Sunday, September 7, 2014


Landscaping around our house was moderately difficult due to the long, narrow lot layout and the steep slope. To help overcome these challenges, we hired a professional landscape architect. Our builder, Yuval, recommended ANR Landscape Design. Our basic request was something fairly low-maintenance which used native plants when possible. Anri came up with a great design that we are very happy with.

There did end up being a few challenges during the design process. The biggest one was providing access to utilities. Our front yard has a lot of utility boxes and lines running under the ground. The backyard has a drainage line running across it. We ended up rearranging the backyard, and changing a lot of the retaining walls from poured concrete to corten steel or basic stacked blocks so that there would be less cost and work if access was ever needed to the underground lines.

Front Yard

The front yard is what we present to the street, so we want it to look nice. It needs to have a pathway from the sidewalk to the front door that is distinct from the public trail on the side of our property. It also needs to accommodate the slope of the yard. With the great eastern and southern exposure here, the front yard is the prime place for growing vegetables.

The resulting design uses several retaining walls to provide a few terraces, including a level area for a vegetable bed. A simple stone path leads from the sidewalk down to our entry. Around the edges, larger bushes and a tree provide some privacy and shield some of the utility boxes from sight. Different types of ornamental grasses provide color variety in different sections. Strawberry and thyme provide low maintenance ground-cover for the remaining space.

The vegetable area has a raised bed with a separate drip sprinkler system. We decided to use hazelnut shells for a softer ground cover than gravel. We also added extra stepping stones in this area to mark and protect an underground utility that is very near the surface. This area turned out nicely; but with a new baby we aren't actually growing any vegetables this year!

The entry needs to be screened to provide some privacy (especially with package deliveries) without blocking access to the trail next to our house. A simple wood-slat fence with a gate in the middle works well, taking material cues from other parts of our house.

We considered adding a fence and gate at the sidewalk. We later decided those probably weren't necessary, since the landscaping provides a clear division between the walkway to our front door and the public trail down the hill.

Back Yard

The backyard had already been leveled out with a small retaining wall, so it was the perfect place to have some more interactive space. We want a bit of grass for kids to play in and some seating for enjoying the outdoors. Since there is a public trail to the south, we need a screen to provide some privacy.

A seating area in the south-east corner was built in a style matching our decks. This surrounds a small concrete firepit powered by propane. Next to this, in the shade under the main deck is a rock garden with just a few plants. A set of concrete steps connects the backdoor to the seating area. Most of the rest of the yard is grass.The outer edge has some bushes and ornamental grasses to separate the lawn from the retaining wall. A wood-slat fence matching the one in the front provides privacy along the south edge. The north part of the backyard has more ornamental plants and a tree, with a gravel trail leading to the stairs up the north side of the house.

Side Yards

The side yards have the steepest slope to deal with, so their designs were primarily based around terraces with some basic plants.

The south side has a narrow section of wood-supported terraces. There wasn't a lot of space between the public trail and the edge of our house, so this was the most reasonable solution. Some bushes and bamboo are planted here to provide a bit of a screen from the trail.

Shade-loving plants were added to the existing terraces along the north side. The terraces and the stairs they line were added earlier. On the north edge of the driveway, we used the wood-slat fence once more to build a small enclosure for our garbage cans. This leaves them easily accessible, but slightly obscured, and out-of-the-way of anything else.


There are a lot of patterns around designing outdoor spaces and gardens. Here are some of the ones we used, and how they shaped our design.

Positive Outdoor Space (106)
  • Problem: Outdoor spaces which are merely "left over" between buildings will, in general, not be used.
  • Therefore: Make all the outdoor spaces which surround and lie between your buildings positive. Give each one some degree of enclosure; surround each space with wings of buildings, trees, hedges, fences, arcades, and trellised walks, until it becomes an entity with positive quality and does not spill out indefinitely around corners.
  • In our yard: We have two main areas for gathering, which is around the vegetable bed in the front yard, and most of the backyard. The vegetable bed area is defined by the retaining walls around it, along with a surface of hazelnut shells instead of dirt. The backyard is defined by a fence on top of a retaining wall, the house, and bushes around the edge of the lawn.

Half-Hidden Garden (111)
  • Problem: If a garden is too close to the street, people won't use it because it isn't private enough. But if it is too far from the street, then it won't be used either, because it is too isolated.
  • Therefore: Do not place the garden fully in front of the house, nor fully to the back. Instead, place it in some kind of half-way position, side-by-side with the house, in a position which is half-hidden from the street, and half-exposed.
  • In our yard: We don't really have a side yard to use in such a way. But with a public trail going down the side of our house, the backyard ended up being a half-hidden garden, with some shelter from the trail, but some exposure, too.

Hierarchy of Open Space (114)
  • Problem: Outdoors, people always try to find a spot where they can have their backs protected, looking out toward some larger opening, beyond the space immediately in front of them.
  • Therefore: Whatever space you are shaping—whether it is a garden, terrace, street, park, public outdoor room, or courtyard, make sure of two things. First, make at least one smaller space, which looks into it and forms a natural back for it. Second, place it, and its openings, so that it looks into at least one larger space. When you have done this, every outdoor space will have a natural "back"; and every person who takes up the natural position, with his back to this "back", will be looking out toward some larger distant view.
  • In our yard: For us this mainly applies in the backyard. The sitting area with bench has a natural back against the retaining wall, and looks out onto the lawn. The lawn then looks out onto the wilderness around our house, and the distant view.

