A Year and a Half After Moving In

It’s now been about a year and a half after moving in, and since many people have asked me to do a follow-up post on how things are going, I thought I would do that.

Overall

Overall, we couldn’t be happier with the house. It’s been even lower maintenance than we had hoped, and there really aren’t any significant aspects of it we’d change. When building a house, you are always extremely worried that anything which isn’t perfect is going to end up bugging you for years. Counterintuitively, I would say that the opposite has been true for us. We tried to get as many things perfect as possible during the build process, but there are always little things like imperfect drywall angles, imperfect cabinet tones, and imperfect rainscreen panel alignment that get left imperfect. I would say that since the moment we moved in, we’ve noticed that stuff less and less.

Lesson: Try to get everything as right as you can, but realize that nothing is ever going to be perfect and that the enjoyment of living in your house will make you forget anything that isn’t.

The architect/builder relationship

You can really tell a lot about a company by how well they treat you after they’re “done”. Although we haven’t had anything major go wrong with the house (not even a single drywall crack!), the team at Build LLC has been superb about following up with us and taking care of miscellaneous things that needed taking care of; things like fixing or replacing some door hardware, regrouting some cracked grout, and facilitating the replacement of a (gigantic!) defective pane of glass. Not only has everything been done quickly and efficiently, but almost as importantly, it’s been done happily. Team Build stands behind their work, and as has been the case from the beginning, they aren’t happy unless you are happy.

Lesson: Make sure the company who builds your house cares about you; not just finishing the job.

Wiring

I am so glad we ran as much ethernet wiring as we did, and in fact, I wish we would have run even more. Once most of the wiring was in, a friend of mine who was helping me asked if I wanted to run some outside too, particularly on the roof. I said I couldn’t imagine why I would need that so we didn’t run it. Lo and behold, we had to steal a couple of existing lines in order to operate some devices we hadn’t anticipated, so it would have been nice to just have several nascent extra lines sitting in walls around the house.

Lesson: Overwire. Then, when you’re done, overwire again. Running wire is dirt cheap and it’s a pain to do after the drywall is in. Put it everywhere.

Home automation

Overall, we’re extremely happy with the home automation/security system we put in; it’s a source of daily convenience and peace of mind. Controlling everything (lights, arming/disarming, blinds, etc.) via iPhone is so convenient that we probably wouldn’t even install a touchscreen wall panel if we did it again. The standard keypads in the walls are fine, but with how great iPhone integration is getting, the phone has really become the primary way we interact with our home technology. Also, if you’re building a new house, a security system is valuable beyond its obvious use; it also gives piece of mind when you hear the inevitable settling noises at night.

Lesson: You don’t have to spend too much on a security and home automation system, but get one that gives you the utility you need. You will use it every day.

Heating and cooling

We went with an electric heat pump for the house’s main heating and cooling, and then put electric radiant pads only in the master bathroom and one other concrete slab. This strategy has worked out superbly. I don’t wish I had “real” whole-house radiant heat at all, and in fact, I think that in most cases, it’s overrated. Forced air is able to heat and cool the house a lot more quickly, and it’s well-suited for solar retrofitting when that becomes affordable.

Lesson: Don’t write off radiant heat, but don’t think it’s going to make you automatically more comfortable either. An electric heat pump will give you both heating and cooling in one shot. That said, an inexpensive radiant pad in your bathroom will keep your feet toasty in the morning.

The best feature

The most enjoyable feature of the house is the rooftop deck/hot tub.

Lesson: Strongly consider a rooftop deck/hot tub.

Bathroom hardware

As far as bathrooms are concerned, the most important thing for us has been our beloved Kohler Flipside showerhead. It’s quite simply the best showerhead in the world and I don’t understand why everyone in the world with $70 to spend hasn’t purchased one yet. Take the little yellow plastic flow regulator out and it will change your life. The most overrated bathroom item so far has been body sprays in the shower. We rarely ever use them and wouldn’t put them in again.

Lesson: Go out and buy a Kohler Flipside today. Seriously, just do it. I love this showerhead so much that I keep an extra one in my garage just in case.

Induction

With regard to our kitchen, we’re very happy we went with an induction cooktop instead of gas and recommend it whole-heartedly. Additionally, the GE Monogram Advantium Speed Oven has given us a second oven and a microwave, all wrapped up in an attractive package. Microwaves are almost always ugly, so it’s nice to have one embedded inside a legitimate oven.

Lesson: Induction is the future.

