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Labor Day Plan Giveaway!

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No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

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No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

No. 62 Gulf View Apartment Garage Plan

The Gulf View Apartment Garage was designed as a bachelor's home in Point Roberts, Washington. It's design is suitable a wide variety of applications from full-time home, rental or accessory dwelling unit to office space or commercial use.  

Building with Fire Season in Mind

fire resistant structures, climate change designJamie PurnellComment
Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Smoke from BC wildfires blotting out our typical view of Vancouver from Point Roberts.

Today is a sad day around the Pacific Northwest, and there have been quite a few of them this summer. So much smoke is in the air here in town that the air is brownish grayish and we have the windows sealed up. This is a day that I'm appreciating having air sealed our house so thoroughly though I'd much prefer clear skies, fresh air and the windows open for these last days of summer.

Undeniably, I am gloomy about the smoke filled days we've had lately. I have family living in areas that can be threatened by wildfires, so I worry about them, and the Pacific Northwest has been my home, almost exclusively, for the vast majority of my life. Smoky summers are new these last few years and aside from depressing me, they do rally me to consider my options for our future build, which we intend to be the last for some time. 

Most of us who live in the west or in heavily wooded areas have given at least some thought to what it means to build with a wildfire season in mind. Metal roofing, adequate clearing of trees and brush around building sites, non combustible siding materials where relevant...even sprinkler systems should be given some thought for wildfire season, as dousing the house and landscape immediately surrounding your home is standard protocol when fires are nearing.  In the past, I've mostly thought of these building features as being more appropriate for people living and building in what have always been or are becoming more fire prone. But after three summers in the maritime northwest featuring smoke and blazes nearby, I am thinking about these issues more and more. And today, with unhealthy air (for all groups) throughout my locale, Shawn and I have been giving some thought to proactive ways we can make our home more comfortable for future fire seasons.

One of the things we incorporate into our builds, on account of building envelope tightness, are HRV systems that mechanically exchange air inside with fresh air outside, maintaining clean and healthful indoor air. Occasionally in the winter time our current system, a Life Breath model, brings in people's woodsmoke from fires as we did not opt for a model with a built in HEPA filter. Now that we have summer smoke, far more pervasive and serious, we are going to be sure and incorporate a HEPA filter equipped HRV system in the next house. This will allow us to seal up the house against smoky outdoor conditions if needed while still being able to use the air exchange system for its intended purpose and maintain a more comfortable interior space. 

In the past I've been, frankly, somewhat scornful of people in the Northwest using air conditioners, which have never been something I've needed (to be fair, I live in a very cool part of the Northwest...we are lucky to make it to 80 degrees in a given summer). And while an air conditioning unit is not something I particularly have a use for, there are pretty amazing, energy efficient heat pump models now that perform both heating and cooling duties in a home. This sort of system may or may not be ideal for our next build, in which we are aiming to achieve Passive House certification or an approximation thereof, but I am now convinced of times when even Pacific Northwest homes might truly benefit from an energy efficient form of home cooling. Those living in older, less well insulated homes might find these installs worth the comfort that they offer, in particular on hot summer days when it would be best for your breathing comfort to have the windows closed. 

Other lower tech or lower installation heavy responses to these smoky summer days could at least include a portable HEPA filter for the home. I am not sure how remarkably they would function in terms of forest fire particulate matter overall, but it's possible that some comfort might be derived from having one on hand for the worst of wildfire season. 

Things to keep in mind, though, if you are considering a new build anywhere in the western United States or Canada...

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Remodeling

remodeling, renovationJamie PurnellComment

Spanish Colonial renovation in Casco Viejo (Panama City), Panama from our trip in January. Almost entire district is under intense restoration.

One of the fun things we've been doing this summer is working on a remodeling project with some friends. They have a large shed in their yard that's been neglected and leaking for years and together we're transforming it into a creative space.  It's been fun to gather once a week and have a day of chatting, demolishing, reconstructing, considering and seeing something new and exciting come out of the old shell.

