Monday, February 13, 2012


We wanted really nice floors, wood ones that feel great under (sock) foot. It's nice if they wear well, and even better if they can remind us of time, and weather. That is, if they change in response to time or weather. So wood is perfect. It ages and builds patina, it records incidents, like dropped pots and spilled wine, and it shrinks and swells with the seasons.

But really nice wood floors are expensive. So we looked around for a good while before making our decision.

Upstairs, we went with Southern Yellow Pine. This is inexpensive, yet much harder and more durable than Eastern White Pine. After it was laid, it looked a bit like Sweden, but we had another aim. We had it painted, 3 coats of incredibly durable and glossy white enamel. In our sock feet it feels so slick and smooth, and it vacuums up so easily. We love it. And it makes our house bright even on gray days, and this makes the long winter pass a bit easier.

Downstairs, we went with unfinished white oak, a rustic grade I bought from my usual lumber supplier for a very reasonable, cheap even, price. Having some serious milling equipment in my barn, I trimmed all of the boards to width, so I could minimize waste and get some wide boards out of the pile. I had planned to fill the knot holes and sand and oil the whole thing, but it looked so nice as it lay, a really nice Heather color, that we decided to try to live with it unoiled or finished. I presanded all the boards prior to laying, so they feel great underfoot. So far, anytime something has spilled on it, we wipe it up promptly. Oily things leave a mark, and when enough of these things have accumulated, we run over it lightly with a palm sander and it is good as new. By the sink, dishwasher and stove, we have the most messes, so we just bought a 10' runner from the Swedish store in Great Barrington and laid it out in that zone. So far, so good. Worst case scenario? We throw in the towel and oil it all anyway.....

A final note: I got good pricing from a local guy to install the floor, but having the tools, equipment, and free time in the evenings meant I could save a nice chunk of change if I laid it myself. So I did, and I've questioned this wisdom ever since. I enjoyed it ok, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment, but it did delay the project significantly, as for example, plumbing fixtures can't go in until the flooring is down, etc. Given our schedule, it worked out, but if you are in a rush, leave this one to the pros.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


I love the weight, the heft, the permanence, the indifference, and the irreversible finality of stone. Stone is. It was, and will be. Long past my exit. So it is good to place it. Once.

We found a quarry in our region that supplies lovely, huge granite curbstone to municipalities. It dawned on me that if they make it to run miles, it must be affordable. Bingo. It is. But you need someone to lay it.

Lengths up to 12' are available, in 4" x 12" dimensions. Rather than have our house telegraph its modularity, by showing a concrete foundation, we designed into the foundation a stone shelf on which to lay these huge slabs of stone. Thus, our house has an apparent stone foundation. It sits on stone, which gives it a sense of eternity.

After discussions with the mason, I backed down to 6' lengths, as 3 men can wrestle this into place. The job, in the bitterest cold, still went quickly and affordably: they had my foundation wrapped in 3 days. I had bought extra to use around the carport, but subsequent design changes meant I had a good deal of extra stone. In fact, I had enough to build one hell of a fireplace.

I counted up the stones, I drew very carefully where each stone and joint would fall, and compared it with published data on chimney draughting as well as with the mason's experience. I want that fireplace to suck like hell. Being large, this might prove difficult, but we arrived at a course of action, and he went to work for a few weeks. Part of this course of action included a tiny kitchen fireplace too, as well as wood storage within the stone work.

End of story: we hosted a dozen friends for a Thanksgiving meal in the yet unoccupied house. We had a ceremonial lighting - some people standing around with drinks in their hand - and I lit the paper under the first fire. Whooooooosh. As people who survive tornadoes often say, "You shoulda heard it - that thing sounded like a freight train."

I burn a lot of time and firewood here now.....


Smart people don't put a lot of glass at the Northern end of a house, reason being, glass is not a great insulator. In Europe, they have triple glazing, which is like a triple decker sandwich of glass and gas. This actually performs quite well. Here, we have to settle for double glazing. And, having the views we have to the north, northeast and northwest, we went for a glass end of the house. We found a local guy who could provide the large sheets we need at a surprisingly affordable price, so we placed our order and waited. It turns out, the largest pane we needed, a sheet 11'-4"W x 8' H, was the largest sheet the factory (we suspect Corning Glass) had ever done. Still hard for me to believe. So, the factory won't warrant the glass. The glass is tempered, so they are not saying it may break: they just aren't sure the glass won't delaminate, which leaves that foggy look one often sees in big sheets. It was a risk we were willing to take. (Update - 6 months in and some huge winds and sleepless nights, but no prob so far....) Three weeks after the order, a ragtag band of very brave locals showed up and wrestled the four sheets into place inside of 2 hours.
Suddenly the house grew quiet, and the sun bore in. The space warmed up from the heat gain, and I've never looked back. Just out......

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Carport

Whenever I get to build, I have a need to really engage in the act of building. There needs to be something "built" about the project, something that seems "made," something that teaches me a new technique, something that offers a new medium to work with. In the Charlottesville house, it was the structural system: the house is essentially 5 pairs of brick piers spanned by huge paired wooden beams. In this house, it went beyond the setting of the modular boxes: it became the carport and the bookend.

