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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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:

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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…

 

 

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. 

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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And on and on we go…

The past few weeks have been filled with a number of started but unfinished jobs. These include, but are not limited to: extensive tile work in the bathrooms and kitchen, kitchen cabinetry installation, bathroom vanity, wood nook, window sills, waxing the concrete floors, hanging doors and many more smaller finishing jobs. Truthfully, almost none of these are done yet, so although things are looking closer to being complete (a lot are 75%-90% there), they are nonetheless unfinished. I intend to write a post with photos for each of the main rooms once they are done-done. Still, here’s an update on some of our current progress.

Tile work:

I REALLY like tile – probably a bit too much. Specifically it’s white subway tile. In our old house , I did a fair bit of tiling in two bathrooms and the kitchen using white subway tile. Working through this I’d gained some experience and confidence in tile setting, which really is quite simple, though the preparation work is certainly the most challenging and time consuming. I recall working on the old house, tiling the shower and spending two 15-hour days on it (I am a bit of a glutton for punishment then, and apparently I still am).

With this house, I wanted to do a lot of tile. The master bathroom I wanted to tile the shower surround and have a tiled wainscoting around the clawfoot tub and sinks. I also wanted to create a “wet room” or Japanese-style bathroom for the basement. And lastly I wanted a tiled kitchen backsplash. To pay someone to do all of that work would have been an absolute fortune.

To date, I think I’ve spent 15 full (8+ hour) days prepping, tile setting and grouting.

 

Kitchen installation:

As I’d previously written about our choice of woods in the house, we had chosen to use American White Oak for the kitchen. An attractive and functional kitchen was important to us. We had after all moved to an acreage for food. We want to know where our food comes from. We want to grow, cultivate, harvest and cook our own food. So it only made sense that the kitchen was the main focal point, or as Christopher Alexander writes: the natural heart of the home.

 

Master bathroom vanity:

We are still waiting for the countertop to be installed on this amazing custom vanity that our woodworker, Ryan Unger at Rhine Artisans, built. The counter was to be installed 5 weeks ago… and we are still waiting. Grrr.

 

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Wood nook:

We had wanted an accessible location for wood storage for the stove that would be out of the way and be able contain the mess. I did not want to be constantly going out to the shed in the dead of winter to collect wood for a morning fire. This little nook 20”x2’x6’ was the solution (yes that is more tile).

 

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Waxing the Concrete Floors:

For some reason, I’d been dreading this part and I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was because the concrete floors had been such a nightmare before. But in reality waxing the floors has been one of the easiest jobs we’ve done. We used a durable (read: unnatural, unfortunately) concrete liquid floor wax as the “sacrificial” protectant on the floor (yes we considered beeswax but I could not find a liquid version that would apply easily and be as durable). We did not want a highly glossed and slippery floor, but typically after waxing you’re recommended to buff the floors to a shine. I rented the buffer with the full intention to use it, but after applying a couple of coats of the floor wax using a microfiber wet mop (applying north-south then east-west to even out any lines), we looked at the floor and said, “wow… that’s… perfect.” It was shiny and smooth, but not glossy and slick. There were no wax lines and the floors looked just how I’d hoped they would after buffing. I ended up returning the floor buffer unused. I may have to apply a couple more coats of wax to the floor sooner than later, but it was so easy to do that I’m not concerned about that.

Window Sills:

We’d chosen rift sawn Douglas fir for the main floor doors, door casing, and window sills which we treated with wood lye and white oil from WOCA wood products (same way we treated our white pine ceiling). I love the finish these products gave highlighting the natural soft white and light pink hues of the wood. I wish I could say the window sills went in easily, but we have learned that the drywall is neither square nor flush making our wood worker’s job a real hair-pulling affair during installation.

Hanging Doors:

This is not a job that I’ve been doing. There is a real art and necessary skill to this job that I simply don’t possess and really don’t care to learn at this point. However one could get quite proficient at this with the number of doors we have. I was shocked (I guess I never really thought about it before) when the doors were delivered on three pallets! 24 doors. For a smaller house that seemed excessive. Now that most ­­of them are hung though it seems more reasonable.

My father had been hoarding 10 solid bronze Schlage doorknobs that he’d had since the 1970s. He’d intended to someday install them in his own house, but recently decided to give them to us. They are beautiful doorknobs – they really don’t build them like this anymore. I do love the contrast of the bronze on the white doors.

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Well we had long said that once we had one functional bathroom, a functional kitchen and waxed the floors that we could move in… And so, this past weekend we did just that…