Terraced Slope (169)
  • Problem: On sloping land, erosion caused by run off can kill the soil. It also creates uneven distribution of rainwater over the land, which naturally does less for plant life than it could if it were evenly distributed.
  • Therefore: On all land which slopes—in fields, in parks, in public gardens, even in the private gardens around a house—make a system of terraces and bunds which follow the contour lines. Make them by building low walls along the contour lines, and then backfilling them with earth to form the terraces. There is no reason why the building itself should fit into the terraces—it can comfortably cross terrace lines.
  • In our yard: This was an obvious one for us. Both sides of the house plus the front yard use terraces to provide flatter areas for landscaping and planting.

Garden Growing Wild (172)
  • Problem: A garden which grows true to its own laws is not a wilderness, yet not entirely artificial either.
  • Therefore: Grow grasses, mosses, bushes, flowers, and trees in a way which comes close to the way they occur in nature: intermingled, without barriers between them, without bare earth, without formal flower beds, and with all the boundaries and edges made in rough stone and brick and wood which becomes part of the natural growth.
  • In our yard: We followed this pretty well, with most plants mixed together. We especially used different ground covers with larger plants like ornamental grasses and shrubs. The main boundaries we have are the retaining walls and a bit of hardscape to walk on.

Garden Wall (173)
  • Problem: Gardens and small public parks don't give enough relief from noise unless they are well protected
  • Therefore: Form some kind of enclosure to protect the interior of a quiet garden from the sights and sounds of passing traffic. If it is a large garden or a park, the enclosure can be soft, can include bushes, trees, slopes, and so on. The smaller the garden, however, the harder and more definite the enclosure must become. In a very small garden, form the enclosure with buildings or walls; even hedges and fences will not be enough to keep out sound.
  • In our yard: The backyard is enclosed by the building on the east side, and a retaining wall plus fence on the south side. The north side faces our neighbor, and the west side wilderness down the hill from us, so the busy sides are protected. Even the trail isn't that busy, so just a fence should be enough protection for it.

Vegetable Garden (177)
  • Problem: In a healthy town every family can grow vegetables for itself. The time is past to think of this as a hobby for enthusiasts; it is a fundamental part of human life.
  • Therefore: Set aside one piece of land either in the private garden or on common land as a vegetable garden. About one-tenth of an acre is needed for each family of four. Make sure the vegetable garden is in a sunny place and central to all the households it serves. Fence it in and build a small storage shed for gardening tools beside it.
  • In our yard: We are starting small for this one. We do have a dedicated vegetable bed that is protected and very sunny. In the future, we may convert other areas, especially the south side terraces into vegetable beds, too. We also have a space under the house we can enclose to make a nice shed for tools.

Sitting Wall (243)
  • Problem: In many places walls and fences between outdoor spaces are too high; but no boundary at all does injustice to the subtlety of the divisions between the spaces.
  • Therefore: Surround any natural outdoor area, and make minor boundaries between outdoor areas with low walls, about 16 inches high, and wide enough to sit on, at least 12 inches wide.
  • In our yard: We didn't make every division a sitting wall, but we do have a couple good ones. The retaining wall above the vegetable bed uses some interesting natural stone blocks, and is just about the right size for sitting on. The standard garden blocks for the lower retaining wall between our backyard and the wilderness also form a nice sitting wall if you want your back to the cultured yard, and to look out on the wild plants nearby.

Overall, we're quite happy with how things turned out. It ended up being a long project, with a lot of stages to it. But we are excited to see the plants spread out and mature into a more established landscape.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Wrapping Up

We've now been living in the house for over a year. We've hosted holiday parties for family and friends. We have most of the furniture we want, and have rearranged it all to handle our first Christmas tree. We've written about the thoughts and design process, the construction process, and the results of living in it. This blog has (nearly) completed its purpose.

We love our house, and it has behaved mostly as we expected. The long and sometimes difficult process was worth it, and we would do it all over again if we had to. A question we often get is: "What would you change if you could do it over?" The only major thing is location. Erika has a longer commute than she would like, and somewhere further north in Bellevue or Kirkland would be more convenient. For the house itself, it might have been nice to build out an extra room on the bottom level during the main construction, as we're discovering many cases where it would be nice to have. We planned so that it could be built out later, but doing it as part of the main construction would've been easier. We also dislike the flat paint on the walls. It mars very easily; while the eggshell paint we have isn't as fragile and looks good, even with all the light we get.

This is the conclusion of our writings on the house itself. We have a few more posts planned later in the spring or summer on landscaping, which is under construction right now. We hope you found this interesting or useful, and thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A room for many

Whether it's two or three friends over for dinner or 20 for board games, we entertain frequently. We designed our home to support groups of many sizes. Much of what makes a room work for two also contributes to how well it functions for larger gatherings. In this post we want to focus on some of the things that are especially important in making a space work for entertaining.

Most spec homes have entries that are, at best, mediocre. The townhouse we rented while this house was under construction had a terribly entry. It was narrow, dark, and led you up stairs into the middle of the dining room. There was no coat closet. Even a moderate size group filled the entry with shoes and left coats scattered everywhere. People coming would collide with those going. It was a mess.

Entrance Room (130)
  • Problem: Arriving in a building, or leaving it, you need a room to pass through, both inside the building and outside it. This is the entrance room.
  • Therefore: At the main entrance to a building, make a light-filled room which marks the entrance and straddles the boundary between indoors and outdoors, covering some space outdoors and some space indoors. The outside part may be like an old-fashioned porch; the inside like a hall or sitting room.

The entrance room to our home is everything that was not. Outside we have a generous covered area where we will soon have a bench for setting parcels on. We don't have a window in the entry — this was one of the few times where we let style override substance — but we plan to install a video camera. The interior entrance room is large and has a bench, shoe cubbies, a full sized closet for hanging coats, and a storage console. Guests can hang their coat and take off their shoes while easing into the activities going on inside. There is room for those last bits of conversation that slow the departure of good friends.

