You often hear that building a house requires thousands of decisions and it’s true. Large and small, the house comes to life in the form of answers to questions. Once it’s complete, the sum of all the answers hopefully harmonize and create a whole that feels balanced and connected.
When looking at the completed house, it’s easy to lose sight of all the decisions that achieved the look and feel of the place. Before we move on, I’d like to share some of the biggest stylistic decisions we made, along with the craft that went into making it real.
Flattop was destined to be a house made mostly of wood, a lot of which is the same that grows on our property. The framing is Douglas fir. The ceilings and soffits are western red cedar. I can see both these trees from our deck. Our floor is white oak and our deck is ash and the siding is Japanese cypress.
As you can imagine, this creates a melange of wood colors that have the potential to look chaotic. As the house was being built, we had to make a decision about the built-in benches, stereo cabinet, and floating shelves. My first thought was, “Oh no, more wood!” Would we throw another wood into the mix?
I asked our foreman, Casey, for his opinion and he mentioned Baltic birch plywood and the look of Kerf Design, a cabinetry company in Seattle. From the moment we saw the look of Baltic birch plywood, we were hooked. It’s strong, affordable, and easy to work with. Rather than add another solid wood tone, we’d use plywood and the look of the plies themselves as our standard for the built-ins. The light color and simple design felt Scandinavian and I’m so excited about how they turned out. Paul Lindersmith, who works with Drew, did an amazing job achieving the look we wanted.
Regular readers know how much thought we put into the fireplaces. They are the beating heart of the house and offered an opportunity to create something beautiful, useful, and practically bulletproof. John Stoeck, our architect, created a design that exceeded what we thought was possible. It brought together the blackened steel, charred yakisugi, and stainless steel in a way that made it feel natural. To me, that’s the pinnacle of this kind of design. Once it’s complete, it feels like no other options could have worked.
It’s one thing to design steel into a fireplace and yet another to make it work. It requires an artisan blacksmith with experience to turn the designs into perfectly fitting panels and connections. We were fortunate to work with Jorgen Harle (Instagram), who lived on Orcas for 25 years before moving to California. Drew asked him to come up and help with our fireplace and we could not have had a better partner. His eye for design along with deep experience with steel and fireplaces created an indoor/outdoor unit that’s safe, functional, and beautiful.
Consistency is one of the best ways to create a sense of harmony in a new home. For example, we picked a color of white called “Simply White” (Thanks Sarah!) and used it everywhere. Cabinets, walls, ceilings, doors, trims, etc. The same is true for the countertops. We picked a variety called Saratoga and used it in the kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, etc. The tile is the same everywhere. Then, we used black for window frames and hardware throughout the house.
These decisions on color and material created a look of contrast that we wanted: white with black accents, along with mottled grays. My cousin, Goff, who is an interior designer, once said that looking out of a window with black frames achieves a beautifying effect that’s like mascara around a person’s eye.
One of the problems I have with modern home design is that it can feel stark and lifeless. Early in the process, we decided that our home would feel warm, open, lived-in. For example, Sachi has strong feelings about doors and especially closet doors. To her, they create something to be managed and moved when no door at all would suffice. Consider our pantry, which we use multiple times a day. We decided not to have a door. Instead, the pantry is open for all to see. Along with being convenient, I think it adds character to the kitchen. We live here. The same is true for our floating shelves, record collection, bookcase, laundry room, etc. It’s all out there.
As with most building projects, Flattop was a team effort and I couldn’t imagine working with better people. Drew’s team, including Casey, has high standards and attention to detail that went beyond our expectations. When confronted with one of those thousands of decisions, Casey and Drew always had a reliable opinion and we grew to trust their instincts.
I appreciate you following along with this project for so long. It means the world to me.
About a year ago, I wrote “Trees, Wood, and Fire” and mentioned how our perspective on the fireplace had changed after living on Orcas for a while:
We had a natural 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 on Orcas, 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.
This decision turned out to be the first of a hundred decisions about the fireplace “unit” for the house. The story of getting it right provides a real-world look at home design and what it takes to create a one-of-a-kind feature.
The Big Idea
Early in the design process, we saw an opportunity to have a two-sided wall (interior and exterior) that serves as a home for cooking, heating, and entertainment. Inside, we would have a fireplace and TV. The outside would have a second fireplace and grill.
Here’s how it was framed:
Below is one of my first 3d models of the unit from July of 2019.
It’s a relatively simple idea that is also an important one. The fireplace unit will be a central part of the house and the heart of our activity. Getting it right was more of a challenge than I would have imagined.
At the beginning, we had to think about the big questions like how it looks, what it’s made of, and how we plan to use it.
Initially, we focused on the interior unit, with fireplace, TV and storage. It would be the most visible element of the house and set the tone for everything else.
I looked forward to the design process and, as usual, assumed it would go quickly and easily. What happened in reality was a long process of iteration; one design after the other. Between us and John, there was always a new idea.
