[Part three of a three part series. Read parts one or two]
What I remember most about the final stages of building the Hunter House is the amount of stress involved. While I felt it every day, it was Sachi who took the brunt of it. In our relationship, she is the CFO and it was no different with completing the house.
In the early stages, the stress was lower. We refinanced the house to fund the start of the project. Over time, as the scope of the project changed, those funds dwindled and we relied on income from producing Common Craft videos for clients, which went directly to the contractor each month, leaving barely enough for living expenses. By the time the project came to a close, we had exhausted every option, from credit cards to family loans. The exhaustion extended to us, too.
I sometimes look back on those times and wonder “what were we thinking?” House projects are a one-way street. If you take the roof off of your house, there is no going back. To live there in the future you have to do whatever it takes to complete the project. If you can’t, and the contractor doesn’t get paid, the work stops. Preventing this from happening was a goal that seemed harder to reach every month.
The stress was balanced with anticipation. After the workers left for the day, we’d walk through the house and try to imagine living there. We’d look at the plywood subfloor and imagine how our sample of wood flooring, measured in inches, would translate into thousands of square feet. We’d check-in on the tile and cabinets and railings and mostly ask ourselves, “Why is this taking so long?” Now we know: quality work takes time.
Along the way, we learned a valuable lesson about house colors. I spent time choosing colors for the house and became convinced that the body of the house would be light green with charcoal gray trim. It was a risky choice and I figured the neighbors would have feedback.
To test the colors, we bought samples and painted swatches on the back of the house. Like the flooring, we tried to imagine how a few inches would translate to thousands of feet. Once we liked a color, the contractor suggested painting an entire side of the house so we could see it in full. It sounded like a good idea and his painters went to work and painted the front of the house for all the neighbors to see. We soon realized two things:
We got the color wrong. It was day-glo green and the contractor could only shake his head. He was not a fan.
If you want to test a paint color on an entire side of your house, do it on the back side so fewer people will see it.
A big part of the process was learning how to work with an architect and builder. Being new to architecture, we didn’t fully know what to expect or how to apply some of the details in the house plans to the real world. But it didn’t matter. Our architect John Stoeck had a clear vision of what the house could be and took ownership of that vision and worked with Jon, the contractor, to make it happen.
John and Jon happened to grow up together and sometimes had arguments about how best to complete facets of the project. We’d stand with them in our half-finished kitchen and watch them spar. John, the architect, would listen to Jon, the contractor, and cross his arms and shake his head when he disagreed and then propose another idea. While awkward at times, we couldn’t help but feel that this was a necessary part of the process.
In projects like this, there is constant pressure to find the middle ground between design and budget. Being the owners, it’s up to us to make the final call, but we couldn’t make an informed decision without knowing the options. That’s why those discussions between the builder and architect were so pivotal. They exposed us to what was possible and at what cost.
A year and a couple of months into the project, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We wanted so badly to move in and finally get to experience everything we’d designed and planned and imagined. We thought that if we could just move in, the project would be complete. In this assumption, we were wrong. The project seemed to keep going and going. A steady stream of subcontractors visited over a few months to complete a long list of things like plumbing or cabinetry.
At long last, it was finally complete. Our little house on Hunter Boulevard was now fundamentally different. It was the biggest project we’d ever take on and it turned out better than we ever expected. John’s vision came to life.
What started as an idea for creating a master suite had become a much bigger house. And thanks to our color choices, it was also one of the most obvious. While the green wasn’t day-glo, it was bright green and not everyone liked it. I, for one, took that as a point of pride. Over the first few years of living there, multiple builders and homeowners knocked on our door and asked for the paint codes for their own projects.
For all the expense and time and stress, we agreed that we’d live in the house for at least ten years so we could earn back our investment in quality of life. That was 2010. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about everything we learned in the process.
Going into the Hunter House project, we were rookies, but had good people showing us the ropes. We learned how to work with an architect and builder. We learned how to think about design and materials. We learned how to be realistic about timelines and budget. We learned the value of compromise and flexibility. And we learned it on-the-fly because it was required to get through the project. These are lessons you can only learn by doing.