Eating Atmosphere (182)

  • Problem: When people eat together, they may actually be together in spirit — or they may be far apart. Some rooms invite people to eat leisurely and comfortably and feel together, while others force people to eat as quickly as possible so they can go somewhere else to relax.
  • Therefore: Put a heavy table in the center of the eating space — large enough for the whole family or the group of people using it. Put a light over the table to create a pool of light over the group, and enclose the space with walls or with contrasting darkness. Make the space large enough so the chairs can be pulled back comfortably, and provide shelves and counters close at hand for things related to the meal.
  • In our home: This pattern defines our dining room in all but one respect. We have a large, heavy table that can bring a group of people together. It has a pendant which defines the table as its own space. The counter is nearby for keeping things close at hand. Because we have an open floor plan with lots of windows, the space is not really enclosed by walls or darkness. Instead, we captured the essence of that contrast by making the table a comfortable, attractive place to continue conversation. (We have a mat for under the table on order; this should increase the contrast between the table and its surroundings and encourage more pulling back of the chairs.)

As mentioned in the previous post, the heart of our home is a single large space. The space is dominated by our dining table. To accommodate our varying needs, we commissioned a custom table that consists of two 5'x5' tables which we generally leave pushed together. We seat 12 comfortably (more when we don't mind getting a little cozy). When the tables are apart, we can fit 10 at each table. Apart, the tables are good for games, although a bit large to reach across. The 5'x10' default configuration of the table is surprisingly intimate. The table is wide enough to fit two people on each end, and the width allows greater visibility of those at the other end of the table. The distance is still large, but the wider table does help reduce fragmentation common to long, rectangular tables.

Sitting Circle (185)
  • Problem: A group of chairs, a sofa and a chair, a pile of cushions -- these are the most obvious things in everybody's life -- and yet to make them work, so people become animated and alive in them, is a very subtle business. Most seating arrangements are sterile, people avoid them, nothing ever happens there. Others seem somehow to gather life around them, to concentrate and liberate energy. What is the difference between the two?
  • Therefore: Place each sitting space in a position which is protected, not cut by paths or movement, roughly circular, made so that the room itself helps to suggest the circle -- not too strongly -- with paths and activities around it, so that people naturally gravitate toward the chairs when they get into the mood to sit. Place the chairs and cushions loosely in the circle, and have a few too many.

The table acts as a sitting circle when it's not being used for food or games, but the usual place for conversation is the living room. It opens to the main area on one side, but is enclosed by two outer walls and a staircase. Being ever-so-slightly separated allows the living room to act as a natural sitting circle. Couches, an arm chair, and the bench around the fireplace provide seating for about 8, and pulling in chairs from the dining room or utilizing the floor raises that number to 15. Even when the group is small, the space is compact enough to make conversation comfortable.

Large groups, like we have for our game days, naturally divide into smaller groups. We can support a couple groups at the two dining tables and another in the living room. Another crowd always gathers around the food on the kitchen island. Folks taking some time alone or talking in pairs can use the alcoves created by the fireplace bench. When the weather is nice, the deck increases the variety of spaces available for interacting with others.

Alcoves (179)
  • Problem: No homogeneous room, of homogeneous height, can serve a group of people well. To give a group a chance to be together, as a group, a room must also give them the chance to be alone, in one's and two's in the same space.
  • Therefore: Make small places at the edge of any common room, usually no more than 6 feet wide and 3 to 6 feet deep and possibly much smaller. These alcoves should be large enough for two people to sit, chat, or play and sometimes large enough to contain a desk or table.

Of course, not all is perfect. In a large, open space noise can be an issue. It can get painfully loud as voices gradually increase in volume to be heard over the general din. So far, the best solution we've found is occasionally reminding people to be more quiet (having some folks go to the up- or downstairs game space also helps). Most of the noise comes from people who are chatting between games, so from a volume perspective, having the spaces that attract conversation — the kitchen and living room — adjacent to the place where most of the games are played is less than ideal. To balance that, the adjacency allows people to easily drift in and out of games and allows more social mixing. Perhaps we'll find a better solution in time.

Overall, we've been quite happy with how the space performs. Despite its shortcomings, we can entertain here more easily, more comfortably, and on a larger scale than we could in any place we've lived before. All-in-all, success!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A room for two

The great room is the heart of our home. Since we entertain frequently, it must serve two purposes — purposes which are sometimes at odds with each other. This is the place we spend time together and the place where we welcome others into our home. Today, we'll focus on how we designed a perfect place to spend time together as a couple.

We wanted a space that would be comfortable, functional, and beautiful. We wanted a space where we would love to spend time. By honoring how we use space together and by using patterns from A Pattern Language, we were able to build a space that filled our needs.

The obvious pattern to start with is Common areas at the heart (129):
  • Problem: No social group — whether a family, a work group, or a school group — can survive without constant informal contact among its members.
  • Therefore: Create a single common area for every social group. Locate it at the center of gravity of all the spaces the group occupies, and in such a way that the paths which go in and out of the building lie tangent to it.