It's years since Shawn and I have remodeled anything. While this undertaking is a strictly "for fun" project rather than work, it brings back memories of our previous projects and a chance to compare and contrast them. Our first remodeling project was in a condo and almost doesn't count. We were so green around the gills that one of our most hilarious memories of that project involves doing work on the bathroom plumbing without turning off the water first, thus creating a fully functioning indoor replica of Old Faithful. Our real trial and learning process came on our first home, which turned out to be a rat infested shambles and had to be stripped to the bones before coming back as, in many ways still, our favorite house. 

For anyone with the desire to build from scratch, a remodel may sound like a nightmare and not even be on the consideration list. But what if you are really weighing out the pros and cons of both?  Here are some thoughts...

Remodeling can be a great project to undertake if you are unable to secure a lot loan or building loan, which typically carry higher interest rates and can be difficult to get in the first place. Remodeling can also be an ideal choice if you live in a place where fixer uppers are reasonably priced to start with. When we acquired our first one, it was what we could afford. Houses in the Seattle area, even back at the "turn of the century" were out of our reach and Point Roberts, where we came, had lots of houses with good bones at rock bottom prices (though at the time, they didn't seem so rock bottom to our youthful budget!). We had dreamed of building, but hadn't done our research into the financial prerequisites of the process, so a renovation was ideal for us. Nowadays, even in our little town, the cost for a remodel is more prohibitive given the amount of work that can be required. The cost of labor has gone up a lot as the building trades have become busier all around. If you are doing all the work yourself, out of desire or necessity, as we were, this may not be a hindrance. But if you are working full time and need to hire out most of the work, you might want to keep that in mind. Bear in mind too that if you are not (yet) experienced, things will take longer than you expect. Frankly, we've got a pretty solid background in many aspects of the building process and things STILL take longer than expected!  Remodeling jobs are notorious for uncovering more than you expect to find. While you might start out the demolition work for the day with the intention of having the drywall back up by evening and doing the mudding and patch work the next day, who knows what you'll find when the job gets started!  A leak, a wiring fault, wood that needs shoring up or replacing...these are all typical things that almost anyone tackling renovation work of any scale will tell you they encounter all the time. So keep time and expenses on your list of things to be aware of. 

Another thing to keep in mind...along with remodels not necessarily being cheap to start, you may also encounter additional work and expense in terms of bringing your remodeling project up to speed with current code conditions. This may not be an issue in your particular jurisdiction, as counties, cities and towns all over the country take a variety of approaches to implementing code, so be sure to check into it. You may also want to keep in mind that if you intend to sell the property again at some point, you may be required to obtain required permits, have inspections performed along the way and get a final stamp from your building department showing the job was completed to current requirements. I mention this because in one place the we lived, people wanting to put their house of 20 years on the market keenly rued never getting their final building permit when they undertook their building project.  In order to sell the home, they needed a final inspection on file - and now, they were required to meet not the code of 20 years back, but current code!  You can imagine the language emanating from the mouth of the recipient of that unfortunate bit of information. 

What are the pros of the remodeling undertaking?  I have always liked that the property might have a more settled appearance...such a lot of work goes into excavating a fresh piece of land...clearing, digging, can take a long time for landscaping to get the lived in look of an extant property. If you can get the property at a good price, you might have the option of inheriting a nice lot of piece of land this my experience - we have entered the age where the best is already taken and much of what we are building on today isn't the most choice (in terms of slope, sun, drainage and other factors). So a remodel could really let you buy a nice spot. If you are wanting a certain location, it might be your only option, as well. I'm thinking of urban areas, for example, where there may be no empty lots available. In this case, you might still be able to build from scratch if you were willing to buy a property and demolish it. There's expense involved there, but if budget isn't an issue or your budget covers those factors adequately, it can be a good option to remodeling. 

