The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
[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.