The first thing I asked my husband Charlie to build after we bought our teeny-tiny house seventeen years ago, was a picnic table.  Our little cottage was 700 square feet.  An efficient two bedroom one bath that we got for a steal , it had no real place to sit and eat dinner.  We dined at our coffee table.

So, as soon as the weather improved he set about building a big social picnic table so that we could have friends for dinner.  During the winter, we did have friends for dinner from time to time but two people would have to sit on the floor and two on the couch to use our coffee/dining table.  We only invited our closest friends to sit on our hardwood floor and eat.

True to his nature, Charlie designed and built a beautiful oversized picnic table with perfectly comfortable proportions for getting in and out without banging knees, with plenty of width to hold bowls and platters of food in the middle without crowding the diners and the most comfortable distance for conversation.  The top of the table was just a couple of inches shy of 4’ x 8’.  The structure was simple and clean.  We applied a translucent stain to give it a pickled look and protect the wood a bit.

That picnic table sat out in our yard for 15 years and played host to countless meals with friends and family.  The wood aged to a comfortable silver grey.

When we designed our new home, the center point/nucleus/origination point for the entire design was a large table that could host a new generation of meals with friends and family.  It took us two years to build our home and during that time the economy collapsed and along with that were any immediate plans to spend additional money furnishing the house….or finding  that perfect table.

Since it was November, we decided to bring our beloved picnic table indoors.  The top was pretty beat up from spending so many years outside in Seattle weather.  So Charlie fastened a new top to the table.  A 4×8 sheet of maple veneer plywood.  He put a nice edge trim on the top and finished it with the leftover polyurethane finish we used for our bamboo floors.

The result was a new favorite!  Smooth, glossy mod top with silvered, weathered soft bench seats….and you can even find a little moss underneath leftover from its previous  life in the outdoors of the Great Northwest.  It seats  8 comfortably and 12 is cozy…adding chairs to the ends.

It doubles as a ping pong table after dinner.  And an art project table.

So, we’ve decided we no longer need to search for that perfect dining table.  Now, what we really need is a new outside picnic table!

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!