Outdoor furniture: usually ugly, cheap plastic (though sometimes not) vs. make your own

After building the pergola, I realized we NEEDED new outdoor furniture. Truthfully, part of the reason we wanted a pergola was motivated by our multi-year desire to hang hammock chairs, which we’ve been obsessed with for some reason. I’d never, actually sat in a hammock chair, but they looked awesome and amazing and we wanted them but had nowhere to hang ’em!

Until now.

But first, we needed to get our outdoor dining area setup. A couple years ago, before we’d even moved out here, one of my first ever building projects was an outdoor dining table. My wife had wanted to throw an outdoor dinner party one summer, but had not been able to find anything that wasn’t gross/ugly/spackled aluminum/pitted glass/biege/moss green so she asked if I could build a table instead. We wanted it to look kind of like a picnic table, but without the benches and a bit fancier. It was also one of my first forays into the DIY rabbit hole of Pinterest (which would serve me well later). I found a design for a table that had been ripped off of a Restoration Hardware table – you know the ones that say, buy for $4000 or build it yourself for 75 bucks! I built it out of cedar, which cost more like 350 bucks, but it turned out really well and we’ve used it extensively since. Instead of the same cheap/ugly/gross chairs you can buy at department stores we picked up some old wood dining chairs from garage sales and painted them in outdoor paint.

Although these lasted awhile they eventually started to break and fall apart. By the time I’d built the pergola we were down to our last three chairs – we weren’t going to be hosting many dinner parties with three chairs. Also, the old garage sale chairs, well… they just didn’t quite cut it anymore with our fancy new pergola over our heads.

I initially contemplated building a couple benches on either side of the table, but the thing with benches though, if you didn’t know, is that they don’t have a back. That’s a serious problem in my opinion. Then basically I’d be back to having a slightly nicer but way more expensive picnic table.

I think I must have been feeling a little cocky from my pergola building success because I decided I would just build some deck chairs. Seriously though, who do I think I am? I’d never built chairs before. However, after building a house, I’ve found, I’m not really intimidated to try to build, well, pretty much anything.

So chairs it would be.

After some extensive filtering of some really cheesy stuff online, I found these chairs from a DIY blogger.

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They look alright, I thought. I wasn’t a big fan of the 1×6 boards for the seat and back, though I had a bunch of ripped cedar boards that I had left over from the pergola screen that I thought would look better. But at least, the basic outline of these chairs would be a start.

The plans showed the exact cuts for the chair backs and legs, so I won’t repeat them here.

However, once I got the frame attached to the seat base I quickly realized that there were going to be problems. I actually don’t know how the chairs in the plans above would stay together for more than a few uses. There was a serious amount of give in the joint between the back and the seat. I doubt it could handle a 250 lbs person sitting in them (not that I’m 250, but I know people who are). Also, if you look at the plans, there was no middle cross bracing on the seat. Again, a fat person would crush through that chair seat, and let me tell you, that would totally ruin your dinner party.

The first thing I did was add a cross brace to the seat. Then I added two cross braces to the legs, hoping this might tighten up the wobble. It did a bit, but not enough. I then added an angle brace from the cross brace of the legs to the inside of the seat base, securing this with a couple 2.5″ screws to the the seat back as well. That really tightened it up well. No more wobble. I guarantee a fat person could sit on these now. Lastly, I used the slatted ripped 1x6s for the seat and back to give it a beach chair sort of feel. Personally I think these look at least 10-12x better than the original plans I based them off. Plus these will actually last. (If someone actually wants to replicate these let me know and I can take off the measurements off the modifications I made and repost it).

I got a little assembly line together after the first one and my friend Corey and I were able to crush out the other five in an afternoon. Now we were ready for our dinner party again!

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My wife was rather impressed with my handiwork and the next day asked me to replace the lounge chairs we had. These two were some old worn out, but wooden and handmade, garage sale deck chairs we’d bought a few years ago. The paint was peeling and well, now that we had a fancy new pergola and fancy new chairs, they didn’t hit in anymore either.

She’d seen plans for what’s called a “Kentucky Stick Chair” on Pinterest some time ago had asked me to build them then. stickchair-330x250

But I thought they’d be too much work and too tough to build. Now, though, my ego was feeling pretty inflated. Heck ya, I’ll build those!

The plans call for 1.5″ x 1.25″ boards, but these don’t exist. So you have to rip down three strips from a 2×4 board to get the rough correct thickness. I quickly found that this was by far the worst part of the job. I have a pretty good table saw, but ripping down 2x4x8 cedar boards is super annoying. The blade kept getting pinched by the wood, which stalls the table saw. So I’d have to reset it and cut for a few more inches before it would do it again. However, after a long time and many curse words, I got the boards all ripped. Five 2x4x8 boards of cedar are enough to make two of these chairs.

After that I simply followed the instructions and cut the boards to the various lengths. You then need to drill the holes, which unless you have the most steady hands ever, you need to use a drill press. Conveniently, I’d just inherited my grandfather’s old drill press. It’s a beast, weighing about 80 lbs, and makes the most horrible rattling noise when you turn it on, but it drills straight.

Once that was done I used airplane wire to run the pieces together and hammered the wire down with 3/4″ fencing staples. When I unfolded the chair, I was a bit skeptical that it would hold. It had no screws, no nails – just wire and the self-sustaining nature of how the boards lined up – low and behold not only did it hold me, but it was deadly comfortable and looked fantastic.

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Completing the look though was the hanging hammock chairs. These I did not make. We ordered them off Amazon. Sitting in these (after our dinner on our new deck chairs), while overlooking the river, is now my favourite part of the long summer evenings.

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Building a Pergola

I felt inspired the other Saturday, so I built a pergola.

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Truthfully though we’d been trying to figure out how to shade our south-facing deck for quite awhile without overly sacrificing solar gains in the wintertime. This was not an easy thing to decide and we’d belaboured over it – well, since we built the deck last year.

You see, when it’s sunny and hot here, like it has been these past few weeks, it is smoking hot, out on the deck. Too hot. And with my wife home with our baby now, she would like to be able to get out of the house and sit on the deck, but it’s just too damn hot and sunny. The other day when I came home from work, I found her and the baby lounging on the north side of the house back stoop, in the shade, but looking out at… well, the driveway. I sat down with her and we decided, we gotta do something about the deck.

We did pick up a shade sail last year, but hadn’t put it up. This is one of those canvas/mesh shades that you see at California pool sides and in the outback. It’s good for sunny hot places. The nice thing about it is that it can be removed in the winter and packed away. My concern with it too though was: How do we secure it and how do we make sure the wind doesn’t wreck it? (It’s sunny and hot and windy here in the summer in some combination). I could never answer those questions.

