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sustainable architecture

Alexis Givens Interview


This month we did an interview for the Alexis Givens design blog! Alexis Givens has worked as editor for a variety of publications, including Redbook, Martha Stewart Living, O At Home, House Beautiful, and Real Simple. Read the two-part interview and check out her awesome design ideas! Read the interview here:

Alexis Givens Interview

Alexis Givens Interview

Thoughts on (Re)modeling the Future

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

We had an interesting comment recently from someone who suggested we (and this was a collective we rather than a “we” restricted to myself and Shawn) would do better work by remodeling existing homes than by building new ones, given that there’s such a glut of homes on the market, especially in North America. I say that the answer is... not necessarily.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here’s why.

I’ll say flat out that I’m a big fan of remodeling homes. Shawn and I got our start and basic skill set by remodeling. We couldn’t have owned our first home if it hadn’t been in need of a lot of work, because we simply couldn’t have afforded an expensive newer or older house that was in tip top shape. Plus, we couldn’t have made a house seem more “like ours” outside of building it from the ground up if it hadn’t been for the major remodeling we did to it. Even though we didn’t build our first truly loved home from scratch, we put our hearts and souls into it and it became imbued with our love and fingerprints...a Velveteen Rabbit sort of thing. We both love remodeling and curiously enough, would still love to remodel another house in our future, though we aren’t certain if it’s in the cards.

But I will also say that if we were to remodel, we would want it to be an older home, and by older, I mean a home built prior to 1949. The materials and building styles commonly used at that time tend to be better, in our opinion, than those typically used in more recent history (there are always exceptions to generalizations, of course). Some of the most recent architecture, especially large box like houses, seems like it would be nearly impossible to remodel to me. Curiously, I think this is because I consider remodeling to be both an outdoor and an indoor job. It seems to me that the majority of what fuels design in more cookie cutter style homes is a focus on the interior of a home to the near complete exclusion on the focus of the outdoor facade of a home (and the neighboring homes including the people living in them). You might indeed have as a result a very comfortable and attractive home from the interior view. But the exterior is sort of lifeless and not very personalized. All of us have seen developments where this sort of thing occurs. I don’t really write this to demonize these developments or put them down, but to note that if we focus exclusively on the interior of our homes, we create a problem in terms of exterior aesthetic and I think also reinforce a negative psychology that tends to be overly “indoor” focused. There’s more to life, especially the social lives we hopefully share with one another, than a life that is spent mostly indoors and in front of a television. I think that a lot of modern design encourages an overly indoor lifestyle that compels us to remain in the tv room rather than outside walking, meeting our neighbors, relaxing in the fresh air and gardening or doing other outdoor things, like watching the birds or seeing kids playing together. There are a host of ramifications to this that I won’t get into here.

I guess I realize too that if we were to remodel again, I would want to remodel an older home as well because the older homes (especially bungalow styles) I see in various cities and small towns (like Seattle, Portland, OR or smaller towns like Bellingham, WA or Salem, OR) seem to have an added bonus to them. They are surrounded by other small homes and seem to have a neighborhood character that is very warming and attractive to me personally. The bygone era that they represent is not merely pleasing to the eye (I love the character of these homes even when they are neglected; they bring out a nurturing sense in me that makes me want to do something to restore them) but also to my psychology. I can imagine being out in the yards of these homes because even on tiny city lots, smaller older homes don’t take up the entire lot , which means there’s space left over to sit, garden, play or daydream in. To me, this is attractive and life sustaining. It can be very difficult to find building lots in established urban areas, whether they are large or small urban centers, so remodeling and restoring these homes is definitely high on my list of laudable acts. There are many times that Shawn and I wonder if perhaps that might be possible for us to do together again someday, and that’s despite the fact that we love to build together.

I wonder if it will be possible to start building homes on a “neighborhood” basis that might replicate more closely the beautiful old neighborhoods that are a part, somewhere, of many cities across the country. Perhaps the future will hold a chance for generations down the line to remodel well built, character rich homes in cities and towns across the country. I’d like to imagine something like that happening. That’s part of the reason that I don’t think it always makes sense to remodel existing homes rather than build new ones. Sometimes, people building new really IS better. The builder can choose a style that they love and that reflects something personal to them. They can choose to use good materials that will stand the test of time. They can build something that will delight people decades and even centuries down the line. Yes, I think even in a world that is increasingly beset by shortages of material it can sometimes be best served by starting from scratch. Some of the building that has taken place over the years has just been a big mistake. I think that a certain level of conservation simply occurs by people taking matters into their own hands and building something that will last. It can be done and really should be done. And I hope that it will be.

