A New Commitment to an Old House

April 12, 2017

I could say it all began last Christmas morning 2015.

But it really all began in the summer of 2002. It was boom time in Seattle, house prices were skyrocketing, I was 46, living in a decent apartment, and the bastards raised my rent. Again. It felt out of control. I dreamt of buying a house and pulling all the strings I could find, I scraped together a down payment. I bought a tiny shack in distant land known as Upper Rainier Beach.

Before the ink on the mortgage paper was dry and before I had keys in my hand, I had a first date with this guy, Todd. So excited was I that I dragged him over to the house, and we spied it from the street. We went on to have burgers and beers and to spend the next 14 years - add in the dog - together.

We’ve shared a life and this house, all 650 square feet of it, since. He’s come down here pretty much every Friday afternoon and returns to his home and work on Capitol Hill on Monday. But when he’s here he’s a gardener, a housekeeper, an amazing chef, and my partner. Technically it’s my house. The reality is that it’s ours and has been all along.

For Christmas last year, I decided to give him my life, my love, and my promise to be with him always. We were married this past summer on a most perfect day, surrounded by family and friends.

And we decided that we might just try living together. Rather than move to another, bigger house, we decided to build on what we had: a beautiful yard, great neighbors, and a comfortable lifestyle. You’d think that as an architect, I’d just draw something up and get it built. But I know me better than that: I feared it would open the door to an infinite process and indefinite completion date. We needed it done quickly. We opted to take it to a schematic design level and then hire a design-builder to work up the permit drawings, submit ‘em and then raise the barn.

The existing house was built in 1902 and was one of the first structures in the area. It’s close to Lake Washington and was probably a fishing shack. I’ve made improvements through the years, mostly interior and mostly cosmetic. I moved the kitchen and a wall; I swapped a door for a window and vice-versa; I raised ceiling heights and painted bright and colorful rooms. My little projects revealed a lot. Nary a wall was straight nor a line level. But the house proved to be a stout little critter: vinyl siding over ¾ inch shiplap exterior siding was attached to things resembling 2 x 4’s and another layer of ¾ inch fir planking inside, topped with gyp. It might be a shack but it wasn’t going anywhere. When I considered an addition, it was clear that I’d have to devote some attention (and dollars) to replacing the windows, siding, and roof. The exterior’s a mess: holes in the vinyl are patched with duct tape, and a corrugated metal panel is tacked to an area that melted when I positioned my Weber a tad too close. Much as I dreamed of cedar shakes and lovely wood windows, the budget pointed to Hardy lap siding and fiberglass windows. Columns in the crawl space would be replaced, so they’d no longer be a rickety stack of shims and 4 x 4’s on blocks on dirt. Adding a rat slab would make it so very deluxe.

Coming up with the addition design was fun, and keeping the project within budget gains great significance when it represents another 30 years of debt. We reworked it again and again to make it more efficient. We decided to have one level instead of two but included a roof deck. A good-sized dining area and second bathroom were priorities, because we entertain a lot. In the new bedroom, the bed won’t be slammed against the wall, and we both get nightstands!

The addition is to the side of the house, because the tiny house is offset and has 15’ of buildable area to the south. As a virtually independent ‘shoebox’ it won’t bear on the existing structure, and will be cheap and easy to construct. The addition will replace the shed pictured below on the right.

A lot of the material choices are still pending, but I see the dining area as having a sloped ceiling following the roof line, the interior lined with fir planks reminiscent of what’s in the old living room. Cladding is still subject to debate but I kind of fancy an homage to that melted area, vertical corrugated siding. These are the things I’m working through now.

To find the right design-builder, we started at the Seattle Home Show. In something resembling random selection, we invited five to come to the house for complementary assessments. Paring them down by attitude, process, price and proximity, I landed on one I’ll refer to as Contractor Dude. He was unconventional, weird even- but seemed to offer more for less. I was sure I could ignore his enormous collections of knives and repetitive anecdotes for the right price.

But then came wedding planning. I called and told Dude that I couldn’t multi-task at that level and that I’d get back to him sometime later.

As we headed towards the Holidays I reconnected with him. He came out the day after New Year’s and began measuring. Drawings were promised shortly thereafter. A week went by, then two, and nothing. I called and the next day preliminary drawings appear in my inbox.

I matched his lack of urgency. I took almost two weeks to return mark-ups, but I added a note asking for a meeting ASAP. I heard nothing back for a week, then two, and heading towards three I spoke to Dude’s assistant and got a meeting with him for the following Wednesday, March 1.

March 1. What a horrible day. I got braces. (Braces… at age 60… kind of stupid idea is that?). Add on the contractor. I felt, rightly or not, that I wasn’t getting the effort out of him that I needed, and I feared that I’d be spending the next 6 to 9 months constantly chasing this guy. I did not have a clear sense of what the right thing was to do but somehow decided on the outcomes. I was going to break up with the contractor. I was resigned to the braces. Ouch.

Shortly after, I started taking my dog to a canine masseuse-acupuncturist-physical therapist. She’s great, and I’ve been many times now. By coincidence, she’s having an addition put on her house. Her project is about 90% complete and she still adores her contractor.

Her contractor is now my contractor. I think he really understands my need for clear communication and has followed up on things he said he’d do each and every time. It goes to show that there are people in life that you never click with and then there are those with whom you feel instant rapport. It doesn’t necessarily correlate to how much you like the person, it’s just syncopation.

A mix of intuition and good fortune have guided me since I first got my little house and met my future husband. I can’t help but be optimistic about these new changes to our home and life together.

Stan Jaworowski