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 couldn’t sit still. I paced around the Yurt as my mind raced. We had anticipated this moment for over a year and it was finally happening. Drew, the builder, was about to arrive with his estimate for what the new house might cost. This was the number, the one piece of data that had the potential to change our direction. It could help us kick off the project in a matter of weeks, or be a setback with the potential to ruin our plans.
In preparing for this moment, we had completed a few basic calculations in our heads. Often, construction estimates come down to cost per square foot, and are highly dependent on location. The conventional wisdom is that it can cost up to 20% more to build on the island, in part, because of transportation costs.
Based on the square footage in our plans, we had a number in our heads. Our architect, John, also had a number that was higher than ours, but not by much.
We met at 1pm on a Tuesday and I could feel the pressure build as the meeting got closer. In the best case scenario, we could build the new house with the funds from selling our house in Seattle. It would be like trading one for the other.
Drew arrived and immediately got down to business. He handed out copies of his estimate in the form of a multi-page document full of line item details for nearly every part of the project. In the weeks leading up to this moment, Drew had shared the building plans with his sub-contractors and their estimates were now rolled up into his overall document. There were specific numbers for framing, electrical, fireplace, labor and everything else.
As soon as the document slid into my view, I hesitated. I wondered to myself if it would be rude to immediately turn to the final page and view the bottom line. In my mind, everything else was details. I asked, “Is it OK if we go ahead and take a look at the bottom line?” Drew said, “Sure…” and I pulled back the final page. There at the bottom was the number we had anticipated for over a year. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. I tried to play it cool and laid the closed document on the table and picked it up again, like some kind of analog reboot. Surely, I had looked at the wrong page. Maybe I missed a decimal place. I looked again. Nope, the same number was there and it was orders of magnitude more than we expected.
As I tried to stay composed, my heart raced and sank at the same time. It felt like the dream was suddenly dead and I was looking at the culprit on the page in front of me. Any thoughts of trading homes were squashed and we were now in “is this even possible?” territory.
I looked over to Sachi who appeared calm and collected, as always. In her mind, the number was bigger than expected, but made of individual parts that all had their own numbers. Her first reaction was to study the estimate, line-by-line and try to figure out what caused the number to be so high.
Leading up to the meeting, we had brainstormed questions for Drew and I had them on my phone. After taking a cursory look at the estimate, Sachi prompted me to go through the questions and my immediate reaction was to look at the questions and think to myself, “It’s all moot. None of these questions matter anymore. This is a waste of time.” In my mind, that list of questions about the project might as well have been a lunch order. Until we addressed the bottom line staring us all in the face, nothing else mattered.
For the first time, we were confronted with the reality that we’d spent over a year planning a project that we might never see happen. None of us expected to see such a big number, including Drew, and we all felt the shock. It was heartbreaking.
Eventually, I asked the obvious question: “If you were in our shoes, what would you change to bring down costs?” Drew was prepared for this question and had a list of the most costly parts of the design. As a group, we went through his list and documented a handful of other items that could be changed or delayed. For example, solar panels could wait. We could use a heat pump instead of expensive in-floor hydronic heating.
A big part of the cost was in the design. We had designed the best house we could imagine and those choices, from a high level, were more expensive than we understood. These were things integrated into every part of the house, like insulation, concrete, and steel. Reducing them wasn’t as easy as choosing a different building material. Making the house more affordable could mean rethinking and possibly reducing the entire design.
For example, we imagined having a roof that hung over the deck without obstructing the view. To make this work, the roof overhang was designed to be a cantilever that didn’t need supporting posts. On paper, it was obviously the best way to design the west side of the house.
Unfortunately, we were dealing with more than just the roof design. The location of the house, the one thing that could not change, meant that our engineers had to account for weather and specifically, wind. The structure needed to withstand 125 knot (144 mph) winds. That nice cantilevered roof overhang, in the right conditions, could become a sail and rip the roof off the house. Keeping it in place required steel beams in the roof and other supports that raised that overall number.
After an hour of discussion, I could feel the tension. We had come so close to making it all happen. We had a property, a builder, a place to stay during construction, a full set of plans and a building permit. And with the number now in place, it was up to us. Was the project going to happen or not? We agreed to take some time to decide our next move. As Drew left the Yurt, I could tell he wasn’t betting on us moving forward.
John’s ferry to the mainland didn’t leave for a couple of hours and we had time to talk through the options. He made a list of items to discuss with the engineers who made decisions about the house’s structure. He said he had ideas for what he called “value engineering”, which means engineering with a priority on lowering costs. This was a new term to me and I wondered why there is any other kind.
Throughout these discussions, I was still reeling and feeling exhausted. I wanted to go into the bedroom, get under the covers and hide. As Sachi drove John to the ferry terminal and I had some time alone to run through what we could do. Selling our house in Seattle wouldn’t be enough and we had to adapt to the idea that might include serious debt.
I knew that Sachi would have a positive spin on the situation. Unlike me, she is not easily discouraged. Upon her return, I saw someone who was full of ideas for how to proceed. In her view, this was simply a challenge to overcome. We’d have to make sacrifices, take risks, work harder and devote more time, but the dream was still in reach. Her confidence inspired me and I needed it.
