They are different.  They stand out a little or a lot.  They may be “eccentric”.  Or they may have some mental challenges that cause them to always be way outside the “normal” box. 

When I was a kid, we had Mr. Bender who always wore a bowler hat and was seen regularly being dragged down the street in our town by his huge german shephard.  He always tipped his hat at ladies and mumbled some jibberish that could only be interpreted as suggestive.  You could also catch glimpses of him in other towns, without his dog, attempting to get a ride back home by shuffle dancing around, bowing, waving and tipping his hat while hitchhiking.  I suppose someone from our neighborhood would drive him there and drop him off.  I think he was mostly alone.  I don’t remember seeing him much with other people…other than when he got a ride.  We had a few other characters, but most were not as colorful as Mr. Bender.  It was a small town. 

Living in an urban neighborhood as an adult, we have plenty of characters.  “Running lady” who always wears braided pigtails, bright red lipstick and runs to the bus stop as well as home from the bus stop…not because she’s late for something.  It’s just what her body or mind tells her to do.  “Yelling guy” who rides a bike in cowboy boots and yells at imaginary people.  The old guy in the dark grey suit and fuzzy grey white hair and beard that shuffles around mumbling.  These are the characters that really stand out. 

But there are others that you may not think of as characters.  The guy with the tattooed head who could always be spotted pushing a double stroller.  The cyclist that rides to and from work each day pulling his dog behind him in a laundry basket on a trailer.  The neighbor that is always organizing stuff, attending neighborhood meetings or passing out fliers.  The super friendly clerk at the game store or the owner of the BBQ joint with the distinctive voice that stands in the doorway and talks to everyone. 

These people are filling an important role in a community.  They add to its identity.  They create common experiences and knowledge that can shared by members of the community.  “You know the yelling guy?”  “Yes!  He rides by our house all the time!” 

They enrich our daily experience while we are moving through our day and along our familiar paths to work, to school, to the store.  Our communities are not only the buildings, streets, and parks that create the spaces we occupy but the people that create the energy and the color of our experience.    Without them, our experience might not be as colorful.

I have to say, they all make me smile.  Some make me sad.  On any given day I can be reminded of the fragility of the human brain.  I can appreciate their creativity and ingenuity.  I can be fed by their friendliness.  I can admire their authenticity.  I appreciate that range of emotions they spur in me.

I had a sister with Down’s Syndrome that died when she was only three.  But I think of her.  And I think that had she lived to be a somewhat independent adult, I would have wanted her to live in a community where she could walk to stores to get what she needed and ride the bus.  But most importantly, I would have wanted her to live somewhere where people would know her, recognize her and say hello to her.  She may have been a neighborhood character, because she would have been noticeably different and I imagine she would probably have been very social and said hello to everyone. 

I appreciate that my children get to experience this with me.  They have grown up knowing that there are SO many different kinds of people…no one is weird just because they do things differently.  It’s ok to be just who you are.  I am so thankful for that gift. 

One of the underlying reasons a community has or does not have characters is housing.  If a community has all different kinds of housing options… large, small, affordable, not so affordable, condos, single family, apartments, group options, rooms for rent, or ‘mother in law’ apartments …a wider variety  of people can live there.  A mix of uses is another key.  Shops, restaurants, library, post office, bus stops, grocery stores, services within walking distance can support a wider variety of people…with and without cars.  A walkable, mixed use neighborhood is not just a trendy idea for coffee shops and sidewalk cafes.   This gets people out into the world.  Young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled… Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience each other. 

And we wouldn’t experience our neighborhood characters.  They would be in cars.  Or somewhere else.

I would love to hear about the characters in your community!

The style of the house is what I would call “modern cottage” .  Here are a few detail photos to give you a sense of why…

Corner sink with windows so we can keep an eye on the kids

Exterior Corner Detail - Cedar rain screen system at same window

Transition from mudroom marmoleum to bamboo through pocket door

Half round galvanized gutters and downspouts

Stainless steel cable guardrail

It has been quite a while since my last post.  We made the final push to get the house completed and were able to move in!  I am including some photos as requested.  The blog was giving me trouble so I couldn’t post as many as I wanted to.   There are still many details that are not complete but we’re IN!

Dining Room

Kitchen

Kitchen and peek at front entrance

Stair and door to mudroom

Top floor guest suite

I have come to call the type of home design process we went through, “intentional design“. I could call it “family functional” but it is absolutely applicable if there is only one person that will be living in the space. The idea behind intentional design is that life has been considered…ALL aspects of life…today and in the future. How we live now, how we long to live and how life will change into the future. These ideas are supported functionally by the space, first. The home is really designed “from the inside out”, on many levels.
 