The heart of our house is the great room: a single large area consisting of the kitchen, dining room and living room. This open space allows easy interaction when Jeff and I are doing different activities and provides spaces for us to be together for cooking, eating, reading, crafting, or, well, whatever. Although we think of this space as a kitchen, living room, and dining room, the layout and the fact that over half the space is dedicated to the kitchen and dining room makes it essentially a Farmhouse Kitchen (139):
  • Problem: The isolated kitchen, separate from the family and considered as an efficient, but unpleasant factory for food is a hangover from the days of servants; and from the more recent days when women willingly took over the servants' role.
  • Therefore: Make the kitchen bigger than usual, big enough to include the "family room" space, and place it near the center of the commons, not so far back in the house as an ordinary kitchen. Make it large enough to hold a good big table and chairs, some soft and some hard, with counters and stove and sink around the edge of the room; and make it a bright and comfortable room.
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Even though the great room is a single large space, it allows for intimacy. The L-shape allows each function to have its own well defined space. Such functional differentiation also lends itself to the generation of a Sequence of Sitting Spaces (142):
  • Problem: Every corner of a building is a potential sitting space. But each sitting space has different needs for comfort and enclosure according to its position in the intimacy gradient.
  • Therefore: Put in a sequence of graded sitting spaces throughout the building, varying according to their degree of enclosure. Enclose the most formal ones entirely, in rooms by themselves; put the least formal ones in corners of other rooms, without any kid of screen around them; and place the intermediate one with partial enclosure round them to keep them connected to some larger space, but also partly separate.
Each area has its own level of intimacy. The seating in the living room, which looks out over the whole space and is visible from the entry, is the most social and public but even with in that space, some seats — the one facing toward the outdoors, the end of the couch half hidden behind the fireplace — feel more private. These are the seats we gravitate to when it's just the two of us. The dining table is a bit more intimate; people sitting there are, by the arrangements of the seats around the table, more closely connected to each other than the rest of the space. Although we don't use them when it's just the two of us, sections of the bench around the fireplace are most intimate. These are the places you go to have a 1:1 conversation or to get some time alone.

We can't ignore the functional aspects in a space like this. Of course, we made sure that spaces like the kitchen are highly functional. We also included a fair amount of storage for our games and books and the projects we are working on. With laptops and phones and tablets, a office is not necessary as often as it use to be, but when it is, we have a space that is near enough to still feel connected to the life of the home. For when we do need a little more isolation, we built a Half-Private Office (152):
  • Problem: What is the right balance between privacy and connection in office work?
  • Therefore: Avoid closed off, separate, or private offices. Make every workroom, whether it is for a group of two or three people or for one person, half-open to the other workgroups and the world immediately beyond it. At the front, just inside the door, make a comfortable sitting space, with the actual workspace(s) away from the door, and further back.
Our office does not (yet!) have comfy seating, but it is connected to the rest of the home when we use it, by virtue of a large opening and a sliding glass door. For those times when we need a bit more privacy, it is a Solid Door With Glass (237):
  • Problem: An opaque door makes sense in a vast house or palace, where every room is large enough to be a world unto itself; but in a small building, with small rooms, the opaque door is only very rarely useful.
  • Therefore: As often as possible, build doors with glazing in them, so that the upper half at least, allows you to see through them. At the same time, build the doors solid enough, so that they give acoustic isolation and make a comfortable "thunk" when they are closed.

The space also works well because it connects us to the outdoors. This is helped by windows with Low Sills (222):
  • Problem: One of a window's most important functions is to put you in touch with the outdoors. If the sill is too high, it cuts you off.
  • Therefore: When determining exact location of windows also decide which windows should have low sills. On the first floor, make the sills of the windows which you plan to sit by between 12 and 14 inches high. On upper stories, make them higher, around 20 inches.
Although our window sills are not as low as Alexander recommends, they are low enough that the sill is just above the seat of our couch. This means that whenever we glance aside, we are connected to the outdoors.

Of course, some of these are Windows Which Open Wide (236):
  • Problem: Many buildings nowadays have no opening windows at all; and many of the opening windows that people do build, don't do the job that opening windows ought to do.
  • Therefore: Decide which of the windows will be opening windows. Pick those which are easy to get to, and choose the ones which open onto flowers you want to smell, paths where you might want to talk, and natural breezes. Then put in side-hung casements that open outward. Here and there, go all the way and build full French windows.

The connection to the outdoors is even more direct when we use our deck as an Outdoor Room (163):
  • Problem: A garden is the place for lying in the grass, swinging, croquet, growing flowers, throwing a ball for the dog. But there is another way of being outdoors: and its needs are not met by the garden at all.
  • Therefore: Build a place outdoors which has so much enclosure round it, that it takes on the feeling of a room, even though it is open to the sky. To do this, define it at the corners with columns, perhaps roof it partially with a trellis or a sliding canvas roof, and create 'walls" around it, with fences, sitting walls, screens, hedges, or the exterior walls of the building itself.
Our deck is just such an outdoor room. Enclosed by the building and a rail, it is a pleasant place for sitting and relaxing, reading, or cooking and eating a meal. Of course, it wouldn't work so well if the details weren't right, so we made sure to have a Six-foot Balcony (167):
  • Problem: Balconies and porches which are less than six feed deep are hardly ever used.
  • Therefore: Whenever you build a balcony, a porch, a gallery, or a terrace always make it at least six feet deep. If possible, recess at least a part of it into the building so that it is not cantilevered out and separated from the building by a simple line, and enclose it partially.
At 10' x 12', our deck is about the same size as our living room, and we have just enough furniture to make it really work as an outdoor space.
Finished back deck

All of this together leads to a space where Jeff and I can do things together or do things separately while still being together. We have privacy when we need it and companionship when that is what we want. By being sensitive to how we use our space and by taking advice from A Pattern Language we were able to design a space that works well for two people. As the next post will show, it works just as well for ten or twenty.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Appliances, Redux

Way back when we finalized the kitchen design, I wrote a blog post about the appliances we had chosen for the kitchen. Well, all but one of those ended up different from what is actually in our kitchen.

The biggest difference was the cooktop. We were originally planning on a gas cooktop with appropriate vent hood for the exhaust fumes from the combustion. During the early parts of construction, we switched to a heat pump for our HVAC needs. This allowed a tighter (and therefore more efficient) sealing of the house envelope. When it came to rough-in, however, Yuval realized that this caused problems for the cooktop. In particular, the vent hood we had chosen was too powerful — the air volume it could move at max was much higher than would be replaced by natural leakage and the HRV system of our house. The end result was that we would need to switch to a lower-powered vent hood, add an extra makeup air-exchange unit, or open a window whenever we wanted to use the fan on high.

