Every few hours, I get an email that looks like this:
These emails are an indication that someone has signed up for our new project, or at least the free version of it. When I find them in my inbox, I can practically feel the dopamine flowing through my brain. Each email is just a data point, but together they represent a trend, and hopefully a foothold.
The project is called Build Livable and it is currently taking up most of my waking hours. My goal is to help homeowners save time and money by understanding the phases of construction and planning ahead for each phase. Informed homeowners can hopefully help builders and architects, too.
I wake up thinking about this project, work on it throughout the day, and send myself emails about it in the evenings. This is not driven by a deadline or a demanding boss, but a passion for creating it. I want nothing more than to see it come to life and be useful to people. I believe it can.
You might wonder what, exactly, is taking so much of my time, and it’s a good question. Let’s take a look.
At the beginning of this year, I set out to write about the experience of building custom homes and share what I’d learned. Like writing a book, I took it phase by phase and tried to capture all the things I wished I had known in the beginning. That project was mostly completed by summer and was book-length, about 70k words.
The whole idea changed when our friend, James, said he thought it should be digital and have videos, downloadable docs, etc. Of course! A book wouldn’t do. A website could be multimedia, easy to update, always-on, and have an enrollment fee. The project needed to be on a website and when that realization set in, my entire outlook changed. I was no longer limited by the book medium and could create a richer and more useful experience.
Part of what made me excited was the potential to create it in-house, with low overhead. By using a platform designed for online courses, I could design a very basic version of the website in a few days. The early challenge was not technology as much as branding and design. Over time, I picked colors and fonts, developed a logo and overall feel for the website. Web design is not something I consider a specialty, but I deeply enjoy the process.
The new website went online relatively quickly. The bulk of my work now is focused on filling the guides with useful content and filling the custom list with connections.
Getting people to a new website is always an uphill battle. New websites do not attract attention on their own. In the beginning, a reliable way to generate traffic is through advertising. I started to spend $10 a day on Facebook advertising and targeted people interested in construction, architecture, Dwell Magazine, etc. That’s helping a lot, but I’ll need to do more.
Website traffic, by itself, isn’t all that useful. We needed a way to turn visitors into connections we could contact in the future. In my experience, offering access to a free resource is one of the best ways to make that connection. If you invite people to test drive a resource for free, they may be likely to stick around.
For this, I pulled a couple of chapters out of The Complete Guide and created a free mini-guide called, “Start Your Construction Project on the Right Foot”. It has checklists of questions to ask builders and architects before hiring them, along with how to collect and organize ideas. The key was providing a useful and free resource along with nicely designed downloadable documents that could be printed. People love checklists!
The free guide went live a few weeks ago and since then, a few people per day have enrolled and confirmed their email addresses. It’s satisfying to see them choosing to be involved.
I think of the free mini-guide as a machine running in the background that will hopefully make connections with many people over time. With it in place, I could switch my attention back to The Complete Guide and go into full production mode.
And that’s what’s happening right now. My days are currently filled with formatting and editing the text, creating diagrams and downloadable documents, researching materials, and conducting interviews with homeowners and building pros. This is probably the most comprehensive resource I’ve ever developed. Here’s an example of a draft diagram:
I love every minute of it, in part, because I believe in it. I believe it can help homeowners save time and money. I believe I have the skills and experience to help them be prepared and work effectively with construction pros. I believe I can make it easy.
Each time someone enrolls in the free guide, the email in my inbox is a reminder that there is a need for this sort of resource and people are interested. We just have to keep finding them and showing them that we can help. The people who have chosen to be a part of Build Livable will hopefully choose to enroll in the Complete Guide when it’s ready. I believe that they will.
I recently hosted a webinar about Big Enough and just before it went live, I snapped the photo below and put it on Instagram.
The immediate response from followers was questions about the technology and tools in the photo. Today online meetings are common and a lot of people are looking for ways to make the experience better. This inspired me to share.
The setup in the photo is something I’ve wanted for years. I’ve worked from home since 2003 and have hosted all kinds of meetings and webinars, all the while wishing it was easier. I kept saying, “Once we move into the new house, I’m going to get it dialed in.” For me, that meant quality and ease of use. I wanted to be able to transition into video mode in seconds, with everything at my fingertips.
Today, I feel like I’m on the right track and learning as I go. I’ve been able to address most of what I wanted to do, but there will always be ways to improve (like using a dSLR camera). My goal right now is to look professional without spending thousands of dollars. This version of a home studio is in the DIY category compared to many.
