In the parlance of contractors, home construction is completed in phases. The first, is “getting out of the ground”, which means laying the foundation. They say things like, “Once you get out the ground, it gets easier.” and “The project is more predictable once you get out of the ground.”
I suppose it makes sense. The ground is the big variable in construction; an uneven and unpredictable interface connecting the building to the property. And in this phase, stakes are high. The entire house depends on the placement of the foundation. It has to be right when the concrete is poured.
Like so many parts of the project, you have to trust the professionals to get it right and on this project, that was Kelly, the owner of the concrete company. The first time I saw him was on our construction site and it was immediately apparent that he had a unique sense of style.
It was summer and he was wearing a tank top and shorts with gold chains around his neck and wrist. On his feet were brand new, spotless sneakers. While this isn’t typical northwest attire, it’s really not construction site attire. But that’s Kelly.
I chatted with him over a couple of days and grew to like him. He encouraged me to ask questions and be a part of the process. He said multiple times that he really liked the design of our house, in part, because it was simple. I suppose that’s relative. We set out to have a simple house, but the concrete work to make it happen seemed anything but. I took his word for it. Kelly has seen it all.
Having never been through the concrete phase of a house project, I didn’t know what to expect. My frame of reference was the Yurt, which was not a fine specimen when it came to quality construction. The deck was stable, but not very strong. It bounced and swayed just enough to notice when filled with visitors. I worried about its integrity.
On a few occasions, I inspected the underside framing, just to be sure that braces remained connected. I saw no crumbling concrete or rotting wood. I deemed it as safe as a layperson could, especially knowing that its days were numbered.
Like nearly everything about the building, the Yurt’s connection to the rock was, shall we say, serviceable. The posts that supported the deck were small and connected to concrete footings attached to the rocky surface of the property. To me, it looked like the deck was supported by little concrete feet.
While relatively young by northwest home standards, the Yurt was a relic of a bygone era when houses weren’t expected to stand up to earthquakes and strong winds. I doubt it was built with input from structural engineers or to adhere to strict regulations. Needless to say, things have changed and it all became very clear as our house got out of the ground. For us, nice little feet were out of the question.
The complicating factor was where we chose to place the house on the property. It sits on a small knob at the edge of a downhill slope made of rock. On paper, this is obviously the best location for maximizing the view. It’s as close as you can get to the water without building the entire house on a slope.
Being on a knob, half the house will sit on the rock and half will be supported by posts and steel frames. What I didn’t understand in the planning phase was the incredible engineering and structure that would be required to make it work at that location. According to the regulations, the house must withstand 144mph winds and earthquakes that could cause it to tumble down the hill.
The people in charge of preventing these problems were structural engineers. They are like the doctors of the process and are responsible for ensuring the house is safe and strong. And like doctor’s orders, what they specify about the construction must be followed. They designed the all-important connections between the house and the ground.
Their designs all became very real when Kelly’s team started building the boxes, or “forms” that give the concrete shape and strength. These forms were wooden boxes, filled with rebar and eventually concrete, that creates the foundation for the house and the posts that support it.
Seeing the size of these boxes blew my mind. They were huge! I couldn’t help but think of the little feet on the Yurt which seemed like tic-tacs compared to these emerging behemoths.
At first, I was incredulous. It almost seemed like there had been a mixup. The forms, from my perspective, seemed like they were meant for a much bigger house. “These are for our deck?” I thought. Surely not.
Later that day, I looked at the plans for the property and tried to imagine a different scenario. If we had decided to pull the house back away from the slope by twenty feet, most of the house would be on more level ground. We could have avoided a lot of excavation and rock work. The engineering could have been simpler and more affordable.
But we didn’t do that. We weren’t thinking about engineering or excavation when we planned the house’s location. Along with John, our architect, we were trying to execute a dream. To us, this specific location is special and deserving of a house that’s designed to take advantage of it. Anything else would be a compromise we’d likely regret.
Of course, it’s easy to justify past decisions when your property is covered in rebar and forms. We were literally locked-in.
There is, now, no room for revision or second-guessing and from that fact, I take comfort. I take comfort in having those decisions behind us. And I also take comfort in knowing that this house, our forever house, is being built to last in spot we chose.
Years from now, once the last nails have been driven and the concrete boxes are hidden underground, we’ll have confidence that we feel every day. When we walk onto the deck, there will be no swaying or bouncing. There will be few worries about wind or earthquakes. We’ll know the house will outlast us because we saw the rebar and concrete it took to make it work.
More On YouTube
The video below is a fly over of the project. More here.
I’ve planted trees like Japanese maples and fast-growing conifers at every house I’ve owned. I think of them as semi-permanent fixtures that slowly improve the property and provide shade, privacy, and beauty.