Low maintenance landscaping

Although we’re not completely done with landscape design efforts, we’re generally happy with the amount of maintenance our plants and lawn require. We opted for only a small lawn in front, along with a lot of native plants, and some thyme ground cover in the backyard. In the summer, I spend maybe 10 minutes a week mowing the lawn with a manual push mower, and then there’s a little weeding and watering required beyond that.

Lesson: Your house is only as low-maintenance as the most high-maintenance item in it. Don’t kill its low-maintenanceness with a landscaping strategy that requires hours upon hours of your attention… unless that’s your thing, of course.

Conclusion

The house so far has more than lived up to our expectations. It was extremely enjoyable to build and even more enjoyable to live in. If you’re considering building your own place, I encourage you to read A House By The Park start-to-finish. If my experience can help you save a few dollars or make a few better decisions in your own project, it will have made all the writing worth it.

The Complete Timelapse

Putting together the final timelapse was a lot more difficult than expected. Since the construction cam was snapping one shot every five minutes and saving it to my server, there were 288 shots for every one of the 335 days of the project. That’s 96,480 shots. At 30 frames per second, that would be a 53 minute long timelapse movie! Not only is that way too long, but the file would be huge and filled with a lot of night shots and days with no interesting activity.

Via some unix command-line magic, the first thing I did was systematically delete all nights and weekends. This eliminated about 75% of the images producing a 13 minute movie. It was still, however, too long, too big, and filled with too many stretches of marginal exterior progress. At that point, I opened up my FTP program and started going through all 22,000 of the remaining images and deleting any stretches of time that lacked exterior activity. The end result was a final movie consisting of 5929 images and lasting a little over three minutes… and here it is:

Click to play timelapse

… and with that, A House By the Park is essentially concluded! It’s been fun writing this journal, and hopefully if you’re about to start a new project of your own, you’ll get as much out of it as I put into it. One final thanks as well to my friends at Build, without whom, this project wouldn’t have gone nearly as smoothly.

At long last, it’s time to stop neglecting my main blog and begin writing over at Mike Industries again.

Thanks for following along. It’s been fun.

Final costs and stats

Now that the house is all completed and everything’s paid for, I thought I’d share some of the final costs and statistics of the project. Half the fun of keeping such meticulous documentation during construction is being able to check back at the end to see how you did.

As you can see from the chart, thanks to team Build, we did insanely great on the overall budget. Going into the project, I wanted to spend $1.1m, and the finally tally came out to $1,144,538.80 (excluding land). This represents an overage of only 4%. It should also be noted that these are total project cost numbers and include several items that occurred before the project even started and after it officially ended, from Build’s point of view (things like inspection of the property before I even purchased it and purchase of some automation stuff after it was finished). Using Build’s own tally of budgets, and only counting true construction costs, it was more like a 1% overage… even more incredible.

Even more astounding than that however, is all of the stuff that was added to the project midstream. In addition to landscaping, irrigation, a more extensive cabinet package, and several other things, we ended up finishing the entire basement, which increased the finished square footage from 3,165 to 4,618… a whopping 46%:

Going through this process, it’s very easy to see how costs get out of control on construction projects. You get 10% of the way in and you change your mind on something major. Then, 20% of the way in, you make another left turn. Then halfway in, you think you’re ok on budget, so you authorize a bunch of upgrades. Then, when the shit starts to hit the fan and things inevitably don’t go as planned, you’re way over budget and can’t turn back.

One of the great things about working with Build on this project was that we did cost reality checks every couple of weeks. Every time an element was adjusted upward or downward in price, Kevin re-calibrated the spreadsheets and we talked about what that did to the overall cost of the project. There was no sugarcoating when something went wrong and no parties with hookers and cocaine when things went right… just a nice steady march towards the number we both wanted to hit.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to pick trustworthy, disciplined experts to build your house for you. They really have your entire investment and then some in their hands. It’s even riskier than giving someone access to your bank account, because it’s not just honesty you need to worry it… it’s construction management skill. A couple of bad, honest mistakes and you could be in really bad shape.

As for how the costs broke down, here’s the raw spreadsheet (make sure to click both tabs at the bottom of it) and a graph that summarizes it:

Here are several other vital stats on the project:

  • Time between purchasing the property and moving in: 679 days
  • Time between construction began and moving in: 335 days
  • Total cost per finished square foot of the project: $247
  • Construction cost per finished square foot of the project: $209
  • Number of job-site injuries: 1 (fingertip jammed during framing… needed stitches)
  • Number of checks written: 187… more than entire life combined
  • Approximate amount rebated via use of 2% cash back credit card: $5000
  • Total number of posts on A House By The Park including the next and final one: 98

I have one wrap-up post with a complete time-lapse movie of the whole project left, and then it’ll be time to put this blog on autopilot and go back to posting on Mike Industries.