The less-powerful vent hood seemed the easiest choice, but we weren't comfortable with that plus the high-powered gas cooktop. We investigated some alternatives, and found that we could get a quality induction cooktop plus lower-powered vent hood for a similar price to the previous configuration. The only trick was that electrical wiring was nearly done, and the cooktop needed a 50-amp circuit. Luckily that fit within our capacity, and the wire was run for the stove. We did end up with an unused gas pipe also run to the island, since that was our original plan.

Induction cooktopInduction cooking is an electric-powered cooking method that combines many of the benefits of gas (quick heat-up and immediate heat adjustment) with the smooth, sealed surface of a ceramic-top stove. We chose a Thermador induction cooktop. It has a nice, easy-to-use interface, and an auto-shut-off timer on a per-burner basis. We've been very happy with it. We had to replace about half of our cookware, but the result is very impressive. It boils water faster than anything we've used before (I estimate it takes about 30 seconds per cup of water to bring to boil). The heat adjustment is instant (a pot of water that is boiling will stop within seconds of adjusting the heat down). It is easy to keep clean (much easier than a gas stove or electric coil stove with lots of parts; and has a lot less of burned-on food than a standard electric ceramic stove). After using it for eight months, we vastly prefer induction over gas and standard electric units.

Vent hood over cooktopFor the vent hood, we chose the Zephyr Europa Roma hood, which is a simple, quiet vent hood with good lighting. It has worked well for us, and looks good in our kitchen.

The combination microwave and convection oven from Bosch is the one item that remained the same. We've been mostly happy with it. The convection oven works well, and has a lot of nice options. The combination microwave-oven is in reality mostly a microwave, that can also do a little bit of oven functionality. We've used the oven function a bit, but it is not as useful as we had hoped. The interface is also a bit awkward for consumers used to modern touch-screen technology — the buttons on the oven are touchy enough that it can be annoying to use.

Fridge in-placeWe ended up switching to a higher-end fridge from Bosch. It got better reviews, including much nicer LED lighting inside. We have been happy with it so far, although the water filter needs to be changed every 6 months, and isn't all that cheap.

Dishwasher mostly installedPartly to take advantage of a rebate on higher-end Bosch appliances, we significantly upgraded the dishwasher. We went with this unit primarily because of the silverware tray. Instead of a basket that takes up space in the lower rack, it has a third shelf at the very top that holds each piece of silverware individually. We really like this, especially because it frees up more space on the bottom rack (though there is an optional silverware basket that can be used there). The dishwasher has been fantastic: great cleaning power, and very quiet. We have occasionally mistaken it for rain outside or a shower running upstairs.

Our appliances came from Frederick's Appliance in Redmond. They were very friendly, had all the brands we were looking for, and very reasonable prices. The came in only slightly higher than buying from online stores (which wasn't even possible for the Thermador cooktop), and offered much more flexibility in delivery. They were also running a special that gave us a free InSinkErator garbage disposal which is nicer and more expensive than the one we were planning to buy.

Washer/dryerDue to a recommendation from a co-worker, we switched to a washer and dryer from Samsung. We chose a front-loading washer with a nice variety of options and features. Along with the matching dryer, we've been very happy with these. They do a great job of cleaning, and seem reasonably gentle on clothes. The dryer has a nice auto-dry feature that figures out how long it needs to run to get a load dry. It also has a wrinkle-prevent feature that works very well.

Overall, we ended up upgrading a number of our appliances from the original plan. We are very happy with everything we ended up with, though. The cooktop, dishwasher, and washer and dryer are particularly outstanding. The long-term maintenance and life-span is something we will have to wait and see; but after eight months of regular use, everything is doing very well.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Green Features

Our home is officially 5-Star Built Green rated. We even have a certificate! In this post we'll explore some of the features that went into making our home certifiably green. For more background on some of these topics, you can check out some of our earlier posts about green building.


The largest impact green features of a home are not, in a traditional sense, features. Some of the most important decisions came before we even had a floor plan. First is location. Urban infill lots, like the one our home is on, help preserve farmland and undeveloped wilderness areas. By choosing a site that had already been developed, less new infrastructure was needed.

From location we move on to size. By only building as much house as we need, we used less materials and will save energy. At 2700 sq ft, our home is not small, but it is significantly smaller than the 3500 - 4000 sq ft homes we were considering to get similar functionality.

The greenest house is the one you don’t build. The next best thing is a house that will last a long time. We built a high quality, beautiful house because that’s the what we want in a home, but we also hope that it means this home will be used and loved for many decades. In the nearer term, high quality materials and equipment lead to less frequent replacements which means less waste and resources used in manufacturing.

Heating and cooling

The energy used to heat and power a home constitute the bulk of the ongoing environmental cost of a building. Computer models which analyzed our architectural plan predict a HERS score of 56 for our home. That means it should use only 56% of the energy of a standard American home.

Much of this rating is based on how efficiently our home can be heated, and many of the green features of our home aim to decrease the amount of heat transferred between the interior and exterior. High quality insulation, including spray foam at junctions and foam board against foundation walls, increases the R-value of our home. Triple-paned windows with inert gas between the panes also provide better insulation. Our windows have an average U-value of around 0.21. A special coating decreases the amount of sunlight that gets through. The heating system we chose allowed us to have a ventless roof design. Our roof is essentially a foot of solid foam with no holes in it.