Here is an example:
On the top of my list of things I would rather not spend time doing, as a mom, is cleaning. Everything I can do to minimize the time spent cleaning or picking up, doing laundry, etc. is incorporated into the house design. I don’t want to spend time cleaning or spend any energy thinking about cleaning. It takes away from everything else I would much rather do… fun times with the family, friend time, exercise time, work time for me.   I don’t want to be stressed when friends drop in if my house is a huge mess. I want the design of the house to make it easy to maintain some semblance of cleanliness and organization with little effort on my part….and easy for the rest of the family to have rituals that keep the house clean. 
In addition, being able to maintain a “shoe free” living space should cut down on unhealthy stuff being tracked into the home, improving air quality.  Intentionally incorporating this into the design can make it much easier to achieve a shoe free home.

Here is one of the ways I am trying to achieve this (hopefully not impossible) dream!

There is a dirty zone and a clean zone. The dirty zone, our mud room, has everything a dirty adult or child would need to access. The mud room is rather large as mud rooms go. It is separated from the “clean zone” ie. the rest of the house, by a door. Ah, the door. That wonderful visual reminder that says, “NO, you may not come in here looking like that.”

There are two other doors in the mud room that lead to the outside…two different sides of the house. Why two? Because we humans can be pretty lazy and tend to go in the door closest to us. Even if it is not the mud room door…AND we have muddy feet. So to accommodate laziness, there are two doors.

The mud room is equipped with a small bathroom. No need to come in the main house when you gotta go so badly you can’t stop to take your shoes off, or your dripping wet from a hose fight, or plastered with grass clippings from use of the weed whacker.

The mud room also has a utility sink and countertop for all those messy projects…cleaning paintbrushes, potting plants, washing muddy hands or caked baseball cleats, or even wonderful art projects.

There are cabinets galore to hold all the sports and beach equipment that tends to be full of hidden sand or dirt, cleaning supplies, shoes, winter gear, biking gear and tools. No need to keep those things in your room or the attic. There is a long bench for sitting to take off shoes and boots and is long enough to accommodate several kids after a few hours of sledding in the park.

The mud room is also home to the dog and all of his necessities. This is where he gets fed and watered. He has a bed in the mud room to access from his dog door. The door to the rest of the house can stay closed and keep him contained when we need him to be….still with access to a nice warm house but not able to track muddy paws up on the couch to take a nap. I want my dog to have indoor/outdoor access when he wants it…I just don’t want to clean up after him. And I know my life will always be full of dogs.

The mud room is where the trash and recycling go out the door. It is also where the groceries from the car get unloaded while it’s raining.

The finishes are all rugged and easy to clean. No ridges or bumpy surfaces that hold dirt. Just smooth surfaces. The cabinets are easy to wipe off. Did I mention the door to the rest of the house?

So, whereas mud rooms in many houses occupy maybe a four foot by six foot space mostly taken up by the swing of the door, I am declaring the mud room ELEVATED in importance. Perhaps to the top of the list. In exchange, I anticipate less carpet cleaning, less sweeping, less “reminding” to take off shoes, less yelling, less chasing children back outside followed by a trail of mud, less dirty paw prints on my comforter, less frustration….and more peace. I hope to achieve this…through this intentional design process. For me, it’s how I “long” to live.

 

 

 

 

 

Moving from 700 square feet of living space to 2700 will be sheer bliss… I think.

For quite a while, I was worried we would lose the closeness that is inevitable when living practically on top of each other and always being within earshot of every word, every conversation. I imagine it’s how the pioneers may have lived in their one-room cabins. Hell, even the Ingalls’ had more space than we did in that little house on the prairie. I remember they had a pretty cool sleeping loft.

Granted, I have always been a proponent of small houses. I have no idea why people would NEED four or five thousand square feet like you see in the suburbs….unless you were a family of eight or more. If you are very organized and not into owning too much “stuff”, two people can live comfortably in 700 square feet. It is certainly more affordable.  My husband and I did for almost five years. Even when my oldest son was little, it was “cozy”. That’s 10 years total.

But after boy #2 came along, “the screamer”, my brain was nearing its limit, especially during the seven months out of the year that I couldn’t always send them outside to play. Or if we hosted a playdate at our house, the noise of one more child was simply too much in a small space. There was no way to get away from it. It frayed everybody’s nerves.

And forget about ever having a grown up “debate”. Little ears were ALWAYS a few feet away. And “whisper-yelling” behind closed doors in a tiny bedroom is just plain frustrating.