Interior Lighting Detail

Finally, we come to the final post on this blog that involves a stage of the project and the expenses associated with it. Whew!

Onto the subject of the post: lighting.

I came into this construction project liking one type of lighting above all others: indirect lighting. Indirect lighting usually comes in two flavors: cove lighting and sconce lighting.

That’s three sentences in a row with colons, by the way.

Cove lighting is a style of lighting that conceals the entire light fixture behind a ledge in the wall such that you only see the reflection of the light on the walls and ceiling but never the light itself. It’s a warm, subtle effect that gained popularity in midcentury design and can still be seen in modern projects today.

Sconce lighting also hides your bulbs from view but within a wall mounted fixture instead of behind a ledge. Sconces are more popular in traditional interior design than modern interior design but there are some great examples of how they can be used even in the most modern of settings.

As much as I like both of these forms of indirect lighting, we didn’t end up using them in the house. The clean, minimalist lines of the house just seemed like a better fit for recessed can lights and hanging pendants. This strategy provided us a cost-effective way of lighting most of the areas (cans) and a decorative, changeable option for selected areas like the kitchen, dining room, and great room (pendants).

For the cans, we went with some pretty standard Lightolier 4 and 5 inch enclosures which aren’t worth discussing much. All of them point straight down now but we’ll be replacing several with pointable eyeball-style ones to direct light more dramatically at a few walls.

For the pendants, we had three areas to outfit: the great room, the dining room, and the kitchen. Fortunately, we found these George Nelson Criss Cross lamps right away and ordered three of them to hang low in the great room. To light the ceiling in the great room, we went with eight fairly cheap Lite Source Olwen Contemporary 3 Light Pendants. We felt fairly confident in our choices for the great room so dropping $2000 and change for the 11 fixtures was not a huge deal.

For the dining room and kitchen, however, we were much less confident. Because we had to purchase the lights before the cabinets, floors, appliances, and furniture were in, it was a big leap of faith to purchase anything. We comprehensively scoured several major online lighting sites (with tens of thousands of items each) as well as visiting some local lighting stores. After weeks and weeks of combing, we settled on a short list (!) of about 15 fixtures for the kitchen and 15 for the dining room. We then sent the list over to team Build for their expert opinions and they whittled the list down to a few for us.

Even with the comprehensive searching and comprehensive whittling, we felt there was a good chance we wouldn’t love our choices after the rest of the house came together so we did the safe thing: we picked relatively safe, inexpensive choices from the list knowing we might replace them soon. The choice for the kitchen was four Lite Source Ethel Transitional Pendants because they matched the wenge cabinets nicely. At $57, these were a steal and ended up working out great.

For the dining room, we went with three LBL Lighting Cypree Small Pendants because they looked elegant and didn’t obscure the view from the front door through the dining room window. While these look ok, we aren’t thrilled with them because they don’t light up the ceiling in the dining room enough. Since we don’t have any cans in the dining room, we really need a fixture that will radiate light in all directions, so sadly, these are probably going to have to be replaced. We are currently looking for a light that fits the bill so if any come to mind, let me know.

Finally, if you’re looking for the best places online to look for lighting, my vote goes wholeheartedly to LightingSale.com. Their selection is fantastic, their prices are almost always the cheapest, they ship quickly and inexpensively, and their service is great as well. Two thumbs up. We also ordered lighting from Arcadian and YLighting and had good experiences. In general, however, LightingSale.com takes the cake.

What’s next

Since all stages of construction are now documented, it’s time to start writing the wrap-up posts. There will probably be a couple of them. First up: a breakdown of the final costs. That will be coming shortly. I also need to stitch together the final time lapse. Soon.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Four kitchen pendants (lightingsale.com)$207.00
Three George Nelson Criss Cross pendants (ylighting.com)$1,077.00
Longer cords for Nelson Balls (Seattle Lighting)$26.00
8 Lite Source LS-19147 Olwen 3 Light Pendants (lightingsale.com)$835.00
LBL Lighting Cypree Small HS463 Dining Room pendants (Arcadian Lighting)$801.00

Doorbells, Numbers, Mailboxes, and Carpets

As I get ready to post the final costs for the project, I have two entries to sneak in first: this one covering several items and another one covering decorative lighting.

