for this daily routine. We chose design. This meant thinking ahead about how to handle rainy days and wet dogs. 

When we were in the guesthouse, we built a small enclosure that connected to the entry. In the winter rain, the dogs could go out while we stayed dry on the porch. I used a nearby pile of wood chips to cover the surface and the system worked. The dogs still got wet, but their paws remained mostly clean. This was our inspiration. Could we do the same at Flattop? Instead of releasing them into the garden, could we create a clean place for them to use every day?

Soon, a plan came together. On the garage side of the house, a door opens to the exterior. We decided to enclose it and make it a dog run that would be our primary way to let them out. Like the guesthouse, we could stay warm and dry by the door while they take care of business. The cedar chips keep their feet clean and naturally repel pests. The gates in the dog run only swing inward so the dogs can’t push them open. As an added bonus, their waste is contained in a small area for easy pickup.

If the dogs do end up muddy from walks or garden play, we have that covered, too. We added a groomer-style dog shower to the garage that makes cleaning dirty paws a breeze. It also serves as a great washbasin for crabbing gear and garden veggies.

The system is almost perfect, but there is one minor hiccup. Maybe, our oldest dog at seven years, has developed a distaste for rain and wet ground. If she looks outside and sees rain, she’ll resist going out at all. When she does venture out, she carefully steps along the wall where the overhang keeps the ground dry. As much as I want to think of our dogs as PNW rain dogs, Maybe is still too civilized. We won’t tell the other dogs on the island.

Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon ?

Blisters, Beds, and Bourbon ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

On Friday of last week, a dump truck arrived at our house and dropped off two loads of dirt, which is about twenty cubic yards, or about the size of a 70s station wagon. In construction, it’s not a lot of dirt, but for two people with shovels and buckets, it’s intimidating.

Large Pile with Dog
Piper Protecting the Pile

The dirt was part of a bigger project that we’d anticipated for a couple of years: building raised beds for the garden. We like the convenience of raised beds, but the reality is that our garden is built on rock, only a foot or two below the surface. For a nice thick layer of garden soil, the only option was to go up. 

Sachi led the design and did research along with talking to friends and neighbors. She learned about “keyhole” beds, which are “U” shaped and have an alley in the middle for easy access. We imagined having two keyhole beds, with the alleys facing one another. She calculated the wood we’d need and last week, we went to the local hardware store to pick it up. 

Island Hardware is an interesting and amusing place. From the employees to the customers, it oozes island culture. The longer you live on Orcas Island, the more likely you are to see people you know. It doesn’t take long to get to know the employees, or for them to know you. We’re not yet on a first-name basis, but we’re getting there. 

To build the beds, we needed 36 boards between 10 and 16 feet long and 8 more at various lengths. All were 8-10” wide. The first challenge was transporting the 44 boards from the store to our house. It turns out that if you have an account at the hardware store, they will let you borrow a truck for moving the wood for $5 (to cover gas). Once we paid for the wood, we became temporary employees of Island Hardware via a W-4 form, which was a bit of formality I didn’t expect. From that point on, we were on our own.

The aging Jeep pickup with metal overhead racks had seen a lot of action, which was obvious the first time I closed the driver’s side door, or tried to close it. It clanked and groaned, but closed enough to make me feel safe with a seatbelt. As an indication of its maturity, the truck sported a sticker for KCMU (90.3) a beloved Seattle radio station that changed names to KEXP in 2001. 

I drove the Jeep down to the lumber yard and we started sorting through the stacks. The poor Jeep stood up to the weight, but we decided not to push it. Two trips were required and Sachi followed along instead of riding with me, just in case the Jeep faltered. Top heavy and with aging suspension, the Jeep wound its way back and forth without issue. We were ready to get to work. 

It felt like the clock was ticking. Sachi ordered a bunch of seeds and the growing season was already underway. If we didn’t get the seeds in the ground soon, it could affect our output in the summer and that’s our real goal: production.