Spray foam was used to seal off any leaks that were discovered during our blower door test. We never got official numbers, but the preliminary numbers we saw indicated that after sealing, our house had less than two air changes per hour (ACH) under pressure. For reference, we were told that a house is considered green under about 5 ACH, standard new construction is around 10 - 15 ACH, and older homes without good sealing or insulation can be over 50 ACH. A house is considered passive once it gets to be less than 0.6 ACH. Our house is not there, but it's close.

To heat our home, we decided to use an air source heat pump. Instead of producing heat, air source heat pumps move heat from the outside to the inside. Even though they are electric, they are highly efficient. Heat pumps made it easy to have have different heating zones, so we can use just the heat we need when we need it. We also take advantage of the efficiency of heat pumps in our water heater. It combines a heat pump and electric heating element. The pump provides efficient heating, while the electric backup provides extra heat when lots of hot water is needed.

Lighting and appliances

Energy Star® appliances reduce the amount of electricity we consume, but other than the Energy Star rating, our appliances are pretty standard. When it comes to general electric usage, most of our green investment went into lighting. Well-placed windows, especially on the southern wall, allow us to use daylight for many of our lighting needs. Taking advantage of natural light saves electricity.

Of course, you can't use natural light all the time. Especially in the winter, we are dependent on artificial lighting. All of our can lights are LED bulbs. LED lights use less energy. They also last longer which means less waste. Early LED light bulbs produced a harsh light. Newer models provide a soft, warm light that is perfect for general lighting. Well placed light switches are another green feature, although in a subtle way. When the light switch we need is at hand, we are more likely to turn off lights when we leave a room.

Water efficiency

Right now, energy efficiency is the big focus in most parts of the US. As populations grow, our water resources are going to be an increasing challenge. Areas like California and Colorado are already seeing water pressure, and in those regions, green necessarily involves water efficiency. In rainy Seattle, water is less of an immediate concern, but we wanted to plan for the future.

Water from the sinks and showers runs through separate pipes to allow for future greywater collection and distribution. We'll use the greywater for irrigation once the local laws catch up with the fairly recent Washington state standards.

In the meantime, we use less water because of our low flow toilets. The dual flush option saves even more water by letting the user choose how much water they need. Low flow shower heads also decrease water usage.

Outside the home, our small section of green roof does its part to slightly decrease the amount of runoff that enters the sewer system. Our landscape plans also involve a lot of plants to help decrease runoff. Both green roofs and conventional landscape plantings also help include regional air quality.

Air quality

With such a tightly sealed house, it's important to ensure good air quality. A heat recovery ventilator ensures that the air in our home is filtered and refreshed regularly. It transfers heat from the outgoing air to the incoming air to save energy.

We also improve indoor air quality by reducing the air pollutants inside. Because they don’t burn anything to produce heat, induction stoves produce fewer combustion products than gas stoves. Even with a well sealed door, exhaust fumes can seep inside from the garage. Eliminating a direct connection between the indoors and the garage further improves air quality.

Conventional paints, finishes, and insulation can make indoor air quality worse than outdoor air quality. Our paint, carpet, cabinets, insulation, and other materials are low VOC. This improves air quality by eliminating chemicals that smell bad may have harmful health effects.


Being low VOC isn't the only thing that makes many of the materials used in our home green. Environmentally responsible building materials reduce the strain on our natural resources. Focusing on renewable and recycled resources produces the best long term outcome.

All of the wood for framing was FSC certified. Our SmartStrand® carpet from Karastan contains 37% material that comes from sustainable, plant-based sources, and the whole manufacturing process is designed for sustainability. The CaesarStone® countertops are also manufactured using sustainable practices. The Quartz Reflections finish used in the kitchen is made from recycled content. The Ecotech® tiles we use for our flooring and fireplace are made of over 50% pre-consumer recycled content.

Forward thinking

Technology is constantly improving, and we wanted to take advantage of this in our home. Everything in the house except for the fireplace runs on electricity. Even though electricity is currently more expensive than gas and can be less sustainable, by standardizing on electric appliances we’ll be able to take advantage of the gains as renewable energy replaces non-renewable resources.

We don’t have solar panels, but we did pre-wire for solar. Once we decide the cost/benefit ratio is good enough, we will be able to install them easily. We wired our garage for an electric car charger. We also wired our house for home automation. This will allow us to programmatically control lighting and heating, leading to further electricity savings.

One thing that we hope the list above makes clear is that green building does not have to embody any particular style. All of the strategies applied above could apply just as well in a traditional Craftsman style home or country cottage as in our Pacific Northwest modern home. Most of these things don't require custom construction either. Many features add very little incremental cost to the home and could easily be integrated into spec construction. Pre-wiring for solar, to take the most extreme example, added only a couple hundred dollars to the cost of the house. Higher quality insulation also didn't add much cost. While not all new construction is going to be able to reach 5-Star on the Built Green scale, spec homes can do much better than they do right now. If consumers start demanding it — and if builders can start selling homes at a bit of an extra premium if they are labeled green — these improvements will one day be common.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Media Room

A dedicated media room is an unusual feature for a house, especially one of this size. But we felt it was worth it, and designed the room to have the right balance of cost and features.

Why a media room? Because it's awesome! The home theater experience is amazing, and a popular feature of our house. But, at a deeper level, why did we choose to put the extra cost, design work, and square footage into it? The first reason, and the obvious one, is that we've have viewed dedicated media rooms with envy for awhile. We do a lot of entertaining, including watching shows and movies and playing group video games. Having a separate space dedicated to this activity gives a superior experience, while leaving the main living room free for entertaining more people.

