Sunday, July 22, 2012

South Gate

I started thinking of the main door to the Great Room as a "gate" after browsing some gate latches I could use for the handle. The word "gate" also links this element to the entrances of ancient and future Jerusalem as described in Scripture. Not that I've intended the Great Room to be a model of the Heavenly City. (Not that that means it isn't.) But it is intended to express and inspire holiness. Here is the door in the back of my truck after I picked it up from the shop:

On this trip I prayed for the first time ever, I'm sure, that I would not be rear-ended.

I always intended this door to be a "rail and stile" type, with three panels. "Stile" refers to the vertical member on each side of the door; "rail" refers to the horizontal members. In this case, the way I proportioned the stiles and rails left three perfectly square panels. Here's the door in one of my original elevation drawings for the house:

Something got left out of the built door, no? I'm showing a rather intricate geometric pattern for each panel. This pattern would not necessarily be exactly as shown, but similar. The basic geometry is the same as what I've been working with for the rose window planned for the east wall of the Great Room. The idea was that this door would foreshadow the geometry found inside emblazoned by the sunrise.

I imagined that these patterns would be made by cutting out slivers of wood to match each shape, then gluing them to a solid panel and installing it in the door. But my door builder said this kind of "inlay" work was beyond his ability; and even if it wasn't, it would be beyond my budget. So we agreed he would just put some kind of wood panel in for now, and I could have the pattern made (or make it myself) later on. We worried about this panel, though. What would it be? Plywood? That would fall apart pretty quick in the weather. And solid wood would have to be laminated together, which would take extra time and money.

At some point he called me and said, "What do you think about using stainless steel for those panels?" I didn't like it at first, but over the next few days as I thought it over, I warmed to the idea. I got a local sheet metal shop to cut three squares of 1/8-inch thick stainless steel sheet, dropped them off to my door builder, and he put them in. So there - who says I have trouble using someone else's ideas? Here's the finished door on the house:

I like that the steel is reflective, but opaque - in contrast to the reflective and transparent windows. I still like the geometric inlay pattern best for these panels (okay, so maybe I do have trouble using other people's ideas.. ), and I could add that over the steel. Maybe that will be yet another project I'll have after this house is "finished." But the stainless is a mighty fine place-holder. And who knows, maybe I'll warm to the idea of leaving it permanently.

The wood for the stiles and rails is "sapele" - a dark African hardwood similar to mahogany in look and performance, but cheaper. I considered using cypress first, which is what I used for most other exterior wood on the house, including the door trim here. But someone (maybe the door builder) suggested considering sapele. I had never heard of it, but when saw that it was a dark wood, I started liking the idea that this door could be unique among all other wood construction on the house. It is a unique element, after all - not just the main door to the house, but the main door to the most important space in the house. So whatever way this door distinguishes itself is justified. Besides, any true Christian building has to have something from Africa, right?

Here are some views of the door opened:

The south gate has a heft commensurate with its purpose - somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds, guessed its builder. I concurred, after my roommate and I carried it from the shop to my truck. The door installer said it was closer to 150, which would mean it weighs about the same as me - how cool if it was exactly the same?

Not sure what that would mean, but one thing it means is: big hinges.

They are stainless steel, matching the panels. I was surprised to find these in stock at Lowes. And of course I had them face-mounted. Y'all should know by now I don't hide anything in this house.

The sapele actually isn't the only dark wood here. There are 1/2-inch thick strips of ipe next to each column and beam. I like that there's a visual parallel between the front door and the deepest parts of the house's construction.

Now back to the latch - which hasn't been installed yet, or even chosen. As I looked at image after image of entry door hardware, a question came to mind that was both scary and exciting: "Does this door need to lock?" It was mostly scary at first, and I tried to get rid of it. But slowly I started to think that maybe this was the most beautiful thought I've had this year, and that maybe it wasn't really mine. It reminded me of that old idea that the doors of the church are always open - to anyone, at any time. It also brought to mind a prophecy concerning the future Jerusalem: "Your gates will always be open" (Isaiah 60:11, Revelation 21:25).

The scariness of the idea dissipated a bit when I realized that the door leading from the Great Room to the rest of the house could be locked instead. That would mean every room in the house (kitchen, bedrooms, baths) would be secure except the Great Room. The Holy Place would be ever open; the domestic space would be locked. Also consoling was the realization that if this ever became a problem, or if I ever changed my mind, a dead bolt or other lock could easily be added.