Let’s take a tour.
Note: As always, I do not have relationships with third parties and earn no income from recommending specific products.
Microphones have been a part of my professional life since 2007 and I generally opt for a good mic that plugs into the computer with USB. The mic I have right now is quite good and affordable. I like that it can be muted with a soft (and silent) tap. It’s called El Gato Wave 3 ($150).
I use a camera that captures video in HD (1080p), which helps the video look crisp and clean. When side-by-side with a built-in camera, the difference is obvious. I like that the camera sits nicely on top of the monitor, has a visible indicator light when it is on, and a hinged door that covers the lens when it’s not being used. The model I have is a Logitech c920 ($70)
Lighting is one of the hardest elements to get right. I sit by a window and usually have natural light, which is nice but always changing. To help, I acquired two small LED panels that sit atop small tripods. They have two controls: brightness and light color (Kelvin scale). I love that the lights can be powered by a cord, or rechargeable battery (purchased separately). The batteries make them extremely portable and easy. I use:
I’ve worked solely on laptops for years and made the switch to having an external monitor that could handle more than a laptop screen. I chose this 27” LG ($450)
I prefer sound, like media played from the computer, to be nice and clear. Often the speakers that come with computers or monitors don’t work that well, so I use nice-ish speakers that are powered by USB. Thankfully, the speakers we used for our Computer/TV in the guesthouse were impressive and I and transferred them into the new office. Creative Pebble Speakers are small but mighty. ($20)
The first thing we did for the office was plan for having a lot of outlets. That helps, but most of the office tech is centrally located, so I found a power strip with a flexible cord, mounting holes, flat plug, USB outlets, and surge protection. It’s been reliable and I like the design, in part, because it can be mounted under the desk. Addtam 10’ Power Strip Surge Protector ($20) I also use a wireless charging pad: Tozo W1 ($13)
I consulted with a couple of friends about reducing room noise and learned a few things. First, sound moves in predictable directions. If you are facing a wall and make a sound, the sound waves will bounce off the wall in front and also hit the wall behind you. This is the source of many echoes. I wanted to dampen the sound in the office by adding acoustical panels on opposite walls that absorb the sound waves rather than reflect them. I used two kinds, each with different looks and costs.
Rhino Acoustic Sound Panels – These are more functional than beautiful, but do the trick and can be arranged in a variety of patterns. $55 for 6 panels.
Acoustic Design Works – These are very effective and stylish. You can order them in a variety of colors and shapes. About $42 per panel.
I’ve been trying to figure out what should be in the background of my videos in addition to the colorful sound panels. I have enjoyed having a fiddle leaf fig in the shot, but fear that it will soon take over. (See above)
The office has a closing door, which helps. However, the dogs seem to get excited about me talking to someone in the room, so we sometimes usher them to the car with a handful of treats. Aside from that, my biggest problem was using a Macbook Air laptop for online meetings. It wasn’t quite robust enough and the fan noise became a problem. Now, I use a Mac Mini under the desk and haven’t heard any noise or had any performance problems since.
All the cords drove me a little crazy and made the office feel like an IT department. The problem was that the cords all had to stretch from the center of the table to the edge. My desk is inexpensive and over ten years old, so I thought it would be fun to customize it by drilling a big hole in the center of it, where all the cords could disappear from sight. Pardon my bragging, but this was a stroke of minor genius. Just don’t look under the desk!
I’m feeling more confident about the office set up all the time. Getting it right means constantly tweaking settings, organizing the gadgets, and more. Now that the days are shorter, I need to up my darkness game and there are always more ways to dampen sound. One thing that can’t be too disturbed is the space for Maybe to be while I work.
A couple of years ago, I became friends with RJ, our local Fire Marshall. RJ and his wife sometimes (used to) host summer parties that are outdoors and include a fire. This is where I first discovered the Solo Stove. It had the blessings of the Fire Marshall.
Since then, the Solo Stove has become one of my favorite products because it makes backyard fires easy, safe, and clean. I often tell people that it’s an awesome piece of engineering, for what is essentially a fire pit. It’s portable and makes it easy to have a fire almost anywhere.
What makes it work is ventilation. It’s designed to optimize air flow and burn hotter than a normal fire. There are holes around the bottom of the stove that pull fresh air into the chamber and circulate it to feed the fire from the bottom and sides. Sometimes it seems like the entire thing is filled with fire.