On Friday night, we estimated that we could build one bed per day over the weekend and then fill them with soil and seeds the following week. Then we looked at the weather and our giant pile of soil. Rain on Monday meant heavier dirt on Tuesday if we didn’t find some way to cover it. Our new goal became to do it all over the weekend. Two beds, full of dirt. Deep breath. 

After breakfast and coffee, the long weekend got started with stakes in the ground to place the first bed. From there, we cut and leveled our way to finishing it in a few hours with a chop saw and drill. It came together quicker than expected and per usual, I began to wonder if we’d call it a day, or keep pushing. Sachi, of course, was ready to keep pushing.

Layout of Raised Bed
Layout of Raised Bed
Completed Bed with Maybe
Completed Bed with Maybe

A few hours later, the second bed was complete and we high-fived. The beds looked better than expected and our garden was transformed. 

Both Beds Complete
Both Beds Complete

Feeling exhausted, we showered, snacked, and had a beverage as we reviewed the day. We couldn’t resist going out to the garden just before dark to soak in the new addition. Our production facility was taking shape. Before going back inside, I looked at the volume of empty space inside the beds and then at the pile of dirt while remembering Sachi’s point that beds like these are best if filled to the top. It was a lot of space to fill.

That night I tried a bit of reasoning. Our next-door neighbor has a tractor with a front loader and he would love to let us borrow it or help us move the dirt. Any sane person would look for ways to move it as efficiently as possible. It didn’t work and I wasn’t surprised.

Sachi and I have a long history of doing manual labor ourselves. I used to be surprised at how Sachi could keep pushing long past what I thought was reasonable. In 2014 we ordered a dump truck load (ten yards) of cedar chips for our back yard, which was delivered to our driveway in Seattle. I had no idea how much to expect and shuddered at the idea of the two of us transporting it all ourselves. Couldn’t we hire people to do it?

10 Yards of Cedar Chips

We call it the “Sullivan work ethic” in reference to her family’s approach to projects like this. Over time, I started to expect the work as part of our process. It’s tiring, boring, and time-consuming. But, in the end, there is a prize in the form of satisfaction born of blisters, sweat, and effort. It feels good; better than you expect.  On Saturday night, we both agreed that we looked forward to Sunday being a day of hard manual labor, which implicitly meant looking forward to the feeling of having it complete, just to the two of us. 

Before I could finish my coffee on Sunday, Sachi was walking out the door and ready to roll. Our first task was to build up the bottom of the beds with wood and debris that adds volume and over time, creates rich mulch at the base. We scoured the forest for leftovers from trees that were removed from the property and carted them to the beds. By 10am, we were ready for the big push. I girded my loins. 

Debris in Raised Bed
Debris in Raised Bed

In terms of strategy, I agreed to use the wheelbarrow and two planting containers to get started on the far bed while Sachi used two five-gallon buckets on the closer bed. The first few loads were not inspiring. The dirt from the buckets seemed so puny compared to the beds, especially when considering the work they required. Each load meant shoveling dirt into the buckets, transporting them to the beds, and lifting the buckets into the beds. Sachi eventually switched to using a utility cart to transport buckets after one of her buckets disintegrated into cracked plastic shards.

Dirt Conveyances
Dirt Conveyances

Over dozens and dozens of trips, the pile of dirt became noticeably smaller as the beds became full. The wood debris foundation lulled us into a false sense of achievement that quickly waned as it disappeared and dirt alone did the work, layer by layer.

We took short breaks and stopped for lunch, but mostly we hauled dirt and the process seemed interminable at times. As the hours passed, each bucket got heavier and I couldn’t help but look for a way out. I was reminded of an interview with a winner of the Tour De France bike race who said, “This race is all about your body telling your brain ‘no you can’t, no you can’t’ and your brain telling your body, ‘yes you can, yes you can’. I won’t say that this was my Tour De France, but my body was making a strong case for “no you can’t”. 