A pergola though, combined with a shade sail, might just be the answer though! I have always liked pergolas – the filtered light, vines growing up and over, the little bit of intimacy it gives to be outdoors – but, I was concerned about shading things TOO much. We still need that solar gain in the wintertime. I went back to my trusty Pinterest resources and looking at modern pergolas (not the traditional curvy end ones). The epiphany came when I realized I did not need to run the top slated boards east-west like most pergolas for maximum shading, but instead, could run them north-south. Eureka! With the added shade sail underneath we could have our full shade, but then when we remove it in the fall, the pergola would still allow the sun through (albeit, slightly less so then when it was unobstructed).

I sketched out some plans for it on a notepad and the next day, I went to the lumberyard and picked up the materials. I was taken back to our house building time and, as it was then, that night I dreamt of how I would build it (this is a very useful strategy!). I was up at 6am and ready to get to work.

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8am: No Pergola
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Getting the posts levelled
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Squaring it all up

By 6pm, it was built. Mind you, I didn’t work alone. My neighbour, Ray, came and helped me for most of the day too thankfully. I couldn’t have built this without him (see post-script).

 

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6pm: A Pergola!

I ended up using all treated lumbar. I planned to stain it black (obviously) and treated wood simply made the most sense for longevity and cost. I used five 6×6 rough sawn posts for the base and double 2x6s for the upper frame. The top slating is 2x4s spaced 8” apart (figuring out the spacing was the hardest part). I like the 8″ spacing for a couple reasons – it still allows a reasonable amount of light through for our needed solar gain in the winter and the 8″ correlates nicely with the 2×4″ lumbar (too big or too small looks weird). The long side of the pergola runs 16’ and the short side is just under 10’. I secured the posts to the deck (the deck is 2×6 boards) using a simple Simpson post support with 3” screws and lag screws. The top beams I secured to the posts using my Kreg Jig (best tool you can buy) and did the same to secure the slating to the beams. This was a lot of jigging, but you get excellent stability with the Kreg Jig. The slating overhangs the beams by 8” at the front and is flush at the other three sides.

On the west side, which is where our prevailing windows are from, I put up a slated wall using 1x6s that I ripped down to just under 1 ¾” wide each (which allows for 3 equal slats per 1×6 board) and spaced them roughly 1” apart (the depth of each 1×6 – just use a scrap piece to line the next one up). This slating is a repeated theme around the exterior of the house with the outdoor shower and base of the outdoor countertop (and when the front stoop stops sinking I want to do the same at the front door).

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Although the build went relatively quickly, the staining part took my upwards of three days the next weekend. Ug. I forgot how much work it was to stain all this wood. My shoulders were so sore from all of the overhead work. I used the same Auson black pine tar with linseed oil (50/50) mix on the pergola, which gives it the same matte black sheen as the exterior of the house.

Now to hang the hammock under it and rest for a little while (but maybe I should build some new deck chairs first)…

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Post Script:

This was the last project I did with my neighbour, Ray. The following weekend we received the shocking news that he’d passed away suddenly and without any warning. It didn’t seem real. We were totally devastated. Ray was more than just my neighbour. He was my dear friend. He was my father figure out here. We were so naive when we’d moved out to the country and he’d taken us under his wing and been there whenever we needed him – which was a lot. I’ve written about him on his blog before and all of the help he’d given us in the building the house. He spent countless hours helping us with the house. He walked over here everyday during construction to check on the progress and to make sure the contractors were working. He’d allowed us to share his garden for two years and helped me establish our own. He’d come and cut our grass when I was too busy in the house. We had dozens of dinners at his home when we’d been working all day and night the first couple of years. He’d bring us pies or cinnamon buns just because he had some extra. He cut a path to our house along the river so we could be connected. The gratitude I have for this man could never have been repaid. He was one of those very rare people who would drop everything for you whenever you needed them. He was patient, humble, honest and sincere.

He taught me so much and has made me feel competent out here. He showed us how to truly appreciate living in this beautiful place. It will be difficult for us without him. I will miss him terribly.

Rest in peace my friend.

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Everything is Perfect Now, Right?

I’ve been a bit behind in the posts recently because this happened a few weeks ago…

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And we’ve been kinda busy as a result. Having a kid is a lot of work! Who knew? But it is also awesome and I highly recommend it. But with my wife having the baby pretty much attached to her the last few weeks, that’s meant that I’ve been doing a lot of the housework/yardwork/cooking/etc., and don’t have a lot of free time. But that’s ok. She’s lying on my lap as I write this now.


So, I have been meaning to write this post for awhile. It’s funny when you build a house… or maybe, more likely, when you dream about building a house, you picture it in your mind with all of the features and design spot on, all of the floors clean and flawless, the taps sparkling, the windows clear, and everything just so. Unfortunately – it doesn’t turn out that way. Maybe if you were spending a couple million bucks it would, but for most of us there’s going to be some issues after the build is done. This is why there is a New Home Warranty. You need it. And yet, no one really talks about it though.

As I’ve tried to be as honest as possible with this blog I thought it would only be appropriate to write about some of the more major issues we’ve had since completing the build.


Problem 1. It’s hard to express the paranoia and anxiety that you feel in a new home when the house experiences it’s firsts. Such as the first major windstorm. Will that 90 km/hr wind tear any off the siding or maybe even the roof? Will that first snowfall rip down the gutters? Will the boiler still work when it’s -40°C/F outside? Will we roast ourselves when it’s +32°C (90°F)? Or will the first rainfall flood the house?

Our first experience with the reality of a new house came during the first winter and the first extreme cold. I woke up on one particularly crisp morning. I walked into the living room and though, “Jesus, it’s cold in here.” We had the boiler running and the in-floor heat should have been easily able to keep up with the cold weather. When I looked at the porch door though I was horrified to see 1-2″ of thick frost caked around the perimeter of the door.

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I think it should probably go without saying that that is not good for an “energy efficient” home to have.

I called and left an angry message with the door installer. And when they didn’t call me back. I left another angry message. Then a series of emails. I had our contractor come and look at the problem and we found that the door was obviously bowed. Clearly a manufacturing problem. I’d hoped to have the door replaced, but apparently the logistics of removing the door would be too difficult and so instead about 6 weeks later a serviceman and the salesman drove 8 hours from Winnipeg to fix our door. While they were at it they added extra thick weatherstripping to the other doors to ensure a good seal.

(I am happy to say that the second winter this problem did not recur).


Problem 2. Way back when we dug the basement of the house (two years ago already!), there was a screw-up that would come to haunt us. The basement was dug too deep by about 2′. That caused a number of issues with the septic tank that I wrote about in that original post. But after the build was done it offered some unique… challenges. The big one came in the Spring of last year. Because of the excessive depth of the basement we had to be very cognizant of the grading properly around the house to ensure proper drainage. Had the basement not been so deep then we could have built the land up around the house to ensure that it all sloped away – which would have been easier. But having the extra depth made this more difficult.

