move in

I had said for many months that we would be in for the holidays. By golly we made it, with help from a shoe horn and some olive oil. Activity and its buddy exhaustion reached a peak. Noel the clay plasterer scrubbed walls one last time, Maxine scrubbed shower tile for the first time, we vacuumed until late each night and fought for a temporary certificate of occupancy.
The plastic foams we'd been saving got loaded in Michael's van. We were able to recycle the expanded polystyrene (think coffee cup stuff,) that is too often used for packaging. Various hard plastics for strapping etc. also got recycled.
I was surprised that we couldn't recycle the #7 polyisocyanurate (above) that Hubbardton Forge uses for its packaging, unless we wanted to transport it to Hayword, California. REALLY disappointed, and am writing them a letter. I understand their need to protect the glass shades. How about this wild serrated corrogated cardboard that came with the stove from Scandanavia? Michael came to a great solution, though: he'll going to break it up into small pieces and throw it into his attic for additional r-value.
Friday was moving day. We lifted and carried and loaded and drove. Three trips for the 24' U-Haul, plus our vehicles. My calves are still burning. A bunch of boxes that hadn't been opened in 18 months.
It's very hard to describe the feeling I have occupying this home. As things get put away and we can find our wallets, our socks and our senses, drawer pulls get installed, the lighting gets programmed... I accept it all with wonder. Perhaps with the most excitement, we get a tree and light the stove.
...and pose for a group picture with the crew. From left is Hobart, Michael, Jake River, Maxine, me, David and Val. Quite an effort, quite a team.
Dexter and Annie Brown express their own levels of comfort.

There's still much to do, and we'll push on both with our hammers and this journal. Next up is a breakdown of the home systems and methods, furniture design, the completion of the studio, and my own once-again changing role.

For this weekend, we'll rest (and ski!) Maxine's mom Irene is here helping, Dean and brother Paul are on their way. Sierra and Sheila (who ALMOST didn't get through O'Hare last night) are coming, some friends and neighbors are stopping by. There's a gingerbread house to bake. From all of us here at The Vermont Street Project, from New Energy Works Timber Frame Homes and Pioneer Millworks, Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukah, and a Great New Year.


2009, a house odyssey

It's 10pm, and I'm getting in from the site a bit late again. Dragging less than I would have thought. We're into the last few days before move-in, and this is about fun and spark. Val and Michael stayed on until past 7, and we had some burritos and beer, chatted through the world's problems, but mostly just wound down. Then I got some private time to just doodle in the quiet space. This is that magical time when so little, relatively, is left to do and the house is about to be launched from project status on toward becoming a home. Our home.

Do you remember the Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams? A stuffed rabbit has to be loved to become real. (Really, you've got to read this.) Gets tattered and worn along the way, but eventually becomes real, because it is truly loved. The Vermont Street Project is stepping into its own velveteen journey now. Time to become a home, old friend. Plan to get worn along the way.

Tonight I dallied a bit in the dusky empty spaces... doing stuff. You know, good and necessary stuff, like some more cleaning, and putting second coats of oil on a couple of floors, and painting the pipes of the Rais wood stove a proper gray, and finishing installing Hal. Hal is the refrigerator. He doesn't move around much without help, but he's quite a bit smarter than me, and there's a lot to him. There's so much to him that Val suggested that we might want to get him his own Facebook page. No I mean it. Last night Val and I and Justin the plumber spent hours with Hal. (I should note that earlier, a good many of us had about broken our backs getting Hal off my old Ford '78 pick up, up the walk and in through the front door. To give you an idea how heavy he is, 3 people spontaneously burst out laughing at the appliance place when they set in into my truck bed and the springs shot from smile to frown in excited immediacy.) Once in place, we had to give him water, electricity, hook up his hard drive with antenna so he could... I dunno what, communicate? It took a few minutes but when we found the hidden "On" button the insides look like a well-lit runway and the LED controls were clearly calling out to us.Then we wiggled this and adjusted that. And then we wiggled this some more and adjusted that QUITE a bit more. This dance went on for a while, but with both satisfaction and growing anticipation we could tell the battle was going our way. He's tight into his niche now, comfortable and secured. I just need to figure out what he's trying to say to me.