I have heard some interesting comments from people who wanted to remodel but found that they could build more cheaply and better by starting from scratch. Don't underestimate this as being applicable to your situation. In general, my feeling is that starting from the ground up is almost always better. Not always, but almost always. Here are some simple reasons why.  First and foremost is that you can build a better house - one up to current codes and beyond in terms of energy efficiency, window technology.  Plus, you can design to meet your specific needs rather than attempt to bend an extant property to your wishes...A well designed and built home can last you many many years with no surprises or further uncovering of weird wiring, wonky plumbing or any other disasters in the wings (or walls, as the case may be). Your remodel might include none of those things, but it is easier to build mold resistant structures from the start, for example, than to try and effectively rid of home of it after the fact. While most remodeling programs emphasize uncovering fantastic old moldings, tin ceilings, or nearly mint Douglas Fir strip flooring with amazing inlay during the course of renovations, they perhaps should also focus on revelations like mold issues, moisture damage, wiring faults and slipshod plumbing hacks undertaken by the previous owners. Those are far less exciting, but far more likely to be uncovered than a frescoed ceiling. Take it from me!  Not only did we uncover a particle board subfloor when we pulled up the hideous blue and green shag carpet from our remodel, but we also found that a sink had been leaking from the adjoining room for at least a decade, spreading rot in all directions.  This necessitated not just sealing the particle board with a sturdy primer throughout as we had hoped, but getting roofing demolition shovels from a contractor friend and tearing out every last inch of the miserable stuff. Talk about fun.  It is important to look at a potential project with an eye unbiased enough to assess it for what it is. Looking under the house you are considering is more important than checking out the street view. It may disabuse you of false notions of how wonderful a potential property is, as well. Or let you know how something that looks utterly horrible might really be a good candidate for a remodel. It's amazing how a sow's ear can be turned into a silk purse, and my warnings to the contrary are not meant to say that this can't be the outcome. 

Those are just some random thoughts on the process of remodeling in comparison with building from scratch. I will also be the first to tell you that building or rebuilding anything at all, comes with varying interactions with despair and elation. It's a rewarding but challenging process that teaches much, sometimes gently and sometimes unforgettably. Give your choice some thought, as the right decision is made when you have fully considered your options, needs, wishes and budget. If you cover all those bases, you'll be making the right decision, no matter the bumps in the road.

New Plan Release: Claire Cottage

THE small HOUSE CATALOG4 Comments
Claire cottage house plans with 2 bedrooms, modern shed roof.png

Contemporary 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom cottage with shed roof, perfect for full or part time living.

Visit the Claire Cottage plan listing to see floor plan and full details. 

Claire Cottage Plan Preview

Small Houses & the Great Outdoors

Design PhilosophyJamie PurnellComment
Porches can be an extension of a house, be sure to give your outdoor space some careful planning and inviting design elements.

Porches can be an extension of a house, be sure to give your outdoor space some careful planning and inviting design elements.

Think Outside...

...the box. That's a hackneyed phrase to be sure. But in this case it makes sense. Homes are, at their very basic level just boxes or containers for our things and to keep us sheltered from the elements. Many of us want our homes to do more than the basics though, and reflect our personalities, styles, or provide a space to pursue and take care of the things we value most. Having worked on designing small, functional spaces that meet code (not always easy, especially where stairs are involved!) and also satisfy an aesthetic, bringing the outdoors in has been a sturdy ally. Not only that, gardening and the outdoors represent a great love of ours that has only grown through the years, so it's no surprise at all that we should want to look out as much as possible. If you are in the midst of designing a small space (especially, but any space can experience this) you have probably noticed that rooms can feel too narrow, or even when able to accommodate furnishings etc. that are needed, can still seem too small to do so. If you're having that issue, try incorporating windows. Even in very small homes, having an open corridor that looks through the house can lend a strong sense of spaciousness, inviting the eye to go long without interruption - and if in the looking through a window, you can carry on your distance even further, so much the better. 

The Beekeeper's Bungalow was a roughly 760 square foot home with two bedrooms and a turning staircase in the middle. The first floor had a bedroom on it as well, so you can imagine that there wasn't a huge amount of space leftover for the living room. One of the ways that we made the living room space feel more effective, rather than cramped, was to have big windows facing west - looking over a covered porch and garden to the immediate west and taking in an expansive westward view across a large field across the street from us. Our eyes were almost always directed out these windows as you just never knew what might be going on outside. Consequently, less time was directed to the interior and the entire sense of spaciousness was amplified despite the fact that the square footage was not large. Facing east, we employed another eye guiding technique. At the end of the galley kitchen visible from the living room, we installed a full glass door that opened onto the back deck and overlooked a garden path that wound eventually to the back of the lot where a greenhouse and shed were. Thus, again, the eye was guided ever onwards, despite the fact that the entire footprint of the home was just 18 by 32. 