There’s one more reason that I think building from scratch can be a better option than remodeling. That has to do with expense, funny enough. Depending on your personal skill set and the area of the country that you live, it may in fact be less expensive to build from scratch. A lot of remodel jobs with great potential may have already been done where you live. Seattle is a great example of this. There are lots of adorable bungalows in this city, and most of them have been purchased and fixed up already. There’s not a whole lot of work left to be done on them and their cost reflects that. Granted, in an urban setting like this, there’s also a lack of available building lots, so bear with me on this. I do realize this. But there are places where you can actually build from scratch for far less money than it would cost to buy a fixer upper. As in most things, individual circumstances will dictate particulars, but this is just food for thought and part of why, for our circumstances, building is often a more sensible option than remodeling.

I do hope and intend, though, that our buildings will stand the test of time and will be homes that many decades from now would be well worth remodeling to someone, should they ever fall into disrepair, which I hope they do not! That, however, is the very finest compliment a builder, designer or someone otherwise involved in building could ever receive. If this sensation remains primary in the minds of people anywhere who are undertaking a building project, I don’t think there’s much cause to feel guilty about starting from scratch.

Measure Twice, Cut (the check) Once

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. – Dr. Seuss

Let me explain:When mentioning you’re building or considering building a house have you ever had people tell you that it’s cheaper to build a big house rather than a small one – or something along those lines?  I’ve heard this before – from professionals – and I’ve never understood why someone would say something like this (other than to get you to spend more money). Usually, it’s phrased something along the lines of: If you’re already spending the money to build then you might as well make everything bigger because it’s cheaper to finish a larger space than it is a smaller one.” This is a confusing suggestion – some might even say crafty one depending on who’s making it – and I’m here to tell you this piece of advice is unlikely to save you any money.

All things being equal, a small and large house will contain similar features. For instance, each one will have a kitchen with appliances, like a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, etc. If you divide the cost of these appliances by the square footage of the small house and the square footage of a large house, well, sure enough, you’ll discover that the appliances cost less per square foot in the larger house. If you do this with all the elements of the smaller house, you’ll also find that it costs more per square foot to build than the larger one. But this does not mean that the larger house is less expensive to build!

We finished the project just fine, but had some amusing experiences along the way. When it came time to pay for the extra flooring, for example, we found it a real benefit to have a truck to sell!  We had a trusty Ford F-150 with a slant six engine that ran like a beautiful thing. We used it to haul materials, tools, and to function as a shed for the whole course of the building process. It was a great truck. Shawn loved it, especially. But it was surprisingly easy to sell, even for Shawn, when the time came to pay for the flooring (or persist on plywood subfloor)!  We had to cobble together a couple of other non traditional payment methods for some other finishing work projects and we actually learned some strong skills as a result of having our budget stretched so much as a result of the bigger footprint. Drywall we were terrified of doing, really believing it to be a project best undertaken by the “experts.”  It’s amazing what requesting a bid for work can do to your skillset sometimes!  We got the bids back on the project and discovered that we were the experts we had been waiting for. We got really good at drywalling!  It’s hard work and we aren’t as fast (by a loooooong shot) as the pros, but we got the work done, learned a lot, and the end result fit our budget. Likewise with many other things.When we moved to Maine and built our first house, it turned out to be bigger than we’d expected. Admittedly, part of the reason it was bigger than expected was related to our new status as designer-builders. But a large part of it was related to our trying to avoid building “too small.”  Without even knowing how things would look, without even laying out stakes, we were already concerned that our footprint would be “too small.” Despite the worries we had about having enough room in the house for ourselves and potential resale, in the end, the house was definitely too large! And the larger space translated quite elegantly into more cost for finishing, etc. (now there’s an equation that DID work!).