Solo Stove claims that it’s a “smokeless” fire option and I think it comes close. The heat it produces burns up particulate matter before it rises, which leads to less smoke. It’s made from stainless steel that can take a beating too.
The only thing I don’t like is that it holds water when it rains and creates a messy slurry that drips when moved. This is the version we have. It’s not cheap, but it’s supposed to last a lifetime.
A short story recently appeared in our local newspaper that provided an interesting look at how some Orcas Island residents are reacting to the coronavirus.
A small boat was seen approaching a dock near Eastsound, the island’s central village. A few locals watched as the boat approached and eventually docked. As the couple disembarked, a concerned citizen called the police and had them come out to make sure stay-at-home orders were not being violated and the island was not being invaded by mainlanders or others who could be carrying the virus. The police arrived, talked to the boaters, and discovered they were island residents living at a marina who had decided to visit the grocery store by boat.
In another case, a construction crew was working on a house (not ours) and a neighbor appeared and started to berate them. He assumed they had arrived from the mainland and accused them of potentially spreading the virus. He demanded the contractor’s contact information. It turned out the workers were island residents working safely and legally. The neighbor himself, however, had recently arrived from the mainland.
Needless to say, there are sensitivities. These cases are the outliers and don’t come as a surprise. Like anywhere, our little island has a variety of personalities. Most are reasonable, some are eccentric, a handful have a hard time minding their own business.
I can empathize. Living on an island feels like it’s possible to be hermetically sealed from the outside world. If we could stamp out the virus and live in a bubble for a while, we could feel normal again. We could have our own virus-free utopia. It’s been more than two weeks since a new case was reported on the island and the official count stands at eight positive test results and zero deaths. As much as I want this to be the final tally, I suspect it won’t.
As a state, Washington is still fighting the virus on all fronts. New cases and deaths are down significantly, but far from ending. The disease is still spreading. Our stay-at-home order has been extended until June 4. Most parks have reopened to a limited degree and outdoor jobs like landscaping and dog walking are now legal. You can now get large quantities of cocktails to-go or even delivered, which was a service I didn’t know I needed until now. It’s fascinating how constraints produce innovation.
Overall, I’ve been impressed with how the state has handled the pandemic so far and I believe that pacific northwest culture has played no small part. Citizens of Seattle, for example, are strangely conformist as a group. People wait at empty intersections for the crossing light to change. They create long lines for highway exits because no one wants to merge too late. I say “they” but it’s really “we”. I do these too.
People in and around the city seem hyper-aware of what is acceptable or not in a given situation. There is palpable social pressure to watch out for one another and do the right thing. People pay attention to the rules, facts, and evidence, and often behave accordingly. While it sometimes bleeds into sanctimony and self-righteousness that can feel oppressive, the do-good element of pacific northwest culture is part of what has kept me here for so long.
I think about Seattle or any large city’s approach to the pandemic being macro. A single case or death is part of a much bigger trend. For our little island, the pandemic is micro. One case can send shockwaves around the island and change behavior. And like Seattleites, we trust the facts, follow the rules, and have faith the local government is working to do the right thing. Islands are not often places for conformists, but we have our share.
Our county of islands, San Juan County, has tried to limit the flow of people to and from the mainland, but it’s mostly a social pressure campaign. Stern warnings were sent to residents forbidding them from traveling to the mainland for all but essential healthcare. People who have vacation homes on the island are being told to remain at their primary residence. With all lodging and Airbnbs closed by decree, there are few options available for people visiting the island overnight.
Being sealed is a nice idea, but it’s not at all realistic. Four ferries service the island every day. They are technically a state highway and are essential for bringing supplies and dollars to the island. There isn’t a practical way to prevent people from boarding the ferries, so people will continue to come, even for day trips.
Some have proposed ideas like testing every person who arrives or giving tourists some sort of badge or marker that indicates they are visiting from the mainland. These are brainstorm ideas that don’t survive serious scrutiny. A tourist badge. They’ll love that! Maybe it’s the residents who should wear them instead.
Orcas Island is a microcosm of the same debate that is raging nationally. Those tourists and visitors from the mainland are the bedrock of our local economy, virus and all. Our island is not a self-sustaining ecosystem. It requires a constant flow of people and supplies from other places. The hermetically sealed utopia could quickly become wasteland without the flow. I think most agree that safety is the priority and what will eventually allow the island to recover. We have the same questions as everyone else: when will it feel safe again?