Hal is a Miele 36" single door with bottom freezer. model #KF1901SF. This is an amazingly well made appliance; German company, made in Turkey. Almost all of our appliances are Miele, and most made in Germany. BASCO, our supplier in Portland, has been extraordinary to work with, and has a showroom that will make you weep.


is it too much?

I look at the health care debate from a practical angle, as a business owner. In doing so, I can skip past the part where the conversation would lead me to ask, incredulously, "Why would anyone not want others to have this?" I have numerous friends and acquaintances I respect with whom I would differ on this topic, philosophically. We are wired differently.

What I simply don't get is why the entire business community, other than the medical insurance lobby, obviously, isn't DEMANDING a rational argument and a national health plan. One that would offer an option for a public policy that would be a viable and regulated alternative to the system right now.

The medical industry represents 15% of our GNP. The next nearest industrialized country spends about 6%. How can I compete with that? If it is simply logical that my co-workers and staff need to be healthy, and that therefore I need to supply them with the funds to buy health insurance, and this insurance is rising by many multiples of the cost of living, then it would seem the system is broken, and by looking at systems that aren't (the German, the Swedish, even the French, for God's sake,) we could possible learn something.

I've been blessed with some great staff and subcontractors at the Vermont Street Project. I'm dismayed by how many are not covered by health insurance. It's a bad way to run a country. And now it looks like the public option, first weakened to a level of insipidness, is now off the table entirely. Score another for big insurance.



The temperature has just dropped to well under freezing here in the pacific northwest. It's possible that my luck has run out in my effort to get the majority of concrete placed before spring. That said, we've had a great last two weeks of reasonable weather, and we've poured:
  • 100ft of 4' tall retaining wall, which is most of it
  • The front stoop
  • The studio porch floor
  • The grilling and dining patios
  • A small section of parking area
The above were given a slight broom finish, but basically smooth.
We also poured the entire length of center spine squares of exposed aggregate-finished concrete squares, about 150' long statement that unites fron to back, and defines the space between the main home and studio/garage.
Very psyched. I'm also a bit surprised by my reaction to getting these exterior hardscape elements completed. exterior site finishing and landscape architecture are perhaps my weakest area, in terms of hands-on experience and design confidence. Now that we've added this skillset to New Energy Works Timber Frame Homes with the addition of Don Naetzker, who brings a wealth of planning and landscape design experience into our community, it's a new set of opportunities and interest.

I'm not sure I was ready for how this work has suddenly defined our home as both welcoming and livable. We have a sidewalk sort of thing now, not mud and gravel. It brings me to my home. It says we are almost there.


on my knees

With some of our floors, there's nothing like a penetrating oil like Land Ark to bring out the depth of color, grain and ultimate character. two examples are our Settler's Plank, which is a recycled hardwood from the jackets, or outsides, of industrial or agricultural timbers, or weathered boards. the uneven and patina'd nature of this material really calls for a vigorous rubbing in of oil.

We also like to use oils on Douglas-fir, as in this vertical grain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified floor in the tower. The early and late woods in the grain jump right out. Since the wood is quite soft anyway, it would imply that this room is a shoes-off area. It would also imply that we need to be ready to renew the oiled finish perhaps twice a year. With oil, this simply means rubbing in more. No sanding. etc, as long as you're not trying to make the natural dents and surface mars from your 8 year old Jedi warrior go away, and good luck with that!


a bar too high?