By the time one bed was full, it was obvious we had no choice but to keep pushing. I alternated between exhaustion and a strange sense of exuberance. For the last couple of hours, I had to take breaks between filling the buckets and carting them away. My hands burned with blisters, my back ached, and my legs felt unsteady. But to stop would be to fail. I told Sachi near the end that I thought this was our hardest day of work together and she agreed. By 6pm, we called it complete, left the tools, and stumbled to the house for a shower. 

Filled Raised Beds
Filled Raised Beds

I’ve never felt a “runner’s high”, which is a feeling of euphoria after a big run, but I don’t doubt it exists. As we settled in for the evening and licked our wounds, Sachi looked up the calories burned while shoveling dirt: 800 calories per hour. Over 7-8 hours, we may have burned over 7,000 calories each. As such, we could feel good about eating and drinking whatever we wanted. Maybe my version of a runner’s high is a big pour of bourbon after a day spent hauling dirt. My brain told my body, “yes you can” and I was more than happy to oblige.

The next morning, Sachi was back in the garden, adding a bit more dirt, compost, fertilizer, and importantly, seeds. The pile of dirt looked conquered and we both felt pride in seeing it so. I have five blisters and walk with a limp, but it was all worth it to get the garden ready for spring and full scale production.

Sachi Planting
Sachi Planting the First Seeds

Related:

The Finished Product: Flattop House ?

The Finished Product: Flattop House ?

I have come to call our house “Flattop” and there are a few things to know about this name:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

Front view from the Driveway
Flattop West
Western Facing View
Over the Water
Rear View from the South
Flattop Entry
Front Entry

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.”

Nana Wall doors facing west. Each door is 6′ X 10′

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.”

Fireplace and Grill in the Outdoor Room
Fireplace and Grill in the Outdoor Room
Outdoor Room
NW Corner of the Deck
Deck Facing South

Brief: Interior

“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.”

Kitchen
Great Room (Fireplace and TV)
Outdoor Room and Hallway
Hallway with LED Strips
Guest Bedroom
Guest Bath
Office/Bedroom
Master Bath
Flattop Master Bath
Master Bath

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.”

The (Future) Garden
Dog Run

Find more posts about Building Flattop.


The Dogs of the House Project ? ?

The Dogs of the House Project ? ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


There is an unwritten rule about home building projects on Orcas Island: well-behaved dogs are welcome. On any given day there is at least one dog on-site and we’ve grown to love them all.

The true house dog is Koda and we see her almost every day. She greets us in the driveway and when we reach down, she submissively puts her ears back and she curls into crescent with a wagging tail and whines as if to say “oooooh, you’re here please touch me, ooohhhh.” Her fur is as soft as she is sweet. Koda has the unique luxury of an on-site bed, but sometimes prefers a nice pile of sawdust in the sunshine. Koda belongs to the site foreman, Casey.

Koda

A dog we don’t see as often but consider a house dog is Beaudry, who belongs to Jorgen, the blacksmith. Beaudry is a cuddler if you give him the chance, and very dedicated to fetching. There is an orange rubber toy in the shape of a pig at the house that has to be hidden from him because once he has it, it constantly ends up on your feet.

Beaudry

Beauregard arrives with Kevin, the electrician. Beau sees so many job sites and people that he moves around the house like an inspector, unconcerned with the humans. Once you get his attention, though, he’s sweet and friendly. One weekend we were staining cedar and had placed boards on the floor to dry. Kevin arrived to check-in and before we knew it, Beauregard added a few nice paw prints to the newly stained cedar. We fixed them with ease.

Beauregard

Coco was one of the first dogs on site because she belongs to Tyler, the excavator. She’s also a dedicated fetcher and will drop any stick she can find at your feet for as long as you want to keep throwing it, and then some. Coco now has a little sister named Clover.