Overall, Sachi and I have been fine and thankful. We’ve easily adjusted to a very limited social calendar, and honestly, that could endure once it’s all over. I’m sure the introvert in Sachi would appreciate it. Every meal we’ve had since March has been homemade and that, too, has been a feature we both enjoy. I have not had a haircut since February and that too will soon be homemade.
Our business is web-based and more impacted by the overall economy than quarantines and virus fears. We recently published a free COVID Communication Kit as a way to help organizations get back to work safely.
While my book Big Enough won’t be officially published until September, much of the work has already been done. Thankfully, the book’s message is appropriate for a post-pandemic market. I wonder how it would feel to have worked for a year on a book called Handshakes with Strangers or The Power of Group Hugs and then see the pandemic hit? Not good, I’m sure.
As the weather has improved, we’ve met occasionally with friends in outdoor and socially distant settings. Bonfires and construction sites are good for that. Non-work Zoom meetings fill the social gaps better than I would have guessed. We may have even grown closer to some folks as a result.
Overall, we remind ourselves that we have a lot to be thankful for. Our families in Hawaii and North Carolina have not been impacted and we try not to lose sight of that in the midst of so much chaos and misery. While we might not live in an island-sized bubble, we can create one around ourselves and make conscious choices about when to break the seal.
We used to have in-person movie nights with popcorn and blankets on the floor. Now that our group of friends is choosing to stay home due to Coronavirus, we looked for ways to feel connected, with zero risk.
The outcome of our brainstorming led to a different kind of movie night that was full of fun and laughter, despite us being at different locations. It worked so well that I’m writing to share how you can do it with your friends or family.
The Big Idea:
A group of people, alone in their homes, watch the same (preferably bad) movie at the exact same time. As the movie plays, the group uses a group chat system to comment throughout the movie. I call it a “snark-a-thon” for obvious reasons.
How to Host a Snark-a-Thon Movie Night:
Organize a group. We had six people and it worked great. More could work, too. Each household needs an internet connection, access to movie websites, and a computer or device for chatting.
Choose a movie. We chose to focus on movies that fall into the “so bad it’s good” category for maximum snark. It’s important to pick a movie everyone can access. For us, Catwoman (2004) worked well and was $.99 on Amazon and available elsewhere. The Razzies website might be a good source for inspiration.
Start a group chat. We used a Slack channel, but that’s not required. You could use text messages, Facebook Messenger, Gchat, GroupMe, etc. Anything that allows a group to chat synchronously will work.
Plan the event. We agreed to start the chat at 8:30 and start the show at 8:45. This gave everyone a chance to get comfortable, arrange for snacks and coordinate the start of the movie. The designated host will need to pause the movie near the start and share a timestamp (and photo) with the group to get everyone to the same scene. We used the title screen.
Start the show, together. A challenge is getting each household to start the movie at the same time. Once everyone has paused the movie at the same timestamp, the host can post “now” in the chat as the signal to unpause it. Alternatively, everyone can start it when phone clocks turn to a specific minute, like 8:46. Once it’s playing, it’s important that no one pause or rewind the movie. Synchrony is essential to making it work.
Updated:Netflixparty is a Chrome browser extension that synchronizes video playback and provides for group chat.
Have fun. One of the reasons to use a bad movie is to not care too much about the plot. In our situation, the movie was secondary to the discussion. There were tangents, bad jokes, animated gifs and a LOT of laughing. The chat was continuous throughout the movie and became the real show. Being home-bound meant no one was driving, so we all partied as much as we wanted.
In the end, we were all amazed at how well it worked. It made us feel connected despite the isolation and added real fun to a night that might have otherwise felt lonely. And we all practiced social distancing.
You should host a snark-a-thon movie night! If you do, use #snarkathon when you talk about it online.
I usually wake up around 7am and the first thing I see is almost always a dog’s face. They seem to have a natural ability to detect, often before I realize it, that the day has begun. While Maybe, our older dog, has better manners when it comes to humans in bed, Piper is unburdened. She plops down on my chest in an attempt to rouse me with cuteness alone.
Our morning routine is simple and based on needs. I need coffee and head straight for the coffee maker, which I prepared to brew the night before. The guest house, like the Yurt, is a single room and with Sachi sleeping just a few yards away, I try to keep the coffee noise to a minimum.