For my entire life I have been plagued by the haunting notion that I should be doing a better job. Certainly I'm not alone in this, as without it, we'd lack a great majority of the forward push that so describes the human condition. And CERTAINLY I have NO interest in trying to delve into figuring out why: at least not here, in front of YOU, for gosh sakes! (Many years ago at a particularly low life-spot, at my one and only effort to get professional counseling, the guy with the degree was really bummed when I said, Sure, we can talk about anything, except... well...and by the end of that list of we're-not-going-there's he was looking pretty forlorn. Hey, let it lie, wouldja, there are homes to build!)

We're human, and we're often driven. I'm okay with that. Some of that drive makes us work harder to do better things. Progress, and evolution. The downside for some of us is that there is little peace, not much real deep level rest.

Val and I are already writing a list of things here at The Vermont Street Project we could do better... next time. Thankfully, these seem to be mostly procedural. I'm praying hard that few of these gotchas get translated in finished product. Some things would be easy to fix, like the wrong mirror in the bathroom or the door swing in the library. The other end of the spectrum holds nightmares like bad bathroom usage/design (see comment at end of post*) or the wrong cross-linked polyethelene pipe in the radiant slab (see#3) below.) So far so good, and relief that it is coming together so well is morphing into a sense of awe at our new home.We've been told by a bunch of clients over the years that after living in the finished house for a while they can't really find anything they'd change, or that it "fits us like a glove and how did you do that?" The tough side of me has wanted to discount the compliment, thinking that they're just not trying hard enough or perhaps have rationalized their way into this love-trance. The angel on the other shoulder whispers softly to let it all come in, baby, because that's how it's SUPPOSED to feel after all this work.

While I'll let you know if it fits us like a glove in a year or so, I do know that I screwed up on:

1) Financing. Next time I would be more arduous and act more quickly in setting up a permanent solution. While resolved, the extra time and headaches caused other problems.
2) Decisions. A few more would have been tackled earlier, even if I don't think it humanly possible at the time. Some of these include: outside hardscapes and final grading; exactly what interior wall section will be eventually covered by tile, panelling, built-ins, etc., so we're not scraping off expensive and thoughtfully applied clay plaster; and who would fill some of the subcontractor roles sooner than the day before they are needed.
3) Heating contractor. Just because the heating system is mostly piping (boiler, radiators, etc.) doesn't mean the otherwise very good plumbing company should do this scope.
4) Get the heating system installed and functional much earlier... see #s 1) and 3) above. We're now bringing the interior temperature up to normal, and seeing some movement in the wood floor that will cause some extra work.Oh there will be others, and this is, in retrospect, a rather sissy list. Here's what I wouldn't pretend that I could have done differently: Be set with a vast percentage more of decisions at the outset. Yup, would have been easier to build. Yet it would not have been the dynamic, knowledge based opportunistic and cohesive result. Design is a process, not a product, remember?

And we're only human, remember?

* Postcript on our bathroom. The main house has a powder room, a lower level full bath, for guests, mostly, and one main bath. Our son may have a killer bedroom occupying the full tower level with the best view of all, but Maxine and I are pretty convinced that making it easy for our paths to cross as a family, in the bathroom, is okay. With a nod toward some privacy, we've sectioned off the toilet and shower from the vanity and soaking tub. So Jake will have to traipse downstairs and join his family in his adolescent years, by design. Ask me in a year about this particular glove.


what is going on.here

I didn't envision this journal to be a well-organized day by day accounting. I'm not a well organized guy. But to be fair to you, here's what is going on with just 4... er, i mean 3... weeks to move in. Yikes.