After the first winter, a tremendous amount of the backfill settled around the perimeter of the house, requiring an exceptional amount of more backfill to be added in the Spring. When we added all of this backfill and sloped it appropriately away from the house we recognized, to our horror, that the HRV inlet and outlet vents, were actually below grade. If you don’t know, that’s bad. Because that backfill had not been built up sufficiently beforehand this was never recognized. Now these are two holes through the concrete basement walls. By code they are to be 18″ above grade. But what were we supposed to do now? After some thinking we decided the simplest solution would be to put a window well around them and fill the bottom with crushed rock. And, well… hope for the best?

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So that’s what we did. But every time I’d look at them, I’d feel uneasy. What will we do in the winter if the snow gets packed in there? Or we get a heavy rainfall? Will it drain?

It wouldn’t take long for my question to be answered. It was a Saturday morning in May when the sky darkened and heavy intense rain came crashing down. The first major rainfall of the year. There was rapid and intense thunder and lightning. I looked out of the front corner window, “Good, it’s draining away.” I went to the other corner, it too was draining nicely. I went to the back door and looked out, great. Then I went to the side of the house… OH MY GOD! I looked out and both window wells were filling with water, fast! I was still in my pajamas, but I threw on my rain boots at the backdoor and grabbed a bucket we had had to wash the dog’s feet. I yelled to my wife, “COME QUICK!” For the next two hours, in the rain and lightning and thunder, we bailed out the window wells and dug a deep trench around the side of the house. We had a rain barrel nearby which was overflowing so quickly causing more water to run our way that we had to push it every 5 minutes to stop the water from coming towards us. It was a nightmare.

When the rain finally subsided and the trench was working to divert the water, we came inside, soaked, exhausted and with our hearts still pounding.

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But it could have been so much worse. Had it not been a Saturday morning and instead been at night, or during the week, or when we were away from the house, we would have flooded. Guaranteed. And not only that, the water may well have tracked through the HRV piping and into the HRV itself causing a possible fire. It was such a close call.

I called our house builder and told them the situation. They called the mechanical contractor and tried to brainstorm what they could do. It would take sometime to figure out a solution.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing days, my anxiety about the HRV vents did not improve. I was constantly watching the weather. Was rain in the forecast? Crap. I can’t go into work today.

Finally we got an option from the mechanical contractor. Well, he told us, you could dig out the window wells down to the weeping tile where you could connect it to the weeping tile with free flowing crushed rock… Wait wait wait, so you expect me to dig 10 feet down and fill it with rock? Are you nuts?

I had also been thinking of options too. What about extending the pipe up from the vents along the outside of the house? Or else, from the inside of the house, running the pipe through to one of the opposite basement walls. The first option would be easier, the second option would be tremendously costly and create a huge mess in the basement. At first he discounted the first option suggesting that the pipes could freeze in the winter, but once I suggested the second option with all of the costs associated, he decided to consider the first option again. After speaking to the HRV manufacturer, who had apparently had this problem before and solved it by running the pipes higher, that is what we did. It was about $10 in supplies and took 20 minutes of work. We have funny pipes coming out of the ground. But I could live with that.

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(And they did not freeze over this past winter. Phewf.)


Problem 3. Another issue came with our concrete kitchen countertops. Sigh. When they were installed, I knew they weren’t perfect, even then. They had some inconsistencies to them and were a little uneven, but I was ok with that. Perfect is overrated. But after two months, they cracked. Now I know that concrete cracks. Our floors cracked and that’s fine. It’s expected and part of having concrete floors, if you don’t want cracks in them then laminate flooring might be better for you. But a countertop, you don’t want that to crack. Maybe tiny little hairline cracks, but major full thickness cracks with separation… those are bad.

I called the guys who did the counter and told them what had happened. To their credit, they immediately offered to replace it. They poured another counter for us, but this one too had problems. They tried it a third time and this one, as well, failed. The problem was the product. It was a new concrete they had used to get the white counter and it obviously just, well, sucked. So, it was either replace the counter with a different colour, which we did not want to do, or fill the crack and live with it. We chose the latter.

But, after another couple months it cracked again, and again, and again. I could live with the first crack, but in a couple years this thing would be a mosaic. It looked terrible and the guys felt terrible about it.

I ended up contacting my friend Dan at Old North Concrete Works who’d done some of our exterior concrete work. He’d recently got the exclusive rights to a concrete product for counters that used fibreglass to reinforce the concrete and could be done in a range of colours, including 6 shades of white. They other guys agreed to contract him to replace our countertop.

When they removed the old ones, it literally crumbled to pieces.

 

The new counters though – dang they’re real nice. Really really nice. Like how they should have been the first time around.


Problem 4. Speaking of crack. We also had issues with major fault line cracks of our stucco parging along the basement of the house. Apparently it takes a LONG time for the ground to stop settling after your build a house. Like more than two years, because it is still settling here. We’d had our retaining wall and front door pad poured last summer. They did a 6″ footer and used epoxy coated rebar to connect it to the concrete foundation, but over the few months, and the excessive rain (see above) that we had last summer, it has settled by nearly two inches. We will have to get them to come back (when the ground finally stops settling – 2 more years??) to pour a topper later.

But because the retaining wall was connected to the stucco, it tore the stucco down and off of the side of the house. Twice. Necessitating two trips out for the stucco guys to fix and replace the stucco.

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They fixed, but it’s since cracked again over the past winter. This time it’s not as bad and I should be able to patch and fix it myself.


Problem 5. The last major issue we had was with our water tank cistern in the basement. You see, we get our water delivered out by a large water tanker truck (if you want to know why read here and here). There’s a hose connector on the outside of the house to the tank in the basement and an indicator light was installed just above it that would go off when the tank was near full. There is a float in the tank that once the water level reaches a certain point it trips and sets off the alarm. Still, I don’t really trust technology and I would try to always be home when they brought our water… just in case. One day, while talking to the driver bringing the water, she said, “You know, this light is really hard to see when it goes off.” Dang, I thought, I better make sure we have it setup properly. Someday I might not be here to check it and watch. So I called our electrician and asked him to look into other options. Turns out there is a special Tank Alarm that has a light on the top like an old school police car and a siren that goes off. It’s friggin’ loud – you would not miss that it was going off. It cost $500 but better to be safe then sorry I thought.

I had the electrician come out and install the alarm for our next water delivery. We tested it out and it worked without a hitch.

The next week I called for a water delivery. They said they would be out on a Wednesday. Shoot, I couldn’t be there that day, but we had tested out the new alarm so it would be fine, I thought. When I got home on Wednesday night though, there was no water. Hmm. Must be coming on Thursday, which I would be home. Again though they didn’t arrive. Weird. On Friday they called me and said that one of their trucks had broken down so they were short and wondering if I could wait until Monday for water or if I was low enough that I would need it on the weekend. We were running low so I asked them to bring it on Saturday. They arrived that afternoon and began loading in the water. My dad was with me so I asked him to let me know when the water was nearing the level when the tank alarm should go off. I came upstairs to listen to how loud the alarm would be. I figured it would be about 20 seconds until it went off…. 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds… 25 seconds, I started to get worried… 30 seconds… Then my dad shouted, “YOU’RE FLOODING! YOU’RE FLOODING!!” WTF?!! I panicked and ran outside pulling the hose off of the drain and shouting to the driver to turn the water off. The alarm did not go off!