Soon after getting our property on Orcas, I was motivated to start planting and picked up a couple of Leyland Cypress from a nursery in our area. With the trees in tow, I made my way to the south property line with a shovel, thinking I would dig a couple of nice big holes for the trees. In a familiar move, I put the tip of the shovel into the dirt and then pounced on it with enough force to dig through the soil. This action, surprisingly, didn’t work. Instead, the shovel went in a few inches and hit an impenetrable force that made the shovel vibrate in my hand. I tried again and the THUD sound it made was deep and resonant.
I had to regroup. The locations I had plotted for the trees were all solid rock. Thud. Thud. Thud. So, I started probing and eventually found a couple of spots with softness, or at least enough to get a tree in the ground. The cypress ended up being planted on rock, but with enough soil around them to stand straight.
With the planting complete, I got curious and walked around the property with a long piece of rebar tapping through the thin soil. Almost every bit of space around the Yurt was covered in a thin layer of soil and then, cold, hard, rock.
Our property is not alone in this experience. Orcas is sometimes referred to as “rock island” and that name has become part of the local culture. Our internet service provider is called Rock Island Communications. It’s just a fact of life on the island that manifests in strange and interesting ways.
In between our building site and the water is a tall Douglas fir tree that has clearly broken in half. Halfway up the trunk, it just stops in a jagged point. I’ve seen this in multiple places around the island and eventually asked the arborist what was happening. He said that the roots of some trees get anchored into the rock over time. When the wind blows and something needs to give, the trees break in half rather than fall over. I couldn’t help but think of my little cypresses slowing anchoring themselves into rock that will be their foundation for many years.
I found this fascinating and started to learn about the geological history of the San Juan Islands and what made Orcas into rock island. The short answer is glaciers. In the last ice age (between 10,000 and 18,000 years ago), a huge glacier came down from Canada and covered our area in slow moving ice that was nearly a mile thick. The weight and pressure of the glacier pushed everything but the most stubborn land southward. Orcas was a piece of rock that resisted the flow of the glacier.
Today you can see evidence of the glaciers in large boulders that seem to be randomly dropped around the island. These rocks are called “glacial erratics”. They traveled in glacial ice for hundreds of miles before being deposited in locations where they remain today. I think of them as travelers from an ancient era that moved through the northwest when woolly mammoths and mastodons likely roamed Washington.
In other parts of the Salish Sea, where the glaciers left piles of sand and ground-up rock, homes by the shore are in danger as the sea slowly erodes their property. When we first visited the Yurt and looked at the steep hill from the house down to the water, erosion was on our minds. We soon discovered that it was not a problem for our property. It’s made of rock that withstood the force of glaciers. It isn’t going anywhere.
Owning property made of rock is one thing. Building a new house on a rock is another. As Drew and John, our architect, reminded us, once the house is built, it will be locked into bedrock.
Once the demolition was complete and the trees were removed, we could move to excavation, which meant, for the most part, using 30,000lb machines to break big rocks into smaller rocks. This phase was where the project became very real. Once expensive holes were dug, the house’s location would be locked-in.
To make sure everything was right, we had multiple surveys done that pinpointed the corners of the house using GPS and computerized survey equipment. For the first time, we could see the footprint of the house and get a feel for its orientation. The house is mostly right angles and any east/west line should point directly at the view. After an initial survey, we moved the house a few feet and changed its orientation a couple of degrees.
A problem for the surveyors was trying to use stakes on a rocky surface. In some places, they had to pile rocks around a stake to make it stand upright.
With all the locations double and triple checked, the real work could begin. Excavators got to work digging out the crawl space for the house and creating holes in the rock for post foundations.
This work is mostly done with a rock hammer that attaches to the tip of the excavator arm. It breaks the rock before the excavator comes back with the bucket to dig it out and remove it.
Breaking rocks is both time consuming and incredibly loud. For hours a day over a few weeks, the excavators hammered away.
My little cypress at the edge of the property looked so quaint in the midst of the incredible noise echoing through the neighborhood. We checked in with the neighbors from time-to-time. Maybe one more week, we’d say, with a hopeful smile. They’ve built houses on rock island. They know how it goes.
After a month or so, the excavation was complete and the property was transformed into level sections for the crawl space and garage. Holes that will support steel posts were carved into the rock on the western slope.
I don’t think either of us want to go through that kind of excavation again. We could hear the constant rock hammering from the guest house and could only imagine what it was like to live next to it.
But for all the noise and work, we get a building site that’s practically bulletproof. Our house will be anchored into rock so hard that a glacier couldn’t move it. And for a house that we consider our forever house, that sounds about right.