Coco

Some dogs arrive at the site and wait patiently in their vehicle. One of those is this handsome puppy, Douglas, who is owned by Niles, one of the plumbers. Douglas is exactly what you’d expect: amazingly sweet and soft to the touch.

Douglas

I’ll throw a deer in for good measure. When we started cutting down risky trees to make room for the house, the deer had a buffet for a while.

black-tailed deer

Also, not a real dog, and not on Orcas Island, but check out this driftwood Boxer in Anacortes, Washington.

Driftwood Boxer

With so many friendly dogs around, I think about them being a physical part of the project. No doubt, their hair is now under the floor and in the walls. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Big Stuff” and House Flooring Decisions ?

“Big Stuff” and House Flooring Decisions ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


A few days ago, I was standing on the deck of the house with Casey, the foreman of the construction crew. At the moment, just feet away, sheets of blackened steel were being applied to our fireplace and decking was being screwed into hidden fasteners. More work was being done inside. We both marveled at all that was happening and he said, “All the big stuff is happening now… Well, outside of the framing, windows and roof, I guess.”

His words stuck with me. All the big stuff. When we saw beefy, 3000lb steel beams being put into place, it felt pretty big. When walls appeared, the house seemed to become three dimensional overnight. In terms of square feet, the roof is one of the biggest parts of the house. Bigness as measured by mass and scale is not new.

But Casey has a point. Many big things are happening right now. The finishes are being applied and more than any of the structure, they will be a part of our day-to-day lives because they are the surfaces we’ll see and feel for years to come. I think of the finishes like the exterior of a car with style and color that obscures the essential machinery inside. Likewise, the style and color of our house obscures the steel and wood framing that holds everything together.

Much of the work that went into the house, up to now, is slowly being hidden as it’s covered with wood, granite and tile. And to be honest, it’s a glorious and stressful thing to behold. After years of anticipation and decision making, our aesthetic decisions all become real in a matter of days and with a strong sense of permanence.

Our friend James, who is working on his own house, described finishes that felt “precious” and how he didn’t want anything to feel that way. Since hearing that word, it has become a guiding principle. Our house will not have precious finishes that must be overly protected and treated with an abundance of care. In fact, we have erred on the side of bulletproof.

The Floors

Our hardwood floors are 6” wide boards of white oak that cover about 80% of the house. When we chose the flooring, we used photos on websites and a 2’X2’ section in a flooring store to make the final decision. You hope for the best, but there is always a lingering worry that you chose wrong or that the flooring that’s been purchased and delivered won’t meet your expectations in the expanse of an entire house.

Packs of flooring ready for installation

The problem is that your decision can only be evaluated as the flooring is being permanently installed. By the time you see it, there is no going back and that’s a source of stress for me.

I’m happy to report that we are very satisfied with the flooring, which was completed just hours ago. We had a few goals going into the decisions. At the Hunter House we had dark “espresso” colored floors and learned a valuable lesson: don’t choose a dark floor if your life is filled with dog hair. This time around, we wanted something on the light side that wouldn’t show dirt, held up well to dogs, and felt timeless. 

Overall, we are inspired by Scandinavian design and the floors seemed to fit nicely with our other finishes, which are white, black and natural tones. The ceilings, which are western red cedar, are quite dark and we wanted to balance the darkness. The flooring we chose was Mirage White Oak.

The mostly-finished floor

Last week, the final layer of our floors was applied, covering floor joists, subfloor, and radiant heating floor, which no one will see again. Hopefully. 

Deck

At the same time, the deck was finally being finished. For many months it existed as joists covered in a patchwork of plywood. Over a few days, the joists disappeared under the deck’s surface and we could finally take in the results of another big, expensive, and practically permanent decision. 

