First published 4/8/16
From the very beginning of our house building project, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to accomplish with the architectural style as well as the interior layout and design. While I think that I would have ended up with mostly good choices by working it out by myself, the assistance of our architect Anthony Mach was invaluable. Even though I had a much clearer notion than many people do going into the early phases, I still often needed that access to an expert opinion about what is doable and how to make all of the parts fit together. And don’t even get me started on the process of turning the rough sketches into final blueprints, I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge to be able to put together those technical details.
For any of you who are considering building a custom home, I would recommend that you start by doing what we did, and make a list of things that you require, those that you would like, and those that you just don’t want to do. Also take the time to look at lots of pictures, as it always helped us to figure out if something would work by finding a good example. My digital scrapbook of inspiration eventually made it to several hundred pictures. And be prepared to revise that list in the face of budget, practicalities, or even your own changing understanding. Our starting list as of the time that we first met with Anthony was the following:
- 3 bedroom, 2 bath house
- Nice screen porch facing the river
- Upside-down design, with living spaces on the upper level, and the bedrooms on the lower level
- Passive solar orientation (discussed here and here) with plenty of big windows
- As compact as possible given what we are trying to fit in, both for energy efficiency as well as to contain costs
- Superinsulated (discussed here)
- Timber framed, or otherwise using lots of natural wood
- Contemporary design with a single pitched shed style roof
- Resilient design, using well-chosen design details and high quality components, so that house will age well over decades
- Big stone fireplace with a high efficiency stove insert
We already had a fairly well-developed plan by the time we went to Anthony, so I feel pretty good that out of this initial list, the only item that was dropped was the large stone fireplace. It turns out that doing these the old fashioned way with larger real stones is both very energy inefficient as well as incredibly expensive. It turns out that the vast majority of the ‘stonework’ that one sees on both the interior and exterior of today’s buildings is actually painted concrete. It is relatively thin pieces of veneer that can be added to almost any wall, and the process now yields fairly realistic looking stone. With this entire project I’ve wanted things to feel as authentic as possible, and fake stone just wasn’t something that appealed to me. As the plans developed further, we realized that the simple clean lines of a wood stove and interior stove pipe were just as good of an aesthetic fit while being much better in terms of cost and energy efficiency.
Open concept living
We, along with a lot of others buying and building houses today, wanted an open concept design, with a single great room containing the kitchen, dining, and living spaces. I have heard and read quite a number of things about the growing popularity of the open concept, and it seems that there are two major drivers. The first is a greater desire for families to spend time together. With parents working more hours, kids doing more activities, families want to spend the few hours where everyone is at home together. The other trend is for increasingly casual living arrangements. People no longer want to hide away the mess of the kitchen and to eat in a formal dining room. This fits just about right with our own decision about building this way; this was always intended to be a place for the family to be together. Opening up the living and cooking spaces to each other solve all of these issues, putting everyone all in one space. We ended up with a room of 18’x38′ (680 ft 2), which has been fantastic for family time and groups up to about 15 people. We often are cooking and doing cleanup at the same time as we entertain or keep an eye on our young children.
A screen porch was another thing that was at the very top of our list of desired features. In our climate it may only be porch weather for four months of the year, but during that time it is the best place in the house. It turns out that screen porches aren’t all that popular here in eastern Canada, and I actually have no idea why. In Minnesota, where I grew up, basically every cabin, and many homes, have screen porches. Granted, the mosquitos are the size of sparrows there, but there isn’t exactly a shortage of biting insects here in the region around Ottawa. The bug season makes enclosed spaces awfully appealing for outdoor living throughout the wet northern temperate climates. In a lot of the modern architecture photos and articles that I’ve looked at, I often see whole walls that open to make indoor/outdoor spaces, and decks and porches seldom seem to have any bug protection. This may work in California, but that sort of design certainly does not fit well in a place where the biting insect season almost completely overlaps the warm months.
Most multi-story homes have the main living areas on the main floor, with bedrooms above. In a great many cases this really does make the most sense. One can enter the house and go straight into the more public spaces, with the bedrooms tucked away up a staircase. However, it isn’t so great if your home has a view that you would like to take advantage of, as those views generally improve the higher one goes, and I don’t think that a lot of people spend hours in their bedrooms admiring the views.
In our case, we had a perfect setup to flip the house upside down. We planned from the beginning to have a walkout basement lower level, and we had tremendous views that we wanted to be able to appreciate. Pushing the house into the side of the hill also meant that it was only five steps up from the driveway to the upper level. So while I don’t think that it is for everyone, I wouldn’t do it any other way if we were building again at this site. The advantages are that we are able to really appreciate the views that our hilltop site affords, the space is much brighter, and it tends to be warmer upstairs which is a boon most of the time (and conversely, the bedrooms stay cooler at all times of the year which I appreciate when I sleep). All that said, there is one significant drawback – even with some insulation to deaden the footfalls, it can be difficult to stay asleep downstairs when there is a 3 year old running wind sprints back and forth above your head at 6:00 in the morning.
Our downstairs is then taken up by three bedrooms, one full bath, and mechanicals/storage space. We kept the bedrooms to a relatively modest size, each at about 12’x12′. This is big enough to have a full set of bedroom furniture but leaves relatively little room to spare. Some people now put in massive bedroom suites, but it seems to me that bedrooms are mostly just for sleeping and not for hanging out. And just to show that I’m not entirely self-consistent, I’ve included a picture below of the windows that we put into the master bedroom. I couldn’t resist taking advantage of the view even if we don’t spend that much time in there appreciating it.
