Thursday, August 16, 2012

The First Finished Floor

...will be the brick paving on the porch, laid in the same Flemish bond pattern (alternating courses of long, short, long, short) used for the edging all around the house and the base of the brick walls of the Great Room.

I can't tell you how happy I was taking this picture. This was at the end of the first day of paving work. When I saw the rows of bricks lined up in front of each column, I knew the mason got it. This didn't happen automatically. That morning I watched as he started to lay out the pattern and I noticed that it seemed to be shifted a bit from how I worked it out on my drawing. So I explained that the pattern was meant to line up with each column; that, in fact, the particular spacing of the columns was determined by this pattern.

He looked a little confused, and I had to leave for work. So I pointed him to the drawing in the set that (of course) shows every single brick on the porch and how they line up with the columns and the brick edging. Then I left and worried and prayed for the rest of the day that I wouldn't come out and find a mere shadow of the order I intended. What a joy then to see that he came up with a perfect strategy for getting it right: lay the bricks at the columns first, then fill in the pattern between them.

I had a hunch that this would take some careful explaining on my part. I've noticed that just about every trade that's worked on this house has come to it with a (mostly unconscious) sense that their portion of the work is complete in itself and doesn't need to relate to work already in place. If you're called in to put down a Flemish bond brick patio then you run that brick around and don't worry about how it lines up with existing columns and windows. And why would you? No one's asked you to do that before. But the way I've designed this house, every part relates to every other part. Everything is intimately connected - windows to joists, joists to studs, studs to nails, nails to bricks, bricks to windows. I don't blame these guys though; most buildings are not this precisely tuned. Or - most buildings are not designed by an architect with severe visual OCD - however you want to put it. But hey, take a close look at nature and you see that we were made by a visually OCD God. So I'm okay with this.

Unfortunately the brick size I chose doesn't come in 4-inch squares, so the mason has to cut the short bricks for the pattern with a power saw. This is a stack of 4's ready to be laid, and below is what my forest looked like near the saw. Be grateful you don't have to hear what this sawing sounds like. A thousand fingernails down a thousand chalkboards, amplified with loudspeakers, is how I'd describe it. I doubt my neighbors feel that I'm showing them much love right now.

The second day on the south porch - filling in between the columns:

Mortar will be added between all the cracks later; that will be the last step.

Third day:

I also like that the mason uses string lines to be sure every single course is perfectly straight.

Fourth day, and the south side of the porch is nearly complete:

Below I think we are witnessing a case of "getting the hang of it." The entire north side of the porch was almost done after two days:

Ah, yes. This is what I wanted. Because the porch pattern lines up with the wall pattern, the wall seems to fold down to become the porch surface; or, the porch surface decides to go vertical and become a wall, then transforms its pattern. The visual connection between floor and wall will be more direct once mortar is added between the porch bricks.

A little late-evening sun-splatter just makes everything better.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Three Trades and a Key

The rough-in phase for the three systems trades - plumbing, mechanical, and electrical - is now complete, and will be inspected by the County tomorrow. If they pass, I'll feel like I'm on the home stretch, because the rest of the work is mostly finishes - wallboard, flooring, ceiling panels, lights, toilets, sinks. Each of the three trades will return to do what they call "trim-out," which includes all their respective finish items: sinks from the plumber, vents from the heating and air guys, light fixtures from the electrician.

The plumbing rough-in has been done for a while now, but the rough-in for mechanical and electrical systems was recently finished. So here are some pictures of the final few days of that work.

Looks like the Silver Surfer used my Great Room as a toilet, no? This is the flexible duct for the attic space around the skylight well, shown installed below, with vent openings at the center of each side of the room.

This is where the exposed spiral duct bends up to go through the opening in the brick wall to the Great Room, where it transitions to the concealed flex-duct.

At the opposite end of the house the 12-inch spiral duct branches out to serve each room. Here is the smallest of the branches - a 4-inch pipe just for the bathroom.

Then the electrician came out and started drilling holes through all my wood, and the place became a mess of wires.

In some places he actually had to drill straight up through the 4 x 12 beams. Which made me a little nervous at first, since these beams are the primary structural members for the house. But when he said the holes would only be 5/8 inch in diameter I relaxed; that doesn't take much away from a 3 1/2-inch-thick beam.