As I tossed and turned in bed that night, I thought about all the times we’d taken risks in the past. We always seemed to plan projects just beyond the edge of comfort and usually found ways to make them work. It felt like we couldn’t let the number stand in our way.
I imagined looking back from ten years in the future and wondering how I’d feel about the risks and potential of today. Would we regret the sacrifices and costs it would require to build the house we designed? Or, would we regret making changes to the design to make it more affordable? There were no easy answers, but one thing seemed clear: having come so far and there had to be a way to make it work.
John, our architect, emailed us with a worrying discovery. He said that the house we planned to build to replace the Yurt might need to have a sprinkler system. Needless to say, this was a shock.
The problem is that our road on Orcas Island doesn’t have infrastructure we took for granted in the city, like fire hydrants and city water that can help douse a house fire. To avoid installing a sprinkler system, a big fire truck needed to be able to turn around on our property. To get over this hurdle, the county Fire Marshall needed to come out and take a look.
I expected, with a title like Fire Marshall, for the person to be a grizzled and close-to-retirement firefighter. To our surprise, he was a friendly, young guy who lives on the island. We seemed to have things in common.
At the time, we were still in planning mode and very far from building a house. In fact, we faced an uphill climb in the context of finding a builder on the island who was affordable and available. We did some research and met with a few who were scheduling new projects more than a year out. They all had good reputations and did nice work, but seemed to be going through the motions. They were overwhelmed with demand and didn’t seem hungry for business. We didn’t know where to turn. How do you find a good builder in a new place?
The nexus of Orcas Island serendipity is the farmer’s market and it was there that we crossed paths with the friendly Fire Marshall. We reintroduced ourselves, and chatted for a bit. I learned his name is RJ and just before moving on, he invited us to see live music at his barn that night. I was psyched to get an invite, if not a little anxious about appearing at a party where we knew exactly one person.
That night we arrived, met RJ’s partner, Ali, in the house and eventually found a group of people around a campfire along with an assortment of potluck dishes, a half keg of beer and music emanating from the metal barn. As we made our way to the campfire, RJ saw us and said to a friend, with a bit of surprise, “Hey – They came!”
He didn’t know, but we had recently committed to acting on this exact kind of situation. Meeting people and becoming a part of a new community isn’t easy. It requires putting yourself out there, accepting invitations and importantly, showing up.
After a few introductions by the campfire, we wandered around and tried not to look too awkward. I chatted up a guy named Matt and eventually the conversation turned to our story. We told him about splitting our time between Seattle and Orcas, the Yurt, and our hope to someday build a house on the same property. I told him that we were working on plans, but still needed a builder.
After hearing our story, Matt smiled said, “Well, I’m a carpenter and work with a contractor who builds custom homes.”
That get our attention. We expected him to follow that statement with something like, “But we’re booked out until 2021.” But that didn’t happened. Matt said he was working for Drew Reed and gave us his phone number. Drew would be happy to talk about a new project, he said. I thought there must be a catch.
We talked to Matt a bit longer and something he said stuck with me. He liked working for Drew and felt that he treated his employees well. That mattered to us.
Within a few days, Drew came to the Yurt to look at our plans and talk about his experience. He was a contractor in California for many years. After moving to the island, he cranked up his contracting business and had recently grown to have one of the bigger teams. He looked at our plans and immediately saw the concept and the challenges we were likely to encounter. It was clear to us that he had experience in building homes like the one we were designing.
We were cautiously optimistic. Working with a contractor means having a long term relationship that involves all the things that make a relationship work or not: constant decision making, money, expectation setting and trust. If you don’t choose wisely, you could end up in a messy and expensive divorce.
Being friendly isn’t enough to feel good about a long term relationship. With any builder, the proof is in the building. To help, Drew took us on a tour of a few projects.
At one location, a team of about six workers were renovating a house and they seemed engaged and even happy. They joked with Drew like a peer instead of the boss. And it seemed authentic.
Next we visited a house under construction and we got a glimpse of how he works with clients. He said, “I have a policy. If a decision needs to be made, I’ll tell you my opinion three times. After that, the decision is yours.” It was clear that Drew has opinions about how to build a house and that’s what we wanted.
Before long, Drew was our guy, in sentiment at least. Everyone we asked thought Drew would be a solid choice and his work spoke for itself. We still had many hurdles and plenty of relationships to form before we could actually work with him, but he seemed like our first pick.
When we got down to specifics, Drew said he could start in a matter of months and would be happy to provide an estimate once our plans were close to final. We came to call this estimate “the number” because of its outsized power. More than any other factor, the number could set us back or even ruin our plans.
With the guest house available and a possible builder interested, the momentum seemed to shift in our planning. It was like a window was opening that created a draft of fresh air. For the first time, it seemed we could actually build the house rather than just look at plans and dream.
What we feared was the potential for the window to close before we could act. The guest house could be taken by someone else. Drew could get new projects. The number could be too big. If we waited too long, it could all fall apart and this put real pressure on us to keep pushing.
Looking back, finding Drew and the guest house were only possible by showing up, shaking hands and telling our story. By putting ourselves out there, we met the owners of the guest house at a Christmas party. We accepted RJ’s offhand invite, which led to meeting Matt and Drew. That doesn’t happen from the couch or even a computer screen. There’s no replacement for showing up.
And in the end, we didn’t need a sprinkler system. So that, too, was a win.
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.