For this post, I merely want to mention that a potentially more expensive higher quality product is affordable to us because the scale of our project doesn’t require a million dollar budget to accomplish.It’s really a pleasure to start a building project when you can foresee your budget clearly. Small designs truly facilitate this. Though we have designed a small house, in fact, it still seems large! But it looks “right” to us size-wise, and it’s going to be manageable from so many perspectives. We’ll be doing the work entirely ourselves – from sill plates to the roof – with some help from friends raising walls here and there. We know our budget and we don’t expect any big surprises, though we’ve of course allotted a small allowance (10%) for things unforeseen. But the extras won’t have to cover material for hundreds or thousands of square feet in size. We can use the materials we want because it’s not such a huge project that some splurges in material are impossible to afford. For example, we are choosing to insulate with sheep wool sourced from Oregon Shepherd. We’ve always been interested in wool as an insulator and now we have a home to try it out on. On our first house, it would be way too expensive for our personal budget. But with our design, it’s affordable, and in fact only a little more expensive than using an alternative we weren’t too crazy about. By the way, we’ll be updating the blog with a couple of posts specifically about our experiences with Oregon Shepherd and a more in depth exploration of why we chose it, so stay tuned.

To me, small is beautiful. It’s been said before, it’s going to be said forever, at least by some of us. Small houses give people the ability to handle building projects on their own, finish projects in a reasonable time, make the building project financially attainable for more people, and allow for the incorporation of the quality things you’d most like to see and experience in a home. And if you exceed your budget while building a small house, you probably won’t have to sell your truck in order to cover the gap (I think these are great pluses, and not just because we miss seeing our big green truck and are sometimes humorously hauling materials in a compact sedan!).

I probably could have written this blog entry in a more concise fashion. If I were to rewrite it, it would read as follows:  Some people (even people who love you and are excited for you) may warn you, with something akin to dread in their voices, not to build “too small.” Others may make baffling statements that sound like bad math equations (which they are): “If you’re going to build, you might as well build BIG because it’s cheaper in the long run.” My advice: trust yourself first and build what feels right to you.

Take care of that, and the rest will follow, from mudsills to ridgeline.

Sounds Like an Oxymoron: Building Codes & Sustainable Building

Shawn A. DehnerComment

Musing about sustainable building codes, Meyers writes that it:This is a quick plug for a great blog. Feel free to read our short recommendation below or go to Tom Meyers’ Sustainable Building Codes now.

sounds like an oxymoron…this blog is intended to provide a little insight on green and sustainable building practices from a building official’s perspective. I tend to be a little more “liberatarian” than my counterparts. I am actively working to see that innovative housing is not inhibited by excess regulation and overzealous attempts to dictate “individual safety”.

Mr. Meyers is actually a building code regulator and active in the revision of modern building codes. He comments that he’s “concerned about the effect regulation has on the production of affordable and sustainable residential construction in the US.”

According to his bio, he is the building official for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon (2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011) and sits as the Chairman of the International Code Council’s International Residential Code B/E Committee.

He also serves as one of the co-chairman of the Colorado Chapter of ICC Code Change and Code Development Committee.

More personally, he comments that he’s married with two cats and lives in a 1250sf house built in 1922 that has been modified for energy efficiency. He plans to (someday) build a “straw bale house…or maybe an earth bag, or rammed earth, or cob, or cordwood, or adobe, or earthship,” house. He’s an interesting blogger…check his ideas out at Tom Meyers’ Sustainable Building Codes…read about “Rural Sensibility,” tiny house musings and more.

We encourage small house and other alternative building enthusiasts to keep forward thinking people like Tom Meyers writing about these issues.

Book Review: “Defiantly Homemade:” A Review of Lloyd Kahn’s Tiny Homes Simple Shelter (Shelter Publications)


Tiny Homes Simple Shelter is a newly released (2012) offering from Shelter Publications. It builds on earlier publications from Shelter and deals specifically with small and tiny homes. The homes within the pages of this book will most likely delight you. I noticed that on, the book is in the top 500 sellers in their books department, and it’s easy to see why. Here are some of my impressions from reading the book.

For starters, the size is excellent for the material contained within. It’s a large, coffee table book with soft covers and a size that is just right for perusing with friends or a partner or for spreading out on the couch to enjoy with a cup of tea. Inside there are so many pictures (all color) that it’s a real feast for the senses. Each photo essay – that’s really how they come across – introduces you to  real, living people, frequently just regular people who have, for one reason or another, struck out and built for themselves a tiny or small dwelling space to call their own. The homes vary in size from tiny houses built on trailer beds, trucks, or caravan wagons, to tree houses; from natural cob buildings and veritable hobbit holes to architecturally sleek and ultra modern spaces – and back again – to homes framed entirely from hand collected beach wood, recycled materials and modified-traditional stick framing. In location, you’ll find these homes in British Columbia, Austin, TX, San Francisco, the Arizona desert, in places like Mali and Costa Rica, on islands, even on the road and in the water! The stories vary from person to person, just as you’d hope and expect, and they’re all intriguing. The stories are generally told by the builders themselves and are often set into the photo essays as letters written to Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications about various projects.