You might think there would be a number of patterns to use for this kind of design. However, A Pattern Language was written before televisions were present in every living room. Instead, we worked based off general ideas from patterns and our observations of social gatherings.
The second and stronger reason for adding this room was space usage: we did not want a television in the living room. We wanted the living room to be a social space, where people could gather and socialize. A circular set-up is best for this, as it easily allows everyone to focus on other people in the room. The focal point is towards the center of the room so that everyone feels included. This makes it difficult to fit a television into the room. It isn't reasonable to provide a single focal point on the wall that all the seats can use. This is made even more difficult by the design of our living room, which has no normal walls at all. Two of them are full of windows to allow in lots of light. One of them is covered with a bookcase backed by the stairs. The last boundary of the room is the open space to the rest of the main floor. The media room gave us the opportunity to divorce the singularly-focused activity of television out of the social space of the living room.

Room Layout

Decision number one was the size and shape of the room. We wanted a couple rows of seating focused on a screen against one wall. We wanted enough space (if chairs were removed) to play Kinect games such as Dance Central and music games such as Rock Band. A rectangle of ratio 3:4 or 3:5 would be best for these functions. The ideal size for us would've been about 15 feet wide, and 20-25 feet long. With the realities of the land and form of the house, we were able to fit in a 12-by-19 foot room downstairs on the north side of the house. This was a bit tight, but fit very well into the layout.

The short wall on the east side was under the house and partially dug into the ground, so that was the perfect wall to put the screen on. The opposite wall on the west side could then fit a row of seating. The door was in the middle of the long south wall, which put it right where the second row of seating would go, giving easy access to both rows. To make the two rows of seating useful, we built up a stage against the west wall so the first row of seating against the wall would be elevated above the second row.

The other main item to figure out was an equipment closet. The various equipment for powering the speakers, routing the sound and video, and the players for games and other media needed to be accessible (for changing discs), but covered up (to prevent light and sound from the equipment leaking into the main room). We also wanted to use this space for other computer equipment: a server for file storage and internal services, central networking, and a wireless access point. It ended up being most convenient to put this on the east side of the south wall, taking space out from the storage/bathroom next door.

Details & Finishes


Media room, with two rows of seating and rear speakersFor lighting we didn't want anything that would intrude into the wall and disrupt the sound isolation. We added sconces on the wall for general lighting. Then we added two sets of track lights to light different portions of the room: one for the rear seating (which could be used without interfering too much with the screen); and a second one near the equipment closet to provide task lighting when dealing with anything in that location. To control the equipment lighting, we recessed a switch near the closet and away from the door. By the door, we added switches for the sconces and rear track lighting, as those are the general lights for the room. We also added dimmers to those two switches to give us more control over exactly how much light is in the room. Eventually we would like to hook the lighting up to an automation system so that it can be controlled from our universal remote that controls all the equipment. This would allow us to do things such as automatically dimming or turning off the lights when hitting Play for a movie; and then bringing them back up when hitting Pause. That is a fairly easy addition later, so it is relegated to the list of long-term improvements.

Seating Stage

Media room stage carpetedThe stage for the second row of seating was framed up against the west wall. The dimensions were very specific. We wanted to make sure it would be deep enough to comfortably fit a couch with enough leg room/walk-way to make people feel comfortable. But we also needed enough space on the floor for the first row of seating to not be too close to the screen. We also didn't want the stage to extend into the doorway, as that would complicate the entry. We decided 7 feet of depth would satisfy the requirements, ending shortly before the doorway. To decide the height, we used some calculations based on the size and position of the screen, and the position of the seating to determine that 8-12 inches would be the minimum needed to give everyone a clear view. Since we had the room height, we bumped this up to 16 inches high to give a comfortable clearance. This also divided nicely to give a single 8-inch step to reach the platform. We spent a while discussing if the step should run the whole length of the platform or not, and whether we would need a railing. It was determined that we didn't need a railing, and a 3-foot wide step right by the doorway would be enough to get up, and the rest would be flat to give more leg room and walkway.


Soundproofing was covered more extensively in a previous blog post. So far, we have not had a problem with sound leakage from downstairs as long as the door is properly closed. We have found that it works the other way, too — we can't hear the doorbell if someone arrives while we are downstairs. That is another addition to the home automation list, so that we can have our cell phones notify us when the doorbell rings.


An area on the east edge of the south wall, next to the door, had been framed out for a closet. We then spent a while designing the enclosure for it to properly support everything we wanted it to handle. Part of it needed to be enclosed to isolate the lights and sound from the equipment. However, we also wanted part of it open to make the basic remote controls, lights, and media more accessible. The enclosed area would have all the internal wiring for the media room, plus the whole house network panel. Because of all the equipment that would be connected to these, we wanted to ensure there was enough cooling in the tight space.

Media room carpet, outlets, and closetThe end result was that about two-thirds of the space was enclosed, while the remaining one-third nearer the door was left open. The enclosed space had two hinged closet doors, set about 6 inches from the floor. This allowed a vent to be placed at the bottom to draw in fresh air. We used freestanding shelves from Elfa to avoid drilling into the sound-isolated walls. The bottom shelf on these also started about 6 inches from the floor, ending up level with the bottom of the closet doors. Within the closet we just used plain shelves and various heights to hold different sizes of equipment. In the space next to the enclosed area, we mixed a couple shelves with several draws for holding game controllers and other small items.

Media closet partially set upGames and controllers are more accessible

Part-way through construction we realized there was an air-flow problem with the room. It was designed with a heat-pump unit that would control the temperature of the room. However, that would not provide any fresh air. With a tightly-insulated room and a weather-sealed door, practically no air would be able to circulate into and out of the room. Once you put 10-12 people in there and close the door, the air would be become stale surprisingly quickly. We only realized this well after framing was completed, and most of the the rough-in was finished. The solution was to use the HRV, which already required a pair of vents on each floor to circulate fresh air. On the lower floor they had been located in the future bathroom and main landing area. However, they were right next to the media room, and we were able to move both the supply and return vents into the media room. We had them both moved into the ceiling of the closet; but the supply was in the open area (providing fresh air to the whole room), while the return was in the enclosed area, drawing air from the vent at the bottom, up past the equipment, and then out. This coincided nicely to provide a free cooling solution for the equipment closet without extra noise.

