Building a Pergola

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

pergola1

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.

nopergola
8am: No Pergola
pergolabuild2
Getting the posts levelled
pergolabuild1
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).

 

pergolaneedspaint
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).

pergolaslats

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)…

pergola2

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.

IMG_3286

Bathrooms: Research and Design

dsc_0067

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!

dsc_0068

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.

dsc_0070

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.

dsc_0071

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.

dsc_0069

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:

half1

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!

half-sink

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.

half-roll

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.

basement-shower

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…

basement-showerfloor

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.

basement-main

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.

basement-sink

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…

 

 

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:

floorplanmain

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.

Alchemy of a Concrete countertop

As if we didn’t have enough concrete and thermal mass in the house already, we decided to install a white concrete countertop in the kitchen. We’d priced out quartz as an option as well – a machine-made product that has the benefits of durability, scratch-resistance, stain-resistance, heat-resistance, and being made from some recycled products. But the reality is, because of all of these benefits, it also is very expensive, shockingly so, in fact. We needed 14’x24″ for the long counter. I don’t know what I expected the price to be, but it certainly wasn’t the $8000 price tag they quoted. Ouch.

As an alternative, our kitchen cabinet maker, Ryan Unger with Rhine Artisans, suggested a concrete counter. He was building our butcher block counter for the island in rift sawn white oak and he’d also done a few concrete counters himself before as well. Perfect!

He’d never made a white concrete counter before but he was game to try it. It probably helped that he and I have been good friends for a number of years and he’s been willing to try a few “different” woodworking jobs for us on this project..

Although I’d had in my head that I wanted a crisp white counter for whatever, I was excited for the “handmade” benefits of the concrete counter. True, concrete can stain and scratch, but being hand-made, we’d get something completely unique and special.

On a balmy October Saturday the guys came out to build the concrete form and pour the counter. It took them nearly 6 hours alone to make the form, which they would pour in three sections, due to the size, weight, and need to form around the under-mount farmhouse sink. It had to be perfectly level, square and flush. They used white MDF for the form to make it as smooth as possible. For structural support, they used wire mesh, which they smartly spray painted white in the event that it would “shadow” through when poured.

For the concrete itself, they were able to source white portland cement, white aggregate and white sand for the mixture.

We covered the counter with a tarp and placed two heaters in there for the next 3 weeks. The temperature was dropping and these would need to be sitting in our shop for the next three weeks.

It was mid-November and above freezing still, which is bizarre for our area. It was terribly fortunate as had it been below freezing we would have had to haul the counters to the basement of the house for them to polish there. That would have sucked.

As it was they were able to polish the counters outside – only slightly as too much polishing would bring out the aggregate. We still wanted these to be as white as possible.

Once the sun went down though, it was freezing and what we had was what we were going to have. The three of us then needed to carry these in through the front door.

It was SHOCKING how insanely heavy each piece was. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to carry something so heavy before. We nearly died, but miraculously we were able to get them up the steps to the door and placed on the cabinets without any serious injury or damage.

IMG_3287A

The counters were not a crisp white, which I had originally wanted, but instead are a creamy white, which actually looked amazing against the creamy white oak cabinets. Plus the organic, handmade, imperfections of the counter really added a nice feel to the whole space. Very wabi-sabi.

After another couple weeks, we sealed them with an acrylic sealer (we tried a food safe, water-based sealer but this did nothing, as we found when a single drop of red wine left our first stain – Grrr [vinegar and elbow grease made it less noticeable]). We then added a topcoat of beeswax to finish it.

But before we would seal this, I’d need to finish my tiling work on the backsplash.