Archives for the month of: November, 2010

A week or so ago I posted a short entry about the architect Rick Joy. Another architecture firm whose work I go gaga for is Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Of the architecture books I own, hands down the most tattered and well-browsed are two by BCJ–Arcadian Architecture and The Nature of Circumstance.

Arcadian is entirely residential work, while Circumstance has a mixture of residential and commercial work. Their portfolio ranges from small guest houses to Apple stores to Bill Gates’ estate. In pictures anyway Gates’ guest house goes down as one of my all-time favorites. K and I have also spent a lot of time looking at the details from “Point House.” Crazy stuff.

Matt, our architect, turned us on to the work of this firm. Their attention to detail is, as the kids might say, off the hook. Their use of reveals, the thought that goes into how surfaces join, the scale of their design. Amazing. The pictures Matt showed us was really the first time we had seen the use of so much board formed concrete–something we obviously picked up for our design.

Anyway, I came across the below video at the same time I stumbled by Rick Joy’s. Inspiring.

When you first look at our house plans it’s immediately obvious that we have a narrow house. What sometimes surprises people though is how narrow it is. 20 feet wide. In fact it freaks a lot of people out–they have trouble imagining living in a house that’s so skinny. Usually I respond to their concerns with something like, “well that’s the wide part of the house. The private portion of the house is only 16 feet wide.”

So is it narrow? Most definitely. Is it too narrow. Most definitely not.

One of these days I’ll ask if Matt would be willing to contribute a post, walking through the design philosophy and inspiration, and what drove the project from his perspective. In the meantime though I’ll walk through the basics. There are some very interesting things going on. Many of these are subtle, and some will hit visitors like a brick to the head. Or something.

The narrow footprint is possible because of how the rooms are aligned–all in a row. I recently heard this described as a “loaf of bread house.” Mudroom , dining room, kitchen, living room, office–all in a row.

Compare this with, say, a traditional four square house, where you’d walk in the front door and to your left is a den, to your right is a library/office, ahead to the right is a kitchen and ahead to the left is the dining room. Below are a couple of images that show this. Spokane’s South Hill has many houses similar to this–typically around 30 feet wide. In a house like this there’s a central corridor, with rooms to either side. So, you’re left with a series of rooms that are say 13 or 14 feet wide and long.

Our house, at twenty feet wide, will actually have generously-sized rooms. Plus, look at the corridors, or as the designers would say, the circulation spine. These are pushed to the outside of the house. What this does is create hallways that are open to the various rooms that in essence “borrow” visual space from the courtyards.

Standing near the dining room. Rooms are to the left, the south court to the right.

Some more contemporary houses use a great room concept. This typically means an open plan that combines the living room, kitchen and dining room into one giant room, often in  an L shape. So yes, it’s open–each room spills into another. But if you look at the actual size of each “room”  more often than not you’ll find they’re similar in size to the rooms from the traditional four square. An architect or designer could speak to this with more authority, but my guess is this is because rooms need to be scaled for people. When a room gets too big, say 20 feet by 30 feet, it turns into a room with multiple zones. So you have a TV watching area and a separate sitting area, or something.

So back to our plans. The rooms are in a row, but we’ve tried to create a distinction between them. It’s a pretty open plan, but we have a series of floor to ceiling storage posts that define the rooms. So even though the kitchen is adjacent to the living room, it should feel like you’re in a distinctly different areas. These posts also create a different ceiling line than what will be in the corridors. Should be interesting.  More on this another time…

Our plumber, Rick, called this afternoon to clarify a few things ahead of continuing his work tomorrow. If he indeed works through tomorrow’s weather he deserves a medal, or at least a gift certificate to Sacred Heart Medical Center’s hypothermia ward. Something tells me we won’t be getting much work done over the next couple of days.

I was going to upload a few pictures of the site, showing an inch or so of snow covering the foundation/stem walls. But this tells a better story.

Well, now that a month or two has been spent excavating a big hole, building footings, grade beams and walls, what’s left to do? Why, bury everything in soil of course.

Dan and Tom from Northwest Excavators spent Friday and Saturday backfilling the house and some of the retaining walls. They actually made quite a bit more progress than what I have pictures of. It’s pretty amazing–the “house” now looks more in scale with the land, etc.

It was pretty crazy to see a front-end loader driving along what will one day be a living room, kitchen, bedroom, etc. Our daughter and her friend Ian had fun checking out the trucks working away from their vantage point on the big rock. At least they were interested in this until the frozen soil was warmed by the sun, creating a giant mud pit. Let’s just say that their sneakers are no longer white.

So, now it’s on to plumbing, electrical, the radiant heat and more concrete form work. Maybe.

Last week I wrote something about the fact that saying I was excited about the board formed concrete was a giant understatement. Let me modify this. To say I’m nervous about the weather is a giant understatement. We’re supposed to have low temperatures in the single digits, 4-6 inches of snow by late-morning, and snow in the forecast for the next week at least.

The worst part? There’s nothing I can do about it. Not that I’m a control freak or anything.

A couple of people asked me for photos now that the forms are off. Not a lot of time today, but in fact there’s not much to update on anyway. We’re hoping to backfill soil around the foundation of the house today or tomorrow and start our underground plumbing, electrical and heat next week. Until then, here are a handful of happy snaps.



I’ve talked about board formed concrete a couple of times. Most in depth in this post.

To say that our concrete work is an important design element, or that we’re excited to see how the forming will come together, would be a giant, giant understatement.

The boys are stripping the plywood and cedar forms from our most recent concrete pour today, but here’s a quick preview of the board forming, and what it will look like. This is a pier attached to one of the (sexy) grade beams I talked about last week.

