I know — and have demonstrated on paper, even! — that the frost-protected shallow foundation slab floor system with a single story atop it, is the most cost-effective construction system for single-family detached housing. But it leaves me nowhere to go in a tornado. Talk about torn — the virtues of a slab floor are so easily foiled by mundane pragmatism!

How you place things

At long last, the bulk storage unit and attendant shelves in our living room, were replaced with a built-in bookcase, something I picked up at the ReStore. Now the edges are regular and clean. The difference in depth from the plane of the wall to the edge of the table is about 8”. The change in depth frees up just enough floor space to turn the table 90°, and thereby induce a loop of circulation around it. Such a small, seemingly insignificant change. But for anything that moves on two legs, the world just got a little easier. We think that housing the homeless is more difficult than this simple improvement in how we sit down at dinner, but it’s not.

More than coffee and donuts

For any project, there are three phases. The three phases of any project are: Set up, do the work, and clean up. Project management and cost control usually involve setup and cleanup. Cleanup includes quality control. What most people think of, when they think of ‘doing’ the project, is labor, which is one of three phases of the project. It’s easy to overestimate your ability with setting up or cleaning up a project. Many people underestimate the time it takes to set up or to clean up a project. Nevertheless, it’s best to learn all those phases through labor, which is to say, through building. Later on, time and experience can be leveraged into efficient hiring, because you’ll learn where people can help you regulate time and momentum, and contain costs in turn.

You need to be clear about which phases of your project, if any, you plan to take on yourself, and those which you plan to hire out, so to keep roles and expectations clear. Too often, people who want to manage a project pick up the hammer themselves, and annoy themselves and their contractors to boot. Either do, or get out of the way — but not both. Getting out of the way is smart, so long as you know you’re doing it; so long as you treat the doer with kindness and reverence; and so long as you understand what needs to be done, and what the thing-done-well looks like.

You want costs to be predictable, containable, and insured. Anticipate as many costs as you can during setup. Nothing’s for real until you start swinging a hammer, so take time to think. List out as many of the acts involved in what you can see needs to be done. Be thorough and boringly specific. ‘Measure and cut drywall’ and ‘install drywall to wall with screws’ informs you of tools and supplies you’ll need to do the hundred mundane tasks and motions that transform space. List out those things you’ll need to act. Get them. Visualize the building process as specifically as you can — your brain is moving faster than you realize, and the imagination can be trained with practice.

Simple, beautiful, and useful things do what they’re intended to do, and solve the problems they’re intended to solve. Sometimes the solution is a well-built and well-placed shelf. Sometimes it’s opening up a foyer, so that light and energy and footsteps have room to flow. Our first proposals usually make things more, rather than less, difficult. It can take years to place a counter top in the right place, and plan how best to build the wall its anchored to.

Think like a physician. Diagnose this thing of thousands of parts that confronts you. In time, you’ll see the parts combine into larger wholes, and the names of the parts will become second nature and less relevant. What’s the absolute, best placement of things, to make the inevitable churn of doing dishes or folding laundry more bearable, more essential, more carefree, and a blessed part of a routine day? Where’s the sun come in?

No way around it

Who wants to shovel? Who wants to shovel at night, because you know that there’s no time in the morning, unless you wake up earlier than you already do, after hitting the hay as late as you already do?

No one, that’s who! It’s a chore for a reason. It’s not Happy-fun-tickle-me-unicorns-with-rainbows-on-top time. It’s get out the scraper and scrape time.

Like cooking, like laundry, water management is biological and demanding. When it came to winter, I learned long ago, that whatever snow I skipped early on, stayed put all winter.  And whatever I cleared, stayed cleared most of the winter.  In building, the consequences of action or non-action endure. Nature prevails in the face of apathy.

I’m especially dedicated to this particular slab of concrete, our driveway. Installed recently (in concrete years) by one of our community’s finest grading, concrete and landscaping contractors, the drive stands the barrier to water into our home, and conducts by swale and sluice the water that flows between ours and our neighbor’s house to the north. It’s alpeckham-landscaping-contact-info

ot of water, and the storms seem to be dumping more. Whatever my cost-per-hour to shovel and keep it dry, I’m certain it’s cheaper than the cost-per-hour of bringing in a crew to dig it out and rebuild it, should ice and freezing and thawing work their indifferent and rock-splitting ways. Shoveling is cheap insurance.