The doorbell

For the incredibly affordable sum of $50, we got ourselves a sexy Spore True doorbell, and I have to say, it is money. Not only does it look great but people actually love pressing it. One pizza guy even said he’s never had the urge to press a doorbell a second time until he pressed this one. Not that you should be worried about what pizza delivery people think about your doorbell, but I’m just sayin’…

House numbers

Seeing as Build designed the house to evoke a midcentury esthetic, we figured we should get house numbers set in a typeface that was inspired by that era. Neutraface was the obvious choice, and conveniently, Design Within Reach sells house numbers set in this face.

The mailbox

Although brands like Blomus make great, modern mailboxes, $320 is just a ridiculous sum to pay for a container that I wish I never had to use. Happily, I found this little jobbie at Chiasso for $78 instead. It does the job just fine, but I still look forward to the day when I can turn off my mail service entirely.

Carpeting

Carpeting just isn’t a sexy subject these days, but almost every house has at least a little of it, and ours is no exception. We chose high quality berber carpeting for the upstairs bedrooms and cheaper berber for the basement. We got our carpeting from Decor Carpet One of Bellevue and it turned out great.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Berber carpeting (Decor One)$11,235.00
Mailbox (Chiasso.com)$78.00
House numbers (Design Within Reach)$193.00
Spore Doorbell (Lumen.com)$50.00

Hardscape Detail

One of the most successful aspects of the entire project, without question, has been the hardscaping. Not only were the contractors — Jim and Jim of Blackhawk Construction — among our favorite people to work on the job, but we feel like we got a lot of really sharp looking exterior concrete work done for a very reasonable price.

Concrete comes in many flavors. It’s often hard to explain exactly what you are looking for, so early on, we searched the neighborhood for samples that looked nice. Luckily, there was a driveway only a few blocks away that featured exactly the style we had in mind: medium grey with a finer than normal aggregate. The finer grain provides a more modern look in our opinion, so we had the Jims whip up a few samples to look at. They nailed it on the first try and immediately began work on our back steps, our side walkway, our front pavers, and various other concrete forms around the exterior of the house.

Another touch we added was the placement of Mexican beach pebbles between the pavers and surrounding other parts of the house. Though ostensibly Mexican, they provide a very Japanese feel. We ordered them from Coverall Stone.

Make sure to check out the full hardscape photo collection in the photo gallery.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Gravel (Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel Co.)$876.00
Concrete work (Blackhawk Construction)$20,119.00
Concrete stairs, wall, and other hardscapes (Blackhawk Construction)$5,985.00
Concrete treads for garage landing (Diamond Concrete Products)$547.00
Steel rails bordering path pebbles (Everett Steel)$406.00
Exterior stairs (Olda Zinke)$2,069.00
Delivery charges (Pacific Delivery Service)$272.00
Mexican Beach Pebbles (Coverall Stone)$1,340.00

Smarter Space Usage with Sliding Doors

One of the things that can make a house feel too big is an abundance of hallways and rooms. You know the style: you walk in and there are three hallways leading to different places. You walk down one and it leads to a couple of bedrooms and a study. You walk down another and it spits you out in another bedroom, the kitchen, or the rec room. Yet another leads you to the living room, a bathroom, and another spare room. Tightly tunneled houses can feel very wasteful, and especially if you don’t have a big family in the house, many areas of the house feel unused.

We wanted to create big, open spaces in the house, not only to maximize the views but also to make the most of the circulation space throughout the house. This strategy produced a house that is great for entertaining and everyday living, yet doesn’t feel too big or unused. In order to shrink some of these open spaces when we need to, however, we used Raumplus sliding glass doors in three strategic locations throughout the house: the great room/TV room junction, the kitchen/office junction, and the upstairs laundry area/hall junction. The sliders between the great room and the TV room serve an additional purpose in that they darken the room during bright days, allowing for more pleasant TV viewing.

We chose Raumplus system because they are sharp looking and slide along a barely noticeable set of rails set flush into the floor.

Here’s what the doors look from the TV room, tucked away behind the fireplace

… and here is a view from the opposite side, when they are closed

Costs accrued during this stage:

Raumplus sliding doors$11,189.00

A short post about the fireplace, the stairs, and the awesomeness of Bart

In the web business, there is a chain of people involved in most projects. Chronologically speaking, it goes something like this: client (who hires the firm), account planner (who writes the brief), designer (who designs the mocks), engineer (who writes the backend), and then the “front-end developer” (who puts all of the pieces together and makes the finished product work). As anyone in the web business knows, the person who often gets the short end of the stick is that last cog in the chain. Any number of delays or problems can occur earlier in the chain, and the last person is still expected to hit the agreed upon date.

