On the wall of the guesthouse, just behind our TV/computer, there is a grid of orange sticky notes with labels like “Appliances”, “Deck”, and “Flooring” that relate to parts of the house projects that have not yet been completed. It’s a constant reminder of all that’s been done and how close we are to finishing.
It was my idea. I sat down with Sachi and challenged us both to think about all the parts of the project that were outstanding. I figured we’d brainstorm for a while and need to circle back when new ideas came up. This was not the case. As soon as I picked up the pen, Sachi started rattling them off, one-by-one. It was like they were neatly cataloged in her mind, waiting to come out. It all happened so fast that, by the time I could take a breath, we were done. There would be no circling back. They just sprang forth, fully formed, like Athena emerging from Zeus’ head.
Since then, the notes have been an ongoing source of discussion. It’s fun to be able to pull off notes like “Garage Door”, but it’s not worthy of celebration. Two burly guys installed it in an afternoon. Something like “Paint” deserves a glass of champagne. Maybe a few. Being the painters for the house, that note has extra relevance. It remains for a bit longer.
For the past month or so, we’ve spent full weekends at the house along with many evenings, painting the baseboards, window sills, door trims, and doors. I say “painting” but it’s NEVER just painting. Painting is a catch-all term for masking, sanding, dusting, priming, vacuuming, and more. And it’s never just once. I keep hoping someone will invent a single coat paint for our house’s interior, but it’s too late now.
The trim paint is turning out well, but it’s a high pressure situation. Everyday the house is full of builders who have, at some point, been painters. They know how it’s supposed to look and probably have feedback. In their shoes, I’d probably want to point out what needs improvement, but unsolicited advice is a hard thing to broach with the homeowner. So we ask and learn along the way.
One of the notes that felt good to remove was “Appliances”. Our kitchen is now fully outfitted with a refrigerator, dishwasher, ovens, sinks, faucets, a cooktop range and exhaust fan. They are installed, but exist in this weird middle ground between the warehouse and our everyday lives. The fridge, for example, is covered in protective wrap that helps keep it new looking in the milieu of construction. We’ve decided not to use them until we move in and can ceremoniously unwrap them with the knowledge that they were protected when it mattered.
Most of the appliances are Thermador and pretty conventional in terms of features. Our exhaust fan over the cooktop has a wifi connection for some reason. I’m not sure why, or if we’ll ever use it.
There is one unconventional appliance that I find interesting. Many months ago, we learned about a new product from Grohe called “Blue” that’s a water filter, chiller, and carbonator. Our recycling is always full of cans from carbonated water like La Croix and this device means we’ll soon have fizzy water, chilled and filtered, on tap.
When we planned the master suite, we noticed that the master bath shared a wall with the laundry room. Starting then, we started thinking about having a laundry chute in the cabinet between the rooms. This way, we could move dirty clothes from the bathroom directly into the laundry room and eliminate the need for a hamper in the bedroom. This is an early representation:
Like so many parts of a custom home, it was never clear exactly how it would work until it was time to build it. The team did an awesome job using the leftover cabinet material to create a smooth surface that matches by default.
Today, the laundry chute is, like so many things, nearly complete. The tile work is 95% done, but can’t be completed until the shower glass is installed. The steel wrapping for the fireplace is very close, but needs fasteners. A number of the delays are related to the supply chain. Home construction and renovation is popular during COVID and suppliers are having a difficult time keeping up.
We’re hoping to move in near the end of March and have told Drew that we’ll move in when it’s ready. We don’t want to be in the way and, in the context of COVID, prefer not to have people coming and going once we live there. We’ve spent 20 months in the guesthouse, we can do more if it means his crew can finish properly. While this is true for the interior, we’re less concerned about the exterior. The work on the deer fence, dog run, entries, and deck may take a bit longer. Perhaps those notes will move with us to the new house.
Along with the sticky notes, other things are disappearing. The impossible skyscraper of cardboard boxes is gone. A couple of weeks ago, we loaded up the car with all the light fixtures, locks, door handles and gadgets and dropped them off at the house for installation. Today, most are installed and look much better than a pile of cardboard on our table.
