Sunday, February 5, 2012

Building a house together (day 46)

Good morning, friends.

I have more stories to share, perhaps too large to share fully. Building a house and home with Nancy was perhaps the greatest thing I've ever done. I know it was her deep life-long desire to build her own home. I think I can share some of the bits now. Especially since my last story was about a time when I showed her I was 'right'. Building our home, she was mostly 'right'.

It was her idea, after all.

As we entered the project, working with the architects and contractors, she had a firm idea of what needed to be done, and so did I. Our battles were legion, and we evolved a set of rules that allowed us to express what we knew, in relationship.
  1. Anything concerning the design or appearance of any element of the house, Nancy needed to be involved.
  2. Anything involving the functionality or energy-efficiency of the house, I needed to be involved.
  3. We each had complete veto power.
This forced us to treat each other as clients, to enroll each other in things we believed strongly.

Sooo...the stories. The best part of doing this together was how we accumulated things for the house even before we broke ground.

The Faucet

Once we'd gotten our building permit, I started shopping on Craigslist, and soon found our kitchen faucet (brushed nickel Grohe, modern single hole design, pullout-style) for $120. I showed her the photo, she said, "Sure, that looks great. What is this?" I explained CraigsList, and she scoffed. So a couple of days later, on our way to another event, we stopped at a nice house in Burlingame, and I bought our $700 kitchen fixture for $120 cash. Brand new, full installation instructions, all the accessory bits. I set it in her lap, she looked it over carefully, and said, "OK, how did you do this?" Later in the day, I showed her how to search Craigslist, and OMG, I created a monster.

Within a month, she found a Toto toilet for half-price, our Roche-Bobois couch for less than half price, the kitchen sink (fer crissake!) at half price, and discount outlets for La Cava & Kohler bathroom fixtures, lighting, god knows what else. It became a cash flow problem, as we were buying these things out of our paychecks for cash. Within a year, she had ordered solid douglas fir doors in British Colombia, the EcoSmart alcohol fireplace from Australia, the stove backsplash (a birthday present, just what every growing boy wants :) and every single sink and vanity in the bathrooms in the house, all at great prices. In the meantime, I got our stove vent, dishwasher, refrigerator, bathtub, and two other Toto toilets at great prices.

We were a killer shopping team. She knew what to look for, I knew how to find it.

The Kitchen Light Fixture

During foundation construction, a huge cardboard box showed up at our apartment one day, about 3x3x5 feet. I opened it, and found the ugliest lamp shade, about 2x2x4', I had ever seen. We engaged in a heated discussion, under rule (3) above.

She simply told me, "Trust me, this is going to make our great room look great." I was dubious, and finally said "OK, honey, I trust you." She was right. Here is a pic, most of you have seen this, the expen$ive copper hanging shade totally makes the room, especially when lit. I'm sitting under it now, writing this, praising her vision. Imagine this room without it, ech, flat. By the way, the Grohe kitchen faucet is visible, our first purchase for our home.

Of course, our electricians cursed the choice, because they had to fabricate custom cables of differing lengths, and install it Perfectly Level as hung from a sloping ceiling. I think it took two guys a full day -- and a lot of scaffolding -- to do it. But it looks Fabulous.

The Artwork Purchase

The green artwork visible in this photo was purchased while we were pouring the foundation. Unfortunately, we were (1) selling everything we owned to cover the cost, and (2) Nancy did not ask me before spending $4000 on it. She actually hid it under a blanket in our storage unit, so I wouldn't see it. In the mean time, I sold my dearly-beloved BMW M5 and M-Roadster to cover our construction bills. 

I love the artwork, and keep it up in the house now. But it was a huge trust violation. For me, this piece of art represents one of the worst moments in our relationship. She regarded money as something to be used, while I'm more cautious, a saver. We had a great partnership, as long as we made our decisions in partnership.

Slate Floors

Nancy had specified an Italian porcelain tile for our floors, designed to look like slate, at $8 per square foot. And our dear friend Bill DeCarion had told us repeatedly to come check out his place, Import Tile in Berkeley. Finally we dropped by one weekend, and in 45 minutes, Nancy had thrown out her entire concept, chose Brazilian Black Slate for the floor at something under $3 per square foot, glass tile for a bathroom, travertine for the entryway, black granite counters, and Crema Marfil for our master bath. We placed a $9000 order with our delighted sales person in less than an hour. Nancy said "trust me", and after a short heated discussion, I did. This single shopping trip probably saved us $8000.

Her decisiveness was a one of her great virtues. And a great teaching for me, as I tend to gather data and think for days before making this kind of decision. I got to see how well things turned out when she felt into what was correct or most perfect, and just chose without hesitation.

The Glass Railing

While I'm looking at this pic, I remember what it took to make the glass railing safe (seen here around the top of the stairwell). Nancy was insistent on glass and metal. But the far left end Could Not Be Anchored To The Wall, That Would Be Ugly. So we had the end overlap the soffit on the wall of the stairwell, so that anyone leaning heavily against it would push the top against the soffit. Our building inspector agreed that it was safe, mostly because I was able to talk about the flexibility and strength of glass materials as an MIT engineer.

1 + 1 = 4. We were far more than the sum of our parts.

The Dishwasher

This pic also reminds me that we avoided a dishwasher vent on top of the counter. The counter top is elegant and clean, with only the Grohe faucet sticking through it. I enrolled our building inspector into letting us install a Miele dishwasher without the vent, as Miele's have an internal system to handle it.) So Nancy wanted it that way, and I found a way to make it happen

Maybe 1 + 1 = 5.

Christmas in July

We finally got our occupancy permit in July, 2008, and I started bringing over all the stuff we'd accumulated in storage. Bar stools for the kitchen island in their shipping boxes, Tibetan carpets, the Roche-Bobois couch, the new dining table chairs (and her marble dining table, which I had never seen), artwork, her nice dishes, decorative pillows, thangkas...and it was like a month-long Christmas experience. Nancy knew exactly where everything should go, and our move into our new home was rapid and transformative. We went from life in a 1BR apartment to life in an amazing custom space in the period of just a couple of weeks.

I can honestly report that I was stunned as it all unfolded. It looked Great, and still does. She was matter-of-fact, she knew what it was going to look like. I don't remember her ever expressing pleasure at our achievement, but she was quite satisfied.

The oddest part of the whole thing was that she was off on a trip with family when we actually moved in, so I occupied our home by myself at first, without her. It was also my 50th birthday, which she missed. Now I'm alone in our home again, the end of our relationship with this house together is just as it began. I wonder what that is all she was the one who wanted to build a home together. But I now have the pleasure of living in this beautiful space that she designed.


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