In the James Cameron movie Avatar, soldiers use something called an Amplified Mobility Platform suit or AMP suit. It’s a huge, powerful robot that’s controlled by a human who sits inside the machine. It can move around like a human, control weapons and lift heavy objects.
AMP suits are mostly science fiction, but I can’t help but think that excavators, like the machine that demolished the Yurt, are the closest thing we have to those suits. With a small move of the wrist, a human can wield a 30,000 pound beast to demolish a wall, lift a 30 foot log, or break through rocks. Excavators feel impossibly powerful to me and I figured I’d just have to watch from afar.
Then, just as the garage demolition started, Drew asked if I wanted to take the excavator for a spin. He didn’t have to ask twice. I got in and he showed me a few of the controls, which felt like using a giant video game controller. I could swivel back and forth, extend the arm and move the bucket. It was easy to see how quickly the controls could feel like second nature. Soon enough, I asked Sachi to record a video as I smashed the garage. For a moment, I was twelve years old again.
I had been anticipating this day for weeks. After so many months of planning, the real work was beginning and I wanted to make the most of it. I imagined having a way to capture both photos and video of the entire project, starting with the demolition. What I needed was another bit of science fiction in the real world: a little drone called a DJI Spark.
As you’ll soon see, the drone is making Ready for Rain a more multi-media experience, complete with a new YouTube channel.
With the drone ready and the real operators at the helm, the proper demolition could begin, starting with the garage. Before we knew it, the building was a pile of rubble.
The main event was the destruction of the main house and Drew did the honors. For the videos to come out the way I wanted, we had to work as a team; him behind the machine and me piloting the drone. After a quick thumbs up, the southern end of the roof was the first to go.
Next was the main house and the moment the claw of the excavator crushed the ceiling, I thought to myself that there’s no going back. In an instant, the Yurt, our home, officially became unlivable.
Before the main house could come all the way down, the metal cable that encircled the entire structure needed to be broken. From there, the main house went quickly.
Eventually Drew handed control over to an operator to finish the job. Over a number of days, the property became more apocalyptic in appearance and hazardous in practice. Broken glass, insulation, shattered wood, and random refuse was everywhere.
I started to see that breaking down walls was a small part of the process. A lot of the time is spent making piles and crushing the piles into small bits that could fit into the succession of container-sized dumpsters that appeared on the property. Dumpster by dumpster, the Yurt disappeared.
And of course the always-present deer had to inspect the wreckage.
Within a week the house was gone and all that remained was the circular foundation.
Soon enough, it too disappeared, and the property became devoid of nearly any trace of the Yurt.
The entire building was hauled off over the course of a week and it was hard not to feel a little nostalgic. We owned the Yurt for just under two years. It was our second place for a while and allowed us to sink our teeth into the island and formulate a plan for moving.
But more than that, it was a place to be with friends and family. Even though it lacked interior privacy, it performed admirably over weekends and holidays when visitors would arrive from Seattle and elsewhere.
One of the traditions we started was marking peoples’ height on the wall, along with their name and the date they visited. All that was required was an overnight stay.
Over time, it became a list of friends and family who experience the Yurt in all its glory. No one will ever sleep in the Yurt again, but we’ll always have memories of its strange shape, odd fixtures and 1980s style . It was our yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island.
Demolition Highlight Video
Bonus video: Watch the entire house move as the metal cable snaps under the weight of the excavator.
There was no way around it. To build the new house, our yurt-shaped house on Orcas Island had to go, and this weighed on my mind more than I expected. Sure, I had grown to love it and we’d made memories there, but that didn’t bother me. What I felt was a sense of finality.
Throughout the planning process, there was always an escape hatch. We could simply decide not to build and make the Yurt our home on Orcas. The plans were just that, plans. By moving out and demolishing the Yurt, the hatch would be sealed and we’d be locked into the house project.
As this lingered in my mind, Sachi was predictably undeterred. From her perspective, we would make the project work, one way or another, and the clock was ticking. The second-guessing was a sideshow. Her confidence helped me over the hump and soon enough, the demise of the Yurt became inevitable. Always forward.
Before demolition could commence, we had to move out. This was move #2 in a matter of months. After moving nearly everything from Seattle to the Yurt, we now had to figure out how to fit it all in the guest house that would be our home for another year or more. Thankfully, Sachi was born to move and planned storage for every square foot of the guest house.
I’ve found that moving is like a filter. Every time I do it, some things make it through and others don’t. This is especially true when moving to smaller and smaller places. In this journey, we moved from a 3500 sq/ft house in the city to a 1500 sq/ft Yurt shaped house to a 500 sq/ft guest house. To make those transitions work, something had to give. And ultimately, giving is what we did. Our filter left a number of items at the Yurt that were up-for-grabs.
Leading up to the demolition, the island ethos of squeezing value out of everything possible had started to become a larger part of my perspective. While not the finest of specimens, the Yurt did have value and it became a goal to keep as much of that value on the island as we could. Anything that went to a home on Orcas was something we didn’t have to pay to remove, which added to our motivation.
To start the process, Drew contacted a few people to let them know it was now a salvage project. The washer and dryer, couches, a mattress, mirrors, various hardware and more, went to good homes. This included our 1985 Blaze King wood stove, which I was happy to see start a new life.