There are dozens of popular styles for homes, such as Prairie, Tudor, Craftsman, and many others. Though there are some cultural and climatic reasons for choosing one style over another, the better part of the decision making comes down to aesthetic choices. Through all phases of the design process, I spent a good deal of time looking at architectural and design websites, articles, magazines, and photos. I was particularly drawn to aspects of the contemporary style, and so making the decision really came down to that appeal. To really dig into the sort of places that I found inspirational, I found even more tightly defined terms like “modern rustic” or “mountain contemporary”. These styles really have become quite popular with those who build nice houses out in the woods, fields, and mountains. Staying within a given style lends a sense of continuity to a home, from the inside to the outside, and from room to room, though there are certainly some eclectic homes that stand the test of time as well. If you search around for terms like these in architectural magazines and websites, you’ll find no shortage of examples that have a similar feel to our own place, relatively modern looking with lots of natural wood, stone, and big windows to take in the views. I just hope that in 20 or 30 years time that our choices don’t look as dated as all of the 70’s lime green, orange, and dark faux wood paneling that my parents installed when they built their own cottage back in the day.
A few of the most influential architects and builders on our aesthetic choices are the following:
- Finne Architects. Extremely high end custom contemporary homes. They are absolutely beautiful, but I don’t even want to know what the costs are. Nils Finne and his team make a large amount of built ins, custom furniture, and unique designs for each and every project.
- Method Homes. A prefabricated home builder. Some of their home styles are quite architecturally similar to our own final design.
- Go Logic, particularly this passive house they built.
Use of large dimension timbers
My wife and I both love natural wood finishes, and I am exceptionally fond of the bigger timbers used in timber framing. However, in the earlier part of our own design process, I learned why there are so few timber frames being built today. First, building with big timbers is expensive. The wood costs are significantly more, but so are the costs of cutting the traditional joinery (needed before the easy availability of strong metal nails and screws). Second, it is quite difficult to insulate a timber frame building. The most common way of doing so is to build the house twice; first build the timber frame, then build another full wall and roof assembly outside of that which can be insulated normally. At the same time, the timbers are beautiful. Many people generate a similar look with false beams or wrapping regular construction lumber in naturally finished boards, but just like what I mentioned about faux stone above, I find that many of these attempts can end up looking inauthentic or cheap.
With all this in mind, we found a few places in our home where big dimensional timbers made a bit more sense, using a building method commonly called a ‘hybrid’ timber frame. The first location was our screen porch. Here, there aren’t any issues of insulation to deal with, as the whole structure is just a shell to keep out insects, with cedar floors, plexiglass lower panels to prevent anyone from falling through, and screen above. Second, we used big beams to hold the roof trusses on the big overhangs. We put 4′ overhangs around the entire home, and though there are multiple ways to support this sort of detail, we did so with large douglas fir beams, on which all of the roof trusses rest (see the time lapse installation video here for a look at the work the fir beams do for the roof). Finally we used white pine beams for the floor joists and supporting beam for the second story. We were going to need to put in joists anyway, so we decided to use 4″x8″ joists, and a 10″x12″ supporting beam. This provides a beautiful ceiling for the entire downstairs level, and should be rock-solid for the lifetime of the house. So for the heavy beams that we included, they all serve very functional purposes, which felt like an important thing to me, that it was not simply decoration. For all of our timber work, we used simpler joints held together by screws rather than the traditional mortise and tenon joinery, which allowed all of the installation to go much more quickly.
Building for resilience:
Finally, I want to make some comments about building for the long-term. So many decisions in home building (and too many other domains as well) are made looking only at the short term. For builders, it usually makes the most sense to build the most inexpensive construction that they can get away with, and then invest more on those parts of a home that really catch the eye of the buyers, like the fancy kitchen, spa type bathroom, or big walk-in closets. People don’t tend to be very good at evaluating what is behind the final finishes, nor are they good at imagining what the future maintenance, replacement, utility bills, or other costs will be for a home. Further, people only own a given home for an average of 13 years, so any feature that doesn’t do well on the resale market is less likely to make it into the average home.
This is of course not a complete picture. The building code improves steadily, requiring constantly better insulation, air sealing, air quality and more. And there is a growing trend toward green building, emphasizing reduced energy use and healthier indoor air. Unfortunately, these are still relatively niche markets, and the average new home being built is far less than it could be.
For our own project, we built a place that we hope to never have to sell during a lifetime, and if things go really well, our kids will continue to use it well after we are gone. With those kind of goals in mind, it is much easier to think about a 50 year time frame, and to be able to justify the costs of doing things ‘right’ the first time around. If we’ve succeeded at this, we may have very little maintenance and renovation work to do on the house itself for decades to come. Only time will tell us if we succeeded. So rather than discuss all of the details individually, I just include a long list of the details that we included for the sake of long-lasting quality.
- Steel through fastened roof. Should last in excess of 50 years
- 4′ overhangs on all sides of the building. Reduces the exposure of the siding and base of the house to sun, rain, and snow, which should extend the lifetime of the siding.
- Great drainage and waterproofing around the house. Should keep all water away from the foundation indefinitely
- Poured concrete foundation rather than cement block. Much longer lasting, and much more resistant to the elements
- Low maintenance landscaping and plantings, should require little to no watering or fertilizer.
- Cement board siding. Though after learning more, I would likely go with steel siding for the entire building. Steel has the same pros of fire and pest resistance, but has lower embodied energy, lasts longer and is more easily recycled
- Real wood (white pine and sugar maple) for the trim, flooring, staircase and wooden interior doors. These should last much longer than hollow or fiberboard materials and can easily be refurbished rather than replaced if they receive any abuse
- Low and zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in all of the paints and other finishes. These allow for much improved air quality, and I expect to see indoor air quality standards to become much more strict than they are today
- Superinsulated, most insulation being mineral wool (Roxul)