On Monday Sam of Evolution Floors starts sanding the elm, by next Saturday we'll have all the finishes on. Dan of West Side Electric is working hard with help from Gary the lighting designer on the install of the crazy electric program. Justin of MP Plumbing has just about got the boiler system complete, and still has a little hair left after a fair amount of head scratching. He'll move onto the finish plumbing fixtures next week. Greg from Imagine Energy installed the solar hot water panels, storage tank, pumps and controls, and now Jonathan Cohen will come and commision the system. I'm not thinking we'll be totally ducky first try. I AM thinking this is the coolest mechanical system I know.As soon as the floors are done Alex and Jesus return to finish off the tile, including the main shower, the bathroom counter, the woodstove platform, the entry slate from Sheldon Slate and an astounding amount of glass tile from Oceanside on a variety of backsplashes. Their product is very pricey and hard to install, but used thoughtfully, its impact has the reach and economy as the shaft from a laser beam. Our Rais woodstove is in at Ecohaus and will be installed as soon as the grout dries.

David and Michael have been finishing the tower floor install (FSC douglas-fir) and various main floor trim details prior to cleaning out in time for the finishers. They start on the studio exterior next week, as there can be almost no one inside the main house while the floor finishes are applied. Hobart is at his home shop building medicine cabinets, mudroom cubbies, pantry shelving and counters, and the dining room banquette. We've just picked our fabric colors for Corby at Hexafoo to order for the bench upholstery and new seats for some Salvation Army-found chairs that we're stripping and staining. (Our table gets shipped from NEWwoodworks next week. Makes me want to shout!)
Outside we've just poured the footers for 100' of retaining wall and the front stoop, and start forming the walls themselves on Monday. While we won't get the complete driveway in this year, we're aiming for as many of the exteriors stoops, steps, and slabs as possible. The mud is relentless and it's not like we're going to see it dry out until June. The flat torch-down roof on the studio is just about done, and we'll even look to apply the root barrier and get some medium up there for the sedum. The Jeldwen windows are being delivered on Tuesday.On Maxine's and my dance card is the many last details of fit and finish, plus moving hard into furniture sourcing, and in some cases, design and fabrication. Maybe we'll do the rent-a-couch for holidays? We're also the designated cleaners, sweepers, oilers, painters and go-fers. Today Maxine painted more radiators; I built a walkway across the compost/mulch/straw/mud yard, using old pallettes and wood scraps, and spent two hours flattening cardboard boxes and seperating packaging foams into recyclable plastic sorts. It's work I enjoy.The last week or so will be packing up our rental home, punchlisting all we can, including a big showing by Noel and Josh to touch up the American Clay, and negotiating with The City That Works, to get us a temporary certificate of occupancy. Work will continue after occupancy, our lives will be different.


coloring in the picture

We can see Mt. Hood from our rental house here in the valley on a sunny day. But as it hasn't been sunny lately it has been hidden. If it's chilly and raining in Portland, it's likely to be snowing on the mountain. With the ski blogs buzzing, it didn't take much more than Val's text yesterday afternoon, "Hot damn, some fluffy powder and not many people. Epic comes to mind," for Jake and me to gain altitude and break into another season. 54 inches deep at mid mountain, and a moist but pleasant texture boosted our early confidence. Our friends Chris and Heather gave Jake some really nice outgrown skis and I finally bought myself a helmet. A good day of turns, and I'm sore now. We dragged ourselves home and snuggled onto the sectional in front of a kid's movie. The day off was great, thanks, and needed.

Recently Maxine and I were mourning the simple truth that we didn't have the luxury to immerse in and dwell on and celebrate the process of building our dream home. There are still and always so many choices and decisions pending. The banks and these challenging economic times have made finances tense. Our lease is running out and perhaps more importantly our desire to stay any longer in this rental house. To move in as planned just prior to Christmas means the concrete guy and site guy and about 14 other players and stars have to line up just the way they...will, by golly. We know we won't be complete, but will we be far enough along for our needed certificate of occupancy?

All of this will simply make us better at what we do as builders and as designers. I also believe that to a large extent, it shouldn't be too easy, because we are making huge decisions that utilize resources, affect our families and communities, and as designers and builders and yes owners we should be challenging ourselves with each project to do better not only than the drivel that generally passes for today's new homes but better than whatever we did on our last project, in our last month, in our latest thinking.