I'm still ruminating about this. But the latch I'm leaning towards is called a "Bermuda gate latch." It's solid white bronze, and doesn't come with a lock.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


"...the temple's firm towering makes visible the invisible space of air. The steadfastness of the work contrasts with the surge of the surf, and its own repose brings out the raging of the sea."
(Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the Work of Art)

Here's a four-minute video I put together using time-lapse clips of the house in sunlight as well as slow motion clips from a walk-through I did during a rainstorm. I set it to a Norwegian traditional song called "Nu Solen Gar Ned," rendered exquisitely by a group of three female singers, Trio Mediaeval. What, does that not seem appropriate for a 21st-century house in North America? I didn't get it either until I saw the translation of the title: "The Sun is Setting." Both the house and the music were conceived with the passing of the sun in mind. There's also a general otherworldiness to this music that I've hoped would be a characteristic of my house as well - otherworldly, but in responding to experiences common to humans everywhere in place and time (such as the sunset), also universal.

This house does come with a soundtrack, and one that keeps growing. This song has been added to it.

Friday, July 13, 2012


The rough-in of the mechanical system is currently underway. This work will further distinguish the Great Room, or Holy Place, from the rest of the house. Along the ceiling of the hallway that wraps around the courtyard and links to the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms, the ductwork is galvanized spiral pipe, exposed to view. Here it is before it was hung:

And after it was hung - at the center of the hallway ceiling:

Feeders will extend from this "trunk line" to supply air to each room. It's like the spinal cord of the house, running along the vertebrae of joists, giving comfort to each space. I do think of this house as a living organism.

In my original drawings I assumed this duct would only have to be 8 inches in diameter. But it turned out to have to be 12 inches - which puts the bottom of it slightly lower than the 4 x 12 beams on each side. I was fine with this spatially, but soon I realized that the inswing windows along the hall might hit the duct when opened. They swing just below the beams, so I knew they would be at least very close to the slightly lower duct pipe. I told my mechanical contractor to open the windows once the duct was hung. It wouldn't be a total disaster if the duct was too low; we would just have to move it about 6 inches away from the glass to let the windows swing all the way open. Of course that would mean that the duct would not be in the center of the hall, which was pretty important to me visually.

Thankfully the windows were able to swing all the way open without hitting the duct - though with less than 1/4 inch to spare. That was so close that the cables used to hold the duct to the joists had to be moved so the windows wouldn't catch on them, despite being less than 1/4 inch around. So to swing these windows all the way open fast and watch them barely clear both the beam and the duct is something of a breathtaking exercise in faith that I didn't really intend.

The air handler housing is seen beyond in the photo below. The duct bending to the right goes to the kitchen and bedrooms, the duct on the left supplies the Great Room.

Where the hall meets the Great Room's brick wall, the duct will bend up and go through a small opening above the doorway, and into the attic space around the skylight well:

The duct will be concealed in the Great Room, in other words. The idea to expose the duct in most of the house goes along with the overarching goal of being honest and truthful about how the building is made. Necessary parts of the building are brought into view and fixed into order. But the Great Room is first of all about holiness, expressed as perfection, orderliness, cleanliness. Everything that hangs out in the rest of the house gets neatly tucked away in the Great Room. The messiness of a string of different-sized rooms along a hall, the lines of joists in the ceiling, the duct pipe, is all behind us when we enter the Great Room. The focus then is the pure symmetrical shape of space, the orderly brick and wood skins defining it, and most of all the light from above.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Glass Wall - Part Two

All the glass has now been installed in the window wall. This part of the work delayed the project by several months. The local company that ordered and installed the glass was not the problem; it was the manufacturer that produces the custom panes. I had heard before this storefront got started that glass production was slow, but I never imagined it would be this slow. So now I'm in a bit of a rush to finish - in October, my bank has warned. It will be tough, but doable, I think. If it takes a miracle or two, I'm comfortable with that. This project has had a thousand ways to die already, and yet here it is. What's another few?

One pane that went in since my first post about the glass was this one at the end of the wall, where it transitions to wood siding:

This pane is one of several that make up the north wall of the third bedroom, shown below from inside, with the window open. This bedroom is the only one out of the three that has floor-to-ceiling glass as one of its walls.

To the far right of the above photo you can almost tell that the panes for the corner hadn't been installed. Those took a bit longer.

I like that glass offers both transparency and reflection. Below you can see both the courtyard behind me and three of the small windows on the back side of the house.

And we have a corner! I'm glad I decided not to put a mullion here; it's a nice effect. It adds to the expression of continuous wrapping around the courtyard (emphasized also by the exterior siding) that I wanted for this part of the house. The shot below is from the same bedroom as before, now with the corner panes installed.

There's a vertical black line where the two panes attach to each other.

Which at some angles disappears entirely in the reflection.

Looking through the corner to the Great Room, above; and at the corner from the Great Room, below. There's a jewel-like quality to it at some times of day.

The 4-inch gap between structure and glass:

A few more shots from inside:

From outside, I had to be careful not to obscure my face with the camera. Ha ha. No, generally I just tried to stay out of view. A shot below capturing the variety of materials - wood, glass, aluminum, brick... and sunlight.

See that shimmer of metal along the ceiling at the far far right? Exposed ductwork. Next post.