In the design/build process, that person is the builder/foreman, and at Build LLC, that person is Bart Gibson. As Kevin, Andrew, and I muck around on details, drop the occasional ball, or change our minds on something, Bart is still expected to make all the ends meet, on time and on budget. Not only did he do exactly that — stage after stage, nail after nail — but he also lent his craftsmanship to two notably custom parts of the house: the blackened steel fireplace surround and the open bamboo stair treads.

The fireplace surround

As mentioned in We Have Fire, we ended up going with a modern Heat N’ Glo Cosmo fireplace. It’s a clean looking unit, but recessed into drywall, it doesn’t command a ton of attention. To give it more presence in the great room, Bart fabricated a custom blackened steel surround for it. The steel panels create a striking vertical stack while also providing a thermal mass heat conductor to more efficiently radiate heat throughout the room. Apparently you can blacken steel using either a hot or cold process. The hot process is extremely dangerous however (and can kill you) so thankfully Bart used the cold. It looks really great.

The bamboo treads

It’s very hard to find open stair treads that are more than an inch thick and don’t have unsightly bullnoses on them, especially in bamboo. Open tread regulations are much stricter than they were a few years ago because of fears that a child could fall through the treads, but if you plan correctly, you can fabricate custom stairs that are plenty safe but also minimal in appearance.

Starting with large slabs of bamboo plywood, Bart built each two-inch thick stair tread by gluing two one-inch slabs together using a special cut such that the whole thing looks like one two-inch thick solid piece of bamboo. They are really, really beautiful, and because Bart stained each one individually, they match the bamboo floor almost perfectly. If you’re looking for a really clean open tread design, this is a great way to go. The stairs took quite a bit of massaging to get perfect but Bart and the team at Build pulled it off flawlessly.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Blackened steel fireplace surround (Bart)$3,500.00
Stair tread parts and labor (Build LLC)$9,372.00

How to Design a Perfect Bathroom

Bathrooms are a big deal. People sink a lot of money into them because of the labor and materials involved, but rarely do homeowners take a close look at the usability of their prospective new bathroom before opening their wallets. This post will discuss how we planned our bathrooms and what guidelines you should follow when designing your own.

To match or not to match

Most of this post will concentrate on the master bathroom, but one question that will come up early in your project is “does each bathroom need its own distinct personality?” Because of the wealth of materials and styles available, many people are tempted to design each bathroom to be much different than its peers. We designed our bathrooms in partnership with The NB Design Group and Build and both companies advised against trying to get too cute with individual bathroom styles. Each can have some distinct qualities, of course, but when you walk through someone’s house and one bathroom looks like the “aquarium” one and one looks like the “dark marble” one and another looks like “spartan” one, it tends to look a little forced. For this reason, we decided to follow the same general color and tile scheme for all of our four bathrooms. Some are nicer than others but they all look like part of a family.

It all starts with the shower

To me, the most important thing to get right in a master bathroom is the shower. You’re going to use it every day, and many times — if properly designed — it’s going to transport you from a murky web of morning grogginess and hangovers to a refreshed and invigorated state. Not only do you want to eliminate the common problems with showers but you also want to add the best components you can in order to maximize awesomeness. This is something you can do without building a brand new house by the way: take care of your shower and main bathroom and you’ll leave for work a much happier person.

The showerhead

If the most important part of the bathroom is the shower, then the most important part of the shower is the showerhead. I am a bit of a showerhead snob and we went through six heads before finding the perfect one. I will just go ahead and save you the time and tell you what the best showerhead in the world is: The Kohler Flipside. It is truly an amazing showerhead, and if you’re reading this blog without having started your new home yet, just do yourself a favor and buy it. They are on sale for $71 at Home Depot right now.

Let me count the ways I love this showerhead:

  1. You can easily remove the flow restrictor, creating an torrent of spray even Cosmo Kramer would appreciate.
  2. 3 of the 4 spray settings are wonderful. One feels like you’re going through a carwash. The problem with most multi-setting showerheads is that usually only one setting is good, and on that setting, you’re only using maybe 20% of the head’s nozzles. On the Flipside, you’re using all of the nozzles on whatever face you’re flipped to.
  3. It has a built-in handshower.
  4. It looks great.
  5. Both the girlfriend and I actually agree that it is the best showerhead ever, and we never agree on showerheads.