I ran downstairs, perhaps, 5 seconds of water had run over the sides of the tank and there was a massive amount of water on the floor of the mechanical room. Holy crap. What happened?! We grabbed as many towels as we could and began sopping up the water and pushing it to the clear-out drain in the floor.

Then it occurred to me… What if they’d brought the water on Wednesday or Friday or next week? I wouldn’t have been here! How long do you think they would have let the water run before they realized something must be wrong? We dodged a bullet.

I called the electrician and told him what happened and he came out the next day. Turns out that when he put the float switch back in the water tank a zip tie he had used was too low and didn’t let the float rise high enough to go off. Yikes.

Needless to say, I’m glad my wife is on maternity leave so she can be home for all of the water deliveries now. Although a long term solution is still up in the air. Crap.


So there you go. Sorry, not everything is perfect afterwards. There’s always going to be issues with houses. New houses, old houses, it doesn’t seem to matter. My issues will be different than yours, but there will always be something. Still, I’m not really complaining. I’m just saying is all.

 

Bathrooms: Research and Design

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You can tell a lot about a place, be it a house, hotel, or a restaurant, based on the quality and cleanliness of the bathrooms. Whenever I go to a new house I always, inherently, check out the bathroom. Is it neat and tidy? Or is it grungy and smelly – does it have a crusty ring around the toilet? I will make immediate judgements about you, I’m sorry, I will.

Similarly, I will make the same judgements about a restaurant’s washroom. Is it dirty? Is the caulking around the sinks peeling away? Did they paint over the light switches – the same colour as the walls even? Are the fixtures falling off from the walls? If a washroom is gross, my bet is the kitchen will be gross too. I don’t know that I want to eat here.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not a germaphobe by any means. I’ll eat a dirty carrot right out of the ground. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, I’ll eat it, I don’t care. But, I don’t like the thought of pink eye or fecal matter on toothbrushes… Call me old-fashioned.

When we were designing the house, there were some considerations we made, first being that we did not want too many bathrooms. Our last house had 4 bathrooms. Too many! Granted they were very nice looking bathrooms. But, have you tried cleaning 4 bathrooms per week? It takes forever. Ug.

Still, you don’t want too few bathrooms. There’s a balance to be had. I like a half-bathroom for guests. A small sink and toilet, near the main space of the house. Certainly, you can use it too. But, there is no need for your guests to have to use the same bathroom you use daily to wash and clean. And worst case scenario, if you have people coming over, just make sure that guest one is clean! That way I won’t think you’re super gross.

An ensuite is nice and all, but that is typically reserved for off of the master bedroom, thus being just for the adults of the house. If this is only going to be you and your partner, and you’re not going to be having any kids, then go for it. Connect your master bathroom directly to your master bedroom. That way, your guests definitely won’t be tempted to use it. For us, though, we decided to make the main bathroom a separate room, off of the main hallway. It is directly across from our master bedroom, but not connected to it. This way kids can also use this bathroom. We also put in another full bathroom in the basement. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a house with only one combined bath/shower in the whole house. With two parents and two teenagers trying to get ready with only one shower – well, let’s just say it caused a lot of unnecessary resentment and many arguments. Two showers are necessary. It will result in a 50% reduction of family strife (that’s my completely uneducated guess anyway).

Now let’s bring this back to my original point: Bathrooms are inherently gross. This is where all of the less desirable necessities of life take place. So it is understandable why bathrooms, not properly designed, can be even more gross. And why a clean and tidy bathroom is so impressive.

I hadn’t really been able to explain this well until I read this series of articles over at TreeHugger.com which completely made me shift my thinking about bathrooms: “The History of Bathrooms.” This series talks about how the bathroom developed and changed over the years and how various professions and innovations have changed it, as well as, how some cultures, particularly the Japanese, have a deep reverence for the bath.

OK, so let me give you a tour of ours.

Master Bathroom:

The first picture of this post (scroll back up quick) is of the Master Bath as you walk in the door. To the right is the hand-built white oak vanity. To the left is the walk-in shower and behind is a clawfoot tub. In the back right corner, behind the door is the “water closet.” A water closet is the enclosed room for the toilet. That way your mess is contained to that space. When you flush the toilet, the mist stays in there and doesn’t spread to all the other spaces in the bathroom (like your toothbrush and contact lens). I’d never seen a water closet before, but our old house had one and we loved it. That way, someone can be having a shower and the other person can still use the toilet. No need to poop in front of your spouse!

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I had written about refinishing this clawfoot tub that we’d bought on Kijiji for $75. It is neatly tucked into the corner of the bathroom, right behind the enclosed shower and underneath a west-facing window.

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A double sink was a must-have for us (trust me, it will save your marriage). This hand-built rift sawn white oak vanity was built by our friend, Ryan Unger of Rhine Artisans, who also did our kitchen. We wanted a mid-century credenza-type of vanity and he nailed it with this.

The light fixtures are from One Forty Three, which we used variations of for all of the bathrooms.

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When looking at bathrooms (endless, endless bathrooms) on Pinterest prior to building our own, I was constantly drawn to wall mounted and black fixtures. These Brizo faucets met both of these desires… though they were a bit of a splurge. The countertop is white Corian with simple under mounted sinks, which are easy to clean.

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The shower is a walk-in. It’s near the side door so we can come right in and wash off ourselves or dogs or little kids without needing to track through the whole house. I’ve never been a fan of the glass enclosed showers. They look nice when they’re clean, but the problem is, they are clean for about a half day between when you clean the bathroom and when someone has the next shower, otherwise, they always look messy. I prefer a simple curtain.

The other bonus of the Brizo Odin fixtures, aside from being sexy black, is that they are low flow too. Being an eco-house and on cistern water, we’re very conscious of our water use. This shower uses 2.0 gallons per minute (gpm) versus the standard 2.5-3.0 gpm.  AND! This has a wand shower. Let’s be frank here for a second, it is impossible to clean your… ahem… nether bits with an overhead shower, a wand hand-shower attachment will keep you… uh… very fresh.

Did I mention, that I tiled this whole bathroom too? This one took about 6 days and 10 hours per day. I tiled a wainscoting around the vanity and bath tub and floor-to-ceiling in the shower and around the entrance.

Guest Washroom:

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We installed three ultra-low flow toilets from Caroma, called Somerton Smart 270. These toilets are fantastic and conserve an amazing amount of water. A standard “low flow” toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). These dual-flush toilets use 1.28 gpf for a full flush and only 0.8 gpf for a small flush. One of the keys is a large drainage path. I was worried it may leave some stowaways behind, which I’d heard was a problem with ultra-low flow toilets, but this toilet is great. I would highly recommend it.

