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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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…

 

 

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:

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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.

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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Main Floor Concrete

We were very happy with how the basement concrete slab turned out. Tyco Concrete had come through for us on short notice and they had done a really nice job. So one week later we had them come back in to do a second pour, this time for the main floor. We had really debated about how we would like to finish the main floor concrete though despite months of reading and looking.

I should digress for a moment and simply state our reasons behind the concrete floor in the first place:

  1. Thermal mass – thermal mass is a the ability of a material to absorb and store energy (heat in particular). For passive solar heating in the winter months, the sun shining on the concrete will act like a battery, gaining heat during the day, and allowing it to release the heat in the evening. You could use a tile or brick to similar effect. A large brick or stone wall would also work, but you need the sun shining on it. Conversely, in the summer and “shoulder” (April and October) months you really don’t want the sun shining on the thermal mass as this can lead to overheating (thus the importance of passive shading and overhangs).
  2. In-floor heating – we still need a heat system. It is true that our thermal mass is not quite as good as if it had no in-floor heat (a colder mass will heat MORE than a mass that is already pre-heated) – however who wants to walk around on a cold concrete floor in the morning, honestly?
  3. Concrete is sexy.

Okay so now that that is cleared up, we had to decide on how we would like to eventually finish the floors. We had already decided that acid staining and dyeing the concrete was really not our thing – much too fancy-pants for us. That basically left us with two options: power trowel (same as the basement) or grind and polish. Both looks we really like.

Grind and polished concrete – not our place

The grind and polish look is something I really like. You need a concrete grinder machine with diamond discs starting with very rough grits of 80 and 120, which grind the top layer of concrete off exposing the pea gravel aggregate that sinks to the bottom and progressing up to finer and finer grits. Eventually getting up to 800, 1200, 2000 grit discs that give a highly polished look to the floor. You get a lot of interesting variation and different colors of the pea gravel coming through (although some people specify all grey or black pea rock if they want something more consistent). There is a couple downsides with this for us though. Firstly the concrete topper they were going to pour was only going to be 1.5″ thick, which is pretty darn thin. Although you are only taking about 1/8″ or so off the top, we had 1/2″ PEX in-floor piping and metal concrete mesh overtop – grinding too much off could be a horrible thing. We had seen this first hand – a good friend had built an eco-house in town and wanted a ground and polished concrete floor. Unfortunately the contractor ground off about 1/4″ too much. It looked great initially, but the layer of concrete over the in-floor heat was so thin that in the next few weeks the concrete started to crack badly following the pattern of the in-floor lines… It looked so bad. On a thicker floor you’d have nothing to worry about, mind you. But needless to say I was a bit paranoid of that risk. The second consideration is that you need to grind and polish before drywall as it makes a crazy mess. And you can’t grind and polish until it has cured for one month. That would mean that we would have to put the interior on hold for a month which we really did not want to do.

The other option was to simply power trowel the main floor, same as the basement. We have seen this look a lot in some more modern homes and I really like the simplicity of it. It is not complicated at all and is in fact the simplest, cheapest and easiest way to go (pour and trowel is about $2.50/sq.ft completed while the the grinding and polishing cost would be an additional $5-6/sq.ft above and beyond). You pour floor, power trowel the crap out of it and call it a day (in 28 days you can seal it, buff it, wax it, whatever). As I said we liked how the basement floor turned out, particular the very “swirly” areas, as my wife calls them. I hoped that we could make the floors slightly different then the basement floor still though. I looked into the possibility of adding a bit of black pigment to darken the grey slightly – however I abandoned this idea after I was told the pigment dries the concrete faster and can lead to an uneven finish.

Eventually the decision came down to, what is the simplest option? Through this process we have found ourselves periodically down a rabbit hole wondering how we got here and how everything became so complicated. Our answer in those situations, or when we’ve debated about two or three different things is – simple is always better. The more complicated, the more things can go wrong.

So I told the concrete guy, “finish the concrete just like the basement – only, more swirly please.” (He told us that the metal blades of the power troweled as what make it swirled and darker, but troweling longer and on a higher speed for the blades, they can darken the concrete more).

The morning of the pour was crazy again, our builder did not realize they were coming so early with the concrete truck and he’d left a bunch of stuff around the house. I received a text at 6:30am from the concrete guy – “someone has to get over here and move all this shit – truck is here.”

IMG_2982Fortunately we are living very close right now so I threw on some clothes and was out the door. We frantically (concrete starts to cure as soon as it leaves the plant – being 30 minutes from the city, every extra moment counts) moved a trailer, two big garbage bins, scrap wood, plywood and all sorts of junk. Meanwhile the rest of the concrete crew was even more frantically throwing down the concrete mesh (which provides structural support, like rebar, in thinly poured floors like ours). This stuff was crazy heavy and looked so cumbersome to work with, but these guys were pros, they had the whole floor laid and secured in about 20 minutes.