The first time I visited Washington State, I became a little disillusioned. My friend, Chris, and I drove north from Portland through the Olympic Peninsula, which is a drive full of natural wonders, especially for a young guy from North Carolina. What I remember most was the trees. Huge stands of evergreens crept right up to the coast, where they met a turbulent ocean full of giant rocks called sea stacks.
I’d never seen trees that tall, much less on the coast. Looking back, it was a scene that felt like a movie.
The disillusionment came as we drove inland, away from the coast and into logging country. There are few landscapes that look more bleak than a recently cut forest and I came face to face with miles of of it. My first reaction was sadness and disappointment. I wanted the western side of Washington to be the lush and green place from my imagination.
A few years later, I moved to Seattle and started to understand more about the logging and timber industry. Specifically, I came to see managed forests as large and long-lived crops that are a renewable resource and a significant part of the local economy. What I saw on that trip was part of the harvesting and replanting process.
Over time, I developed a fascination with the trees of the pacific northwest and especially Douglas Firs which are found all over western Washington.
Once you become familiar with their shape, they appear everywhere, including countless tattoos, the license plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia. Sachi has picked on me for years about always wanting trees on my shirts, hats and walls. It’s kind of a thing for me.
In moving to Orcas Island, we found ourselves in a place covered in firs that are both beautiful and an essential element of self-sufficiency. Over our first winter, we noticed that nearly every house we visited featured a wood burning stove or fireplace, along with a carefully built stack of wood.
Before long we had our own stack of wood and fired up our Blaze King wood stove on winter nights. I was the fire master and loved the process of building and tending the fire. I loved the warmth, which felt different from the hot air that flowed through the vents from a heat pump. It was like my skin evolved to respond to that kind of warmth and there was nothing else like it.
When spring rolled around, I missed having the fire and realized something about our plans for the new house. We had a gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.
Having burned wood for the winter, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience. Dealing with wood and building fires, in my view, seemed like a great use of time. Besides, the other option was to use expensive propane from a tank on the property. I preferred the wood.
Seeing smoke rising from chimneys made me wonder if burning wood is friendly to the environment. I worried that we’d build a fireplace and then, ten years later, regret it when wood seemed irresponsible. A bit of research soothed my worry.
In terms of efficiency, it’s true that fireplaces are not the best heat sources. They produce warmth, but are mostly for aesthetics. A room with a roaring fire feels and smells like home and that’s what we wanted. Our house will be heated on a day-to-day basis through more efficient means.
The reality of burning wood in terms of carbon dioxide is fascinating. As a tree grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon from the soil. When the tree dies naturally and decays in the forest, the carbon it absorbed is released. In burning wood, that same carbon is also released, so it’s similar to what would naturally happen in the forest. Burning wood doesn’t create new CO2 and is considered by many to be carbon neutral [source]. Burning wood can cause air quality issues, but the population in our area is low enough for it not to be a problem.
Long story short, I won’t feel irresponsible for burning wood in our fireplace. And that’s fortuitous, because it’s becoming clear that wood is something we’re likely to have for years to come.
The area surrounding the Yurt is home to a couple of large Douglas Firs and I fell in love the first time I saw them. It made me happy to think about these big trees being my trees. I imagined lighting them at night and making them part of the experience of the new house.
As the layout and position of the house became clearer, the trees started to become an issue. I was adamant, for a while, that the trees had to stay. But the reality was they needed to be taken down. They were too close to the house and represented a hazard. A single branch could do serious damage, which we saw firsthand after one windy winter night at the Yurt.
We asked an arborist to take a look and he said the trees were a risk and that building so close to them could slowly kill them and make removal even more expensive and difficult. He and others also said the trees were “gnarly” and not good candidates for lumber.
Over time, I came to terms with the idea that the trees, my favorite Douglas Firs, had to go. Thankfully, they were a small part of a forest on the property.
After the Yurt was removed, there was room for the trees to fall and I was excited to learn how it all worked. Basically, the excavator holds the tree while another person cuts through it. When it’s ready, the excavator simply pushes it over.
Of course, I had to get footage from the drone.
Then, a person walked down each trunk, cut off all the branches and cut each tree into sections that were moved into a pile by the excavator, which is where they are today.
Before the wood can be used, it needs to cure for a year or so. Then, we can save some for projects and turn much of it into firewood.
I like the idea of the trees from our property keeping us and fellow islanders warm for winters to come. I dream of cold rainy nights with the fire roaring. I look forward to stepping outside and hearing the sound of wind breezing through the evergreens by the house and feeling like I finally live amongst them. My trees.
Tree Removal Highlight Reel
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.