Another great part about this toilet, is the smooth sides on the base. If you clean your bathroom, you know that those stupid faux pipes on the side of most toilets are a haven for dust, hair and grim. I hate cleaning those. I was adamant that whatever toilet we bought had to have smooth sides. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, the toilet seat has a slick little button to quickly release it and easily clean. So smart, this Somerton Smart 270!

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It took us almost forever to find a tap that would work for this old-vintage sink. I think we ordered 5 different taps before we finally found this cheap $60 one from Home Depot. Works for me.

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OK, one other thing that is not easy to find is stylish rods, hooks, and toilet paper holders. They are 99% cheap plastic chrome junk. This, well, I’d Instagram this: #sexytoiletpaperholder?

Basement Bathroom:

The basement bathroom is where my obsession with Japanese bathrooms was most fully expressed. When I read about the fragrant smell and soothing nature of hand-built Hinoki wooden tubs I told my wife – “we have to get one!” That is until, I found the price… ~$9000 + shipping + taxes + import fees… OK, next best option:

basement-bath

We installed this DEEP two-person soaker tub from Produits Neptune, called the “Osaka“. We actually had to put this tub in the basement before framing of the house was done. Being 52″x52”, there was no way this could be brought in after the fact. Granted, this is not a water-conservation tub, but we don’t use it everyday either, more like one every couple months, but it is glorious. When full, you can sit in chest deep water. Rather then getting a wooden tub, I clad the tub, back wall and ceiling in cedar. The condensation of the hot water of the tub and shower results in a beautiful and fragrant cedar smell. It might not be Hinoki, but it’s pretty darn nice.

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The shower is completely open to the tub. All of the fixtures in this bathroom are from a Canadian company called Rubi – notice the wand shower *wink wink*. I also tiled this whole bathroom too, three full walls, in these 4×4″ white tiles. This was probably the most difficult tile job in the whole house. At least with 3×6″ brick laid subway tile there is some room for error. But these grid laid square tiles, especially with the dark grey grout, show every error or not perfectly square corner and wall. I had some choice words for the framers while I tiled this bathroom…

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In the floor of the shower I asked the concrete guys to very slightly grade towards the drain. This shower is about 60×48″ so there is no standard shower base that would fit here. This option worked great.

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I’d asked the lumber yard for 6′ lengths of cedar that would only have needed to be slightly trimmed for the shower, instead I got 7-9′ lengths and had to cut every single board. I was a bit annoyed by this waste. But after I finished the shower and walked into this space right next to the tub/shower, it looked terribly boring with just a drywalled wall. I ended up using the scrap pieces on the back wall – a happy error.

I admit that this toilet-next-to-sink setup is a recipe for a cesspool of bacteria, but it simply didn’t work to hide the toilet in another water closet in the basement. I just won’t brush my teeth down here.

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This sink is from Rubi as well. It was a nightmare to get a sink down here too. We’d ordered a different sink with a shroud base for the pipes from another place, but they sent the wrong base. Then we sent it back and the new one they sent was the right base, but wrong sink. Then we scraped that sink and bought this one, but forgot to return the taps, so we had to send the taps back and get new taps… sigh…

 

 

Blue Heron EcoHaus in Western Living Magazine and Green Building Advisor

Our house was recently featured over at Western Living Magazine, a Canadian-based modern architecture and interior design magazine. They interviewed our designer, Crystal Bueckert, and included a few quotes from me as well. The write-up is excellent and I’m happy to see how good the house shows.

The article shows a number of photos that I haven’t even posted here yet! I hope you enjoy the little tour.

Check it out here:

Inside a Beautiful, Eco-friendly Saskatchewan Farmhouse

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On the flip-side of modern design, as some of you already likely know, our house was also a featured green house blog over at the excellent Green Building Advisor website. This website is not about trendy design/architecture, but is about building excellent, high quality and, primarily, energy efficient homes. If you are planning to build a green home, this website is a must resource. I was honoured to be asked to be a contributor to the website for the past year. Most the articles I wrote were already featured on this blog, but the comments section for each entry offers a wealth of valuable information from some of the top green builders, designers and architects in North America. It was a very humbling opportunity for me. It was a 16-part series that I hope offers valuable information to others who are venturing down the road of green building.

Recently, I came across a very interesting article written on Green Building Advisor in which a respected green building designer modelled our house comparing it to a German-biult Passive House. The implications of this and the discussion points are fascinating to read and there are nearly 50 comments on it that offer further wonderful insights: A Lesson From the Kranichstein Passive House

As for my articles on Green Building Advisor:

  1. Is Passive House Right for a Cold Canadian Climate?
  2. Heating a Superinsulated House in a Cold Climate
  3. Choosing a Super-Insulated Wall System
  4. How Small Can We Go? 
  5. Picking High Performance Windows
  6. Let Construction Begin
  7. Making an ICF Foundation
  8. Dealing with Really Bad Water
  9. Adding Walls and Roof
  10. Placing Concrete Floors
  11. Siding and Soffits at the Blue Heron EcoHaus
  12. Insulation, Air-Sealing and Solar Array
  13. Blower Door Testing
  14. Adding It All Up, Part 1
  15. Adding It All Up, Part 2
  16. Adding It All Up, Part 3

Floor plan: the long-winded version

I’ve had a few questions over the last number of months about our floor plan. How we decided on things and why. Way back before we started construction I’d wrote extensively about the design and planning of the house. It wasn’t easy! We thought we knew exactly what we wanted initially. But it really wasn’t until we had 13 designs/redesigns that we felt really good about the house we were going to build. If you’re curious about that process, please read the links as I go into a lot of detail about the process, decisions, considerations and some of the struggles that went with that.

Despite all of that prep work, it’s really difficult to fully imagine what the house will be like, how it will flow, and if you will have any regrets (even if you have a 3D walk through), until you’ve actually lived in it. We spent 10 months planning and designing the house and I’m glad we took that much time to do it (I’m grateful for the patience of our house designer and friend, Crystal at Bldg Studio). We maybe could have even spent longer, but I’m not sure that we’d have changed anything. Nearly all of the things I’d, let’s say “tweak” if I could, I don’t think I’d have realized until we’d actually lived here awhile. The funny thing is, and I’d been told this before, after you build your first house you’d know exactly how you’d want to build your second house. Don’t get me wrong though – I love our house and I’m so happy with so many of the decisions we made early on, but I think I’d know how to make our next house even better (or maybe by the third or fourth)…

Anyways, my plan here is to show you our floor plan and then walk through some of the things I’d change if I were to do it again.

The first and most important thing was to not build too large. We wanted a quaint, modern farmhouse. We’d lived in a large house (6 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms) and it was just too much – too much space, too much stuff, too much cleaning. Between that house and the new one, we lived in a very small 600 square foot cabin with two small bedrooms and 1 bathroom for 14 months while we built. The cabin was too small, but we realized that we didn’t need as much space as we thought we might.

After 13 house designs, we finally settled on the following, a bungalow with a full height basement with a main floor square footage of 1440 sq.ft. to the exterior walls (remember our walls are 16″ thick) which equalled an interior floor space of 1240 sq.ft. The interior basement space is the same size, so that gives us an overall heated interior floor space of 2480 sq.ft. The ceilings are 9′ in both the main floor and basement.