We had a price from Bob Segalla to add a carport to the roadside end of the house. While we had drawn it into our pricing package, it was not part of the modular construction. I think he looked at it quickly and assumed it would be a straightforward garage structure, and he put a number on it. After the the house boxes were set, we re-imagined the carport relative to the new building. We lowered it's ridgeline to bring the height of the house down closer to grade. We still left it pretty tall, monumental in fact, so I could hit tennis balls and shoot basketballs within its cavernous space.

As for materials, we thought about everything, but nothing seemed to work. When Pilar made the decision to drop the ridgeline, something clicked, and it seemed obvious that we should make the supporting posts become steel columns, and the spanning beam should also be a deep steel beam. Painted black.
So here's another thing I love about Bob Segalla: when we shifted from wood construction to steel, he found it was cheaper, so he did the unthinkable: he gave us money back. That's right. Maybe I've been hanging with a lower class of guy, but that just doesn't seem to ever happen, in building or life. There's still one guy out there......
To end the house, I had fallen in love with the idea of a stone end. I remember on a boat trip to Shelter Island seeing the ruins of a magnificent barn: all that was left were the stone gable ends, perfect stone blades amid the overgrown vines. I remembered Kahn's dictum to "build good ruins." We looked into stone, got it priced, but inevitably, I seemed drawn to making a white white surface that shot down into the green grass of the field. I wanted it smooth, white, maintenance free. Stucco.
I considered putting a gigantic opening in this end, a giant glassless opening. Lots of people thought this should happen, but I didn't want a carport that totally failed: I didn't want to have to scrape snow off the truck every single time. And I really really liked the idea of a monolithic blade of white in the grass. So, it became just that. Now, every time I see it, especially up close, it makes me think I'm somewhere warm and sunny.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Roofs and Neighbors

We have a neighbor down the hill whom we like very much, and one day he called to say that the new roof we put on our old barn (at left above) reflects the sun pretty severely into his eyes at certain times of the day. Ugh..... We love the standing seam roof: not only does it match the silos, not only does it remind me of the farmhouses of my youth, not only is it durable, relatively permanent and green (for its heat reflectivity), and not only is it beautiful, it has an authenticity that defies the transient nature of the everyday. It is real.
And to our neighbor's disappointment, we had already ordered the roofing material: it was sitting in the roofer's garage awaiting the trimming of the building, and some decent weather. Finally, the clouds drifted away and the roofers got to it, making quick work of the main roof, holding off of the carport roof until the bookending of that structure is complete.
I do think the neighbor will be ok with this roof, as it is parallel to his view of it, so the sun won't glance off of it at the proper angle. I don't know about the other neighbors though....

Lawn Ornaments

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Protecting the House

In that the modules were delivered in January, and the inside is fully drywalled and primed, there was a bit of stress every time it rained this winter. The house is wrapped in building wrap, and the roof has ice and water shield over it's entire surface, but we have enormous winds over our hilltop, and some of the wraps blew off. Segalla has gamely re-covered it, not once not twice, but three times and finally resorted to attaching battens over the whole house to pin it down.

The first order of business was to get some windows in the holes. We ordered a month in advance 16 out-swing French casement windows. We found some that don't have a vertical bar in the middle, so when they open, they truly open with no dividers. Ours are big, and they sit 27" from the floor, so the view is unobstructed when one is sitting or standing. They showed up a week after the house, and Segalla's men quickly and expertly dropped them in place.Thank goodness, for then it rained and blew and rained and blew....... and finally, the clouds broke, the fog lifted, and the sun came up.

Time to side the building!!!!

I've said I like things like a thoroughbred - high and tight - and the siding is an important part of that. I want it smooth, almost seamless, but with a little relief. And, given the high winds we have, it must be dead-eye tight. After some tossing and turning, and getting as many varying viewpoints as there are people in the world, I decided to go with shiplap siding, hung atypically in horizontal fashion, with the smooth side out. This way, painting would be a snap, and looking down the house, you even pick up some reflectivity.
I also decided to furr out the siding 1/4" from the sheathing, so that if water did penetrate the gaps, it would just run down the back of the siding and out, as opposed to just sitting there soaking the house and forming mold. I ordered the siding and had the supplier pre-prime it on both sides so the wood would remain stable and avoid cupping.
I needed some help with this - the work is substantial, and a bit dangerous, given the heights. I interviewed about 8 crews for this, and it made me a bit crazy. Guys out there still think $45/hour is their due, even if they aren't working and nothing is in sight. One guy about pushed me to the edge and I wanted to start throwing blows. He walked slow, talked slow, and gave me attitude about all the work I needed to do before he came. He stood there stupidly, and said he'd like $50/hr. I asked if he had a crew. "No, I work alone." Well, I'm thinking, he really thinks I'm going to pay him to cut a board, drag it up one end of a ladder and tack it up, then climb down same ladder and go up another ladder and tack in the other end, then go down and relocate the ladder at least 3 more times for this board. And for 1000 more boards. At $50/hr.! I really wanted to clock him, but I just turned away as he started whining about working cheaper for cash....

Finally, I found a can-do guy with a "no prob" attitude, who was willing to work cheaper because he recognized the economy and needed the work. I hired him, he rounded up his buddies, and he started promptly. Sometimes the work seems to go a little slowly, but he has proven to be exacting and careful and the result has been superb in every way.

And looky there.... a little bit of roof has shown up!