Garden House on Orcas Island
Construction History

The Garden House was designed during the winter and early spring of 1987. The building was to meet several purposes and functions: a study or 'mental-work-place', a shop, and a guest space. There were several design iterations (Joe redrew the plans 3 or 4 times) until the design was settled. Under San Juan County's building department regulations, if you build a home for yourself you do not need to hire a contractor-rather, you can qualify for an 'owner-contractor' building permit, which was obtained. The septic tank and drainfield were installed in what is now the garden and the foundation was poured in May. Starting in early June, Joe and Tim Simonian, Orcas's best carpenter, began transforming marks on paper into wood, nails, and sweat. Beginning at 7 am and working till 9 pm, the building was framed, sided, and roofed by these two intrepid (and lifelong) friends. Tim started with only a 3 week window in June, but fortunately this window stretched into September, when he went on to the project he had been on hold for. Joe did the wiring and plumbing, subcontracted the sheet rock hanging and taping to Chuck Silva and Dennis Cullen, asked Fred Enge to help with the paint colors and painting; the floor sanding and finishing was subbed to Rick Waldron on Friday Harbor. Tim came back (his project became delayed) with Brian Ashley to put up the clear vertical grain douglas fir trim around the windows and doors and lay the fir stairs. The windows and exterior doors were designed to match the main house and built by San Juan Wood Design on Friday Harbor.

Gary Sisson, Orcas's best cabinetmaker, built the kitchen and bathroom cabinets around a collaborative design. Accuride drawer slides were chosen because they move soooo smoothly, carry an outrageous design load, and are full extension. The light fixtures (except the lights above the kitchen counters) came from Captain Sams in Seattle, and were recycled from an old Seattle hotel. A planned but never installed light fixture for the kitchen just left of the stove presumed the table might be located there. We've got a large butcher block which could serve as an island there but it would take 8 men and a crane to get it upstairs so that project is on the back burner; hence, the extra (unused) light switch at the entrance to the kitchen. Most of the interior six-panel fir doors came from Frank's Lumber in Seattle; they are seconds (and thus half price) but we can't figure out what's wrong with them.

The building design is rather classic northwest; it follows a pattern similar to Tim's 'shop' (now his home) and Marcy Lund's home (built, yes you guessed it, by Tim and Chuck Silva). It's a story and a half design; the second floor (700 square feet total) feels big because of the cathedral ceilings and particularly the large, shed roof dormers, though the height of the 'walls' (except where the dormers are) is only 3 feet. The tiny bathroom 'works' because of the skylight, giving enough head space for the sink, allowing the toilet to be over in the standing room section of the floor. The building design has, to some, the drawback that the dormer windows are high off the floor-if you look out these windows, you'll see the roof comes right up to the base of the window, an unavoidable result of the dormer concept and the 3 foot 2nd story wall height. (What this means is that you can only look out the dormer windows when standing.) The tradeoff was to make a full second story for the building, which would have allowed the windows to be lower but would have made the building seem really tall--too big and out of scale to the landscape. Of course, what's hiding in this discussion is the fact that the second floor is a full eleven feet off the first floor, not the usual wimpy 8 feet, in order for the shop section of the building to work well. Who wants to pick up a 4x8 sheet of plywood and simultaneously trash the ceiling, the ceiling lights, and your lower back?

The beams for the second floor came from local island trees (one from this property, cleared for the garden) and were milled by Joe Bond, just up the road past the Doe Bay Resort. They are 20 feet long 4x12's on 32" centers, which just meets the code requirements for structural strength for a 20 foot span, tho the second floor seems pretty firm. Each beam is sandwiched between two 2x6 studs and throughbolted with two 1/2" galvanized hexhead bolts at each end. The floors are 2x6 'car decking'; this wood is usually hemlock, but we asked for fir, for both the strength and the look. The wood was kiln dried, to minimize (eliminate?) shrinking, and when we installed it, with bar clamps and crowbars, you couldn't get a hair between the joints. Well, the lesson here is, put your finish floor wood into a heated building for 3 years before you lay it. There is no subfloor-what you're walking on is the ceiling of the first floor. However, in order to provide both sound and heat isolation, the spaces between the beams on the first floor ceiling has been filled with insulation and covered with sheet rock. In fact, all the interior walls are insulated for the same reasons, allowing someone in one section of the building to not have to heat the whole place just to use one of the rooms. This seems to have worked: when winds and rain pelt the building, someone inside experiences a quiet belying the noise outside.