This showerhead is so good that I may buy an extra to have around for when this one needs to be replaced and it is inevitably discontinued.

Even if you’re not going to take my advice on the Flipside, make sure you have a shower arm installed that fits all standard half-inch showerheads. Originally we had a Kohler Purist showerhead (beyond terrible) and arm installed and unfortunately the arm is not separable from the head. This is a huge design problem, in my mind. A homeowner must be able to experiment with different showerheads and find their favorite.

Pipes and valves

You should have your shower lines run with 3/4 inch piping (as opposed to 1/2 inch) in order to make sure you have enough flow to do what you want. Similarly, pay special attention to what valves you specify. We originally had a standard Kohler thermostatic valve spec’d that not only was meant for a different type of system (the type where you control volume and temperature on the same knob), but also it only allowed about 5 gallons per minute through. If you have anything special in your shower like bodysprays, you’re going to need more than 5 GPM. We ended up installing the excellent Kohler 669-KS which will let a whopping 17.2 gallons per minute through if you want it to (which of course, we don’t).

Shower controls

The most important thing about shower controls is that they should not be placed underneath the showerhead. At least 90% of showers get this wrong, probably just out of builder convenience or laziness. You should be able to step into your shower, fiddle with your knobs, wait until the temperature is right, and then hop into the spray. Consider putting your controls as far away from the showerhead as possible. You’ll thank yourself every morning for it.

The other issue relating to controls is which type of user interface to go with. Most showers these days are controlled from a single knob that turns the water volume and temperature up simultaneous in a clockwise motion. It sickens me that this interface has become standard. I think it coincided with the 2.5 GPM MAX law, the thinking being “why would you ever want the water at anything less than full blast?”. I much prefer a knob for volume and a knob for temperature. That way, the temperature one stays in more or less the same position and the volume one(s) can be turned independently to affect flow. If you are designing a system like this, make sure your plumber knows your intention and make sure you buy the right valves and trim for it. Some plumbers will do this thinking for you. Others will not. Know which type you hired.

Bodysprays

We put two bodysprays in the shower just to make sure we had the option of using them, but we rarely actually do. They are nice to have occasionally, but I wouldn’t call them a must, especially if you have the Flipside. If you need to cut bodysprays out because of budget or installation challenges, I say go ahead. If you want them, however, maybe go with three instead of two.

Glass

We went with a special type of glass called Starphire that has much less of a green tint around the edges. It is also a bit more etch-resistant than normal glass because it’s coated with something called Showerguard. It’s nice, and I recommend it, but not a must. The company who fabricated and installed our glass is Distinctive Glass.

Radiant heat, in the shower!

Since we did electric radiant heating pads underneath the tile in the master bathroom, Build surprised me and ran the pads right underneath the shower tile as well. Very, very awesome. No more curling of toes in the morning while inching into a cold shower. If you’re already doing radiant in the bathroom, there is no reason not to run it into the shower as well.

Shaving step

We had a small step built into the shower for leg shaving. You can do this with a wooden stool as well, but if you’re starting from scratch, might as well build the little step. It’s only maybe 6 inches deep, 15 inches wide, and a foot and a half tall, but it gets the job done… or so I’m told.

Alcove for bottles

Last but not least, we had a little alcove carved into the side of the shower to hold bottles and other shower-related things. Notably, we specified that the alcove be double-height with a glass shelf in-between. Shower alcoves never hold enough stuff so we were determined to build one that did. And it does.

… and those are the elements of a perfect shower.

The tub

We debated whether or not to have a tub at all in the master bathroom given the hot tub on the roof, but it was only a few thousand dollars extra and there are definitely nights in Seattle which are too cold and wet to want to use mess with a hot tub, so we put one in. We ended up going with a BainUltra Origami, which is an “air tub”. Air tubs don’t use water jets but rather air jets. Because they don’t use water jets, you can safely use bath oils and salts without ruining the system. We call the two tubs Fat Man and Little Boy. I haven’t actually used Little Boy yet, but the girlfriend says it’s the best bath in the world… so there’s that. Also, another bonus about the Origami is it lacks “old man handles”… the ugly clear plastic handles that adorn many popular baths.