Ok so onto the floor plan. For reference’s sake to the proceeding floor plan, the house is square to the four directions: top is North, bottom is South, left is west and right is east. On our land the best view, facing the river, is south and east. We have a shelter belt of trees (spruce, pine, and amur cherry) blocking the prevailing winds from the North and West. Our yurt and chicken coop are about 50′ from the west door (left side of picture). The edge of the river is 160′ from the south/west corner of the house (including hillside).

We wanted to have the house feel very open and connected to the beautiful surrounding landscape so it’s really difficult to fully understand the layout of the house without seeing where we live…

This is our front yard:

So when designing the house, our priorities were: 1) to maximize the connection to the land and views, 2) to optimize our energy efficiency, and 3) to be cost effective.

Main Floor:

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The main door is on the north east corner. We have a driveway that comes to the back of the house (north side) and in the next year or so we will build a detached garage on the north side of the house. One thing that bugs me in some homes is a main entrance that opens into the heart of the house, like right into the living room. I don’t like that. It seems like such an invasion of privacy to me. Not that we get many strangers coming to our house, but even still I find it very nice to be able to greet people at the door, give them lots of room to take their jacket and shoes off and then allow the house to be “introduced” or revealed to them as they’re welcomed into the main living space. The one thing I would change in the entrance way now is I would have made the window smaller. It faces east and is a beautiful view and brings in some awesome light, but it doesn’t need to be as big as it is (48″ wide). Being east facing it’s an energy loser for us. Oh well.

As you come into the house from the main entrance, the space really opens up to the great room which is essentially, a large wall of windows. The south facing windows are all 16″ from the floor and are 68″ tall (this was purposeful so that the top of the doors line up with the top of the windows creating a continuous symmetrical line around the house). They let in a tonne of natural light and frame the river and river bank. They also function for passive solar heating in the winter. The windows are like a massive, constantly moving and changing landscape portrait (we don’t need any landscape portraits in our house!).

I will say that we purposely put the small half bathroom near the main entrance for two reasons. The first was that we did not want a door coming off the main space to a bathroom. That’s gross. Second, we spend a lot of time outside, we get dirty, and we did not want to be tracking mud and dirt into the house to use the washroom.

We placed a large storage closet in the hallway leading to the great room, which stores our recycling, vacuum, dog food and a bunch of other miscellaneous stuff. Don’t underestimate the amount of storage you need! It’s the difference between a cluttered or a clean house.

The great room includes our kitchen, living room and dining room. This is where we spend 90% of our time. I love this space. We’d actually debated about about not doing an “open” kitchen, but I’m so glad we did it this way. The kitchen really is the heart of the home. We have friends and family over almost every weekend and I cook a lot. There’s nothing worse then being stuck in the kitchen while all your friends are visiting in the other room. This way, I can be preparing food while still visiting with everyone and often now people are willing to pitch in and help with food prep and cleanup. Success.

The kitchen island is 8’x3′ with an induction cooktop. We have a floor to ceiling pantry, and cupboard with a built-in fridge, microwave and oven behind the island. I highly recommend extending the cupboards to the ceiling. I’ve never understood why some people stopped their cupboards at 7′ and then have an awkward space between there and the ceiling which simply collects dust. We use a small step ladder to reach the top cupboards which stores those occasionally/rarely used kitchen appliances we all have. In the northeast corner of the kitchen is open shelves which holds glasses, coffee cups and some pretty things. We’d been hesitant about open shelves, but I think in the right amount they look great and are very practical. The kitchen sink faces an east window overlooking the river. Having a window with a view in front of the sink makes doing the dishes so much more enjoyable. We extended the east counters and lower cupboards nearly all the way to the corner window to maximize our storage space. All of our lower cupboards are drawers and they are great. The window seat also has drawers underneath for more storage. We do not have any upper cupboards or shelves on the east wall. It is very clean, tiled from counter to ceiling. Our total counter space is around 15′. In the book “The Pattern Language” (which we relied on heavily for the design), Christopher Alexander recommends a minimum of 14′. I’d thought that was excessive initially, but I’d say he’s bang on. I can be baking bread, fermenting sauerkraut and kombucha, have a sink full of dishes and ones drying beside it, and still have plenty of room to prepare dinner.

On the other side of the island we have three stools and on the end facing the sink is an open lower shelf to store our heavy cast irons pots. Check out this post for a photo tour of the kitchen.

The dining table is between the island and the south windows. The table is 101″ by 33″ and seats 10 people comfortably. I have to admit I had no idea if our spacing was going to be right until the day we moved our table and chairs in and had our first meal. This is the difficult part about designing a house – how much space do you leave between things? It is such a subtle amount, we’re talking 1-2″ of space that will make something comfortable or cramped. I’m glad to say that we nailed this though (thanks in large part to my mother who is an interior designer and helped us with all of these tricky spacing decisions). But when designing your own house these are the decisions that make a huge difference – and you need to know your furniture. For example, can you have someone sitting at the island on the stool and someone sitting on a dining chair behind them and still have room for some to walk between them? Trust me, I would be so annoyed if I couldn’t do this.

The rest of the great room is occupied with the living room, which includes a lounge chair, sectional couch and area rug. I’ve never been a big fan of area rugs before we lived here, but putting a nice wool rug down (especially on concrete floor), not only is nice for your feet and to give kids an area to play (“don’t leave the rug!”) but it also differentiates space nicely. We placed the wood burning stove in front of the window. When people had looked at the plans initially they’d said, “you really want to do that?” I have to say that this is one of the best decisions we made. The stove is a very attractive Morso stove from Denmark. A lot of people will tuck a stove into the corner of a room, but I love a wood burning fire and again, as written in “The Pattern Language” (have you bought it yet?), all people in the space should be able to see and enjoy the view and heat of the fire. Also, the stove does not block our view by any means, if anything, it makes it more interesting.

I will also say one more thing about the height of the window sills – this was very intentional, placing them at 16″ creates the same height as your standard dining room chair. This way you have natural bench seating throughout the house.

Behind the couch on the far west wall of the great room is a nook for our amp, record player, speakers and LPs. I’m glad that we added this, but my only regret on this space is we could have made the whole room about 10-12″ wider, which would have allowed me to put a narrow credenza or bookshelf behind the couch. Oh well – next time!

The door on the south side is mostly glass and leads onto our large deck.

The master bedroom is not overly big. We had had a gigantic, massive bedroom before and it just seemed unnecessary. I just sleep here. We did not put in a walk-in closet. We had one before, but it allowed us to collect more clothes that we didn’t wear. Having enough space is good, but having too much space you can lose track of what you have and eventually you realize you have a tonne of junk you don’t wear and don’t need. I like the closet size. There’s more than enough room for Darcie’s and my clothes but if we fill it up then that means we need to get rid of stuff. The window in this room is really big. It’s cool, but it is unnecessarily large. I like being able to wake up to the sun and see the river while I lie in bed, but it doesn’t need to be as wide as it is. It could easily be three-quarters to half the size and still give us the things we like about it.