The only thing I needed was the name plate.
One person spent a weekend taking apart the garage and salvaging cedar shingles and wood decking from the ceiling. He also cut out a few big beams from the house and created a neat pile at the edge of our property.
While we gave away what we could, we salvaged a few things for future projects. For example, we liked the idea of saving the windows and sliding glass doors and using them to build a greenhouse at a later date. We also salvaged the hog wire from the deck railings for use in the garden.
With the Yurt stripped, we considered if it could be moved or disassembled for reuse. Some houses can be cut in half and moved on a truck or barge. A few people came through to take a look and decided it would be nearly impossible. The whole structure was held together by a metal cable, kind of like the ring around a barrel. Once the cable was snapped, the whole structure loses integrity and would eventually collapse. Further, the building was designed to sit on an unfinished basement that couldn’t be moved.
Over ten days, the Yurt became a shell of itself and that became apparent the first time we departed without locking the door. It wasn’t ours anymore. It had a gaping hole in the ceiling from the wood stove, missing windows and doors, no railings on the deck and no life. It felt depleted and abandoned, which was a sign we’d done what we could.
Within minutes of the deer fence coming down, the deer decided to move in to devour all the tasty plants they had watched grow from the outside. The property was theirs, once again.
I’ll never forget the last afternoon we spent at the Yurt on the day before demolition began. We sat on the deck with a couple of ciders, with our legs hanging over the edge where railings used to be, and tried to soak up what we could from the experience. We looked out over the water knowing that it was something we’d never experience again, in that configuration.
The Yurt-shaped house that came into our lives two years before was about to breathe its last breath. The next day, it would all go away and once again, we’d be moving forward, always forward.
In July of 2009, we had a plan in place. We were handing the keys to our house on Hunter Boulevard to our builder, Jon, who would start the demolition work before building the second story we had designed over the previous year.
In the weeks before handing over the house, an idea started to percolate. We’d walk around the house and see that whole walls would be removed. The flooring would be replaced. The house, as we knew, was about to disappear and we saw an opportunity. There must be a way to optimize this situation, we thought.
This was the first time we considered having a demolition party.
What does that mean, you might ask? It means plying a group of friends with alcohol, tools and safety glasses and letting them treat our house like a demolition zone. Today, it might require signing waivers, but at the time, it seemed like a perfect send-off. When would we ever have a chance to do such a thing?
After taping off some sections of walls for safety, we gathered tools of destruction like hammers and crowbars. We also acquired tools of play, like toy paintball guns, buckets of finger paint and a couple of slingshots for the paintballs.
People were timid at first…
But soon the alcohol took over…
Paint started to cover almost every surface. At one point, two dozen eggs appeared and we threw eggs at the outside of the house, because, why not? It was a night to do things that we’d never done before.
One scene I’ll always remember is our friend, Jay, late in the evening, turning on a floor fan and dripping paint into it to see how far it might fly.
People rode skateboards down our hallways. They took out frustrations on surprisingly tough lath and plaster walls built in the 1920s. There was paintball target practice in our former bedroom. We were all sweaty, paint-covered messes.
This was July, but not just any July.
Seattle’s average daytime temperature in the summer is in the 70s and most people don’t have air conditioning, including us at the time. When the heat comes, it can be miserable because there is no place to go outside of a mall or movie theater.
We had to move, host the party and hand over the keys to Jon, all by August 1. This turned out to be spectacularly unlucky planning. The one day we planned to move, July 29, 2009, now lives in infamy because it ended up being the hottest recorded day in Seattle’s history at 105(f). We owe a big thanks to Sachi’s brother, Mark, and his wife, Leslie, for helping us move through the swelter.
Days later, we handed off the keys to Jon, who was a good sport, but not super impressed with the aftermath of the party. The house was partially demolished, but also a complete mess. The paintball paint stained window frames we were reusing. Eggs dripped down the roof and outside of the house and became grosser every day. All our fun and good intentions made his job slightly more difficult, but he forgave us and got to work.
Our little house on Hunter Blvd. became unrecognizable within days as a huge dumpster appeared and became full of walls and decking and paint-stained trim. The real demolition had commenced and there was no going back.
It was during this phase that the reality of this kind of renovation became clear. After taking off the roof and taking the walls down to the studs, Jon showed us that the 1924 structure wouldn’t be able to support a second story. Further, we had never noticed it, but half the floor of the old house wasn’t level and he recommended fixing it. These were the first of many troublesome discoveries.
What could we do? The house didn’t have a roof. We had to invest in making the structure work and that meant more time, more planning, more expense
As these questions loomed, Jon was racing against time. Every October, consistent rains arrive in Seattle and builders work to get a roof on their projects before then. With each setback, the rain risks grew. But we had to press on.
Early in the planning, we assumed the main floor wouldn’t need a lot of work. As you can see in the before-and-after photos below, we were wrong.
Each day, after the workers drove away for the evening, we’d visit the house and see the incredible progress that comes with demolition. It was satisfying to see so much change happen so quickly. There were surprises and disappointments, but we had good relationships with both John, the architect, and Jon, the builder. It was these relationships that would become the biggest factor in getting the whole thing done.
With the planning and demolition complete, we could finally start going up.
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.