Tile strategy

One of the most difficult parts of the entire building process was getting a grip on tile strategy. There are just so many different types of tiles out there (and most will be dated within years or months) that it’s tough to know where to start. Nancy Burfiend at the NB Design Group and the folks at Build gave us some great guidelines that we ended up following:

  • Use big tiles to make small spaces look bigger
  • Use the same tiles up the walls that you use on the floors
  • Use ceramic tile for durability and timelessness
  • Use a tile with a different texture or size as your main tile (but the same color) to add interest without being over the top

Using these guidelines, we chose off-white ceramic tile, ran it across the floor and halfway up the walls and then used smaller and grainier versions of the same for inside the shower. For the backsplash, we went with small glass subway tile. Neric Pro Build did all of the tile installation for a very reasonable price, and with a little bit of coaching and oversight, everything turned out swimmingly.

Faucets and sinks

Sinks are largely a personal affair, but we found what we wanted with these Ronbows. Simple, modern, white, and not likely to be dated any time soon. Vessel sinks are nice and all but every time I see one, I look at my watch and wonder how many months until they are out of style.

For the faucets, we fell in love immediately with the famous Dornbracht Meta series. What we didn’t fall in love with, however, was the price. I searched for weeks online and around town for a decent Dornbracht knockoff, but every single one had something wrong with it. Too fat, too thin, not the right angle, etc etc. None of them matched the beauty of a real Dornbracht.

Then, I finally found one! It’s called the Taron 101 and it’s available for about half the price of the Dornbracht. We ended up doing real Dorns in the master and three Tarons elsewhere around the house, and I have to say, I almost like the Tarons better. They seem very well built, and for half the price, I’m diggin’ em.

The following paragraph is intended to help others in their similar quests for reasonably priced Dornbracht alternatives by indexing some search terms on Google… please ignore if you’re a human:

dornbracht knockoff, dornbracht copy, cheaper dornbracht, dornbracht alternative, affordable dornbracht, imitation dornbracht, generic dornbracht, chinese dornbracht

If you came in from Google because of that paragraph, you’re welcome.

Countertops

As in the kitchen, we went with quartz countertops in the bathrooms. While the kitchen is Pental Chroma, the bathrooms are Cambria. Quartz is affordable, durable, and modern. A perfect fit for our needs.

Audio

While my friend Danny advised putting audio in every bathroom and I felt like I needed one, we went ahead and wired just the master into the whole house audio system. We don’t use it much, but it’s a good move if it’s on your agenda.

Commodes

Our toilets are Toto Pacificas. Affordable, modern, and a simpler-than-usual design that allows for easy cleaning. Wall mounted toilets are also nice, but we opted for simple, proven floor mounted ones.

Radiant heat

As mentioned above, we ran electric radiant heating pads underneath our tile. These are on a simple digital timer which cranks the tiles up to 85 degrees or so for an hour or two in the morning and then keeps the heat off for the rest of the day. For several hundred dollars, it’s a worthy addition.

A recirc line

If your master bathroom is far away from your water heater, you’re going to want your plumber to run a “recirc line” from the water heater to someplace near your bathroom. The recirc line is on a timer and runs a fresh supply of hot water close to your bathroom so it doesn’t take three minutes for your shower to get warm. Smaller houses or houses with multiple tankless water heaters may not need this, but if your water tank is two floors below your bathroom, you will get great use out of this little bit of technology.

Lighting

Finally, there is the lighting. We put standard 5 inch cans in our bathrooms with the notable addition of Alinea bars in our master and powder room. Alineas are seldom-used fixtures that provide an interesting type of lighting: linear incandescence. Think of a long florescent tube but with a nice warm incandescent glow instead of a cold harsh florescent one. We put a long one of these above the mirrors. On the upside, it warms up the space nicely. On the downside, it cannot be dimmed without buzzing so it’s either all on or all off. Some people recommend placing lighting on the sides of your mirrors instead of above, but the Alinea seems not to cast the sorts of shadows this advice aims to avoid.

Wrap up

And so there you have it… the elements of a well-designed bathroom. Whether you’re building new, remodeling your current place, or just hate your showerhead, hopefully you can apply principles from this post to your own projects. Bathrooms are only about looks when you sell the place or are entertaining… all other times, they are about usability. Pay close attention to the usability of your bathrooms and you’ll forward to more of your mornings.

