The race is on. A couple of weeks ago, Drew, our contractor, set a date for our house to be insulated. We’re using spray foam insulation, which creates a hardened shell in the spaces in the walls. It also locks into place years of decisions and the work of electricians and plumbers. Untold miles of wires and pipes will be encased forevermore, hopefully. Soon after, drywall will finish the job.
The race is on because once the insulation process starts, changes become more difficult and expensive. Everyone’s goal is for the entire house to be ready and that includes us. It’s worrisome to think that so much is becoming more permanent. Did we get it right?
I suppose most projects reach the stage where all the decisions are made and the trigger must be pulled. This post is an example. Just before you received this message, Sachi and I both pored through it, looking for errors and ways to improve it. Once I hit “send” and it landed in your inbox, there was no going back. What’s done is done.
Publishing Big Enough was similar. Once the book had been written, edited, designed, and reviewed multiple times, we had to make the final decision to get it printed. When the ink dried on those pages, it was truly final. Did we get it right?
It’s that moment, when the final decision is made, that progress happens and it’s essential to getting things done. In business terms, you have to ship the product and it sometimes takes gumption to do it. Self-doubt can make you rethink the idea or delay the decision for another week or month. I’ve seen untold hours of my time wasted because I wasn’t confident enough to ship it. It’s a constant battle.
Thankfully, with the house and the book, we had the help of professionals who specialize in getting it right. They have systems and processes that help ensure the final product is high quality. While mistakes are inevitable, we trust the pros, who have been through it before and are used to getting products out the door.
Today, with the work of carpenters, electricians and plumbers about to get shipped, we’re doing what we can to document what’s inside the walls. As some of you suggested for this stage, we took photos and videos of every wall in the house. I think of this as a kind of X-ray vision that only applies once the drywall is up. The photos and videos allow us to know what lurks behind each wall so we can avoid driving a nail into a water pipe or diagnose a problem more efficiently in the future.
The process of taking the photos was a great reminder of all the work that has gone into the house that no one will ever see. An example is “blocking”. There is a high likelihood that you’ve needed to place a screw into a wall to hang art or install a shelf. To make it more secure, you hoped to find a stud in the wall. Or, you’ve used anchors in drywall. With a bit of forethought, this process can be easier and more secure.
For example, we plan to have two towel bars in our bathroom. Casey, the foreman on the project and all-around great guy, asked about the height of the bars and installed these blocks in the walls. Now we don’t have to find studs. This was true across the entire house; we blocked for everything we could imagine. No stud finders needed.
Speaking of drywall, I noticed that the plumbers put these metal “nail plates” on the studs whenever a water line passes through it. I initially thought they were for strengthening the wood, but their role is to prevent a drywall nail (or a nail from us in the future) from piercing the line and causing a huge problem inside the wall.
When the drywall is installed, a canvas will also be lost forever. Drew is a very visual person and when he needs to explain something, he draws it on whatever he can find. Often, it’s a nearby stud. The walls of the house are adorned with little drawings and notes that record a decision made or mind changed. Maybe someday they’ll be seen again, but hopefully not by us.
Today we’re about 14 months into the project, starting with the demolition of the Yurt, and the house is very close to taking a great leap toward becoming livable. Over the next month or so, the roof, all doors and windows, drywall, soffits and siding will all become a reality. While these elements are more visible than what’s inside the walls, we’ll still be asking: did we get it right?
I had anticipated this moment for over a year. For the first time, I stepped foot onto the newly laid subfloor of our house. I realize this might not sound like a revelation and in reality, I had stepped onto the subfloor in other parts of the house. But this was different. This floor was at the heart of the house, where we’ll cook, eat and entertain. With this first step, I got to experience the elevation, orientation, and view that was the reason we chose to build this house on this spot. It is the platform for so much of what we’ll do in the future, at 272 feet above sea level.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of platforms lately. We all have them. Where you live right now is a platform. It supports your daily life and provides a sense of place. It has a shape that you probably don’t think about often. The kitchen may be too small or a bedroom may be impractical, but we adjust and adapt over time. That’s the thing about platforms. We grow into them.
Part of the challenge of building a new house is trying to imagine, in terms of feet and inches, the platform you’ll need in the future. How big should a bathroom be? How will it feel to walk from the bedroom to the kitchen? These decisions are important because they are mostly permanent. Once it’s built, the platform becomes a constraint. It’s where you’ll live, like it or not. In the back of our minds, there is always a voice wondering if the platform we’re building is ready for the future.
It’s been over a year since the platform took shape on the property and it started with wooden stakes that marked the corners of the house. The survey crew came out multiple times because their work and ability to read the plans (or not) governed where the house would be built on the property and in which direction it faced. Getting the platform right was a necessary goal from the beginning.
That’s one of the reasons stepping onto the subfloor of our main room was so exciting. We were stepping onto the results of hundreds of decisions, hours of deliberation and an investment stretching over a year. With the subfloor built, we could put those events behind us and stop wondering if the wooden stakes were placed at the right corners. For the first time, we could stand in our future kitchen and notice what trees will be visible through the future windows. We could imagine walking through the front door and taking in the view from the location of the future fireplace. It was all there, for the first time, to experience with our own eyes.
Time will tell if the platform we’ve designed is ready for the future. I have a strong feeling that we’re on the right track. In the end, all the decisions and designs will fade as we grow into it and never look back.
Below is a collection of photos I recently shared on Instagram that shows about five months of building:
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.