The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I sometimes think of house plans like a plan for a dinner party meal. In the beginning, it’s impossible to know how it will taste, or what it will cost to create. The best you can do is imagine what you want and slowly plan it out, dish by dish, ingredient by ingredient, until it starts to take shape. Only then, after the planning is mostly done, can you start to understand the likely cost, and how it all works together, or not.
Houses, while much more complex, aren’t that different. Before any ingredients or even dishes are considered, there has to be a realistic vision of what’s possible. Are we serving tacos or filet mignon? We asked ourselves: in what sort of house could we imagine spending the rest of our lives?
The first question was: could it be the Yurt? There was nothing to stop us from living in the Yurt for many years. It kept us relatively warm and dry, but it also had issues. Even if we invested in updating it, we’d still be left with a small, inefficient and impractical home. It’s not the kind of place that can be renovated into something significantly better. The ingredients just weren’t there and the idea of living the rest of our lives inside of a circle did not seem all that attractive.
So we tried to imagine a completely new house sitting in the same location as the Yurt. A few things stood out. First, anything we built had to take advantage of the view. We imagined a house with glass doors facing west and a deck for entertaining.
Second, we saw room to spread out. The property is about 190 feet across and that meant we could consider single story construction. We figures that, as we age, a single story might come in handy.
Third, we didn’t need a large home. We imagined having three bedrooms and space that could feed and entertain six people comfortably. Most of the entertaining would happen in a “great room” that has a kitchen, living room and dining room in a single space.
Below is an early draft of the floor plan with the green circle indicating the Yurt’s footprint.
I liked the idea of a house that looked nestled into the side of the hill and blended into the natural setting with a dark exterior. We imagined the roof hanging over the deck to keep out the rain and provide shade in the summer. In the pacific northwest, anything you can do to extend the summer is a good investment.
Once we had a vision in place, we sat down with John Stoeck, the architect, and started sketching and brainstorming. In working with him on the Hunter House and now this project, we’ve become even more trusting in his judgment.
The earliest versions of the plan were messy sketches that fleshed out possible shapes and orientations.
Over time, sketches became drawings and quickly, house plans. John began to arrive at our house with huge rolls of paper tucked under his arm. We would sit at our bar and walk through the latest versions and talk about anything that stood out, from window placement, to bathroom layout, to where the grill will be. I looked forward to every meeting.
Usually, we’d find things we wanted to change or improve and John would leave with notes. The next meeting, he would arrive with thoughtful solutions to those problems and we’d move to the next room or problem to solve.
For example, we spent time on the glass doors facing the view. Originally, we wanted the doors to slide left-to-right, across the entire great room and disappear into a pocket on the north side. It would have been so cool. But it would require custom doors and many extra man hours. It was expensive, and also started to seem impractical.
We had to consider the reality of living where we do and understand that the doors would be closed for most of the year. I began saying “We don’t live in Malibu.” as a way to remember that the house needs to be practical in a cooler, wetter climate. So instead, we planned on four glass panels with the two middle ones opening to the north and south in sliding glass door style.
This was just one ingredient of many and it was possible to understand the price in isolation. We could get a quote for the glass doors. But the doors were part of a structure supported by wood, steel and concrete. They’re part of a room with a floor and ceiling, a kitchen and fireplace, all with their own lists of ingredients.
With such volume, it felt impossible to understand the cost of the dish we were designing, much less the meal. The best we could do was try to be smart and efficient while hoping it would all come together with a price tag we could afford.
By the time most of the project had been designed, it became clear that making it a reality would require selling the Hunter House and moving out of Seattle. And it wasn’t a decision we took lightly. In fact, we both agreed that the project had become a life goal, something that set the stage for everything going forward. We were prepared to put everything into making it happen.
The first real milestone was to get a building permit. Within about six weeks, the permit was granted and we were ready for Drew to take the plans and work with his subcontractors to come up with price tags. He needed a few weeks to get the estimates together and we set a date for the big reveal. The Number was coming.
In those weeks, we debated every day what it might take to build this house. In the best case scenario, the cost would be less than we budgeted and we’d have money for furnishings or landscaping. In the worst case, the entire project could come to a screeching halt. That’s the nature of this kind of project. You never really know the cost of what you’re designing until most of the design work is done. Our fingers were firmly crossed.