After it was all said and done, Sachi and I discussed whether or not we’d ever do a project like the Hunter House again. We agreed that the financial stress was not something we wanted to repeat, but the design process was something we absolutely loved. Having been through it, we could imagine doing it all over again, but with a bit more confidence.
In July of 2009, we had a plan in place. We were handing the keys to our house on Hunter Boulevard to our builder, Jon, who would start the demolition work before building the second story we had designed over the previous year.
In the weeks before handing over the house, an idea started to percolate. We’d walk around the house and see that whole walls would be removed. The flooring would be replaced. The house, as we knew, was about to disappear and we saw an opportunity. There must be a way to optimize this situation, we thought.
This was the first time we considered having a demolition party.
What does that mean, you might ask? It means plying a group of friends with alcohol, tools and safety glasses and letting them treat our house like a demolition zone. Today, it might require signing waivers, but at the time, it seemed like a perfect send-off. When would we ever have a chance to do such a thing?
After taping off some sections of walls for safety, we gathered tools of destruction like hammers and crowbars. We also acquired tools of play, like toy paintball guns, buckets of finger paint and a couple of slingshots for the paintballs.
People were timid at first…
But soon the alcohol took over…
Paint started to cover almost every surface. At one point, two dozen eggs appeared and we threw eggs at the outside of the house, because, why not? It was a night to do things that we’d never done before.
One scene I’ll always remember is our friend, Jay, late in the evening, turning on a floor fan and dripping paint into it to see how far it might fly.
People rode skateboards down our hallways. They took out frustrations on surprisingly tough lath and plaster walls built in the 1920s. There was paintball target practice in our former bedroom. We were all sweaty, paint-covered messes.
This was July, but not just any July.
Seattle’s average daytime temperature in the summer is in the 70s and most people don’t have air conditioning, including us at the time. When the heat comes, it can be miserable because there is no place to go outside of a mall or movie theater.
We had to move, host the party and hand over the keys to Jon, all by August 1. This turned out to be spectacularly unlucky planning. The one day we planned to move, July 29, 2009, now lives in infamy because it ended up being the hottest recorded day in Seattle’s history at 105(f). We owe a big thanks to Sachi’s brother, Mark, and his wife, Leslie, for helping us move through the swelter.
Days later, we handed off the keys to Jon, who was a good sport, but not super impressed with the aftermath of the party. The house was partially demolished, but also a complete mess. The paintball paint stained window frames we were reusing. Eggs dripped down the roof and outside of the house and became grosser every day. All our fun and good intentions made his job slightly more difficult, but he forgave us and got to work.
Our little house on Hunter Blvd. became unrecognizable within days as a huge dumpster appeared and became full of walls and decking and paint-stained trim. The real demolition had commenced and there was no going back.
It was during this phase that the reality of this kind of renovation became clear. After taking off the roof and taking the walls down to the studs, Jon showed us that the 1924 structure wouldn’t be able to support a second story. Further, we had never noticed it, but half the floor of the old house wasn’t level and he recommended fixing it. These were the first of many troublesome discoveries.
What could we do? The house didn’t have a roof. We had to invest in making the structure work and that meant more time, more planning, more expense
As these questions loomed, Jon was racing against time. Every October, consistent rains arrive in Seattle and builders work to get a roof on their projects before then. With each setback, the rain risks grew. But we had to press on.
Early in the planning, we assumed the main floor wouldn’t need a lot of work. As you can see in the before-and-after photos below, we were wrong.
Each day, after the workers drove away for the evening, we’d visit the house and see the incredible progress that comes with demolition. It was satisfying to see so much change happen so quickly. There were surprises and disappointments, but we had good relationships with both John, the architect, and Jon, the builder. It was these relationships that would become the biggest factor in getting the whole thing done.
With the planning and demolition complete, we could finally start going up.
[Part one of a three part series. Read parts two (destruction) or three (finishing)]
In 2003, Sachi and I bought the smallest house on Hunter Boulevard, the street where we now live in Seattle. It was a craftsman style house, with the main floor and a finished basement courtesy of the previous owners. We soon considered it our long-term home and got married in the back yard. We planted trees we hoped to see grow to adulthood.