Let the Outdoors Be a Friend Even While You're Inside

open up your indoor space to the outside with tall windows.jpg

I'm a firm believer that getting outdoors is good for us, even when we're inside and it's just coming in through a window. Obviously, not every view to the wider world is superb, and there may be times when this doesn't work as well because the view is just not soothing. In cases like this, the outdoors can still be borrowed from effectively by locating windows higher on the wall but to the same effect...even some sky or trees or the sight of a lamp post coming inside does a lot for expanding a small space. Another option is to try utilizing mirrors in locations where windows are impractical. I have seen some fantastic tricks of the eye played on small spaces thanks to great mirror placement, effectively doubling space and brightening spaces when combined with natural light or bright paint. In a case like this, you aren't bringing the outdoors in, but you're still capitalizing on the idea of expanding space sensorily while keeping your footprint small. These techniques work in new builds and remodels alike. 

Time to Head Out to the Patio

Pavers are an inexpensive way to expand your living space (Ithaca House, Point Roberts, WA)

Pavers are an inexpensive way to expand your living space (Ithaca House, Point Roberts, WA)

Another great way to make your space larger is to invite the eye to travel to outdoor spaces like patios, decks and porches. Regardless of your foundation style, there's a solution in that mix. Even condos and apartments are made more spacious with decks and balconies, especially as the outdoor space itself is typically paired with a large glass door leading there. I find some of the most satisfying times of year those when I can stop looking outside and fully incorporate it into the home by throwing open the windows (Shawn would interject that here in the Pacific Northwest that only happens about 3 times a year...but that's a different discussion). Anyway, don't forget to consider your outdoor hardscape as part of your strategy for keeping a small space feeling larger. It works! Pergolas are outdoor structures that can still attach to the home (or be freestanding) and they too employ stretching visual and functional space in a way that encourages a sense of spaciousness. One can extend the sense of a living room, kitchen, etc. by including pergolas or pergola like structures in garden/hardscape design.

Next time you are designing and encounter a tricky small space, try emphasizing view corridors and extending into the outdoors via window mirror, deck, patio or pergola placement. Look at your site and figure out how you might include these patio or porch spaces that literally open up the indoors to the outside. Even cool climates benefit from this outdoor living space part of the year! Just the exercise of seeing where your eyes travel in your home is useful for practicing the effect and learning it, and once you're in the habit of looking in this way, you'll see the trick employed everywhere you turn. I think it is especially functional when dealing with small spaces, and who doesn't like to feel like a magician sometimes? 

The Harm in Cookie Cutter House Plans

Jamie PurnellComment
subrurban sprawl.jpg

When Generic isn't the Better Choice

Driving through a nearby town that has experienced a great deal of population growth in recent years inspired me to write this blog entry in critique of the cookie cutter house mentality. By this I mean development that ignores its surroundings and creates tray after tray of non site specific housing. Often the housing is badly needed, but it's also often badly done, and may serve not to alleviate housing crunches, but just make neighborhoods worse. Perhaps this entry also takes a jab at mass marketed house plans that claim to have one size fits all solutions for house styling. The inspiration came from seeing an attractive older home on a corner lot - one story, probably 12-1400 square feet, not super fancy but well cared for and obviously settled into its neighboring community. Next to it, distressingly, loomed a home fully twice its size, with a footprint nearly the size of the building lot and a full second story to really complete the gigantism effect - functionally dwarfing the neighbor and rendering the neighborhood as a whole imbalanced. 