And so the pour began again. I could not stay and watch and truthfully, I did not want to see it. Seeing that grey/brown sludge of mud being rolled in and dumped on the floor simply made me nervous. I just wanted to see it pretty at the end.

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When we got home all was quiet again. We went to the back door and peaked our heads in.

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So swirly!

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So very swirly!

Initial House Design Process

I thought we had a pretty clear idea about what we wanted in the house. We also trusted our designer to help guide us in the details. Our priority was to find an optimal balance of energy efficiency, maximizing the view, and the aesthetics of a modern design, while also respecting our budget.

Our aesthetic draws us to simplistic modern vernacular houses. These simple shapes (square or rectangle) also happen to be ideal for energy efficiency – less angles make for less escape points of energy and thermal bridging at corners. Additionally, these shapes allow for easier transfer of air and heat throughout the interior of the home. A peaked roof can be made to orient at the correct angle for solar exposure of a PV system.

That’s all well and good, but we also had this amazing view in front of us:

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As if fate had made it so, the views were south and east. If we’d been north facing we would be in a bit of trouble for energy efficiency – in fact, we would probably fail.

When considering energy efficient and passive solar principles, you need thermal mass. The sun hitting a thermal mass like stone, tile or concrete allows it to warm the surface and passively radiate that heat for the remainder of the day. It just so happens that we quite like concrete floors. These can be very beautiful surfaces that you can polish, grind, or stain. Naturally these all add some cost to the finishing of concrete, however the costs are significantly less than adding flooring overtop. We need the concrete for the slab anyways, so why not use it for our thermal mass and our finished floor?

The more I read about energy efficient design principles, the more and more pleased I was to find that a lot of our aesthetics were coinciding with optimal energy modelling.

Our basic house idea was for a 1700-2000 sq.ft bungalow or 1.5 storey with three bedrooms (although we are DINKs now [dual income no kids], we will likely have some rug rats (concrete rats?) running around at some point)  and two bathrooms. Also, we wanted a living room and separate media/rec room. Because we will be canning and storing a lot of our own food a large pantry was also necessary. We want to have a lot of connection to the outdoors, not just through the windows, but also a few exit points to access a deck space and various parts of the yard.

As I’ve previously written, we’d spent quite a bit of time going through Pinterest and numerous design magazines choosing our inspiration photos. As part of our early design process, we also went through and measured the room sizes we liked in our house and those of some friends and family whose room sizes we thought were nice. Still the details of how it functioned needed to be put together. This is where the designer is key.

Crystal Bueckert, our designer, is great. At our first official design meeting she basically listened to us and did the first design exactly as we’d asked. We waited with excited anticipation for the first draft to come back. About two weeks later she sent it to us. Not only did she send us a floor plans but also a 3-D model with a virtual walk-through on our laptop and iPhone. We were so excited to see what it would look like. We opened it up and… we totally hated it!

She had done exactly what we had asked but we absolutely didn’t like it. It was not what we had envisioned at all. Ok, I’m being a bit hard on it. There were a couple things we liked and there was some things that had potential, but overall it was not good. At all.

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The next design we revised a number of our thoughts and really tried to think about how we wanted the house to flow. We abandoned the 1/2 storey idea and went to a bungalow. We also changed the position of the living room and kitchen, which made a very significant change to the layout of the entire house… Although we wanted a relatively ‘open concept’ house (from both an energy efficiency and style point of view), we did not want it overly open and in the first design it was just too open.

The second design was a lot closer to what we were going for. Except for one big thing: we recognized that the kitchen/living room/dining room placement was actually a lot better in the first design, although the rest of the house worked WAY better than the first go around. Still we were getting closer.

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Sadly, the third version was a bit of a mess, we had considered moving the mechanical room to the attic to free up floor space as we really wanted to keep it under 2000 sq.ft total. That quickly came to a halt when I had a nightmare about the water heater breaking, spewing water through the ceiling and down the walls – destroying everything I cared about. I told Crystal that we had to fit the mechanical room into the main floor. We also wanted (Darcie said ‘needed’) to switch the kitchen and living room again – a massive design change again.

I’m confident the fourth design is going to be very close to the final product. The layout flows beautifully and to solve the space problems we actually went smaller. Shrinking the size from 2300 sq.ft in design #2 to 2050 sq.ft. There are a few minor changes to make, but I feel like we are about 90% completed.

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Now that we had the layout near completion we needed to figure out the big questions of wall systems and mechanical heating/cooling.

-K