Here’s where we are today, in terms of the interior:
The notes, of course, are part of a much bigger picture. After years of planning it’s hard to believe we’re so close. I’ve found myself feeling a general sense of excitement and anticipation that’s powerful enough to overcome any lingering doubts and worries. It’s gratifying to feel a sense of completeness as the stress wanes. The sticky notes may not be removed completely for now, but they’re close enough to feel confident that it will happen. Someday soon, we will move in, unwrap the appliances, and finally, exhale.
Friends, if anyone tells you that painting a house with fresh drywall is a pain, believe them.
When we volunteered to paint our house, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. We’ve done a lot of interior painting, but never starting with new drywall. I pictured a couple of days of rolling nice white paint onto walls as the sun shines in and birds chirp in the background. We’d be like happy people in a movie, with jaunty painter’s hats and hilarious splashes of paint on our faces, dancing to our favorite songs. Oh, the joy!
I’m not sure I’ve been more wrong about anything in my life. To understand why, take just a moment to look around the room you’re in, or imagine your bedroom, for instance. There is a strong possibility that you’re surrounded by drywall on walls and ceilings. In a majority of houses it covers every room, including the ceiling. It probably looks nice and consistent, if you’ve ever noticed it at all.
Those easy-to-ignore walls, at some point in the past, went through a process that I didn’t know existed. Getting them ready for paint was more work than I ever imagined and I will never look at a wall the same way again.
The initial challenge we faced was dust. After the drywall was hung, the final step for the drywall team was something called “skim coating”, which means applying a thin layer of compound to every surface in the house. That layer is then sanded to create a “level 5” finish.
When we entered the house to start the paint project, it became clear that it was actually a multi-day dust removal project. It was piled up on the floors of every room and caked onto every wall. It turns out that skim coating is actually dust with a bit of moisture. All you had to do was blow on it and see the cloud that appeared. Before we could paint, every wall and ceiling in the house had to be dust-free. Part of me didn’t think it was possible. Had there been a mistake?
Over the course of the first day, we used respirators and leaf blowers to blow out the dust in huge clouds. Once it settled to the floor, we swept or vacuumed it up. I assumed a couple of passes and we’d be done. I was so very wrong. The entire house ended up requiring multiple passes using multiple tools.
Once we had the bulk of the dust removed, we started to brush the walls and ceilings. For me, that meant using a soft hand brush to remove the more stubborn dust without scratching the drywall. I developed open wounds on my knuckles from hitting the wall so often. Those wounds left streaks and gashes on the uncured drywall that didn’t escape Sachi’s attention. I was causing problems.
After hours of blowing, vacuuming, and brushing we made headway that was marked by not needing the respirators. That was a relief. But the real work was about to begin in the form of wiping dust from every wall and window frame with damp cloths. Again, think about your home and what it would take to touch every surface multiple times. The cloths had to constantly be cleaned in Home Depot buckets of water that burned the wounds on my knuckles.
By the time the sun set on our second day, after nearly 10 hours of work, we were down to the final room and I was so very tired. It felt like gravity had become more powerful and was pulling my limbs to my side. The cloths became weights as we both stood on ladders and wiped tall ceilings.
This situation had the potential to become volatile as we both felt the strain. I started to anticipate how we might end the evening, or rather, how I could prevent us from working deep into the night.
Dust removal was not the end of our work. The next phase was masking the windows and doors and that would be a whole new project. I assumed we were reaching a stopping point and would resume the project the following day, but hesitated to ask. By 6pm, I had to bring it up. My worst fears were realized when Sachi said she was just about to start the masking process next, that night. I was incredulous. She offered to stay for awhile if I wanted to go home. I could “make dinner”, she said. Right.
I was not about to surrender. In my mind, I was standing up for a reasonable path, but to Sachi, I was just tired and feeling deflated. Either way, I resolved to change her mind. At the root of the issue was an expectation we set with Drew that on Monday, the windows would be masked so we could start painting. It was Sunday night and Sachi keeps her promises. Not being able to deliver on our work was a personal affront. My perspective was that there were no promises. The instructions we received didn’t come with a timeline. The work takes how long the work takes. The fact that I was hungry and exhausted might have added some extra spice.
Sachi relented with a requirement: we would continue the work at 7am. “Sure”, I said. Anything to go home. I thought to myself, having won a small victory, “We’ll talk about that later.”
We finally closed up shop and made it back to the guesthouse late for dog dinner. They barked at us more than normal. Our clothes were so drenched in dust that we disrobed at the entry.