Paint & Carpet

Wall sconces in media room (flash)To help with light control, we wanted dark colors in the media room. The walls did not need to be a solid black, though, which might have made the room a bit too depressing. The most obvious choice was to use the dark red color from our palette. It would've looked sophisticated and echoed the tradition of dark red velvet curtains in theaters. We also had a dark teal in our palette, though. Combined with a black carpet, it would provide a more modern, striking color scheme to the room without feeling too suffocating despite all the dark color. Applied in a matte finish to diminish reflected light, it was a wonderful result that has received many compliments.

We decided to use Karastan SmartStrand carpets throughout the house, which included the media room. These are eco-friendly carpets made from corn instead of petroleum. But we chose them because they were also the most comfortable of the carpets we looked at, and some of the most stain-resistant. They were easily the nicest carpets we looked at for the price. Their Indescribable line of SmartStrand Silk carpets had the Black Velvet color, which was exactly what we were looking for, giving us the color combination we had originally conceived.


Electrical and sound wiring was discussed in detail previously. The only wiring we had to run ourselves was pulling an HDMI cable through the conduit to the projector. Long high-speed HDMI cables are not common, but we lucked out because Monoprice released a new slim, powered HDMI cable shortly before we needed it. This was more flexible than standard cables, making it not too difficult to pull through the conduit.

Choosing a projector ended up being a lot of research and reading. In the end I decided on the Panasonic PT-AE7000U. It was rated as one of the best projectors for color, black levels, sharpness, etc. The closest competitor was the Epson PowerLite 5010, which had longer lag times, making it worse for video games.

Projector mount and outlet for projectorThe ceiling mount for the projector was a bit easier. Chief was a well-rated brand for ceiling mounts, so I first acquired a simple plate that was mounted onto a block that was fixed between studs in the ceiling, giving it a secure base. A short post was then attached to the plate, and the drywall was installed around it, hiding the plate. Then the primary mount attached to the post in the ceiling, and the projector. It has adjustments to help align the projector; and a quick disconnect when I need to take the projector down to replace the bulb. Getting the projector attached to the ceiling took two people, but it worked! Almost. The distance from the projector to the screen hadn't been calculated quite perfectly, and the projector didn't have quite enough distance to fully fill the screen. It was only off by a little bit, though, so a shift bracket was added to slide the projector back a few inches, filling the screen just perfectly.

Media room speakers, subwoofer, and screen all set up (right speaker is temporarily out of position to allow the left closet door to open)There are a lot of options for home theater screens. The first thing I knew was that I wanted a fixed-frame screen. This kind is assembled once, and then fixed to the wall permanently. It does not retract or move, but usually is a flatter, more even canvas. A nice, thick frame covered in black velvet (or similar material) provides good focus on the screen, absorbing any light that might stray off the screen. A widescreen 16:9 format is standard for most content now, though many movies are still in a 2.35:1 format. We watch more than just movies, so we chose the 16:9 format as the primary size of the screen. At this aspect ratio, a 106-inch screen was about the largest that the room could reasonably support. While there are many companies that provide such screens in a wide range of prices, Monoprice recently introduced a low-priced series of projector screens that are quite high quality. In addition to the items listed, they also offered multi-format screens, which are primarily a 16:9 screen; but have a manual mask of black velvet that slides in from the top and bottom to perfectly frame the screen at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for movies.

Speakers and subwooferYears ago I had discovered SalkSound, a small speaker manufacturer that sells direct to consumers. They provide very high-quality custom speakers at a reasonable price. At the time, I had ordered a pair of SongTowers with upgraded ribbon tweeters, and a matching SongCenter. We decided they shouldn't stand out too much, and got a simple black satin finish with aluminum baffles on the towers. We had enjoyed these for a number of years in our previous home. With the dedicated media room here, it was time to round this set out into a full 5.1 system. A pair of SongSurrounds was ordered for the rear speakers, and a 12" Salk/Rythmic subwoofer was added to complete the set, all in matching black satin.

Most of the remaining equipment we already owned: a Pioneer receiver paired with a 7-channel Emotiva amplifier. We had three gaming consoles: a Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 2, and a Microsoft XBox 360 slim. A Sony PlayStation 3 was added primarily for Blu-Ray and streaming video support. For music throughout the house, we acquired several Sonos components, and the media room received a Sonos CONNECT to play music through the Salk speakers.

The last bit of equipment was the universal remote. After having a Harmony remote that stopped working several years ago, we switched to a URC MX-450, which feels much higher quality and is programmable without any additional software. When we moved all our equipment into the closet in the media room and out of IR range, we were easily able to add an RF base station that was compatible with our existing remote. This receives radio signals from the remote, then translates them into IR signals that are sent to a specific piece of equipment, allowing complete control even when the equipment is hidden away. The only complication was the PlayStation 3, which is only controllable via Bluetooth — IR is not available. An IR adapter was acquired, resulting in the remote sending an RF signal to the base station, which translates it into an IR signal sent to the adapter, which then sends commands to the PS3 over Bluetooth!

After all this time and money spent on layout, design, details, and equipment, the end result is amazing. The media room never fails to impress, and is a wonderful room for enjoying electronic entertainment. We use it regularly with and without friends, and the focus of the room really shines through. It may not be a worthwhile room for everyone, but it was a great decision for us.