Decking in the Pacific Northwest must be able to take a beating. The most common material is cedar and it works well, but requires consistent maintenance and has a more limited lifespan. There are synthetic options like Trex, which last a long time, but don’t look or feel natural. The most bulletproof natural decking is Ipe or Ironwood, which is Brazilian hardwood. It’s heavy, strong, and looks great, but also comes with its own issues. Recently, it’s been difficult to verify if the wood is being sustainably harvested and I wasn’t excited about supporting questionable forestry from Brazilian rainforests. 

Early on, we discovered a new kind of decking that is 100% hardwood, chemical free,  extremely durable, and sustainably forested in the US. It’s made of ash that has been thermally modified, which means the boards are heated with steam for 24 hours at over 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This process steams out the carbs and moisture and makes the wood more weather and bug resistant. 

We were so impressed with this option, we’re using it as both window trim and decking. As a result of the processing, it starts with a milk chocolate color and “silvers” over time if you don’t oil it. We will let it silver. The decking and trim material we chose is Americana by Bingham.

Window trim that matches the decking

Tile

As the decking and floors went in, tile was also being installed in bathrooms and the laundry room. Once again, a decision, based on a small sample, could only be evaluated as it was being permanently installed. In the bathrooms, our tile decision included both the floor and walls of the shower and tub. It defines those rooms more than any other finish and we selected it almost a year ago.

How we picked grout color

The last time we were in Seattle was at the end of February 2020. The first COVID death in the US had just happened just outside the city and no one knew what was to come. In talking to the tile companies, they said it was unknown if tile supply chains, which often originate in China and Italy, would be disrupted. Feeling anxious, we decided to choose the tile early, along with the granite for countertops, just in case. Since then, the tile had been stored at the construction site. In the months that followed, we made many decisions hoping the tile would work with the other finishes. 

A few weeks ago we met with the mason and discussed grout colors and finalized the design. Within a week, we saw the first glimpse of the tile covering the laundry room floor and breathed a sigh of relief. It looked perfect and complimented the color of the hardwood flooring. 

Onward

Soon, all the floors will be complete and the goal becomes protecting them as the project finishes. For us, that means adding one more layer to the floor in the form of thick paper that catches scuffs and spills. In this way, the finished floors will, again, be hidden from view. Thankfully, the paper floor is temporary and one that represents an event in the future we can anticipate: the big reveal of the floors as a part of moving in. Big stuff indeed. 

Designing a Network for New Home Construction

Designing a Network for New Home Construction

In building a new house, there are pivotal windows of time where it’s possible to make a change or add a feature at a huge discount. Perhaps the most pivotal is just before drywall is installed. When that happens, the price of making systemic changes, like plumbing and electrical, goes up.

When we did our electrical plan, we added little icons for network connections around the house as placeholders. We knew we’d have good wifi and figured that we’d decide about the wired network later. As the electrical rough-in was almost complete we had to make a decision: wired network or not? Wifi would probably be enough. But adding a network, at that moment, was priced at a discount that would soon disappear forever.

Before pulling the trigger, we considered using a mesh wifi system with plug-in satellites that extend the range from a primary access point. We’re currently using Orbi and it works fine. Something like Eero or Nest Wi-fi could do the job. But would we regret not having taken the opportunity to build network infrastructure?

I talked to some of my geekier friends who said I wasn’t likely to regret having ethernet built-into the house. We’ll have a fiber optic internet connection for a house that’s under 2,500 sq/ft and a single story. We work from home and most of our evening entertainment will be web-based. We decided to add the wired network and I started to learn how it all fits together.

Designing the Network

First, we had to think about the overall design of the network. We’d need a home base where everything connects and then ethernet cables that extend the internet to locations of our choosing. For example, we want our TV to have a wired connection to the internet via the network. This means an ethernet cable had to go from the wall behind the TV to the home base where it connects to the internet. The same is true with the network connections in our kitchen and garage. This was the basic idea of our network and it was an empty vessel without an internet connection.