What other things can I say about this book? In terms of inspiration, it’s worth the price. It’s a beautiful looking book and is positively hefty in terms of idea generation, enjoyment and interest. You’ll learn a lot reading it or just studying the photos, and you’ll certainly see things you hadn’t even thought of before! The layout has an interesting, organic feel thanks to a good balance of text and photos, photos being dominant and text being varied in terms of individual writers and scenarios being described. I can’t say how many times I simply felt happy while reading these intriguing stories of people who’ve done what a lot of us imagine doing (and sometimes are doing ourselves)…taking a dream and hammering or otherwise molding that dream into a physical form and then enjoying the fruits of that labor. Many of the stories have similar threads, whether written by a woman in her early 20’s or a man in his 60’s, or even a whole group of people. From the unique homes that ooze personal expression as well as pride of craftsmanship, there’s a strong do-it-yourself energy that emanates from the pages. Authors repeatedly mention the freedom that results from plunging into self-building and from coming up with creative methods to allow more time for personal interests while simultaneously fulfilling two of the basic necessities of humanity: shelter and creative expression. Really, the two go hand in hand and nowhere is that better expressed than in the photos of real projects by real people.

Another reason I can heartily recommend this title is that it would appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. The contents are not strictly high-end architectural works or storybook tree houses; they’re not all tiny spaces that many might have a hard time imagining themselves raising a family in for instance. The homes contained in the pages of this book are tremendously unique. You won’t find any cookie cutter homes in any sense of the word. There’s a fine introduction to dozens of ways of doing the same things: learning to build, building, and loving the end results. If you are like me, you will quickly wonder what new things have happened to these builders. I found that to be my only real issue with the book; the stories seem to request a supplemental publication revisiting these homes and the people who built them. Some of the essays do in fact do that although I found myself sometimes wishing to know more about the people doing the building. I can certainly say that it was pleasant to feel that there is – and really always has been – a community of people from all walks of life, from all over the planet, answering the fundamental questions of What is a good shelter and What is a home in their own, “defiantly homemade” way. That this book has been compiled is a real treat for those of us who sometimes feel out of place or vastly outnumbered in our opinions regarding what we seek in our housing requirements. Sometimes it’s just a nice thing to read about creative, ingenious people that are just like anyone else out there. Maybe they’re a little further along the path than we might be in our own personal building projects, but there’s much to be said for trailblazers.

This is a book I highly recommend. It will appeal to builders, building enthusiasts, small home and tiny home champions, fans of alternative building and ecological building & living, people considering downsizing or wanting to build a smaller space for whatever reason, as well as homegrown DIY’s that love an engaging read that makes us feel like we’re all are part of the solution. All ages will enjoy this one too. I can confidently recommend this book to all sorts of people as well because no one “style” is represented; from earthy to modern, it’s all in the book. It seems as though every taste is expressed and no judgments are made. There are all sorts of building methods represented; timber frame, stick built, cob, and straw bale all make the pages. From an anthropological perspective, what a great peek inside the minds of so many interesting people this book is. You get a little introduction to lots of cool people who are just going out and simply doing it, and doing well as a result. I found this book a wonderful antidote to the evening news. What a nice way to spend a night…leafing through a compendium of smiling faces and great stories.

I’d like to close this review by saying one other thing. Aside from the great stories and structures, the thing that most strikes me about this book is the particular quality of the smiles on the faces of the builders represented. There’s a giddy sort of excitement in the smiles that I recognize from personal experience. It’s kind of a cross between happy pride, settled hilarity, contentment and exhilaration. I love the smiles in this book. Give this book as a gift – to yourself or others.

Technical details:
Title: Tiny Homes Simple Shelter: Scaling Back in the 21st Century
Author: Lloyd Kahn
Publisher/Year of Publication: Shelter Publications, 2012
ISBN: 978-0936070-52-0
224 pages, 9” x 12”
List Price: $24.95 list price

You can purchase this fantastic book online from Shelter Publications or