UPDATE: For a lot more shots of the bathroom details, check out the Bathroom section in the photo gallery.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Two Broan medicine cabinet mirrors (kitchensource.com)$274.00
Two replacement Broan medicine cabinet mirrors (ventingdirect.com)$325.00
Bathroom mirrors and shower doors (Distinctive Glass, Inc)$5,038.00
Gatco Latitude II Towelbars/Holders/Etc. (ComfortHouse.com)$366.00
Modern Bathroom (Chinabrachts)$675.00
Buy Aggressive (Cascade Bath Filler)$337.00
Seattle Interiors (Laufen Palomba sink)$929.00
Blanco Magnum kitchen sink (HomePerfect)$598.00
Hansgrohe Interaktiv S kitchen faucet (HomePerfect)$310.00
Two Dornbracht faucets$922.00
Plumbing installs$13,681.00
Counter and tile work - kitchen+baths (Neric Pro Build)$24,703.00

Mitigating Solar Gain with Motorized Shades

The shades from outside the house. Only the uppers are down in this shot.

Given that the house faces Puget Sound to the southwest and the view side is almost completely glass, it was of utmost importance to engineer a sun management strategy that allowed the house to stay as cool as possible in the summer and as warm as possible in the winter.

For sun control in this situation, there are a few things you can use: long eaves which help shade your windows when the sun is high in the sky, interior shades which block solar rays from hitting your interior surfaces, or exterior shades which block the solar rays before they even hit your windows. The eaves were a given as they fit with the style of the house, but the shades were a very long project in investigation and implementation. The great thing about interior shades is that many different brands are available and you can use them year-round no matter what the conditions are like outside. The downside, however, is that your glass still gets very hot, so they are less effective at keeping rooms cool. The great thing about exterior shades is that they block upwards of 90% of the sun’s energy before it even hits your glass so they are excellent at keeping things cool. However, since they are exposed to the elements, they must be retracted during high winds (of which we get plenty).

Since eliminating heat in the summer was our top priority, we chose exterior shades from Somfy. Somfy is the only company that makes motorized exterior shades that tie nicely into most home automation systems. It would have been nice to have our pick of brands since there is a lot about Somfy I don’t particularly care for (like the fact that they use an old school serial interface), but since they were the only game in town, we went forward with them.

The most difficult part, however, was picking which Somfy system to use. They have a system called RTS which uses easy wireless controls, but the blind motors are “dumb” and can’t give the system status on their position. They are also either “fully up” or “fully down”. You can’t send a command to a blind telling it to move to 10% up at 10am and then 20% up at 11am, etc etc.

The other, newer system is called ILT. These blinds report their positions to the automation system and also can respond to the sort of incremental commands mentioned above. The downside of the ILT system, however, is that it uses a wired serial interface. Somfy just released a wireless Z-Wave interface but it came out too late for us to use it. The Z-Wave interface was supposed to come out last January and we had planned our project around it, but Somfy kept stringing us along on the release date and it didn’t end up coming out until our blinds were already being fabricated. This was extremely maddening as it caused us to run more wire through the house, purchase more equipment from Somfy, and end up with a system that was not Z-Wave aware.

Another maddening thing about the system is that while older Somfy motors like the RTS have an integrated sun and wind sensor that can automatically retract blinds during periods of high wind, the ILT offers no such sensor. Instead I’m in the process of rigging up a Davis Weather Station on my roof that can report weather conditions back to the home automation system, which will then in turn raise and lower the blinds automatically. Yes I know, it sounds like total overkill.

Even though I’m generally very happy with the blinds now, I will admit that I probably overthought the situation a bit. I was under the impression that when the blinds were down, you would barely be able to see out the windows. For this reason, I wanted to do things like incrementally raise and lower the blinds throughout the day according to sun angle. I basically wanted to only lower the blinds as much as necessary at any given time.

As soon as I lowered them for the first time, however, I was shocked at how little they obstructed the view. They are so transparent that sometimes you can’t even tell they are down. Had I known this from the outset, I might have just gone with the RTS setup and not worried about precise blind positions. Long term, I’ll probably be happier with these as I can do things like detect when a window is open and only lower the blinds to the top of that window, but still, the many hours of research and work to get this system into place were not as necessary as I originally thought.

As you can see, there’s virtually no reduction in view when the blinds are down.

While Somfy has been extremely spotty in providing support for my project, my other two partners on this project were great: Atrium Shade fabricated and installed the shades and my buddy Danny Mavromatis of Myro did all the ridiculously cool and complicated home automation tie-ins. Atrium provided the shades (as well as other interior shades throughout the house) at a very reasonable price and Danny expertly enabled me to do things like raise and lower them from my iPhone or any other IP-connected location.

Costs accrued during this stage:

Shades - Interior and Motorized Exterior (Atrium Shade Company)$24,080.00