Let’s look at a few versions of the interior and how they evolved. As you’ll see, it’s mostly a process of subtraction, which I think is a good sign.
The first concept was a unit that was placed in front of the wall, protruding into the room. It was mostly covered in steel, with a recessed section for the the TV, etc.
It seemed like a good idea. The TV would be beside the fireplace and not above it. But, it was boring and we saw opportunities to to add a bit of style.
Then we had a revelation. What if the unit wasn’t a big wall of steel with recessed shelves? What if, instead, the drywall behind the unit was more visible and the elements were simply placed in front of the wall? This seemed like we were on the right track, as it made the space feel more open.
We tried a number of different configurations with shelves and cabinets. The one below was one of my worst attempts, but it got us further down the road.
We soon realized that we needed to get specific about what components would live in the unit. This way, we could use start designing with the right dimensions. I sent this to John:
For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. Instead of a big monolithic piece of steel, it was becoming a more open and purpose built unit.
This model became our more stable version and one that hasn’t changed significantly:
The same is true for the exterior. After a few tweaks, it was stable and we were feeling good.
The Pressure Is On
We told Drew that the design was close to final and that we were ready to get the work started. He called a friend from out of town who planned to come do the metal work. This meant that we had to have everything buttoned-up so we didn’t waste this person’s time.
The day before the metal worker arrived, we had a call from John, who was having second thoughts about the steel. Before pulling the trigger he and I agreed to at least entertain the thought of using brick as the main surface of the unit. Initially, Sachi was happy to consider the options and I created a model as a test:
That evening, Sachi and I had a design discussion. She was not fully invested in the brick and wanted to stick to the steel surface. I could see her point. Within a few hours, the brick discussion had ended and the arrival of the metal worker was imminent.
We told Drew that we would have final designs ready on Friday morning, less than 48 hours away. Our goal was to meet on site and work through the entire design.
John took on the challenge and, over Wednesday night, designed what became our final specification. We reviewed it, made a few tweaks on Thursday and spent Friday going over the details with the crew on-site. Things looked to be buttoned up and we left feeling good.
Of course, we were not done.
The following Monday (yesterday) ended up being full of more questions about the unit. The vision was clear and agreed upon, but some details needed attention before work could begin.
At the last minute, we ended up adding an access door under the grill and using stainless steel on the front of the grill cabinet.
Right now, we’re feeling relieved and above all, confident that we ended up with a design that we love. Decisions on details will keep coming for a while, and that’s all part of the process of getting it right. We iterate our way to what we want.
I’m excited for the day, probably in just a few weeks, that I can show you the final product.
I Can Recommend…
Show: We’ve been binging Ratched on Netflix. It’s loosely adapted from the Nurse Ratched character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Dark, stylish, and full of monstrous characters, it’s a recent favorite.
Movie: I first learned about the Safdie brothers from their direction of the movie Uncut Gems (which I recommend). Their specialty is gritty, pressure-cooker dramas that keep your attention. The strangely named Good Time is another Safdie Brothers film that is a wild trip, full of action.
Two years ago this week, we were working with John on plans for the house and had just completed a survey of the property. It boggles my mind that it’s been so long, but that was part of our plan. From the very beginning, we saw time as an asset and a luxury.
In those early days, we had an abundance of time, in part, because the house was still a dream. There were no contractors or deadlines. We could design and tinker and propose as we looked for ways to make the finances work. In the first year, the house existed purely on paper and we both loved pouring over the plans and debating every decision.
When we renovated the Hunter House in 2010, we were fairly new to construction and didn’t anticipate the number of decisions that had to be made in a short amount of time. Once the construction got underway, the clock was ticking and it seemed we were making daily decisions on the fly. The builder needed to know what kind of front door we wanted, what brand of fan to use in the bathroom and dozens of other things. At one point, thanks to solid feedback, we decided to redesign the kitchen and all the necessary decisions happened in a matter of weeks.
In the end, we were extremely happy with how the Hunter House turned out, but also a little scarred by the experience of making so many expensive, pivotal decisions on the fly. We knew we could do better and the house on Orcas Island was our shot to think ahead, take our time, and get it right.
House plans have a way of creating their own momentum. A survey turns into a plan. A plan needs a building permit. A building permit means a contractor can get involved. The contractor has a start date and a window of time before the next project. It all flows together and it can seem like it’s a race to the finish, which is marked by moving in. We both feel the momentum and have consciously tried to balance progress with the reality that we are not in a hurry. Yes, we are excited and want the house to be finished. I can’t wait to move in. But at the same time, this period of the project is magical and something that is a source of happiness.
I’ve written before that, for us, happiness lives in anticipation. It reminds me of being a kid at Christmas. The long anticipation of Christmas morning far outweighed the experience of opening presents. The same is true for vacations or even a meal at your favorite restaurant. The anticipation can be a greater producer of happiness than the experience itself.