We fed the dogs, showered, stuffed our faces and had a drink. As I melted into my chair, Sachi turned to me and said, “I’m setting the alarm for 6:30 in the morning.” Ugh. I sank an extra inch. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the chair, much less the bed. Not knowing what to say, I was silent for an awkward moment as I collected my thoughts.
We had put in two long and exhausting days and achieved a lot. Getting up at 6:30 was not required because we still had so much work to do. No one would even notice if we were there early. I wanted to get a long night’s sleep. Did we really need to?
Sachi’s response, as usual, was well-reasoned and this time, I relented. Her point was that the earlier we got started, the earlier we could finish. She reminded me of a quote we often share from Lawrence of Arabia, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” The alarm stood. I hoped for multiple snoozes.
In what seemed like minutes, Monday morning arrived in the dark and we kept pushing. We arrived at the site by 7:30 and started masking the windows. The bulk of the hard work was complete and we were on the road to painting.
That day, I thought about spending our time on the house being a kind of strange vacation. We were working on the house for a number of days and doing very little of our normal work. Yet, it was still in service of the same goal. We might not be focusing on Common Craft, but we are applying our time to a project that we would otherwise pay others to do. We were taking on a challenge that we could celebrate and learning about the process. We were part of the construction team. Sweat equity pays in unconventional ways.
Through the sweat and blood and strained emotions, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, if someone asks you to help them paint a house starting with fresh drywall, ask many questions. Painting is the easy part.
Second, I’m left with a deep appreciation for the people who do this work every day. Not only is it hard work, but it’s work that requires skill, precision, and dedication. More than ever, we appreciate the work of tradespeople, whose work is bringing our house to life. For the framers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and the team of carpenters who are there every day, I have new respect and admiration. What looks easy is often more work that you can imagine.
I Can Recommend
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix). If someone suggested watching a limited series about a female chess prodigy, I might not have taken that advice. I don’t think of chess and TV making compelling companions. Yet, I loved this show.
Amazing Race (Amazon) We’ve watched the Amazing Race for years and recently discovered that there are 29(!) seasons of the show on Amazon.
Fall of Civilizations (Podcast) I love a good history story and award bonus points for stories about collapse. This is a well produced podcast that takes deep dives into fascinating collapses from the Han Dynasty to Easter Island. One of my favorite episodes was the first one, about Roman Britain.
Piper knows how I felt after dusting for two days.
That’s what I have for now. Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my writing, pick up one of my books. Cheers!
On Thursday we met with Drew, our contractor, and like most days lately, we came away from the meeting with a list of things to do. The house project is moving faster and we have a growing number of decisions to make and projects to complete. It feels like a second job.
It’s gratifying to see it coming together in spite of the pandemic and social unrest. Big, longer-term projects like this can develop a sense of momentum that pushes it through. The time, energy, and investments we made early on are still propelling it and should get it through the finish line. It would feel daunting to be starting today.
We have entered a phase of commitment where we’re making final decisions about materials like flooring, countertops, tile, and decking that we may never replace. These elements will define the house for many years and the pressure is on to get them right the first time.
The last two weeks have been pivotal and below I’ll share with you what’s been keeping us busy.
Early on, we told Drew that he could assign us projects to help save money and keep the project moving. The term for owners who save money by doing work is “sweat equity” and lately, we’ve been sweating a lot. The two-week period began with a painting project.
Before the metal roof can be rolled out and applied, the fascia boards needed to be installed by Drew’s team. These are the vertical boards along the roofline where the gutters reside. They needed to be painted at least twice and the first round happened at ground level.
Then, the wood backing that holds the fascia also needed to be painted.
Over the first weekend, the clock was ticking. The installation crew planned to start on Monday, which meant all boards needed to be painted by then. Sachi painted five sides of every board and found places for them to dry across the whole house and garage. Two boards for each roofline adds up to a lot of lineal feet and she was there until the sun went down. I tried to help, but arthritis in my back flared up and had me out of commission for a week or so. Thankfully that is a rare occurrence.
Once the fascia was installed, the real work began a few days later. Each screw hole and seam had to be filled with putty, sanded, and then painted again. There are two to four holes every sixteen inches around the entire roofline.