The Basic Network

The property had a fiber connection when we purchased it and once the construction started, an orange tube stuck out of the ground, waiting for a house to appear. Our future network would be powered by the wire inside that tube. To do that, it needed to make a few jumps.

First, we needed the fiber optic cable in the tube outside to breach an exterior wall and connect to our office. Our service provider did this work and left behind a modem that connects to the internet and makes wifi available. This was the first jump: into the house. The blue tube at the bottom of the box below is the fiber arriving in our office and home base. At the top are ethernet cables arriving from across the house.

Our Network Box

Getting Connected To The Internet

By connecting the modem to the fiber connection, we could have wifi. This is the second jump: into the room. We could stop there, but we have a network and want to put it to work.

Our modem/router (above) has ports on the back that can be used for connecting the ethernet cables for our network. But it’s the most basic version possible and there only a few ports. If we’re investing in a network, I want it to be useful, powerful, and manageable.

This is where things get interesting. We have relatively simple needs and the challenge was cutting through all the complexity and identifying what products would be best for us.

Learning About Ubiquiti and Unifi

I saw a couple of friends recommend a company called Ubiquiti and the company’s line of products called Unifi for people in my position. As expected, I went to the website to learn more and quickly felt buried in confusing terms and acronyms. There are just so many options. After a couple of research sessions, I started to get a handle on what we might need.

One of the reasons people like Ubiquiti is that it’s an ecosystem of devices that work together seamlessly across internet, security, and entry access. You can start with a device or two and then build-out if needed. The more I learned, the more I liked the products and started to formulate a plan.

One of the most interesting discoveries was PoE (power over ethernet) devices. PoE means you can add devices to the network that don’t require a separate AC electrical connection. The power comes through the ethernet cable. I had no idea!

This was a pivotal because it meant we could add access points throughout the house that could make our wifi more bulletproof. The key is understanding the difference between wired and wireless access points. Wireless products like Orbi or Eero have a router and wireless “satellite” access point that plug into AC wall outlets. These devices extend the network from a single source.

Wireless Mesh Network

PoE devices are wired and create multiple sources and better coverage.

Wired Network of PoE Devices

This kind of product represents the third jump – across the house. Using PoE devices, meant the network could be modular and grow as needed. In fact, I found that Ubiquiti makes access points that fit nicely into outlet boxes and have their own ethernet ports for connecting another device.

Wired Network of PoE Devices Extending the Network

For us, this means the network connection behind our TV can be a wifi access point and a wired connection to the TV. If we need more wifi coverage, we could always use a wireless access point that plugs into the wall.

Home Base

With the internet connection in place and the network set up, I was confident that we’d have the wifi coverage we’d need. Next was figuring out how to manage and monitor the network. Until recently, this often meant using separate devices that serve as gateways, switches, etc. I dreaded this phase.

Eventually I discovered the Unifi Dream Machine, which is an all-in-one product that’s designed for people like me. It has a gateway, switch, and a wifi access point in one device. It also has ports for connecting the ethernet cables. This is what brought everything together; the home base of the network. The Dream Machine comes with software that provides for setup and network monitoring via a free app. We’d still need the modem, but the Dream Machine would be our router.

So that is our plan. The fiber connection will connect to our modem, then the Dream Machine. The Dream machine will serve as our wifi and wired network controller, including access points that are powered over the ethernet connection. My plan is to start with the Dream Machine and test the coverage, then add access points as needed. Easy scalability FTW.

In learning about how this works, I used the Ubiquiti design center to get a feel for how the devices would perform. This version is probably overkill, but shows how the signals work with our floor plan and multiple access points.

Note: I have no relationship with Ubiquiti or any other company mentioned in this post.

Smart Lights, Smart Home ??

Smart Lights, Smart Home ??

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


When we renovated our house in Seattle in 2010, I learned about home automation and the idea of a “smart” home. A renovation seemed like the perfect time to consider a system that would make the house “smart” and more automated. We ended up choosing a complex and powerful home automation system called Control4. It was state of the art and I completely geeked-out on all the things you could do. It was just what I wanted at the time.