In anticipating the house’s completion, we’ve tried to be mindful that this phase is a time of happiness that should be savored. Rather than pushing everyone involved to beat deadlines and feeling the stress of delays, we’ve decided that we’re better off being deliberate and getting the job done right. We have faith that Drew’s team and his subcontractors will do what is needed when it’s time and unreasonable pressure from us isn’t going to help. Quality takes time. Besides, our life at the guest house is comfortable and affordable. We’re better off using that energy to plan the layout of the kitchen cabinets.
Building a house is a complex and time-consuming affair, in part, because so much of the work has to be done in sequence. For example, the great room side of the house is supported by three big steel beams that connect to one another. For the framers to start building the floor and walls on that side of the house, the steel has to be in place.
It’s easy to imagine that all three pieces arrive and are bolted together like an erector set. And that could have happened. Drew could have just ordered the steel based on the measurements in the plans. But that’s not what produces the best results. The quality comes from getting the first pieces in place and then taking exact measurements for the next pieces. This takes time, but reduces the risk of having to refabricate and redeliver a piece of steel that doesn’t fit.
Even something as simple-seeming as a concrete retaining wall requires multiple days and a crew that rides a ferry to and from the island each day. Sometimes the ferries break down or someone gets sick. The team has other commitments. Days might go by. But in the end, it gets done and usually exceeds our expectations.
When we talk to people about the house, they inevitably ask when we’re likely to move in. Right now, we believe it will be early fall 2020. But that’s not a deadline. The house is going to take as long as it takes and that’s OK with us. We’ll spend the rest of our lives there. Besides, we have time to savor the anticipation.
Early in the design process, John, our architect, said something that caught my attention. He said our design would require a lot of steel. Not knowing much about engineering a house, I took it as a given for a house like ours. I assumed it was normal and expected.
Since that time, I’ve had numerous conversations with people about the house and when I bring up the steel beams, they are perplexed and ask: why do you need all that steel? In watching other houses come together locally, on the internet and on TV, the houses with steel beams seemed bigger and more complicated than ours.
This led me to wonder: why does our project require so much steel? Do we have a choice?
From the very beginning, before plans were drawn, we envisioned a roof that stretched out over the deck. This roof would be cantilevered and not have posts that obstruct the view. At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. Why have posts if you don’t have to?
What we didn’t realize was the engineering required to make that roof a reality. The regulations for our location meant the house had to withstand winds of up to 144 mph. Without a beefy roof, a strong wind could rip the roof right off the house. Further, because it hangs so far off the house, it had to be strong and support a lot of wood.
So, we had a choice. We could have designed a different house on a different part of the property. We could have had a roof that didn’t cover the deck. But that felt like compromising on the dream of what the house could be. To make that dream a reality, steel was required.
We’ve now reached the point in the project where the steel beams are being placed in the roof structure, and John was right. It’s a lot of big steel.
Over the last week, the biggest and beefiest steel beam was delivered to the property and it took me by surprise. It was a behemoth: 34 feet long and a foot tall. It’s commonly referred to as an “I” beam and this one is 120 pounds per lineal foot. That’s over 2 tons of steel in a beam supported by two 4X4 steel posts.
A new, long-awaited phase of the project was beginning and I came to appreciate the complexity that goes along with getting the beam in place. Because it sets the standard for the entire roof, it has to be right. Once it’s in place, the rest of the roof is constructed around it.
When it comes to steel, the maxim “measure twice, cut once” becomes “measure 12 times, fabricate once” because corrections are so much more difficult and costly. The builder, framer, architect, and engineer worked to get every measurement right the first time. The stakes were high.
This process started when the concrete foundation was poured and screws were placed in the concrete that will hold steel posts that support the beams. The first time I saw these, I wondered how the concrete people knew where to put the screws. Their placement seemed important and I saw no evidence of measurements being taken.
This was one of the first lessons I learned about the process. The screw locations don’t matter a lot because the steel is designed around the screws and not the other way around. To get it right, the builders use wooden templates that document the position of the screws. These templates are then given to the steel fabricator so they can create a post with holes in the right places. It makes so much sense!
Until the beam is actually set into place, nearly everything is theoretical. The holes in the beam are supposed to line up with holes in the posts. The posts are supposed to fit onto the screws on the foundation. And everything has to account for the slope of the roof. While the builders have ways to fix problems on-site, the goal is perfection when the parts arrive.
With everything ready, the process could begin and Drew arrived with his 48,000lb crane truck. Seeing the beam moving around the site was a sight to behold and everyone was a little on edge. Its size and mass made it dangerous.
Within a few minutes, the beam was in place and I marveled at the precision. Drew could move a two-ton beam an inch at a time and place it perfectly over the posts.
Soon it was obvious: the theoretical had made a successful jump to reality. The holes lined up perfectly and the beam was positioned just as it was designed. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Over two tons of steel now rested on posts attached to the house’s foundation and created an essential part of the structure.
It was finally possible to see, for the first time, how far the roof would extend on the water side of the house.
I was fascinated by all the steps it took to make it happen. The plans, the engineering, the templates, the fabrication, the expertise. It all worked and now, our roof is not going anywhere.
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.