We did it all, on our stomachs, while hanging over the edge of the roof. I had never worked for multiple hours while on my chest and hope to limit it in the future. My back was fine, but we’re both still licking our wounds.
Outside of weekends, we usually try to work in the evenings once the workers have finished. This way, we can work on Common Craft (and book) projects during the day and do house projects in the evening. Often, that takes the form of research.
During these two weeks, we needed to make a decision about decking material. Many houses in our region use cedar, which is affordable and holds up well but requires regular care. Our goal was to find decking that lasts 20-30 years and needs virtually no maintenance aside from cleaning. It turns out that wood technology has come a long way recently and I became fascinated with the options.
The biggest innovation is called “thermal modification”, which turns abundant and sustainable softwoods like Ash and Pine into hardwoods. These companies essentially bake the boards with steam over long periods, which condenses them into harder, more stable products with up to a 30-year warranty. It’s been used in Europe for years and is now becoming more popular in the US. The products are all 100% wood, just modified. We’ll let the wood “silver” instead of having to stain it annually. Hooray for low maintenance.
As the fascia work was getting completed, the house was filled with plumbers. We’ve been fortunate to work with a talented one named Greg here on Orcas Island. Along with being a great guy, Greg is a strong advocate for efficient heating systems. Thanks to his advice, we’re using in-floor hydronic radiant heat and an “air-to-water” heat pump, which is supposed to be one of the most efficient systems we can get.
One of the things we love is when contractors have ideas that improve on our own. We walked around the house with Greg to decide where to install hose bibs for water. I’ve always been irritated with connecting garden hoses to spigots. They can be ugly, leaky, and difficult to screw on and off. That day, Greg mentioned that a new hose bib system was available that did away with the traditional spigot connection and replaced it with a system used on boats that clicks into place and only has a small cover on the exterior. Done and done.
The next day, we met our “window and skylights” guy. We have an 8’X12’ hole in the ceiling over our deck that needs a skylight. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The hole is too big for a single pane of glass and the roof’s slope means that multiple panes are prone to leaking. With Drew’s help and a bit of problem-solving, we figured out a way to make it work. Part of the estimate included expensive installation and Drew helped us keep costs down by taking that responsibility. Every bit helps.
As all this was happening, Drew reminded us about cabinets. We needed to get quotes and start that process. When a project is on a roll, we all try to think ahead and focus on potential roadblocks so there are no unnecessary delays. We need to get a cabinet maker in place, so we made an appointment that day. Thankfully, they are scheduling projects into mid-August and could make our September window. Phew.
This cabinet appointment created a deadline. They will be custom-built, which is both a blessing and a curse. Before the meeting, we needed to nail down exactly what we wanted in the kitchen along with cabinets in the bathrooms and laundry. The following weekend was spent designing the exact cabinets we wanted.
I created this to relate the basic idea for the master bath.
In the background, a long term plan was coming together. There is a 24-foot wide hole in the west side of the house, facing the water. That hole will be filled with glass doors and panels that will arrive in two months. When they do, three professional installers will arrive to install it. These installers will spend three nights on the island and the budget for their lodging was based on each person in a separate hotel room. Lodging is really expensive here in the summertime. We knew we could do better, so after focusing on cabinets, we put time into finding an option the installers like better for about half the cost: a rental house with lots of social distancing space and full kitchen. A bit of research produced a win-win.
As the two weeks came to a close, we were back at the house to focus on the flooring that will cover about 80% of the house. It’s a big investment and we were looking for ways to save on the cost. Thanks to an email from the manufacturer, I saw a nice discount that ends in June. So we had to decide what floor we wanted, have the installer take measurements, and order the floors before the deal expired. We did it just in time.
Needless to say, we have a full schedule right now. But it feels good to be moving forward. It makes for long and sometimes exhausting days, but it’s all worth it. In fact, yesterday we were meeting with the cabinet maker on the mainland when Greg texted to ask about painting something he needed for the following day. We didn’t get home until 10 pm, but we grabbed paint and flashlights and got it done.
What I love about this kind of work, aside from saving money, is feeling like we’re part of a team. We’re all trying to make it work as efficiently as possible and I have a lot of faith that as a team, we’ll get results that exceed our expectations.
Note: If you are interested in the specifics of the products we’re using, just reply to this email and I’ll be happy to share.
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.