Growing Pains in Housing: Architectural Hostility and Garage-centricity

That newer home was a cookie cutter style home. I don't know how to explain the actual meaning of that word, but everyone seems to know just what it means.  Houses of this style, whether they show up as one offs or whole swaths, seem hostile to me. They move in without regard to their surroundings (human or landscape) and come across as aggressive by being so large and thoughtlessly designed with respect to their neighbors.  This is probably because the plans are generic in the first place, created without a site in mind. Taking the living location away from our planning is a hazardous business with long term aesthetic implications, especially for established neighborhoods. Granted, not every house can look out on a park or a stream. But many of these development style homes don't seem oriented to the outside at all. The house is an island, tightly packed in with other islands identical to it (or looming catastrophically over their neighbors). Garages are emphasized and often built into the structure, which can encourage unsociability as it allows owners to just roll right indoors. Windows seem haphazardly placed in terms of looking out, emphasizing interiors rather than the outside. I have always felt that the balanced appearances of well designed homes, older or modern, are designed to serve not just the occupants, but the community surrounding it. They look outwards and do encourage us to look at the homes with interest as we pass by. Current window layouts often fall into the trap of meeting codes but failing the test overall with misaligned or thoughtlessly asymmetrical window schemes, not looking outward but emphasizing privacy and the interior landscape. This is partly understandable in an age where privacy is at a premium, lots are small, and there are always more and more people per square mile. And yet, there are aesthetic and arguably social drawbacks to this approach. 

In paying attention to our surroundings, be they other homes or natural scenery, we bring the interactional and relational aspect of community back to our design and encourage its existence in "real life." We respect our real surroundings - human and landscape. A home looks better when it considers its surroundings - and this is why thoughtful design at the single home level or more location specific design at the developmental level is so important. Privacy can still be enjoyed along with sociability through the use of interior window treatments. Perhaps to soften all that garage-centricity, we could also start seeing the return of outdoor spaces (porches, decks, patios, gates and gardens could all function in this capacity). I think looking outward in our design could also lessen the frequency of the unfortunate landing of 3500 square foot homes alongside their 1500 square foot neighbors - a hostile architectural event that always seems to render the smaller home dwarfed and the neighborhood as a whole somewhat ludicrous.

Future Forward Design and Development is Site Specific

While my opinion is merely that, it hasn't escaped the attention of numerous cities and towns with historic areas that these neighborhoods are worth protecting. Size limits, character plans and historic committees all can function to protect the existence of these neighborhoods from "character assassination." And while I may sound as though I'm discouraging of all development, I think that population dense housing can and lately more frequently does achieve site specific design that creates beautiful spaces. While developments that aren't thoughtful about their surroundings can feel like holding pens for people offering only gloomy views of other condos/apartments or a busy road, I'm seeing more and more dense housing areas that seek to obey natural rules and be respectful of surroundings. Friends live in a large urban apartment complex built right up on a wetland. The housing gently fans around a huge marsh area in which wooden plank walkways were laid out, providing walking and running trails as well as wildlife viewing. People are out there all the time, and no matter where you are in most of the apartments, you look out at this living, changing space. In spring, the night rings with the sound of frogs that still have a place to live despite all the people around them, migratory birds make stopovers and you are encouraged to look (and go) outside.  So I'm encouraged by newer strains of thinking in city planning, urban and suburban design. And I love that we can be a part of the design process for those who are fortunate enough to build their own homes.

It's a pleasure to see a properly sited home (or development of homes, for that matter) that has considered its surroundings and folded itself into the mix as best as can be done and to know the satisfaction experienced as a result by the home dwellers and those passing or living by. Considering a neighborhood's extant style along with protecting green spaces, wetlands and other natural zones of biological importance during the development phase benefits not only the areas immediately around us, but ourselves as we end up with more soothing, healthy and beautiful places to be a part of. I hope that we will see more and more of this style of growth take place, as being more thoughtful and careful about how we interact with our greater world gives us something great back in return. 

Outward Looking is Forward Looking: The Importance of the Window

Design PhilosophyJamie PurnellComment
windows with a simple snowy view.jpg

Windows Are The Eyes of a Home...

The View is Everywhere we Look! Photo Credit: Harper Collins Publishers   

The View is Everywhere we Look! Photo Credit: Harper Collins Publishers


The word window has an etymology that expresses looking, as you might imagine...roots include "wind-eye," "eye-hole" and "eye-door." That shouldn't surprise anyone, but we can overlook the importance of windows in our designs, treating them merely as holes in the walls or code satisfiers rather than corridors that work both ways, allowing light inside and allowing us to keep our surroundings in mind. Perhaps it's a logical outcome of our technology based life that we are forgetting to look through our window screens in favor of all the other screens vying for our attention. Don't fall prey to this focus on the interior only when you are designing your home!