That was 2010 and my perspective has changed. For our Orcas house, we are not using Control4 or anything like it. I’m still fascinated by home automation but today I have to consider living on an island along with all the new products that have since appeared.

The Reality of Island Living

Let’s start with living on an island. Unlike Seattle, Orcas Island doesn’t have large companies and teams of technicians that can drop by to fix something that breaks. A technician would have to spend most of a day traveling and taking the ferries to fix a problem in our house. For this reason, we’re opting for the most reliable systems and products we can find.

The best example is roller shades in our great room. In the summer, the sun shines directly into the room and shades will be required. In Seattle, we had electronic shades that were automated. They would roll up and down on a schedule of our choosing and it was pretty darn sexy. We considered using a similar system on Orcas, but came around to seeing a reliable alternative that’s been proven for thousands of years: a pulley. Instead of relying on an electric motor that could fail, I will pull a cord.

Controlling It All

The system we had in Seattle was complex because you could configure it in so many ways. We could program it so that unlocking the front door would automatically turn on lights, play specific music, open the shades, and more. Again, pretty sexy. But it also seemed fragile. Being a single system, a small problem could have a ripple effect that meant our TV might stop working. A technician seemed to arrive every year to fix something or update the system software.

There were things we loved about the system. For example, the lighting was programmable, so you could set up custom scenes that work with a push of a button. “Movie Time” was a scene where the lights would dim to 15% and light a path to the kitchen. We could also say “Alexa turn on the movie time scene” and it would work without buttons or phone apps at all. Because Control4 was connected to the internet, it knew the time of day. This meant we could program the lights to slowly turn on as the sun set or turn all lights off at a specific time.

One promise of these kinds of “smart” systems is efficiency. And it’s true, they save some energy and effort. But after having it for ten years, I don’t think that’s an important consideration. Switching to LED lights is an energy saver, but the savings from dimming and scheduling seem marginal to me.

More than anything, lighting control is a very convenient and pleasing feature to have. We like low, soft lighting and electronic dimmers make it simple to get it exactly right. Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to go back.

Smart Switches

To have the control we wanted, we needed to think about the switches. Unlike standard switches or dimmers that are mechanical, these have electronic dimmers and are connected to one another. Once you have a “smart” switch in place, it becomes controllable through an app or voice command. If you have multiple, you can control them together.

Again, for the new house, we had to consider the overall costs, including maintenance and upkeep. We realized that we didn’t need control of the lights for about half of the house. Like a pulley, we can flip a simple switch in the laundry room. But, we did want to control the lights in entertainment and living spaces like the great room and outdoor room.

In considering the options, we thought a lot about modularity and systems that can be removed, built-out, and reconfigured as needed. This way, we can get started with a set of switches, and always have the option to replace them ourselves. No ferry rides, no technicians. Thankfully, this is how most home automation is done today. Instead of one big system, there are now multiple systems that can talk to one another and be replaced more easily.

For the controllable dimmers (in-wall switches), we chose Lutron, which is a well-established company known for reliability. Their “Caseta” line is for consumers like us and is modular. With a set of Caseta dimmers in the house, we can set up scenes and control the lights with buttons, an app, or with voice. If we don’t like them, we can try another one. If we love them, we can add more. The non-Caseta switches will be Lutron Maestro which are electronic dimmers, but not “smart” switches.

image of smart switch
Lutron Caseta Smart Switch

The Ceiling Lights

In our county, new construction is required to have 80% high efficiency lighting. This means using mostly LED or CFL bulbs. Most of the lights in the house will be recessed into the ceiling, or what some call “can” lights. Because there are so many, I was concerned about getting them right, in part, because I care about lighting. Maybe too much.

ceiling lights
Kitchen Ceiling

The ceiling of our kitchen looks a little busy because there are so many lights. This is by design and relates to a lesson we learned about outdoor speakers. In Seattle, we had neighbors who we didn’t want to bother with music. I asked the guy who installed our automation system about a good strategy and he said that we could get better and more private sound by having more speakers at a lower volume. The same is true with lights. We find that having more lights at a dimmer setting leads to a nicer feel.