Next Monday is supposed to have a low of eight degrees. Damn cold. Perfect weather for pouring concrete. Right?

Here’s today’s math question: what does 2 cement trucks plus 1 giant pumper truck equal? If you guessed 40, you’d be correct!

Yes, another day, another 40 yards of concrete. I’m nursing a nasty little cold, but couldn’t resist running by the site to hang out in 39 degree weather to say hello and check in with Misha and friends.

Lots of work today, and I couldn’t help but think of our contrasting work environments. You know those days when it’s 2 degrees cooler than normal in the conference room, and everyone complains and keeps taking breaks to get more tea or coffee? No more complaining. Like I mentioned, it was still very cold at mid-day, and Misha was covered in concrete splatter all day long. Very. Hard. Work.

One other thing. There’s something amazing to me about watching highly skilled people work. I have a picture of this below, but watching Misha detail the edge of the round sonotube was inspiring. It was a series of quick movements that looked so very simple. Yet were to try it yourself it would become quickly apparaent how much skill it requires. This kind of thing–mastery through repetition–is true for most things in life, but it’s still a wonder to observe.

Over the years we’ve accumulated a good collection of architecture books. One of my favorites is a monograph of an architect named Rick Joy, called Desert Works. I love the scale of his houses, the way they’re sited and his use of materials.

Joy is probably best known for his rammed earth homes–a technique that uses inorganic earth and requires a tremendous amount of labor, but creates a truly impressive structure. We actually looked into this during the early design phase of our house, but it would have doubled the price of the house for us, something that unfortunately isn’t an option.

I stumbled upon the below video of a house he designed in Vermont. The overall design, in many ways, is much different from his desert homes. This should be expected though, no?

Anyway, thought I’d post it here because it really is a beautiful little video. And that door to the master bedroom? Fantastic.

Here’s a link if you don’t have a flash player:

Actually they’re not sexy. I just put that in the title to try and attract some web traffic. I could have been a bit more explicit though, calling this post something like, “Sexy a$$ grade beams,” but that would be too much.

OK so anyway…we’re ready for concrete. Again! And yes, we hoped to pour this past Tuesday, but needed to wait for our special order clips and ties to arrive so the forms wouldn’t fall apart when we poured concrete. Then we were going to pour today (Friday), but the county building department was closed so we couldn’t get our inspection done.

So Monday is our day. In fact it’s probably better for Mikel since it gives him an extra day or two to get things tight.

Check out the pictures below–these are primarily of our grade beams, hence today’s sexy title. Grade beams are a concrete connection between the house and the platforms our roof support posts will sit on. Without killing you with a bunch of engineering that I would likely get wrong anyway, the idea is that it’s important (in our case) to create a strong, rigid connection between the house and posts, so that on, say, a windy day, the roof won’t start shifting the walls, or the posts, or both. With the grade beam, everything is connected. Or something.

Here’s what’s amazing to me. See the middle picture? This is the grade beam. It holds a sexy a$$load of concrete. But except for about 18 inches, the entire thing will be underground. This is one of those factors that help answer the question, “why is it so expensive to build a house?”

As we wait a bit longer for our super exciting, special-order snapties to arrive (note: these are little pieces of metal used to help build concrete walls), I thought I’d share a bit more about where we’re building.

Four years ago when we bought the lot we’re building upon, we weren’t in the market for land. We were happily renovating away on our almost 100-year-old house in a great neighborhood on Spokane’s South Hill.

But then we saw the land. As the kids might text, “OMG!”

Our neighborhood is unique for our region. As far as I know, it’s the only “clustered” development in the Spokane area. I had read about other clustered developments with envy. There are a couple of especially cool ones in Minnesota, including Mayo Woodlands and Jackson Meadows.

Here’s how a “cluster” philosophy works. We have eight families on 100 acres of land. While it would be nice (in a way) to have a 12.5 acre lot, in other ways it would be unfortunate. Here’s why:

  • At 12.5 acres you have some space around you, but lose any sense of having neighbors or community.
  • You also lose the open space–the chance to have trails, wildlife corridors, etc.
  • Think about the infrastructure. It means long, long driveways, 8 separate wells, problematic utility trenching…you get the idea.
  • There’s the idea of living alone in the woods and the reality of living alone in the woods–I think we like the idea better than we would the reality. We like neighbors, community, the security of being around others, etc.

With a clustered development, you get the reverse–lots of open space, an encouraged sense of community, shared infrastructure, potential for things like trail networks, gardens, etc.

So…we jumped in feet first (head first?) and bought the land. Our covenants document is about an inch thick, but it’s really a document about philosophy rather than mandates. These are pretty limited in fact. Max house size is 3,500 square feet, no pools, 35′ height limit, no fences or walls that enclose the property, no wood roofs (fire danger), etc. Pretty tame stuff, really.

Today there are eight lots (with one that just came up for sale…) of 1.9 acres each. To me, this is plenty of space–our lot is about 500 feet wide. We’ll have a sense of our neighbors’ houses, but won’t see them from any of our windows. We’re building a trail network, have a beautiful little community garden, and the neighbors are all very…neighborly. This is a good thing.

If you do the math you’ll realize that this leaves us with 85 acres of “common” land. We’ve put this into a conservation easement, which among many other benefits changes its tax status. Nice.

We’re sharing a driveway, well and utility infrastructure with one neighbor, and already appreciate the camaraderie between the families. Plus, two of our best friends (and their growing brood) live two doors down.

Still, one of my work partners likes to joke that we’re putting the commune in community. She’s mostly kidding though.

I have a plat map somewhere that shows the lots and common areas, which I’ll track down sometime if anyone is interested. Let me know.