In rural landscapes, it goes without saying that bringing the view in is desirable. For those wanting to keep their footprints compact, window placement lends a hand when trying to design a small but elegant and functional space since windows allow expansiveness without increasing square footage.  Many rural homes are designed exclusively with the view in mind, so in some senses, this article is more about less obviously "natural" locations. 

The View is Wherever We Are

Urban and suburban view isn't just about coveted mountain, lake or other "classic" views. While a suburban or urban location might not have quite as much abundant nature around - the view is everywhere, and we shouldn't underestimate this. All properties are view properties. There's plenty to be seen up close and at a distance just by noticing. Many specimen trees are planted in cities and neighborhoods, shops often put out planters or fill window boxes with seasonal colors, little parks are tucked into the tiniest of spots and the sky is always up there somewhere, even in the slot canyons of downtowns. Even a little easement can host some color. Whoever hasn't yet read one of the studies showing our positive and measurable responses to natural surroundings will find them fascinating and abundant.  Try paying attention to your mental landscape next time you spend time in any natural place - park, tree lined street, deep woods or some other place of non built beauty. It takes only a few minutes with some deep breaths and attention for me to feel worry retreat as I walk along a woodland path. With this psychological need and benefit in mind, rural, suburban and urban areas alike are working hard on preserving wetland and green spaces as part of smarter development incorporating ecological awareness. Planning that focuses on conservation and building more efficiently in terms of density is doing something to ensure that beautiful surroundings can still find a place in our ever increasing sprawl. This intentionality in design is something we can take on as well - it's not just for municipal planners. 

All this is a long way of saying that when designing, developers and individuals alike benefit themselves and their surroundings by looking around outside the building site before going to the drawing board or finalizing plans. Remember the value of the outward looking home - windows are for us and help us. Rather than only consulting catalogs emphasizing interiors, remember to walk your site - if you've got time on your hands, luxuriate in being able to assess seasonal changes that you might want to see from inside, maybe even plan your landscaping in advance. Letting our site get a word in edgewise is one of the most important aspects of design; perhaps it is vital to restructuring communities as a whole so that our homes can take care of our surroundings as well as us. Good consideration of the landscape can help us orient ourselves to the wider world and will hopefully favor more sustainable growth. The size of the human population is certain to increase while the world cannot become larger. Every cottage, home, development and new suburb can be a statement - and our eyes, our senses, and our window placement can have a role in making it a good one.  

Prize Winners Announced!

Plan GiveawaysTHE small HOUSE CATALOG8 Comments

Skyway Cottage Giveaway Winners!

First off, thanks to everyone who participated in our giveaway for the Skyway Cottage plans by leaving comments on the blog and on Facebook. We sincerely enjoyed reading all the comments and used a random number generator this evening to select the winners...they are as follows:

Ellen Murphy for her facebook comment.

Judy Cumius, Eric Grolemund and Denise (no last name provided) from comments on the blog entry and a bonus winner, Karen Hankins, also from our blog comments - Karen, you are a bonus winner due to a counting error on our part! We might just include that "mistake" again - some are worth repeating.

We have tried to contact everyone but our blog does not include people's emails, so hopefully you'll get our responses to your comments and get in touch with us soon to arrange PDF delivery of the plans. 

We enjoyed the robust participation for this giveaway so much that we are going to repeat it every season, look for the next plan giveaway contest on Labor Day...and in the meantime, may your summer be full of warm and happy days!

New plan release: Skyway cottage accessory dwelling unit

Skyway cottage accessory dwelling unit in Seattle..png

Skyway Cottage

One bedroom accessory dwelling unit...learn more.

Independence Day Giveaway!

Tell us what you'd do with Skyway cottage in our comment section below or on Facebook and the plan could be yours! We'll be selecting *FOUR* winners on July 4, 2018 to be announced before 8:00PM PST!

WINNERS HAVE BEEN RANDOMLY SELECTED, VISIT THE BLOG POST ANNOUNCING THE WINNERS HERE. Or scroll down the comments to see the winners. If you're one of them please contact us for download information.