I do know that rats start to cannibalize each other if there is not enough living space in their cages. I am sure I have bitten off more than a few heads. Apparently 175 square feet per person is not enough. Rather, make that 140 per family member. We always have a big dog.

So, we doubled the footprint of our house: 1400 square feet. Then we went to a second story, another 1300 square feet for a total of 2700 square feet of living space. That’s 675 square feet per human family member, not including our Labrador Retriever. That’s quite a jump.

Aside: Unfortunately, our method of “valuing” real estate pushes people to build more square footage. It is a flaw of the system. In order for a builder or owner to get a construction loan, the bank has to have an appraisal that says there will be enough “value” there when it’s complete to more than cover the loan amount. So they send an appraiser to come up with a number. The appraisal method weighs heavily on how much square footage there will be. The more square footage, the higher the value, the more money the bank will lend. Because this has been the process, all the new homes out there that are used for comparable values, have the larger square footages. If your home has less square footage, according to the appraisal, it is not worth as much. This is the conundrum of building a small home…it is much more difficult to finance because the appraisal says it’s worth so much less. But it doesn’t cost so much less to build as to offset this value loss. Therefore, in many cases, the smaller home cannot be built at all.  (I have simplified the method, but the result is the same.)

 

So our new home may indeed be larger than what is optimal for a family of four. We did pull in some new uses that we were not able to accommodate before. We now have a place to eat with friends. Our old house had no eating area. Ours was the living room coffee table for many years. Our friends sat on the floor. We now have an in-home office so that I can work out of the home and not have to commute and still manage the day to day kid details. We have guest accommodations for visiting friends and family, enriching our relationships with those that live far away. And most importantly to us, as grown children living 3000 miles from aging parents, we will have the ability to take care of our parents in our home, if and when we need to.

So, we’ll see.

The line we always hear from friends is “What are you going to do with all that space, now? You’re not going to know how to act.” They have visions of us all following each other from room to room in our new house because we are so used to being together.

I have visions of being alone. Blissfully alone. Reading in my room, alone…Not able to hear the screaming on the first floor. And I glance around my room and it is clean. No one else’s shoes, clothes, toys, “art projects” from the recycling bin… Just me, in a simple grown up space, behind a locking door, alone.

Many readers have asked about the green features we designed into our house. So allow me to elaborate.
Achieving a ‘green home’ was NOT the main driver of our design and planning but a result of other decisions we made. These decisions were mostly driven by short and long term affordability, indoor air quality and what I think is just common sense. (And I guess if I look a little more closely, having been so immersed in passive solar design and geomancy in architecture school, I could not have made design decisions that work against nature.)
Let me just list the elements that would fall into the category of “green”:
 

 

 

  • We salvaged plumbing and electrical fixtures, doors, wood, cabinetry, metal, appliances etc. from the old house to donate to the ReStore for reuse and our kitchen cabinets were installed at the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool for a whole wing of new storage space, food prep and reading area.
  • Foundation is slab on grade to minimize earth disturbance and ground water disturbance.
  • Placement of the building on the site for maximum solar gain for passive solar heating and daylighting. Placement also allows south facing patio to absorb sun/heat during the day and radiant heat during the evening allowing for longer outdoor time.
  • Placement on site to allow utility areas to be located on the north side and social uses and food growing areas on the south side.
  • Roof form and orientation to allow for installation of solar photovoltaic and hot water panels.
  • Window placement for multidirectional natural daylighting in each room. Each room has windows on at least two different walls. This cuts down on the need to turn on the lights during most of the day.
  • Window, door and room opening placement to allow for natural cross ventilation and cooling. No AC.
  • Hydronic tubing in the concrete slab and minimal hydronic tubing in the second level floor joists allow for even heating of the whole house. Half of the house is not even directly heated but stays warm due to high levels of insulation and natural heat flow patterns that are aligned with daily life.
  • Highest efficiency, on-demand, natural gas hot water heater only fires up when you need it. A recirculation loop on a timer helps to conserve water during peak demand times (morning showers) by eliminating water waste while waiting for the hot water to get to the fixture.
  • Motion sensor lights for energy conservation in rooms where people are likely to forget to turn the lights off…bathrooms, laundry, hallways, mudroom, etc.
  • Soy based insulation…and lots of it.
  • Use of exterior grade plywood throughout the whole house instead of OSB (Oriented Strand Board) to prevent outgassing from the OSB and allow for better indoor air quality.
  • Indoor plant growing areas in kitchen and bathroom to take advantage of window orientation, natural moisture and access to water. Indoor plants help clean the air. And I am less likely to kill them by neglect if they are right next to a water source and the natural steam from a shower helps them be a bit more independent.
  • Simple building and roof forms and efficient location of walls and windows allowed for efficient framing, minimized cuts and minimized construction waste.
  • Bamboo flooring, marmoleum, natural tile and other sustainable materials.
  • Simple, basic cabinetry so that the interior style of the house can change/adapt over time but the underlying “bones” do not have to be disposed of and replaced with a more current style. My plan is that you will never walk into my house…30 years from now…and say “that’s SO 2009!” and I will not have had to replace the cabinets.
  • Energy efficient lighting, energy star appliances, dual fuel range/oven.
  • Low flow toilets, showers and sinks. Low water use washer.
  • Under counter composter and recycling areas in the kitchen.