It’s labor, necessary and inevitable. If for no other reason than to keep the mind involved, how best to approach this? Who cares if today’s solution is the best, or if there may be some better way. Assume there’s a better way, and find it! Can’t it be fruitful, to think about most-efficient clearing patterns, just for the hell of it?

A few tips, to make shoveling easier:

  1. Get a good, solid scraper, like this one that I picked up over at Ace on Willy.*
  2. Wear foam ear plugs, or something other form of ear protection. Scraping, shoveling, and snow blowing make a lot of noise, and the sound can overwhelm your other senses and your heart. I can’t stress the need for ear protection enough, in most aspects of building.
  3. Take the time to do the work! Don’t skip! Skipping a snowfall or two can create ice and slipping hazards that can shatter the hip or ankle of the most spry among us. Five extra minutes of your time might save your housemate, or a guest — or even you — months of recovery and rehab.

For a long city drive like ours (mostly 100′ long x 11′ wide, on our narrow, eastside lot), I’ve found that breaking the plane up into swaths of long semi-circles, seems to be the most efficient.  Maybe on some rainy afternoon, I’ll look into what the baseball field crews do as they mow and tend those lawns – I’m sure they’ve got a few tricks.

Taking a moment to enjoy the winter light
Taking a moment to enjoy the winter light

Like most things I grumble about, I never remember the time involved, after it’s all said and done. It’s just done. Winter wins eventually, but I’ll keep playing the game for now.

*After you grab your scraper and hardware, head across the street to Batch Bakehouse. Everything is so speedy and delicious — why wouldn’t you? Are you communist or something?

A library worth the paper

The DeForest Public Library is gorgeous and expansive.

It expands its own sense of space and the spirits and minds of anyone trolling the fiction or searching for a spot to sit and read. The space is cohesive and integrated. The interior volume transparently reflects the exterior shape, which will remind of shapes you’ve seen before, substantial and real. The roof is massive and covers the entirety of the interior. Exposed beams, trusses, gussets, thick mullions in the railings, wide and tall sills at the windows, give a heft and weight to the edges of things that solidify your sense of comfort.

The space is lain out as a lofted vault — the librarians can be seen down in the center of the main floor, and they’re visible from almost every point within the building. From where I sit, near the edge of the balcony, I can see down into most of the floor below, and then up across the vault to the platform of bookshelves on the other side. Everything is looped and logical. If a fire broke out, you’d know immediately how to get outside. The whole of the building is palpable at once, regardless of where one sits. The relationship of the parts to the whole is regular and recursive. You feel yourself a part of that larger whole, within something that itself is a thing, something with identity, with interior integrity, and with room to move.

This building looks new. But its style is timeless. It tries to be pretty, it tries to be gracious, it tries to blend in, to contribute — and then it succeeds. Buildings and constructs that spring from those same virtues of space and form are more likely to feel like they’ve always been there. You could imagine them a lifetime ago. You feel like you recognize something, like you’ve seen it before. You couldn’t necessarily remember when it first appeared, or when you first became aware of it. But you feel like you could stare at it, or around it, or through it.

Recursion is the key here and in all good buildings. Recursion bridges the divide between natural and built form. Things made of things, down to the details. By ‘organic,’ we mean ‘recursion.’ What we recognize as ‘form’ as such, in contrast to formlessness, owes specifically to recursion within the structure of the thing. To the extent that buildings respect recursion — and to the extent that they contribute to and integrate into an existing recursive field, whether that field be natural or built — the building will work. It’s composed within the same principle as nature. This is how we recognize something as ‘organic’ in the first place, through an integrated wholeness persistent throughout the depth of field.  I don’t pretend to have mastered space as a medium of design. My production is almost trivial. But it’s enough to understand something to be aesthetic, on principle, and see what happens as you get to work.

You can learn more about the library at their website,  here. With books in hand, take a quick walk around the corner to the Norske Nook, for some of the best pie this side of Osseo!

Blog at

Up ↑