That house, or the version we knew in 2003, is no more and this is the story of what happened to it… and to us.
At first, we just wanted a better bedroom. At the time, it had room for a queen sized bed in the corner and a tiny 1920-sized closet. It was sufficient, but we imagined the luxury of having an attached bathroom and closet — a master suite. This could be a relatively small project, we thought, just a small addition.
Our first step was contacting John, an independent architect we knew through close friends and another small project. John was the first to alert us of the realities of our plans. In Seattle, a structure can only cover one-third of a property. Our house already covered most of that area and prevented us from adding any more area to the house’s footprint. In words that we would come to remember as a turning point, John said, “Well, you can always go up!”
This idea set off months of discussion between Sachi and me. It was 2009, a couple of years after Common Craft videos had become popular and our little business was doing better than ever. We were constantly working with clients to make custom videos and had as much work as we could handle. We were in a position to make an investment in our future. It had to make sense financially but also needed to contribute to our long term happiness. Because our home was also our workplace, it made sense to invest more than we initially anticipated.
Having justified a bigger investment, we had to figure out the scale of the potential project and the logic went like this… If we wanted to “go up”, it would mean taking off part of the roof. If you take off part of the roof, you probably can’t live there during construction. If you’re going to move out, then why don’t you take off the whole roof and make it all worthwhile?
It seemed big, but rational. As long as we could devote ourselves to completing enough Common Craft projects, we could cover the costs of a construction project. It also helped that the Great Recession was in full swing and contractors were more affordable than they’d been in years.
Over many months with John, we eventually came up with a much bigger plan than we first envisioned. What started as an idea for a master suite was now a complete second story on top of our existing home. We planned to turn the main floor into an open floor plan entertaining space and build a master suite, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor. We would have to move out of the house for over a year to make it happen.
This was, by far, the biggest and most complicated project we’d ever tackled and it became a second job. We’d go straight from making Common Craft videos to meeting with John and then to research on fixtures and finishes and flooring before bed. It was dizzying and often exhausting.
At first, looking at house plans felt like trying to read another language and it gave me stress to make decisions based on a language I was just starting to understand. John was helpful and with his advice, we made a thousand decisions, all rooted in the basic question: what do we want?
Early in the planning, I wasn’t sure what we wanted or how to go about finding an answer. A question like, “How do you want the cabinet doors to open?” would send me on a quest to learn about the latest innovations in cabinet door hardware. I learned quickly.
Frustration soon turned to fascination. Decisions started to build on one-another and inform other parts of the house. A decision on window trim was connected to decisions about interior doors and door hardware. Door hardware connected to faucets in the bathrooms and on and on. We spent untold hours saving photos from Google Images that represented pieces of a puzzle we were solving together.
Each decision came with long-term, real-world consequences. We would literally have to live with the choices we were making, like the dark color of the wood floors, which we soon learned didn’t match the color of dog hair. The list decisions seemed to go forever. Where should the outlet be? Should the door open to the inside or out? What do the stair railings look like? What kind of fireplace do we want? How wide is the front door?
The process became more and more of an obsession for me. It was like I discovered a passion that was dormant up to that point; a new outlet for being creative and thoughtful. I wanted nothing more than to think through house decisions, learn about the options and design the place in which we’d live. I was consumed by it.
And I wasn’t alone. What was new to me had always existed in Sachi. She grew up with her mother being a realtor and through countless open houses, she developed a strong sense for home design. I saw glimpses of it early in our relationship when we’d go to an open house and she’d say things like, “If it was my house, I’d take down that wall between the kitchen and dining room, move the fridge by the sink and put the oven on the wall opposite the window.” At the time, I’d just nod in agreement. My brain was not yet tuned to that frequency.
The Hunter house project gave me all the tuning I needed and in this project, we became even more of a team. We would lie in bed at night imagining, one day, finally experiencing a three-dimensional version of all the decisions we made. The anticipation of that experience and trying to make it work was a source of anxiety, stress and real happiness. Happiness, for us, lives in precisely that kind of anticipation.
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.