Handling dog needs has been different in the guest house. For the first time in nearly 20 years, we don’t have a dog fence that allows them to roam without my supervision. One of us has to go with them, every time they need to go out. Now that fall and winter are upon us, these romps are about to get progressively less enjoyable and no less required.
The complicating factor is the ever-present deer who mock and tease the dogs by simply living their wild animal lives. Given the chance, Piper will chase them deep into the woods and through unknown hazards before coming home. We want to keep those instances at a minimum, so she stays on the leash, while Maybe can roam a bit more free. Like so much of our lives right now, this isn’t a big deal because it’s temporary.
With their business done, we all come inside and the dogs race up the stairs to pounce on Sachi in bed, which makes Sachi giggle. She has always wanted big dogs and we now have over 100 combined pounds of canine. csx
The small kitchen of the guest house usually becomes a hive of activity in the morning and tests our ability to economize. Because we don’t entertain anymore, our collection of dishes and cookware has been boiled down to the essentials and it reminds me of how little we actually need. We use the same few plates, glasses, bowls and silverware everyday and are rarely inconvenienced.
There are things we miss, of course. I, for one, will never take dishwashers for granted again. The bigger issue, day-to-day, is counter space. Between appliances, we have about four square feet of working room. A month ago, that changed when I discovered a hidden feature of the kitchen. Tucked under the counter, there is a small white refrigerator. In a flash of insight, I pulled it out of the counter and into the kitchen space, revealing a new kitchen work space. It’s been there ever since and I now count this as one of my best innovations for this place.
I love the idea of home appliances and objects, like the little fridge, having multiple purposes and the flexibility to adapt. For example, our TV is currently an aging 21” iMac computer. Rather than placing it on a table across the room, or attaching it to a wall, we put it on a rolling shelf that can be easily moved to a better viewing location and then tucked out of the way when it’s not being used.
The TV setup is a stark change from our home theater in Seattle and adopting a smaller, lower fidelity version of TV might seem like a negative consequence of moving. But it’s not. I enjoy it just as much. A movie is still a movie.
This is true for so many parts of the transition. Our home lifestyle is more compact, with fewer features and more disarray than we’d grown accustomed. But does it matter? Would 30% more counter space make us 10% happier? Doubtful. A dinner made in a toaster oven in a one room guest house can be just as delicious as in any other location.
Living in a relatively small space has its benefits. Cleaning the house is quick and easy. The rent is affordable and the constrained space means our essential belongings are never far away. But there is one thing that drives me crazy. It works like this…
The guest house is filled to the brim with boxes and piles of belongings in closets and a loft area. For the most part, the boxes will remain untouched until we move out.
Just after we moved in, we realized that a few random things were missing. In this case, it was a cocktail shaker. This set up a dilemma. That shaker is in the room, somewhere. Do we start the process of diving into the closets and boxes in search of it? Or, do we throw up our hands and do without? I often choose the latter because lurking within those boxes is the shaker and a high likelihood of serious frustration for me. For now, I mix cocktails in a measuring cup. It will appear, some day.
We both look forward to the day when we can once again have dinner parties and entertain friends over weekends. For now, there is a happy medium. Friends can visit the guest house overnight, but it’s strictly BYOB (bring your own bedroom). Our friends, Tony and Lindsay, recently visited with a teardrop trailer that they parked outside. It worked perfectly.
The temporary nature of this phase of our lives colors our perception of what’s needed, or desired. We will probably be in the guest house for another year and we have chosen not to invest in making it feel more home-like. We’ve hung no art on the walls. There are no plants or decorations. The guest house feels like a quick stop on a long journey and our goal is to get in and out without a trace. We are but visitors.
Living in the guest house is a reminder of how much of our recent lives have revolved around moving. Since acquiring the Yurt two years ago, it feels like we’ve been floating from place to place. First, we split our time between Seattle and Orcas. Then we moved to Orcas and a few months later, to the guest house. In a year, we’ll move to the new house.
Two years of moving means that living in a state of flux has become a kind of lifestyle and something that doesn’t feel like a burden or trial. More than anything, it’s been a reminder of how lucky we are to have this opportunity.
Our friends Chris and Sarah (and their three dogs) lived in a fifth wheel trailer on their property for three years as they finished their house. Their story seems to be closer to the norm on Orcas and we expected to do the same. We owe deep gratitude to the kind family who first offered us the space.
We’re still settling in, but today it feels like the guest house is home. Almost everything has a place, a box, or a pile. And that’s okay. It’s temporary.
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.