The following series of pictures of the electrical panel is a good summary of how the week of electrical rough-in proceeded. First there's just the box...

Then wires started accumulating around it:

And then, unimaginably, even more wires:

Then everything was tidy again:

But even at this point, with all this piping and ductwork and wiring, the house is still not habitable. This has been an interesting realization for me. There's a whole buncha architecture out there, and has been for a quite some time. I can now physically walk through the space, form, and light that I've seen only in my head for years. And yet, I can't even spend the night in it because there's no toilet or shower or air conditioning. So, as far as habitability is concerned, what I have here is essentially a two-hundred-thousand-dollar umbrella: no toilets, no power, no A/C; but hey, it'll keep the rain off of you!

And now I have keys to this overpriced umbrella:

Okay, so it's a temporary key (and a spare) for a temporary door. Unfortunately the same company that took three extra months to provide my glass is also providing two of my exterior doors. So one of the openings is boarded up with plywood and the other has a temporary aluminum door in it, operable with this key. But somehow this is still very exciting.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


One of my favorite books about architecture is a small volume called "On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time." I read it when I was in school, and have been mindful ever since of the process of weathering, or aging, in the buildings I design. The authors praise buildings that deal naturally and gracefully with the effects of the elements, that change gradually in appearance as sun, wind, rain and snow exert their influence. "Weathering is not only a problem to be solved," they say, "but is an inevitable occurrence to be recognized and made use of." All buildings will age. The question is whether this aging will be unintentional and unsightly, or intentional and graceful.

It's a delight to be able to post about the weathering of my house before construction is even complete. The house is showing its age already - and I think that's a good thing. Here's a picture of the cypress siding I took this past March, shortly after it was installed:

And here's the same view taken last week, six months later:

As much as I liked the uniform bright blonde of the brand new wood, there's a beauty also in the random mottles and streaks, the blacks and grays drawn out by sun and rain.

I feel that there's a deeper beauty here, because it's not just about appearance, but the passage of time. The wood is not just a pretty color now; it's an organic material (like us) honestly showing its age.

In reading up on bronze hardware I came across the phrase, "living finish." I like this term. Bronze is considered to be a living finish because it changes over time. Weathering causes the bronze to gradually change color. Unpainted, unstained wood is also a living finish.

Contrast this with a material like vinyl, which does not weather. It looks the same for 20 years, then cracks and falls apart. There's no graceful, gradual aging, no honest expression of time. It seems to resist or ignore aging until the moment it dies. There's something false about this.

Of course there are natural materials that age almost unnoticeably, at least during our lifespans - such as the aluminum, brick and stone on this house. But it's one thing to use a natural material that ages slowly, and quite another to chemically engineer a material to show no sign of change over time. Does the widespread use of vinyl just indicate our interest in low-maintenance houses? Or does it also show a deeper, less conscious quest to rid our environments of reminders of the passage of time, and therefore of our own mortality?

About fifteen years ago during a trip through rural North Carolina I noticed a common architectural theme: new suburban single-family homes, usually clad with vinyl, directly across the street from old wooden farm houses, sheds and barns. I wrote a response in my journal in the form of a letter to the new residents:

Your houses will yield a shameful history rather than the glorious, respectful one across the street: plastic doesn't know how to die. Time will mock your houses for resisting rather than accepting death. The fallen barns across the street are well acquainted with time, agreed with death when the time was come, and then let go when gravity pulled. From these alone - across the street - will your children learn about life. These barns rust and corrode, and their structure is breaking. Your child's grandmother - his dear grandmother - lies in a hospital bed with a broken hip, and with cracked skin, and without the energy to hug her grandson. Your vinyl will not interpret this tragedy for him. But the crooked barns, the moss on his friend's clapboards, will explain everything.

So for a while now I've had in mind the parallel between our buildings and our bodies. Some philosophers have suggested a connection between the anti-aging ambition in producing our contemporary building materials and a defining characteristic of modernity: the denial of death. I think they are right. And further, as expressed in my journal entry, I think we benefit from living with buildings that visibly relate to our condition as inhabitants of aging, death-bound bodies. When our built environment echos visually the reminders we see throughout Scripture that we are dust, and to dust we will return, we live a little closer to reality, and hopefully with an appropriate sense of urgency. But it also makes the promise of eternal life all the sweeter.