One of the most vexing questions we’ve faced over the last year of designing and building the house is: "How do you want this?" It could be door trim, fasteners, or how the gutters connect to downspouts. It’s vexing for two reasons:
The list of questions is long and new items are added every day
Much of the time, we could only guess at the answers
When people say that building a house is a second full-time job for the owners, a good portion of the work is trying to answer that question: How do we want it? With the structural and architectural work complete, we are now the point people for decisions about finishes and details. After a visit with Drew at the site, we might come home with a list of things to consider. Recent examples include:
Fence height and material
Deck stair design
Backsplash height in the bathrooms
Thankfully, with so much of the house complete, these decisions become easier. I came to see that there were two big factors: what we want and what the house itself is telling us it wants. We don’t have to consider every possibility because the house’s design serves as context. Our architect John Stoeck often talks about design decisions in terms of what "it wants to be". Based on the house today, the floor wants to be a lighter color. The trim wants to be minimal.
The problem is that big decisions are hard to grasp in conversation. We understand that some designers say a low 2" backsplash can be a more modern touch. But how does a 2" backsplash look versus a more traditional 4" backsplash? We can look at websites and create 3d models, but there is no better way to make a decision than seeing a 2" backsplash in your bathroom, even if it’s made of wood. This is one of the big lessons we’ve learned from working with Drew and his team. If he senses that we’re not sure how to proceed, he defaults to creating a quick and temporary mock-up that often comes together while we’re on site.
I asked him about this perspective and he said, "You can talk about it over and over and still not get anywhere. You can even look at plans, but the same time could be used to create a version that’s close enough to make a decision."
A couple of weeks ago, Drew said we needed to order deck railings, which meant making final decisions about the design. This is often how the process works. We might spend years thinking about the design and only commit at the last moment. Once the order is in, the money is spent and there’s no inexpensive way to go back. Drew doesn’t want us to be disappointed so he does what he can to help make the decision easier.
The next day, we visited the site and found a simple section of 2X4 railing nailed to the deck. One section was 36" high, another was 42" high. It cost very little in time and materials, but gave us a valuable way to make the decision. We could stand next to it, or view it from the kitchen to get a real feel for the difference in height. It was obvious then: the railing wanted to be 36" high.
Drew’s approach to making quick and dirty mock-ups isn’t unique to construction. After seeing it in action, I started to notice that I do the same thing in my creative work. Sachi and I might discuss an idea, take notes, or do a quick sketch for a scene in a video. But nothing compares to getting started quickly.
Whether it’s a book or a Common Craft video, all the decisions and details can feel overwhelming in the beginning. Instead of trying to solve all the problems at once, I’ve learned to build my own quick and dirty mock-ups in the form of drafts that I can throw away. These drafts might be a video script or a book chapter that I don’t think too deeply about. The goal is to get words on the page and develop a sense of what the project wants to be.
For me, this is like looking at a mock-up of different railing heights from inside the house. Before investing, I can evaluate an idea with a quick assimilation of reality that can’t be achieved with discussion alone. I have to see it and hear how the words fit together, or not. The challenge is becoming comfortable with tossing bad versions in the trash and starting over.
Mocking Up the Great Room
When we move in, we’ll use chairs from the Hunter House, but over time, we plan to have some sort of couch arrangement that needs to fit nicely into the room. It’s not practical to build a mock-up of a couch, so I decided to make a scaled-down version of the room, which included paper cut-outs of future furniture options. We moved the paper around until it was clear that a loveseat would fit better then a full size couch.
The success of almost any creative project doesn’t come from epiphanies or long hours or preparation as much as a willingness to get started quickly with a mock-up, evaluate, and keep pushing until it’s clear what the project wants to be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.