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.