You have probably seen LED lighting that seems severe or piercing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but you can tell it’s too much of something. In recent years, LED technology has improved and they now look much more natural. You can get LEDs that are more white or warm and that’s measured on a “kelvin” scale. From what we learned, 3000 Kelvin is a good standard and one that we’re using. If you’d like to learn more about lighting terms, this is a helpful guide.

Part of the complexity in our situation is our ceiling. Some of it is sloped, some flat. Some covered in cedar, some in drywall. For this reason, we needed recessed lights that could handle all those situations, still look uniform, and work with our switches.

Many months back, we learned about a Canadian company called Lotus LED that seemed to offer everything we wanted. Their lights were solidly built and available with trims in black and white and options with gimbals, which means the lens can be pointed in different directions. The decision was made. LotusLED would be our standard.

lotus led light

The Lotus lights are interesting because they don’t have a removable bulb. Everything is built-in and they’ll last at least 50k hours and can last over 20 years. I will be just fine not thinking about that for a very long time.

On top of the system-wide decisions were the choices of fixtures for places like bathrooms, bedsides and hallways. The problem here is the sheer volume of choices. Sites like Lumens.com seem to have a never-ending selection. A lesson we learned was to pick out lights early and then wait for a sale. Often, you could sign up for their newsletter and save, too.

LED Strips

The final challenge was LED strip lighting and boy, was it a challenge. As a consumer, I find most lighting decisions to be a maze of features and terms that I don’t quite understand. This is certainly the case with what is mostly a very simple idea: LEDs on a thin strip of plastic.

LED strip

We love ambient light that reflects off of ceilings and walls. To get this effect, LED strips can be placed under cabinets and shelves or down hallways, for example. I won’t get into all the complexity, but I never imagined there could be so many possibilities. Part of the issue is that LED technology is moving so quickly that manufacturers can’t seem to communicate clearly about what’s possible and what works best for a given situation.

I was excited to find that we could use a “nano” strip in our hallway that’s hidden in the drywall via this little housing.

nano strip

Over the weekend, we got our first looks at the hallway, which is lit with these tiny LEDs. There is still some fine tuning needed, but I think it’s going to look great.

hallway with led lights

Of all the decision-making in this project, the lights were the most time consuming. The big lesson for me was learning to pick up the phone and call the number on the website. Most companies have experts ready to help and if not for these calls, I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do today.

Now, we wait. The electrical rough-in work is done and soon, all the lights will go in. Only then will we see the results of all these decisions. I, for one, anticipate the evening when we can finally experience the results of all the planning.


I Can Recommend…

Industry (HBO) – I wasn’t sure about this based on the first few episodes, but it grew on me. It’s edgy and pretty dark. Sex, drugs and young English bankers?

We Are the Champions (Netflix) – A show about the most accompished participants in fringe sports, like yo-yoing, cheese rolling, and dog dancing. Cheesy and fun. Rainn Wilson is the host.

Klaus (Netflix) – A new Christmas classic in my book. It establishes the origin story of Santa Claus in beautiful animation.

Rick Rubin Interviews Pharrell William (Broken Record – Podcast) I love the Broken Record podcast and this interview is awesome if you’re into Pharrell’s work. I was a huge fan of N.E.R.D. back in 2001 or so.

The Stepford Wives (You’re Wrong About – Podcast) A show where two entertaining journalists pick a subject from the past that has been misrepresented. This episode about the real-life Stepford Wives was fascinating.


Photo

This time of year is often foggy in the morning and I love it when the sun shines through the fog, like it did Monday morning.