The windows have indoor storms in order to allow the use of single pane glass rather than thermopane, or insulated, glass for the window glazing. This was done in order to keep the appearance of the windows consistent with the windows and doors of the main house, where single pane, rather than thermopane glass was used throughout. Had we used thermopane, the mullion separating the panes of glass would not be light and delicate but more like a baseball bat, and you might feel like you were in jail. Yuk.

The height off the floor of the kitchen cabinets was set at 38 inches rather than the more traditional 36 inches to accomodate a much nicer feel. Maybe people have grown, maybe the standard was never right. The bathroom counters are also higher than normal in order to 'feel' right when washing hands or brushing teeth.

The wiring was done with 12 guage, rather than 14 guage, wire, allowing 20 amp circuits instead of the perhaps more common 15 amp ones, providing a somewhat heavier capability (or, given typical loads, a larger safety factor). The plumbing supply lines are copper and installed at a slight angle so that if the building water supply needs to be drained all the water will flow out of the pipes. The original bed was built in a burst of animated frustration sometime in the summer of 1973, the wettest summer on record to that point, when the main house was being constructed. Living in a tent while building the house and finally having had just one too many soggy mornings with the mattress on the tent floor, Joe resolved to start the bed design and construction late one afternoon. When it got too dark to see, the generator was fired up (there was no electricity to the site at that time) and by bare bulb light the cutting and drilling continued until the bed was completed, made from pieces culled from Joe Bond's unsurfaced and undried fir pile. Carriage bolts in the headboard were placed with the bolt heads facing the door of the tent (which was considered 'dressier' than having the nut ends showing); but now with the bed against a wall, the best that can be said for the construction technique and material is that it is 'authentic' and 'honest'-no pretensions here. That bed served Garden House guests until July of 1998, when it was replaced by the current bed, also designed and built by Joe.

The garden was begun in the summer of 1988; there was not much of a crop that year, but we got some plants in, the fence up and the pond started.

The garden is loved by more than humans, so we've had to institute semi draconian measures. First it was the deer, then the rabbits. They've been effectively shut out by the fence, provided everyone is religious about keeping the gates closed. We've got no solution for the slugs, which are worse every year.

Entropy has shown it's merciless hand on the exterior door and window trim as well. On the north side of the building, where cars are parked, the windows and trim were finished with a few coats of Seafin, and, except for the dust (don't look), the finish could have been put on yesterday. On the south side, tho, the combined forces of General Disorder and his minions, manifesting themselves as the innocent fairies of sun, wind and rain, have laid waste the hopes of keeping the trim 'natural' or 'bright'. Urethane, polyurethane, marine varnish, seafin, even Woodlife (what the hey) were thrown on with abandon, yearly, for naught. So, with a bow to the Universe and all it represents, out has come the paint can, to save the wood, put a little more distance between the application of coats, and to rail against (isn't that the point of life?) the bother (dare I say unfairness?) of it all. The project will be a long one, so you may well see a: 'work-in-progress' (the spin doctor tries to rescue me from: "unfinished").

The location of the building on the property was chosen with the garden, topography, access and construction simplicity as key paramenters. Maximizing the view would have required not only ignoring, but contradicting, these considerations. We made a mindful choice of leaving trees between the building and the water. The trees block both the view and the onshore breeze, raising the effective temperature of the garden, and the Garden House deck, several degrees--to the benefit of the plants and deck occupants. Another benefit of ensuring only a partial water view at the Garden House is to tempt guests to take the trail to the water. As the picture on the main page suggests, it's worth it.

The building has worked well for us, and hopefully for your stay. If you have any specific questions about various construction techniques or materials, I'd be happy to answer them.

Vital Statistics

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