This is not an exhaustive list. And again let me emphasize, the green element was a byproduct of our other design goals. We didn’t “build green” to gain a new marketing angle, to sell something at a higher price, to impress anyone or to make a point. The house is “green” because it made good sense to us to make these decisions. That, I think, is the most important piece that someone may take out of this.

The main focus of our design was family functionality and social interaction. These are my favorite to talk about and teach. I will spare you a long explanation now. But if you want to know more, I would love to share. I am  leading workshops on this type of “intentional design” and how you can do it yourself before you engage an architect. More to come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll start with what is closest to me right now. Our house.

We have been building our home for over a year. Almost every day someone walks by and asks questions. Are you building it yourself? Did you design it yourself? It has been surprising to us how many people are seriously interested in building a home and finding out more about our experience, the design and green considerations.

A little background:

In 1994, we purchased one of the last homes in Seattle that were priced under $100,000. One of the familiar single story, “post-war boxes” that were built in the 1940s, it had two small bedroooms, no dining area and measured 700 square feet in living space. The yard was overgrown, waist high with grasses and blackberries and contained shopping carts, a collapsing shed and other miscellaneous trash. The previous owner had developed Alzheimer’s and eventually was not able to take care of the home or herself and had moved into a care facility. Prior to her move, however, she had taken in at least a dozen cats that eventually took over the house.

When we arrived at the realtor’s “open house”, with no real intention of buying a house for another year or two, the realtor came out of the house with a mask on. She offered two masks to Charlie and me. The house smelled terrible but was a simple, reasonably built little house on a corner across the street from a park and three blocks from everything you would ever need….grocery stores, buslines to downtown and the University, a Fred Meyer store, drug stores, coffee shops, a theatre and cheap ethnic food. After weeks and weeks of denial followed by deliberation and them dropping the price and begging for an offer, we purchased our “little crappy house”. We were just over a year out of college and both making $10 an hour.

It took us about six weeks to get it into livable condition which included sanding, bleaching and refinishing all the hardwood floors that were under the forty year old carpet and were damaged by cat urine. In the process of putting on a new roof ourselves, in November, we discovered we had stumbled upon a gem of a neighborhood. One by one, neighbors began to show up to offer us food or tools or stories. There were long time residents that had grown up there and raised their children there who were now grown up and living in the neighborhood. There were families  living on the same block as grandma or across the street from an uncle. They had history with each other and with this neighborhood. This neighborhood that wasn’t pretty. But beneath the surface of the haphazard home styles, no sidewalks, some unkept lawns and the odd happenings of an urban park, this neighborhood had a beauty about it.

We fell in love with the neighborhood and all its quirkiness and we grew to know ALL of our neighbors. And after fourteen years and two children, we outgrew our 700 square feet home and began to design a new one to be built on the same lot. We had developed such a wonderful network of friends and neighbors, we couldn’t leave. You can’t buy that.

Background Flashback:    So, Charlie and I met while we were both studying Architecture at the University of Colorado. Actually it was an “Environmental Design” program and we officially met in Phil Tabb’s Solar Technology class. And as you might have guessed, studying Architecture in Boulder at that time already had a strong environmental consideration…including geomantic design or blending design with nature and its rhythms and energy. At the same time, Willem Van Vliet was there and had a big impact on my view of housing affordability, sociology of housing and how design effects the behavior of its occupants and those around it.

Of course we had to design our own home. It took about eighteen months of brainstorming, discussion, debate, drawing, fighting, redrawing, starting over and finally multiple dinners and saki with uber talented architect Roger Gula, to break the deadlocks and counsel us through to agree on a final plan.

The plan boils down to the following “intentional design” basics:
It had to make everyday family life better, more efficient and allow for less cleaning.
It had to accommodate fun with our friends and our children’s friends and our neighbors.
It had to be healthy and utilize the natural environment, not work against it.
It had to be affordable to build and affordable to maintain and power.

 

The house is not complete yet, but we thought it might be fun to open it to others that are interested in a tour and may have questions.