The Impossible Skyscraper

October 16, 2020

By: Lee LeFever

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.

In the corner of the guesthouse stands a plastic fold-out table that is the closest we’ve had to a dining room table in two years. At the Yurt, it hosted crab feasts, laptop work, building plans, and puzzles. Most recently, it was the only table in the guesthouse and like many tables, it collected inconvenient things. When something like a camping mug, that needed to be stored with the camping supplies, but needed an interim home, the table was it. And it performed admirably.

Today, just a couple of months from when we expect (hope?) to move in, I can barely see the table thanks to dull cardboard boxes, stacked like impossible skyscrapers. Under the table are boxes of Big Enough, samples of stained fir, and a box of dog toys at dog level. But what constitutes the cityscape is shipped boxes of fixtures and accouterments that will someday make the jump to our walls, doors, floors, and more. 

Over the past six months, we have collected a large amount of temporarily inconvenient things. This is, in part, because we are the designers. We enjoy the responsibility of discovering and selecting the exact products we want, without someone in the middle. We order it all ourselves and become the warehouse until the move. 

The box closest to me, according to the marker message scrawled on its side, is “Front Door Deadbolt and Handle”. Inside is a Baldwin Minneapolis Handle Set and with keypad entry, in satin black. 

When the door handle arrived I took it out of the packaging and held it in my hand. It felt strong and well-built. The latch mechanism was smooth and sounded like a precision instrument. It was heavy, too. When mounted on a door, you won’t feel the weight directly, but there’s still part of you that knows, just by how it feels, that it has weight and strength. 

Over a year ago, I shared our building plans with our architect friend, Alonso, and we talked about some of the themes he had learned in architecture school. Alonso made a point that I’ll never forget. He said to think about the features of the house that people will touch and how it will feel to them; the surface of countertops, the floor under bare feet, door handles, and sink hardware. The sense of touch is easy to overlook and one of the only ways to relate a sense of quality. 

When I held the door handle for the first time, I imagined how it would feel on the door when someone visits for the first time. To me, it felt solid and well-built, the way a front door handle should. It is a security feature, after all. 

The skyline of boxes have come to represent, in my mind, a vision of how the house will look and how we’ll use it. At best, they are a collection of educated guesses. At worst, something marked off a never-ending to-do list. 

On top of the door handle box is a box marked “Floor Outlets” and it, too, is the product of guessing. One of the biggest guesses of all is where to install outlets, or what electricians call “receptacles”, throughout the house. Building codes require them every eight feet, so most of the decision making is easy and we err on the side of having too many. But there is a difference between what is required and what we want and in this, we worked hard to anticipate how we would use the house.

A large portion of our daily lives will be spent in the “great room”, which is essentially a box that holds the kitchen and living/dining areas. We will have a fireplace and TV on one wall, which means our seating areas will be close to the middle of the room. In thinking about using this space, something became very clear. We would need to power devices in the center of the room. Instead of stretching cords from some far off outlet, we decided to put two of them in boxes recessed into the floor. We chose these

The idea of outlets in the floor is easy. What’s a real challenge is deciding where to put them. The goal is for them to be hidden under furniture or a rug so that electrical things like computers and lamps can magically be powered where we need them.

The problem is that, through all our planning, we’re still not sure where the furniture will be. We have ideas, but the reality is that the furniture arrangement will evolve. The great room is a blank canvas, capable of morphing into whatever we want over time. How, in this context, do you decide where to put the floor outlets? You guess and hope for the best. We tried to imagine where each of us would sit in the living room and put the outlets there.

The first step of having in-floor outlets is a wire, or “whip”, coming out of the floor

Beside the floor outlets is a box labeled “deck step lighting”. These are lights that will be recessed into the vertical or “riser” steps of our deck, making the floor easy to see. In talking to the electrician, he said to consider how the lights would look from the water and pick lights that reflect down and not out, or up. This put me on a path of learning about light pollution and the “Dark-sky” movement.

One thing I love about living on the island is the incredible darkness at night. After years in the city, it’s remarkable how clear the stars appear at night. The electrician’s recommendation is smart all the way around. By being deliberate about our exterior lighting, we can reduce light pollution and achieve a soft, elegant look that comes from indirect or reflected light. 

The table has many more boxes, and each one represents hours of research and a healthy dose of guesswork. Maybe someday, we’ll get the table back and resume the feasting and puzzling. Seeing the surface of it again will be a sure sign we’re in transition.

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