I do wish that we could have found a way to put in a laundry shoot. I know that a lot of places don’t allow these, but we could have done it where we are.

We did not do a true ensuite bathroom. This was done for a couple of reasons, the first was that we wanted the shower and bathroom to be accessible for whoever is in the second bedroom. Typically if you have an ensuite you need another bathroom on the same floor with a tub/shower. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of cleaning bathrooms all day. I did that in our old house – remember, we had FOUR bathrooms! So unnecessary. We also wanted the shower to be close to the outside door so that we could come in, strip off our clothes and go right into the shower – we are dirty people out here. The bathtub is the old clawfoot tub we refinished which is a real beauty. I love the double-sink and the large vanity. No more are Darcie and I trying to push each other out of the way for sink or mirror space – it will save your marriage! We also put in a “water closet” which is the tiny doored room in the bathroom for the toilet. We had this in our 100 year old house and it was very smart. Do you know how disgustingly dirty toilets can be when flushed? Yucky.

And yes, we have an outdoor shower.

The second bedroom is a fun little room. It’s not a perfect square due to the stairs on the north side of the house. Currently it’s Darcie’s sewing room, but it will make a fun kids room. There is an option of extending the raised platform to make a sleeping space under the window or to put bunk bends towards the other end. Kids love nooks and alcoves (according to both my childhood memories and “The Pattern Language”) so the raised platform above the stairs, walled on three sides gives a nice little space to cozy up and read a book or hide away.

I really like the side door at the end of hall leading to the coop and yurt. It is glazed like the door leading to the deck so it brings nice light into the hallway, but it also has a small transom window above it that opens. This way we have cross-ventilation through the whole house. From the transom to the operable window above the kitchen sink and from the north side window (at the top of the stairs) to the small operable window adjacent to the wood burning stove.

Phewf! That took longer than I thought to write about. OK, onto the basement.

Basement:

floorplanbasement

At the bottom of the stairs is a wide landing about 6′ wide. This is wider than your standard hallway by quite a bit. But, in a basement it’s nice to feel like you are not tunnelling under ground or in some dark space, which basements can often feel like. The ceilings are very high, just over 9′ tall, which makes it not “feel” like a basement. We also placed large windows on the east side and one on the south, they are 5′ and 10′ wide. We did not put more south windows down here due to the deck above.

The first room at the bottom of the stairs is the cellar. This is an unheated space, but not sealed from the rest of the house. We’d considered making it a true cold room with venting to the outside and we could still do this, but I’ve been reluctant to do so as I’m worried it will be a big energy draw to the rest of the house, even if we totally seal it. Also, with a fridge and freezer in there I question whether it would even be cold enough with venting. Currently it primarily functions as a large pantry with lots of shelving for dry goods. Living outside of town it’s nice to have a bit of stock pile of food including canning that we’ve done.

We wanted a large laundry room with a sink and cupboard space. It’s very nice to have a contained space for this and a place to hang clothes to dry and do ones ironing. It is also easy to let stuff pile up and simply close the door on it!

The mechanical room is really big, but it also holds our water tank. Now that we’ve lived with the water tank and I’ve recognized my dread of having 2000 gallons of water leaking into my basement – doing it over, I’d likely put the tank underground in a cistern outside with a pipe leading in. That way if anything were to fail with the tank, well, it would just water my grass rather than flood the basement. We might still change this at some point down the road, but of course, it is always more work and money after the fact.

The family room is also very large, nearly the same size as the “great room” on the main floor. You might we recall that we have exposed concrete walls in the basement and exposed steel beams so this definitely has a pretty industrial feel down here. We have a TV and sectional couch (and area rug) in the corner against the wall of the mechanical room. The rest of the space is fairly open although Darcie has a large weaving floor loom on the other side… It would be a perfect size for a pool table, but Darcie disagrees.

The bathroom down here is really cool. I’d wanted to do a Japanese bath, like a real hand-built wooden tub, that is, until I found out the cost is ~$9000. Scratch that. Instead we found a deep round two-person tub that we wrapped in cedar. It is open to the shower that is also open to the rest of the bath. Here’s a photo I took awhile back. I like the other bathrooms in the house a lot, but this one is rad.

Under the stairs is another cellar, this one is where I make my beer and wine and where we let the ferments sit. I’ve put a bunch of shelves under the stairs for storage. Can’t have enough storage, I tell ya.

And lastly, is the basement bedroom. This bedroom is pretty bad-ass with two walls of exposed concrete. Teenager-me would have loved this room (I still do, but I would have really loved it then).


 

All in all. We really are happy with the layout of the house and the planning time we spent to get it as “right” as possible. Sure there a couple minor things we would have changed, but they certainly are not major things. It’s not easy to get it perfect – in fact, it might be impossible. But I’d recommend when planning and designing your house to tour as many homes as possible. If you get into a space that feels good, try to analyze what it is – is it the window placement, the size, the spacing? Take measurements of your furniture and make sure your architect or house designer lays out your rooms so that you have proper spacing. Measure your favourite rooms in your current house or the houses that you go into and say, “Oh I like this.”

Buy and read “The Pattern Language.” It is worth it’s weight in gold.

Talk to people who have built and ask them what they “nailed it” on and what they wish they would have done differently (everyone will have at least a few things). Do smart things. Design it for yourself. Don’t design it for someone else or “resale value.” That’s silly. But, at the same time, I’d caution you against doing something very “out there” – unless you’ve done a lot of houses before and you’ve evolved to the “out there” point. You never know, your first home build, well, it might not be your last.

An outdoor shower

Well, it seems that summer is over and I’ve barely written about it. This is what we woke up to on Tuesday morning (October 4th):


Yup, welcome to Saskatchewan. It was +20°Celsius on the weekend. Sigh.
Anyways, on to the memories of summer now.

There were a handful of things we really wanted when building and designing the house: a black house, a wood stove, a farmhouse sink, a clawfoot tub. And… an outdoor shower.

I’d only used an outdoor shower a couple of times in my life, but it had left a distinct impression on me. There’s something wonderful about showering in nature. Exposed to the elements. I can’t really put my finger on it. But anyone who has experienced this agrees – there is something primal and extra-ordinary about it.

We’d had the plumber run both a hot and cold water line to the outside of the house that we would be able to hook up washer lines to attach to a shower. We found an outdoor showerhead and attachments from “Speakman” on Amazon (it still amazes me all the crap they have on there) for less than $200.

Initially I’d considered making the shower a fixed structure to the house as I’d seen in California and some other permanently warm climates. But this really didn’t seem like a great idea for us (see snow above) and due to excessive water and possible soap staining the siding.

A freestanding and portable shower made the most sense, something that could be stored in the shop over the winter and transported out easily in the summer.

This is what I came up with.