Perhaps like birthing, where I've heard more than one woman talk about how a combination of faded memory and the grace of parenthood are important antidotes to the reality of just how dang hard giving birth really is, we're at the building stage that could make me forget just how hard and long the road has been. Maxine calls it "coloring in the picture." We are now seeing rooms whose naked volumes once offered great promise begin to deliver on that very promise. The hues of slate and clay plaster bounce off of the stainless sink and land firmly and well-balanced on the oak island top. Rich walnut cabinetry dances with the elm floor first with a lively gait as the south windows pull in full light, and then more slowly, but with feeling, as that light wanes into the west.

It's also a time of large and small battles. Our bath counter broke, and as is too common in these cases, both the fabricator and the manufacturer point at the other. Do we do this at Pioneer Millworks? Lord I hope not. The counter would have been a good-looking new product called Trinity, made from recycled glass and concrete. We're not going to buy another slab, though, so a good solution is to use the same porcelain tile as the floor. It'll be fine, frankly, though I put this in the "not a win, really" category.In the "we'll definitely take this as a little win" group was finding out that in some circumstances we can drill more holes in porcelain sinks that get delivered with the wrong number of holes. This is David using a diamond-abrasive hole saw":
A home like this is made up of thousands of these skirmishes. They work out. This is the guest bath, in the basement near the ping pong table, with the new sink and its correct number of holes.


rains have come

It is starting to rain. We are about seven weeks from move in. Completion will come a bit after that.
Maxine and I oiled trim over the weekend. We're using Landark, a very natural tongue and linseed oil based concoction made in Philomath, Oregon by Autumn and Aaron. Some woods don't look as good oiled, but when they do, I like this stuff. It takes longer to dry because there are no heavy metal drying agents to speed it up or make you die.

We're also using Osmo's One Coat for most of our exterior, and loved it. It's German, and while they're not about to tell me what's in it, which is annoying, I have a lot of confidence in ecohaus, the pretty cool green super store in Portland (and Seattle,) to not import junk or poison. It also fits the very high German Toy Use standards.

For our floors we're using Osmo's Polyx Oil on our Settler's Plank Oak and vertical grain Douglas-fir that went down in Maxine's office and Jake's tower, respectively, as both of those just glow with an oil finish. I particularly like that you can replenish the oil finish so easily, which both of these floors will want. However our American Gothic Grey Elm, which covers the bulk of the main floor, is getting Vermont Natural Coating's clear satin interior polyurethane. I'm sorry, but that elm's pale soft color and texture just goes darker and more amber than we like with oil.

Hey you might be interested in joining a professional training on the polyx oil application on December 2nd as we do the tower floor. Email marcs@ecohaus.com.

There'll be barely any regular paint, as the interior wall finish is American Clay, but here's a lovely shot of Maxine brushing one of our European-style wall radiators.
And here's an even lovelier photo of a Clone Trooper who has invaded our lives and is busy practicing his Trick or Treat moves.


A birthday card

Today is my wife Maxine's birthday. I'm not on the same coast, although we've been steadily together for the last five weeks and I took this picture over the weekend at Nick and Becky's fun wedding.

I had flowers delivered. And a note that said, among other things, that I loved her more than ever, (this is true,) that I couldn't have built this house without her, (this is true,) and that "I wouldn't want to live my life without you and, quite simply, I won't."

This last is just a statement. We both know it. We both know that we'll be together for the balance. That's what I meant. Turns out, the flower lady wasn't sure exactly what I meant. It was all a bit intense for her. She did a partcularly beautiful job of the arrangement, and so Maxine couldn't help but call her to say so. I had specified a warm, controlled palette of reds, and purples, maybe a bit of blue. No yellow and no daisies. (I like these fine, but wasn't looking for the contrasts and informality today.)