Honestly, it’s the only way I wanted to shower all summer. Good thing the neighbors don’t live too close. 

Once you go black…

We’d really hummed and hawed about what to do about the basement parging for most the winder and early spring. Although our plan had been to do the house all black initially.

 

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But last year we’d hesitated. And I’m not entirely sure why. We couldn’t run the wood siding all the way to the ground, like the rendering shows, because of the 8” of foam on the exterior basement walls without some seriously extensive strapping. Alas we had the stucco guys parge the basement foundation and then leave it while we contemplated our options: leave it or go all black.

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While taking photos for the post about the concrete retaining wall, Darcie, my wife, said, “The house doesn’t look right. It looks like it’s floating. It’s weird.” She proceeded to spend the next several days playing with Photoshop, filling the gray parging with black and analyzing it from multiple angles. After a week of scrutinizing the Photoshopped images, she said, “Look. We should do this.” Pointing to an all black house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned is that once my wife has made up her mind, it’s best not to disagree. It is only futile afterall. “Yes honey,” I replied (these two words are the most important for a husband to know, by the way).

So I called the stucco guys and asked them to come back. It ended up taking a number of weeks for them to finally show up (typical). But only a couple hours for them to transform the house.

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I gotta say, I don’t know why I’d hesitated, because once your go black… well, you know the rest.

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The trials and tribulations of concrete

 

The last of the work on the house was a concrete retaining wall and front step/pad and a side door pad. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be done with contractors (and spending 1000s of dollars). One of my friends, Dan, who had worked for a large concrete contractor in town had recently started his own company, called Old North Concreteworks. When he’d told me about this over the last winter – I said, “Dude! Why didn’t you start your company last year?!” With all of the headaches we’d had with the concrete before during the build it would have been so nice to have someone with a such an experienced and trustworthy knowledge of concrete.

Nonetheless we, being one of his first contracts, would be able to get the pads poured early as soon as the ground had dried and thawed. Retaining walls are tricky and we’d had a lot of settling over the wintertime. But around the area of the retaining wall we had watered and backfilled last year to try and expedite the settling. It seemed that we’d been successful in this regard as the land had really not dropped at all there over the winter. For the retaining wall, Dan first poured a 6” footing extending 6’ perpendicular to the house with the retaining wall form built on top. He and I then backfilled to the form with dirt and crushed rock (tamping down at each bucket load) to bring this up to the point where they would be able to join an 8’x6’ pad to the top of the retaining wall – essentially creating an upside down ‘L’.

The side door pad would be simpler – 4’x7’ and 4” thick.

A few days before the planned pour date, he sent me two different options for finishing the concrete edge:

 

 

 

“Hmmm… Neither,” I told him.

Do this:

afoxhouse
Alyson Fox House

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yup, that’s what I want, no edge, just poured.” If you’ve read this blog for anytime, you may realize by now that Darcie and I like things that other people don’t normally do – at least not around here. Dan suggested a “mag finish” in which he lightly brushed the top of the concrete in a swirled, random way to get some grit to the top so it would not be slippery.

The day of the pour came and when we got home wouldn’t you know, we had a two pads and a retaining wall poured! Success.

I messaged Dan to see how the day went. “OK I love the top,” he said. Excellent, I thought, I would like to collect a royalty fee now every time you use this. “But…” he said, it was essentially the worst day of his life otherwise. The concrete truck they’d ordered broke down on the way out to our house. We are 30 minutes away from the city and it was a very hot day – that’s not a good combination for concrete. The concrete was starting to set as they poured it. Fortunately they were able to get it in place, not being a lot of concrete really – but our very sandy soil didn’t hold the retaining wall forms very well, despite being heavily reinforced, and the wall had bowed. He was not happy about this and insisted that he would fix it, suggesting that he rent a large concrete grinder to take out the bow later.

I really wasn’t surprised to hear that they’d had issues. It always seems to be that way with our place… Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

For Dan though, the day only got worse. After finishing our place they had to rush over to my neighbor’s house a ½ mile away to pour a sidewalk along his garage and house. The concrete truck broke down again! And he poured the hardest concrete of his life, he said. He had to use all of his might to smooth and level it. In the process and stress of it all, the concrete had started to stick and cure to his legs. After they’d gotten it all down and finished – he attempted to pull the concrete off of himself, but with that came a lot of his skin. Yucky.

A few days later Dan returned and ground the bowed section out, exposing the aggregate in a very interesting and dramatic fashion, which I was pleasantly surprised with. As has seemed to have been the way with our house too – right to the bitter end – many of the seeming mess-ups or frustrations end up turning out creative and interesting solutions. I would not have asked for the wall to be finished the way it was, but pleasingly, I’m happier with it then I would have been had it all worked out just as planned.

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Swirled, “mag” finish
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Yes it rained last night.
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Ground and polished retaining wall

 

 

 

That’s a big deck!

January to March had been fairly relaxing. The previous year and a half had been incredibly busy/hectic/stressful with planning and building the house and we thoroughly enjoyed our hibernation time in the new house over the winter. But now that Spring has sprung itself we were looking forward to getting outside and crossing a few things off of our to-do list.

I have to continually remind myself to: “Beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” -Socrates

Although we are going to be getting more projects done, we’re also trying to take things easy and be a little gentler on ourselves. There is really no rush or pressure to do anything at any specific time.

Still, the Spring/Summer To-Do list includes (but not limited to): backfill, grade, deck, plant grass seed, build garden fence, prep garden, plant garden, concrete patio, retaining wall, walkway, driveway, irrigation, dog run, general yard clean up, plant trees… I’m sure there’s more.

One of the first priorities was to get the deck built (it would make all of those other projects so much better by being about to recover on the deck after a hard days work). We elected to have our framing contractors come back to do it as soon as the snow and land was dry enough to start. The weekend before we had to backfill around the house as it had settled a lot over the winter. The wooden stairs we’d been using dropped at least 12″. And as the snow melted we had a mini waterfall along the side of the house.

It was gruelling and dirty work backfilling, shovelling, grading and tamping. We were fortunate enough to have our neighbour (best neighbour ever) offer to bring his payloader tractor over to help us out. We must have moved 20 yards of dirt that day.

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We’d designed a BIG deck to take up most of the south side of the house with a size of 16’x40′ (about half the size of the house!).

I’d really wanted to have the deck clad in cedar, but the cost was absurd – exactly double the cost of treated lumber. I’m not a huge fan of treated lumber, but for 50% the cost, I can learn to live with it. Besides we would not be staining the cedar had we done it, so in 5-10 years treated and cedar look nearly the same – a light grayish colour.

The Monday after completing the backfilling the builders were able to come out. And by Tuesday evening, Darcie and I were having dinner on the new deck.

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As we sat there on an unusually warm April evening, eating our dinner with our legs dangling off of the side of the new deck, drinking wine and looking out over the river, a bald eagle soared over our heads and into the distance. Both of us stopped and looked at each other, “Could this moment get any better?”

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