When Maxine called, she about broke down with relief. "I'm SO glad you called", she exclaimed. "I barely slept, not knowing what your husband was really saying. My husband told me not to worry, that it was all okay, but we could call tomorrow, perhaps, to be sure. I picked the hydrangia right out of my own garden, as I wanted everything to be just right." Maxine went on to explain the amazing journey of the last 2 years in our life, and that yes, everything was great, really. I like a good story, but am kinda sorry I caused this nice lady some concern.

The flooring is going in. Grey elm recycled from barn timbers. Each board is laid out ahead, to be sure that it will go well with its neighbors. I say a floor is not its pieces, but a resulting mosaic.
Val and Dave discuss a placement.


studio rising

As we have time, we've been building the studio. which is a detached garage with one bedroom space above. My clients Jan and Ken have something similar, and turned me on to the wonderful phrase "Garage-mahal." Perfect. Here's what it's about: below is room enough for two cars end to end, which won't happen because the far end is meant to be a little wood shop. Maybe I'll finally start re-canvassing my canoe collection, or build that triple-seat sea kayak I've long so wanted. (Mmmm...don't think for a minute I can't hear those guffaws.) Maxine and I have worked out the one car garage use: she gets that space in the winter, cause she hates cold and wet/snowy cars, and I get it in the summer, so I NEVER have to put the top up on the convertible. That's a happy couple.

Upstairs is 700 sq ft with a guest bedroom, an extra sleeping nook, a little kitchen and gathering area and work space for me and one other. While we also have room for guests in the main house, this will be perfect for overflow or clients from out of town, etc. Jon and Bee are coming next year to tour the Willamette Valley wine country. I'll be ready.

We reached into less familiar territory in the design and structure. Mid century modern meets industrial loft, or thereabouts. Exposed steel sub-structure, found timbers that we wire-brushed to clean, the lime white wash left on the roof boards, and more recycled funk before we're through. The outside will sport a living roof, if we can keep the sedum alive.
I could live there. You'd almost think I'm planning for that inevitable and probably repeatable banishment to the dog house by the wife. Me? Nice doghouse. I told a co-worker recently that there's a special place in heaven for those who have to work with me. There must be a palace for Maxine.


Returning from a week in New York to the further progress at the site is always thrilling. I tell Val Darrah, our site foreman, that it is a big compliment to him that when I'm on the road I rarely check in. New York is very consuming now that I'm there just once a month. I don't call back too often because I don't micro-manage... unless it is needed. Few calls were made.

We mentioned in a previous post about the American Clay interiors. As with all our efforts, we look for low embodied energy in product manufacturing, an honest visual presentation upon completion, a sense of craft and reasonable value-cost ratios. We're pretty psyched about how this is working, and this is in part due to the new sprayable base coat called enjarre. It doesn't eliminate the use of hawk and trowel, but it gets a bunch of plaster on the wall quickly, to be hand floated and burnished after. Labor seems to be about cut in half, at least. On the Faswall blocks in the lower level, it might well be that this is one of the more cost-effective finishes available, for the reasons mentioned above.

There's a large disagreement between building scientists, code officials and... me, among others about the value of the vapor barrier on the inside face of the envelope. I agree that understanding the dewpoint, or the surface where condensation can occur, is critical to the life and health of the home, and to its inhabitants. My contention, particularly in this somewhat mild Portland climate, is that if vapor drive is limited by a combination of physical barrier and interior control of humidity and balanced inside-outside pressure, and there are minimal thermal bridges in the envelope system, then a wall that breathes, that is, that can take up and then give back normal variations in indoor humidity is the best approach. Cellulose insulation, protected from the outside by a continuous thermal break of rigid insulation (r-10), and allowed to breathe through to the interior, in our case using American Clay, works great.The finished walls tend to have a mottled color and texture. for some this might not be the goal. We're feeling like it works in this setting.
This is Noel from Traditional Natural Plaster Company, with his hawk and trowel, hand applying the final coat to the tower.
This is young Jedi warrior Jake Skyskipper, protecting his tower room from all picture takers with his light saber.